- Beckett and the Modern Novel by John Bolin
Beckett and the Modern Novel positions Samuel Beckett’s early novelistic theory and practice within the context of a bifurcated history of the “European novel,” split between the exponents of naturalism (Balzac, Zola) and the pre-naturalists (Flaubert, Stendhal), and the proto-modern (Dostoevsky) and the moderns (Céline, Proust, Joyce, Sartre). The title of this book is, however, something of a misnomer: rather than a discussion of Beckett’s relationship with the variegated formal techniques of the modern novel, over half of John Bolin’s study is devoted to the influence of one particular author. That figure is André Gide, whose ironic critiques provided the young Beckett with “a different set of ambitions and problems” (14) from the narrative innovations of Joyce and Proust. Drawing upon a wide array of archival materials, Bolin provides a compelling account of the familiar modernist dilemmas that underpin Beckett’s early fiction—namely, how to confront the complexity of reality through narrative, and whether the limitations of the novel as a form restrict its potential to adequately address such complexity. Bolin argues that Beckett and Gide’s response to these dilemmas consisted of a double movement of critique and rejuvenation: that is, the rejection of naturalism’s procedures in favor of a new form of mimesis that persistently confronts “multiplicity and flux” (25) and a renewal of the novel’s “traditional structure” to unleash the potential of what Beckett himself called the “most lawless of genres” (9). Bolin’s book provides invaluable reading for anyone interested in Beckett’s formative influences or his complex relationship with modernism. What emerges most clearly, however, at least for this reader, is a persuasive sense of how Beckett’s wider anti-literary project developed out of an early skepticism towards the novel as a genre—a skepticism that remained indebted to Gide.
The choice of Gide is far from arbitrary for, after taking up an appointment at Trinity College Dublin, Beckett decided to lecture on “Gide and the modern novel” in the autumn of 1930. As Bolin reminds us, after abandoning his academic career, the young Irishman made “at least three frustrated attempts” to write a longer essay on Gide in the early 1930s, even proposing the subtitle “paralyzed in ubiquity” (43) to his close friend Thomas MacGreevy in the summer of 1932. Despite a number of studies devoted to Beckett’s relationship with his literary antecedents, however, scant attention has been paid to his interest in Gide. A notable exception to this rule is Theodor Adorno, whose manuscript notes on The Unnamable posit a connection between that text’s self-reflexive strategies and Gide’s Paludes: “Die clownhaften Reflexionen auf Werks selbst erinnern an Gides Paludes, ueberhaupt vieles” [“The clownish reflexions on the work itself recall Gide’s Paludes to a considerable degree”] (qtd. on 195n2). In recent years, Brigitte Le Juez’s Beckett Before Beckett (2007) has sought to reconstruct Beckett’s lectures for a wider audience, although her short study is hampered by a litany of transcription errors, which are compounded by the baffling decision to consult only one of the three available sets of lecture notes.
The opening chapters of Bolin’s study, in contrast, provide a definitive survey of Beckett’s account of the modern novel in the early 1930s. Bolin demonstrates, for instance, that in his lectures Beckett equated the modern novel with narrative contingency and indeterminate subjectivity, drawing upon Gide’s Dostoevsky (1923) to distinguish between the “modern inheritors” of the Russian author’s “interrogative art” and naturalism’s inheritance of “a Western-European exercise of ‘mechanical intelligence’” (20). Bolin productively suggests, then, that Gide’s example (rather than the post-symbolist aspirations of Proust and Joyce) led Beckett to “preserve the integrity of incoherence” (15) by envisaging the novel as an “auto-critique which undermines its own foundations” (14). Indeed, Beckett praises Paludes for the manner in which it poses “a new problem for the novel” by distancing the plot from totalizing patterns: “the action instead [End Page 1039...