Both Rubin Rabinovitz's The Development of Samuel Beckett's Fiction and Lance St. John Butler's Samuel Beckett and the Meaning of Being open with challenging assertions: Rabinovitz's that "Samuel Beckett's early fiction has received relatively little critical attention"; Butler's that "at the heart of [Beckett's] writing there is an inescapable mass of involvement with the fundamental issues of existence that has yet to be dealt with adequately." Though Rabinovitz convinces us with a vengeance that probably no one has read Beckett's early fiction as closely as he has, Butler is considerably less suasive, arguing forcefully neither for the adequacy of his remedy nor even for the existence of the problem.
Rabinovitz covers Beckett's fiction from "Assumption," the story Beckett published in Eugene Jolas's Transition in 1929, to Watt, the work of Beckett's exile in the Vaucluse in 1944, and he devotes short chapters to minor or "neglected" works such as "Assumption," "Echo's Bones" (the unpublished story, not the poem), and "A Case in a Thousand." And Rabinovitz argues strongly that "Echo's Bones," deleted from More Pricks than Kicks at the urging of an editor at Chatto and Windus, "must be considered an integral part of More Pricks than Kicks."
But this study's strength lies not in its greater attention to lesser works than ditto the major early novels. The four chapters on Murphy and Watt (with accompanying appendices) are the most information-packed essays yet written on those works. Rabinovitz has brought such an astonishing amount of research to bear on these texts that the step to fully annotated editions of Murphy and [End Page 372] Watt is now only a short one. He has identified more allusions, more sources for direct quotations and ideas than anyone since Ruby Cohn in Samuel Beckett: The Comic Gamut (1962) and Lawrence Harvey in Samuel Beckett: Poet and Critic (1970). The allusion to the Syra-Cusa's "Bilitis breasts" in More Pricks than Kicks, for example, is traced to the spurious author Bilitis, purportedly a contemporary of Sappho, who was actually the fabrication of Pierre Louys, whose Les Chansons de Bilitis appeared in 1894. From the Addenda to Watt Rabinovitz traces "judicious Hooker's heat pimples" to Izaac Walton's 1655 work, The Life of Mr. Richard Hooker ("his Face full of Heat-pimples, begot by his unactivity and sedentary life"), and "Zitto! zitto! dass nur das Publikum nichts merke!" is traced to Schopenhauer's charge that his contemporaries were conspiring against him. Rabinovitz further posits a fresh source for Watt's name, deriving it from the French term for tram-driver, which Beckett had used in Proust, "wattman." And so the names in Lucky's speech, Puncher and Wattman, "jokingly refer to a ticket taker and a tram driver."
Rabinovitz's study of "Murphy and the Uses of Repetition" and the related Appendices, "Repeated Sentences, Phrases and Rare Words in Murphy," and "Repeated Episodes, Objects and Allusions in Murphy," are, moreover, the first studies in the field to have taken advantage of the possibilities for stylistic analysis available now with microcomputers. One result is that if anyone doubted Beckett's fundamentally formalist aesthetics, even in such an early work, he would be hard pressed to argue against Rabinovitz's disclosure of the extent and nature of repetition in Murphy. There are, of course, further theoretical points to be made about repetition, especially in regard to, say, Kierkegaard's analysis in Repetition or to Freud's linking "repetition compulsion" to the "death instinct" in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, and Rabinovitz's work has made such a next step possible if not inevitable. One might express some reservations about the hypothetical conspiracy theory Rabinovitz offers concerning Murphy's death (I'll not spoil the reading by disclosing suspects), but even here the hypothesis and the evidence mounted on its behalf should...