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Zero’s Neighbour: Sam Beckett (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 47, Number 4, Summer 2010
pp. 668-670 | 10.1353/jjq.2010.0022

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The to and fro of Hélène Cixous’s Zero’s Neighbour: Sam Becket (Le voisin de zéro: Sam Beckett1) makes precious little of Beckett and James Joyce. Writing analogically in 1929 to align and distinguish the authors of his title, “Dante... Bruno. Vico.. Joyce,” Beckett famously asserted about Work in Progress that Joyce’s “writing is not about something; it is that something itself.”2 The same is true of Cixous’s meditation on Beckett, which proceeds analogically with the authors it considers, but “that something itself” in this case is a next-to-nothing that enables her to make an end of Beckett and of Joyce, two precursors from whom her writing springs and toward whom it tends. Central to her small book is the reply that Beckett reportedly made when asked near the end of his days what he had found valuable in life: “‘[p]recious little’” (xiv). Cixous’s meditation everywhere expresses and constitutes the ambiguity of that phrase by suggesting a minimalism that is both close to nothing and valuable. Ingeniously and sensitively translated by Laurent Milesi (whose notes briefly point in various pertinent directions without intrusively trying to teach narrow lessons), the English version’s verbally performative lessons are actually lessens, a form of “lessness” (41), a word that Cixous borrows from Beckett in one of her section headings.3 These arise through the pervasive and suggestive oscillations between French and English, the more suggestive because of the gently prompting notes.

Like its French version, the English translation is between languages, as was Beckett’s writing, but also between, within, and beyond Beckett and Joyce. Cixous both distinguishes and merges her two precursors. Marcel Proust and Franz Kafka appear in significant ways, but zero’s primary neighbors are Beckett, Joyce, and Cixous. In her act of “camping” in the vicinity of zero and “[d]reaming” of it (xiii), Joyce’s explicit and implicit place is dual, as a precursor for Beckett and for Cixous to be denied and affirmed in an ambiguously revealing mode of negativity. Joyce is one of the main elements that Beckett has “read, seen, known, thrown” (xv). But in Cixous’s sometimes elusive syntax, Joyce and the other elements are run-on in the same sentence, by simultaneous apposition and enjambment, with “nothing has encroached upon, nor anybody upon [Beckett’s] rock” (xv, 3—the passage is repeated in the “Author’s Note” and the first section). The sentence denies that either Joyce or anyone else “has encroached upon” Beckett’s rock (which evokes the rocks of “Ithaca” and Gibraltar in Ulysses) but also asserts that Joyce, as an element of the “nothing,” has indeed “encroached upon” it. In a related way, Beckett can “swallow” Proust, “his only next of kin,” but “Joyce sticks in his throat,” which may mean that Joyce appears wrongheaded but always audible when Beckett writes (xv, 3, xv). We hear Joyce, that is, in the grain of Beckett’s voice.

Cixous presents Beckett’s recursive sensibility as continuous from “Joyce’s time in 1929” through “the time of Company in 1980” (6).4 Time here is a temporality that the writers inhabit jointly, rather than a distinct historical moment. Beckett is “posthuming Joyce,” who prophesied Beckett’s arrival, and the “posthuming” involves Beckett’s Mal vu mal dit (Ill Seen Ill Said) in an “ill-seeing” related to Joyce’s blindness (18).5 Cixous herself claims to have “remained” in purgatory, where Beckett located Joyce’s work in his 1929 essay (21–22), “ante Beckett, when still not cut off from Joyce” (23), implying that Beckett became Beckett only once he was separated from Joyce and that Cixous’s experience of Beckett is part of her being separated from Joyce, in a state that is itself purgatorial. Rather than being displaced or exiled from Joyce, Zero’s Neighbour is always implicitly with Joyce in its style. Joyce has stayed in Cixous’s throat and enabled her multilingual phonemic plays, primarily between French and English, some derived from Beckett but many her own, that keep the discourse of the Wake audible. When we read Cixous, we are always “in Joyce’s time,” which...



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