- Federman’s Beckett: Two Voices in the Closet
Raymond Federman (1928–2009) emigrated to America from his native France in 1947. One of the children of the Holocaust, he was in his terms a “marginal survivor.” After serving in the U.S. Army, he began his academic career at Columbia University and UCLA, where he completed his doctoral thesis on Samuel Beckett. He taught French at the University of California, Santa Barbara, before moving to the State University of New York at Buffalo, teaching in the French and then English departments, and retiring as Distinguished Emeritus Professor of English and Comparative Literature. His writing career eludes easy classification: he was a bilingual critic, poet, and, most importantly, novelist. Rejecting what he considered to be the imposture of realism and naturalism, his novels are highly innovative and experimental. Double or Nothing (1976), for instance, is a graphological tour de force with dozens of different fonts, text boxes, diagrams, images, symbols, calligrams, and word pictures, the text appearing across, around, up, and down the page in a range of positions. Federman invented the concept of “surfiction,” a creative activity that exposes the fictional side of life, showing reality itself to be textual. Endlessly inventive, he advocated “pla[y]giarism” and “laughterature” as part of the fictional process. His “critifiction” merged the critical and the creative, and his bilingualism enabled dynamic interplay between French and English. But behind all this playful inventiveness, technical innovation, and game-playing was the horror of the Holocaust experience. At the end of Aunt Rachel’s Fur (2001) one of his many narrative voices proclaims: “my role as a survivor here or over there, in the cities, the countries, [End Page 15] in the books I write or will write, my responsibility is to give back some dignity to what has been humiliated by the Unforgivable Enormity”.1
Federman’s enormous contribution to Beckett studies is unquestionable. He was the author of one of the earliest monographs in English on Beckett (Journey to Chaos: Beckett’s Early Fiction); he was co-author of the most important early bibliographical study of Beckett (Samuel Beckett: His Work and His Critics, with John Fletcher); and he was a friend who testified in notes, memories, and anecdotes to the generosity, brilliance, and influence of his mentor (his own Sam Book is indispensable in this respect, and he is given the last word in James and Elizabeth Knowlson’s Beckett Remembering / Remembering Beckett2). But while Federman’s place as a critic of Beckett’s work is clearly well-established, there has been little attempt to deal with the tangible Beckettian themes and practices of his creative work.By way of example, while the Beckett Archive at the University of Reading has all Federman’s important critical materials (including signed copies of his earliest reviews of Beckett) his creative prose is not at all represented, even though it is replete with direct and indirect allusions to Beckett and his writings. These allusions represent not merely a coda to Federman’s critical writings, but an attempt to work through aspects of his understanding of Beckett and his work that would not have been fully possible elsewhere.
A consideration of opening sections of Federman’s The Voice in the Closet shows some of the main features of his writing at its most complex: a cryptic, elliptical, use of language; neologism; repetition; the mixing of registers; density of reference and allusion; wordplay; an ambiguous and uncertain narrative voice; and prose that creates its own syntactic units and sequences without punctuation:
here now again selectricstud makes me speak with its balls all balls foutaise sam says in his closet upstairs but this time it’s going to be serious no more masturbating on the third floor . . . he waits for me to unfold upstairs perhaps the signal of a departure in my own voice at last a beginning after so many detours relentless false justifications in the margins more to come in my own words now that I may speak say I the real story from the other side extricated from inside roles reversed without further delay they pushed me into the closet on the...