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Reviewed by:
Laura Barge. God, the Quest, the Hero: Thematic Structures in Beckett's Fiction. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1988. 346 pp. $34.95 cloth; pb. $12.95.
Valerie Topsfield. The Humour of Samuel Beckett. New York: St. Martin's, 1988. 143 pp. $29.95.

It could be said that, given the proliferation of the secondary literature on Beckett, present-day critics addressing major aspects of the oeuvre have the sort of liberty invoked by Molloy—being able to crawl eastward on the deck of a ship moving west. But there is perhaps more freedom within these confines than one supposes, and each of these volumes attempts in its own way to exploit that space.

Laura Barge's study, originally a doctoral dissertation, is an ambitious one. She has chosen to examine a fundamental theme in Beckett's fiction, the quest, and concomitantly Beckett's pervasive use of Christian symbolism as one of its structuring elements. She focuses upon a group of fictions considered in chronological order as a means of delineating the evolution of the quest theme over an approximately forty-year period. Devoting individual chapters to these works, she examines two early texts, Assumption and More Pricks than Kicks; the major novels; and a group of more recent writings that include Still, La Falaise, and Company.

In an introductory chapter, Barge reviews the various attempts by Beckett's critics to perceive in the oeuvre the affirmation of a particular philosophical or religious system and justly concludes that such efforts inevitably prove inadequate. Beckett remains a "God-haunted man," as Pilling called him, and the object of that obsession, variously defined in his fictions, is inseparable from the dual quest as Barge defines it: the search for existential self-fulfillment in the macrocosm, which yields to the search for self-identity as story-teller in the microcosm. God, in Barge's interpretation, is identified with the suffering that impells the quest and with the plenitude/nothingness that might conclude it.

Given the scope of this undertaking, the involuted nature of Beckett's oeuvre and the considerable corpus of secondary literature that has been devoted to her [End Page 815] subject, Barge inevitably encounters organizational difficulties. The author's command of the critical literature is impressive, but its incorporation into her analyses is often obtrusive. The necessity of reiterating from work to work the paradigms with which she is operating leads to repetitiveness. Her lengthy explanations of various philosophical systems—Descartes, Heidegger, Spinoza—tend to become digressive and should have been condensed. In short, judicious editing for publication would have made this volume more incisive and more readable.

Despite such shortcomings, Barge has written a compelling, insightful study. For the most part she explores ground already broken by other critics, but she cultivates it with great intelligence and sensitivity. She has succeeded in synthesizing the critical literature, distancing herself from it when appropriate to her own analyses, in such a way as to bring new perceptions to the matters under discussion. She depicts Watt as pilgrim and initiate, the conjoining of Prometheus and Christ, as he seeks the Logos that would terminate his suffering in the macrocosm. She reads the text of the Unnamable as a "palimpsest without erasure" in its interplay of existential want, parodic Cartesian rationalism, and narrative decentering. She alerts the reader to the "ironic allegory" in the network of Christian symbols that frame the narrator's failure in How It Is to divest himself of macrocosmic memories and their transmutations in the microcosm of inescapable fiction-making. The author's juxtaposition of Still with Sounds and Still 3 brilliantly elucidates the text's complex spatial "play" between past, presence, and silence.

In the last chapter of her book, Barge attempts an overview of Beckett's works in which she emphasizes Beckett's authorial integrity, his unwavering fidelity to failure. It would have been more useful at this point to step outside the framework of the oeuvre and note the place of Beckett's fiction in the larger context of twentieth-century literature. Here she might have addressed the problematics of écriture from a Derridean perspective or situated Beckett, as Brian...


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