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Dustin Anderson (Florida State University)
Delete, Invert, Repeat: Beckett’s Watt and a Response to Stein

This paper briefly examines linguistic play in Beckett’s Watt (1953), specifically seriality, as a possible, multi-leveled response to what he calls Gertrude Stein’s vehicle for a “mathematical” language game in his “German Letter of 1937” to Axel Kaun, a game that he sees as having lost only some of the “sacred seriousness” that he desired to totally remove by creating a literature of the “unword.”

By examining Stein’s works, such as As a Wife Has a Cow: A Love Story (1926) or “Matisse” (1912) against the strikingly similar serial approach that Beckett uses in Watt, we can begin to see the complex relationship between these texts. Instead of comparing this stylistic similarity, or showing it only as a connection—a connection that most critics attribute to the experimental qualities of their work—, I explore three alternative readings of this textual link (through seriality). The relationship between Watt and Stein’s texts can be read (apart from the traditional experimental-fiction connection): as acomplex allusion by Beckett to Stein’s work as a stepping stone, or as he supposes, “a necessary stage”; as a response to this style where the narrator of Watt reports what the literature of the unword should actually look like; and as a parody where the subject, Watt, is a parodic embodiment of what Stein, via her language game, could only try to realize.

Other elements that this paper briefly addresses include Watt’s grossly un-erotic and literal sexual descriptions of a non-sexual act (as Watt masturbates his snout) opposed to Stein’s codified description of a sexual act with non-sexual language (wife, cow), and his treatment of painters (such as his painfully detailed description in the Addenda) as a counterpart to Stein’s impressionistic depiction of painters (Matisse, Cezanne, & Picasso); at best these act as allusion, but more likely represent a parodic response on Beckett’s part to match the unflattering comments about Stein is his letter to Kaun.

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