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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.4 (2001) 1009-1018

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Placing the Unplaceable:
The Dilemmas of Samuel Beckett's Fiction

William Cloonan

Thomas J. Cousineau. After the Final No: Samuel Beckett's Trilogy. Newark: U of Delaware P, 1999. 164 pp.

David Weisberg. Chronicles of Disorder: Samuel Beckett and the Cultural Politics of the Modern Novel. Albany: State U of New York P, 2000. vii + 194 pp.

Samuel Beckett easily divides into groups of two, the Anglo/Irish writer and the French author, the playwright and the purveyor of often unsettling fictions. However, the initial dichotomy in large measure quickly resolves itself, since the translator of the French texts into English is the author himself. More troublesome is the distinction between the very successful dramatist, whose works have fascinated audiences ranging from Parisian sophisticates to lifers at San Quentin, and the novelist whose hermetic fictions have had little appeal outside the academic community, whose brooding mindscapes have evoked little resonance among the practitioners of contemporary English and French fiction.

Yet of the two Becketts, the novelist is perhaps the more fascinating. Serious readers of modern fiction are drawn to Beckett's prose [End Page 1009] works--particularly the trilogy consisting of Molloy (1951), Malone Dies (1952), and The Unnamable (1953)--because, despite the aridity of the trilogy's universe and the minimalist storylines, it remains replete with echoes of the psychological, cultural, and social traumas that haunted the twentieth century. Reading the trilogy therefore poses two questions; the obvious and specific issue is how to make sense out of these three novels, while the second, less apparent but more complex dilemma is how to place Beckett, especially the Anglo/Irish author of post-World War II French texts, in the context of twentieth-century literary history. To put the matter baldly: what are literary scholars to do with an artist who everyone agrees is major, but whose work defies simple explanation and convenient classification? Thomas J. Cousineau addresses the first question in After the Final No: Samuel Beckett's Trilogy, a study that manages to offer a compelling psychological reading of the trilogy while nonetheless accounting for the striking literariness of these works. David Weisberg's Chronicles of Disorder: Samuel Beckett and the Cultural Politics of the Modern Novel undertakes the more ambitious effort of positioning Beckett in the turbulent history of modern and contemporary literature.

Cousineau comes to the trilogy from the vantage point of contemporary psychological theory, notably the works of Lacan and Gilles Deleuze, but he wears his erudition lightly. The prose is always clear and the psychological analyses are enhanced by a constant reference to prototypes from classical literature and philosophy that function as shadow figures in the three novels. For Cousineau, the trilogy "shows characters whose liberation from alienating attachment to parental figures leads to the discovery of new forms of relationships that have been made possible by their literary activity" (22). Thus, from the outset the literary and the psychological are blended.

Beckett's figures are commonly perceived as quintessentially modern, with their shattered psyches and tendency to lethargy (probably no modern author has created so many characters who pass such large amounts of time in prone positions). But they are also wanderers and questers like the Ulysses of Homer's Odyssey and the Hebrew Bible's Abraham, with the important difference that their goals of social integration of any sort are doomed to failure. Unlike their classical prototypes, they have no safe havens, only illusory destinations. Cousineau rightly observes that the disappearance of the family is one of the most [End Page 1010] striking features of the trilogy (19), and that the absence of a paternal mediator, some source of authority and purpose, compels the characters to struggle toward an alternative form of stability, however pathetic this alternative may initially appear in relation to the achievements of their classical models. In Beckett's world there is no Ithaca with its inviting Penelope, no divine voice to provide guidance; his characters are doomed to failure, yet their total collapse is at least somewhat...


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