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Reviewing Beckett's recent Stirrings Still, a text of about 1,500 words, for the Times Literary Supplement, Alan Jenkins remarked: "For years, books about Samuel Beckett have been considerably longer . . . than books by him." Steven Connor, in defining the power relations between Beckett's texts and criticism of them, says that Beckettian discourse is a "discursive formation" in its own terms, with a high degree of productivity and influence. Each of the three books under review adds to this discourse, relating at least as much to other critics of Beckett and to various theorists as to the fiction and plays but succeeding most when closest to Beckett's own texts.
Nicholas Zurbrugg, interested in the distinctions of modernist and postmodernist fiction, sets out to prove that Beckett in important ways misread Proust. This [End Page 812] has meant that critics have tended to misread Proust via Beckett and to misread Beckett's own work. Thus they have confounded the "confident, positive relativism of the Modernist novelist" and "the pessimistic, negative relativism of the Post-Modern novelist."
A major part of Zurbrugg's book is devoted to a detailed examination of Beckett's Proust. He concludes that Beckett sees in Proust only what will confirm his own vision of the world. This analysis is supported by a number of observations of detail. Zurbrugg comments perceptively that Tante Léonie is the most Beckettian character in Á la recherche du temps perdu. He discovers echoes of Proust in Beckett's work, echoes which deliberately subvert any positive response. Marcel's white hawthorns, harbingers of an almost religious ecstasy, evoke a very different response in Molloy: "The white hawthorn stooped towards me, unfortunately I don't like the smell of hawthorn." By comparing Beckett's vision to Proust's, Zurbrugg is able to define what he terms Beckett's "lobotomized mysticism," a vacillation between boredom and suffering in which there is no enchantment. But in seeking to emphasize how Beckett differs from Proust, Zurbrugg underestimates Proust's own pessimism. Proustian moments of enchantment are essential, but they do not come from experience of sexual love, which is, as Beckett saw, primarily a preordained tragedy.
The central thesis is that "Beckett's incomparable sensitivity to the negative and nihilistic dimensions of Á la recherche du temps perdu is consistently flawed by his inexplicable indifference to the positive dimensions of this novel." Zurbrugg quotes Beckett as saying, years after he wrote Proust, "Perhaps I overstated Proust's pessimism a little." The difference in tone between the critic and Beckett may suggest one of the problems with Zurbrugg's book. His writing is flawed by jargon, inflation, repetitions, and categorizing at every opportunity. He writes of "the non-habitual gestural discourse of exemplary non-artists" in Á la recherche du temps perdu. He discovers "four principal kinds of non-habitual awareness" in Dream of Fair to Middling Women. He tends to argue unduly with critics, suggesting, unfairly, that most critics of Proust have considered Marcel's grandmother to be among the damned and that few have recognized the limitations of Beckett's views of Proust. (He attributes to me a sentence that I paraphrased from the English translation of Á la recherche, to suggest that I have misinterpreted Saint-Loup's character. This is not my interpretation, but Marcel's!)
Sylvie Debevec Henning finds echoes of Á la recherche particularly in the structure of Krapp's Last Tape, a text Zurbrugg does not study. These echoes contribute to her stated purpose, to show how the carnivalesque dimensions of Beckett's work, the dialogics, parody, satire, and "uproarious," affirm "cultural vigor and creativity" even in the midst of the portrayal of suffering and anguish. Her main method of substantiating her thesis is to read a small group of Beckett's texts (Murphy, Endgame, Krapp's Last Tape, Film, Le...