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  • Excuse My FrenchSamuel Beckett's Style of No Style
  • Jean-Michel Rabaté (bio)

This essay tackles Samuel Beckett's decision to write in French,1 a decision that he often ascribed to a desire to write "without style," by replacing it in a French historical context. This will partly duplicate analyses that i have developed in my 2016 book Think, Pig! Beckett at the Limit of the Human. There have been many interpretations of Beckett's famous decision. He made it most explicitly, and in French, of course, when he talked with the German critic Niklaus Gessner. Beckett (whose German was quite fluent, by the way) told him that he had opted to write in French because, according to him, if one wrote in French, it was easier to write without style. He put it like this: "Parce qu'en français, c'est plus facile d'écrire sans style" (Gessner 1957, 32).

This vexed issue of style versus nonstyle brought John Maxwell Coetzee to examine the style of Beckett's English texts before the turn to French. Coetzee wrote a dissertation on Beckett, one of his favorite authors after having examined the manuscripts of Watt kept at the Harry Ransom Center at the University [End Page 133] of Texas at Austin. Coetzee completed this analysis of the Watt drafts in an often quoted dissertation that he defended at the University of Texas at Austin in 1969. Coetzee, who had not started writing fiction at the time, deployed a host of scientific analyses of style, including statistical computations of the lengths of sentences, of word choices, of the distribution of rare nouns and verbs, of the shifts in point of view, of the various rhythms used by Watt.

In this fascinating dissertation entitled The English Fiction of Samuel Beckett: An Essay in Stylistic Analysis, Coetzee was hoping to define an "ideal construct" (Coetzee 1969, 117) that he could call "Beckett's style," an expression that would have to be qualified as "Beckett's English style." My ambition is not to assess whether Coetzee was successful or not, but rather to take this interesting but ultimately frustrating attempt as a point of departure to understand why Beckett could then decide to abandon "style" by writing "without style." My general position is less founded on stylistic analysis than relying on historical and intertextual positioning. Just after Coetzee's attempt, another critic interested in stylistics took a good look at Beckett's model, that is, Joyce. It was Wolfgang Iser who offered a panorama of English style that would end or culminate with Beckett in The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett. However, its last chapter describes Beckett's "idea of fiction" (Iser 1974, 257) much more than his concept of style. Why is this? It is because Iser was aware that Beckett's model had been Joyce, and that Joyce might have destroyed singlehandedly the whole concept of style.

For this we have to turn to Iser's wonderful close reading of "Oxen of the Sun," the episode of Ulysses in which Joyce romps most wildly through various histories of English style. Joyce achieves this by producing a vertiginous sequence of pastiches; taken together, they can teach what style is. Joyce moves relentlessly from one style to the other by way of imitations and conveys a bewildering sense of the evolution of the English language. This constant variation led Iser to conclude his chapter devoted to Joyce in The Implied Reader with the idea that Joyce's Ulysses had managed to destroy the concept of style as such.

In the chapter devoted to Joyce, Iser presents style as the central topic, as the hero even, of the whole novel. Indeed, any reader who has managed to [End Page 134] wade through the pages of "Oxen of the Sun" will feel obliged to take into account the productive dynamism of style. Style is foregrounded by systematic linguistic manipulations. Iser analyzes a few of these "parodies" of given authors presented in a chronological order; he takes the example of a mockepic description of a can of sardines discovered in the waiting room of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1539-6630
Print ISSN
1532-687x
Pages
pp. 133-149
Launched on MUSE
2017-08-11
Open Access
No
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