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Late Modern Rigmarole: Boredom as Form in Samuel Beckett’s Trilogy

From: Studies in the Novel
Volume 45, Number 4, Winter 2013
pp. 583-602 | 10.1353/sdn.2014.0014

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Bored of Beckett

At the least, it is fair to say that the work of Samuel Beckett resists the easy periodization schemes of twentieth-century literary history. Situated both historically and stylistically between the high modernism of Joyce and Proust on one side, and an emergent postmodern, metafictional style on the other, Beckett has been critically conscripted into the service of both camps by displaying in his work elements of each, while at the same time denying their ready-to-hand formal taxonomies. Two studies with similar titles illustrate this point: Anthony Cronin’s biography Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist (1997) figures its subject as the final avatar of modernist aesthetic practice, pushing it “to a degree which was unusual and obsessive even among the modernist masters” (376); meanwhile, Richard Begam’s Samuel Beckett and the End of Modernity (1996) portrays a postmodernist avant la lettre, “anticipat[ing], often in strikingly prescient ways, many of the defining themes and ideas of Barthes, Foucault, and Derrida” (4). The difference between these titles equally charts the trajectory of Beckett criticism, with Cronin’s text aligning neatly with the early humanist-existentialist readings of Martin Esslin and Hugh Kenner, and Begam’s with the attention to linguistic différance subsequently explored by Thomas Tresize, Steven Connor, and Leslie Hill. These competing modern and postmodern periodizing narratives seem to have arrived at a point of exhaustion: the early emphasis on nihilism and absurdity now appears dated; the deconstructionist machine has begun to produce predictable results. The debate about Beckett’s modernism or postmodernism is irresolvable, and its terms have become somewhat tedious; the early, major novels from Murphy (1938) through the trilogy Molloy (1955), Malone Dies (1956), and The Unnamable (1958)1 certainly offer material amenable to either interpretation, and more often to both.

Perhaps the reason for Beckett’s resistance to such easy periodization can be traced through that critical fatigue itself, as a symptom of what Kenner calls Beckett’s “fine rhetoric of indifference” (15); our inability to assimilate his work to the twentieth century’s dominant vectors derives from the way that, according to James Phillips, “Beckett courts the boring” (252). From the unchanging arrangement of Mr. Knott’s house in Watt (1953), “as it was now, so had it been in the beginning, and so it would remain to the end” (131), to Vladimir and Estragon’s repeated declarations that there is “nothing to be done” (Godot 2 and passim) to the “timeless dark” (40) of Company (1980), boredom comprises a persistent feature across the forms (novel, drama, “text”) and periods of the Beckettian corpus. As the “experience without qualities” (Goodstein 1), boredom refuses identification with any affect, motivation, or narrative teleology. The periodizing narratives of “the triumphs of modernism and the postmodern revival” (Hoberek 143)—understood as moments of radical novelty and interesting formal innovation—can find no place for an author who aims deliberately to thwart readerly interest at every turn. Insofar as Beckett’s work “is sometimes conspicuously tedious” (Phillips 251), it evades affiliation with either the imperative to “make it new” or the infinite play of signification; the boring is, almost by definition, neither new nor playful. Indifferent to these aesthetic ideologies, Beckett’s work remains caught between, but irreducible to, the monoliths of modernism and postmodernism. The frustration we encounter in reading Beckett—the maddeningly simple prose, the endless paragraphs—could be another name for the frustrated desire of boredom; in the words of Derek Attridge, Beckett has left his interpreters with “a sense…that there is not much left to do” (61).

But if we take seriously Fredric Jameson’s maxim that “we cannot not periodize” (Singular Modernity 29), then the remaining option is to consign Beckett to the hazy netherworld of “late modernism” (as Jameson himself has done), the historico-stylistic umbrella term for mid-century Anglo-American authors “who had the misfortune to span two eras and the luck to find a time capsule of isolation or exile in which to spin out unseasonable forms” (Jameson, Postmodernism 305). As the term itself suggests, “late modernism” continues promising to redeem “the nightmare of history,” and yet arrives too late to deliver on it...



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