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  • Zero’s Neighbor: Sam Beckett by Hélène Cixous
  • Brian O’Keeffe
Hélène Cixous. Zero’s Neighbor: Sam Beckett. Trans. Laurent Milesi. Cambridge UK: Polity P, 2010. xviii + 85 pp.

The brevity of a reviewer’s ‘note’ cannot do justice to the riches of this deeply intimate engagement with Beckett. Less is arguably more, so perhaps it is better to come out and say it briefly: Zero’s Neighbor is a very beautiful book. It is somewhat more than a critical essay, and it is as much a textual performance as an analysis of his novels, plays and poems (in such a slim volume, a fair amount of Beckett’s quite extensive oeuvre receives treatment). It also takes something of a risk: always when writing on Beckett, there is the temptation to fill his silence with your own words. But prolixity surely fails Beckett’s spare way with words. Or else there is the inclination to mimic, badly, Beckett’s own gabble. But senseless pastiche is surely the worstward way to go. (Though it is so tempting.) Cixous, for her part, in any case, is highly conscious of the trap Beckett sets for critics: the setting of that trap is identified as the place where nullity threatens—the neighborhood of the nul, [End Page 395] next to zero, and where Cixous risks standing, vis-à-vis her Sam, not saying very much at all.

Beckett’s parsimonious way with words is a major theme in Zero’s Neighbor—that parsimony which declines into wordlessness, or as a section of the book puts it, “word lessness.” There is a gap between these two words that yawns. The lessness of words, their diminishment and lapse, is what Beckett explores in his writing, of course, but for Cixous, it is not just a matter of Sam’s sparse eloquence, since it is also a matter of the paucities of the French language compared to English. She wryly acknowledges this, but goes on, persists as best she can, in her bi, and, in the event, multilingual duet with Beckett. In any case, Beckett also put himself on a French diet, she observes—writing in French made him leaner. But how, asks Cixous, shall I fare faced with such meager fare? Well, she responds in French, one has to make do—faire faire. This punning way with French and English is her primary mode of engagement with Sam in fact: the idioms of two languages are brought to bear on Beckett’s linguistic lessness—she reads him, and responds to him, in the mode of translation. It is not just that Beckett sometimes, if not essentially always wrote in translation, and that this difficulty has to be confronted, since it is one of the cruxes of his writing, it is also that the best way for Cixous to confront her man is to find common ground, or the lack thereof, in the exchange of idioms—some translatable, some not. So the idiomatic proliferates in her writing. From the verb faire emerges diffère—she defers to Sam, she differs from him. Cixous says faire (je dis faire), and knows that ‘fare’ is a homophony too far. She calls him cruel, for instance, and slips into German—grey Sam, grausam Sam. And then says that she loves him: “Why, Beckett, I can love him, a rare, precious can” (xiii). This is a linguistically gritty kind of love, a union through gritted teeth. Her precious can is meant to recall and respond to a question Beckett was asked when he was fading. Asked what was the worth of life to him, he responded “precious little.” The correct translation of this into French, Cixous remarks, would be Bien peu. Pas grand-chose. But she prefers something more literal, namely précieusement peu. “A fine idiomatic oxymoron. I can love such a little” (xiv).

This is the way Cixous works through the Beckettian oeuvre. It is a déclaration d’amour in translation, so to speak. Therein its complex idiomatic beauties, which Laurent Milesi translates beautifully in his turn. A separate reviewer’s ‘note’ should be written for Milesi himself, I think: the lessness of...


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