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Reviewed by:
  • Samuel Beckett's Novel "Watt"
  • Frederik N. Smith
Gottfried Büttner. Samuel Beckett's Novel "Watt. "Trans. Joseph Dolan. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1984. 189 pp. $20.00.

Written by a man with a twenty-year "intellectual friendship with Beckett" (I quote from the dust jacket), this book was first published in Germany in 1981 and then deemed worthy of translation and publication by an American university press. Why? I found Samuel Beckett's Novel "Watt" to be the most tedious, most pretentious, most critically naive book I have read in a long time. Has the Beckett mystique evolved to the point that anyone who has a personal acquaintance with [End Page 813] the author is automatically elevated to critical sainthood?

This book seeks to uncover the "underlying gnosiological aspect" of Watt —"gnosiological" rather than "epistemological," and Crusoe-like, Büttner goes so far as to reproduce exactly the two-sentence letter from Beckett in which the author expresses a preference for the term. One thing that makes the book such difficult going is its organization, which repeatedly circles over its subject before going in for the kill; we are two-thirds through the book before we reach the long-awaited gnosiological interpretation. It is as if Büttner has aimed in the structure of his own criticism to reflect Watt's journey into the spiritual nature of man. One problem with this approach, however, is that each subtopic is taken up in isolation, and thus we keep traversing the same ground and coming across irksome promises such as this: "I will discuss Mood's ideas in detail in chapter 3."

The book poses serious problems of methodology. Büttner claims that his study is different in that "No preconceived ideas are read into the text"—an obvious echo of the last line of Watt: "no symbols where none intended." He then proceeds to give his own heavy-handed interpretation. In Büttner's view, Watt becomes a sort of modern-day Pilgrim's Progress (this is my analogy), its main character representing the spirtual nature of man, which dies (Part One), lives for awhile in the "other world" (Parts Two and Three), and is then born again, reincarnated (Part Four). Just how much Watt himself learns from his extracorporeal journey is not explained. After a hundred pages of denying precisely such distortions, Büttner, when he at long last gets around to his gnosiological interpretation, finds plenty of symbols where none is intended:

Having thus arrived at the station, Watt spends the rest of the night in the waiting room, which is sealed off at both ends. This scene represents an accurate image of life in the womb. Later he perceives that there is, after all, one object, which turns out to be a high, narrow, black wooden "chair" fastened to the floor at one of its legs—the placenta.

Masquerading as a new criticism that cautiously builds a subjective interpretation on the objective data of the text, this book is nothing more than bad criticism. I don't mean to suggest some duplicity on Dr. Büttner's part. I am convinced of his deep love of Samuel Beckett's work and of his belief that he is doing something new. On occasion the extracts from his conversations and correspondence with the author do indeed shed light on the novel. Unfortunately, blind to his own critical biases, Büttner really wants to read Watt from the perspective supplied by Rudolf Steiner's Reinkarnation und Karma.

Beckett practices the art of tedium. There's a difference.

Frederik N. Smith
University of North Carolina, Charlotte


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pp. 813-814
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