restricted access Interpreting Narrative in the Novels of Samuel Beckett (review)
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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 48.3 (2002) 768-770



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Book Review

Interpreting Narrative in the Novels of Samuel Beckett


Jonathon Boulter. Interpreting Narrative in the Novels of Samuel Beckett. Gainesville: U of Florida P, 2001. xi + 158 pp.

Jonathon Boulter has added a valuable contribution to the recent flurry of scholarship on Beckett's prose works. He emphasizes the relationship between reader and text by arguing that Beckett's works must be considered as reenactments of the hermeneutical process: they are writings about the obligations of the reader to formulate meaning in texts that destabilize the ground upon which determinate meaning(s) can be made. Boulter stands between, on the one hand, those critics who characterize Beckett's novels as allegories "that stress formal similarities between Beckett's texts and [. . .] external systems of [. . .] philosophy and literature" and, on the other hand, post-structuralist critics who emphasize "the textuality of the subject, the endless play of the subject, the aporia of meaning." Using Godamer's phenomenological hermeneutics as his theoretical model, Boulter highlights the reader's insinuation into the formation of the text and meaning and, furthermore, the ethical implication that arises from the reader's desire to form meaning; therefore, [End Page 768] Boulter investigates Beckett's obsessive formulation of the aporia that resides at the heart of the reader/text relationship.

At the risk of simplifying his discussion, Boulter's analysis can be reduced broadly to a four-part hermeneutical aporetics: (1) the textual object: a text that resists meaning by deconstructing literary and/or semiotic codes that would place the text within a referential framework; (2) the textual subject: the character who enacts a "metanarrative" through the obligation to interpret the very narrative that he/she/it narrates, only to confront the impossibility of doing so; (3) the reader subject: the reader's affiliation with the narrator who is equally implicated in the same impossibility of reading; (4) the reader object: the configuration of a reader whose unified "subjectivity" is constantly brought into question when that reader is him/her/itself constructed by language, and is therefore qua "subject" a simulacrum of an originary text. Thus, Beckett's novels, Boulter argues, explore "the philosophical implications of this aporetic hermeneutics in relation to the narrating subject, whose readings of his world are always articulated en abyme, and to the actual reader, who is obligated to measure the economy of his or her own reading against the agonistic hermeneutic of the narrating subject." The effect of undermining textual structure is to expose the dichotomy between subject and object as a hermeneutic function of desire.

Boulter is able to navigate smoothly between Godamer's methodological hermeneutics and Beckett's problematization of linguistic certainty. Beckett's syntax disintegrates into nonsensical patterns as frequently as his characters transform into unidentifiable subjects. The tension of constructing narrative out of a continually deconstructing text exemplifies for Boulter "the agonizing fact of being in a language that endlessly composes and decomposes the subject." But the force of Beckett's novels, Boulter argues, lies in the obligation the characters have in recounting their story, a compulsion to impose a meaningful content through external systems of reference. Beckett seduces the reader into this precarious interpretive position in which no established ground can be legitimated by intratextual reference (characters from one novel make their appearance in another), parallels to literary genres, and ambiguous subject identities. The reader is, in effect, coerced into recognizing his/her own status as reader: "we are compelled by the exigencies of desire for understanding literally to translate [the narrator's] [End Page 769] discourse [. . .]. We 'speak' (appropriate) [the narrator] as we translate, just as we speak [the narrator] as we read the text in its entirety."

While Boulter's conception of Beckett's novels as "allegories of reading" is certainly intriguing, one is skeptical of his appropriation of various theoretical schools under Godamerian phenomenological hermeneutics. Leaving aside the casual use of such philosophical terms as "dialectics," "ontology," or "epistemology," there are subtle shifts in theoretical orientation that go unjustified—for instance, in the...


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