Patrick Johnston (Birkbeck College, University of London)
Arriving early or coming in late?
On Becoming a Beckettian in Beckett’s Centenary Year
‘People are going to think I’m crazy.’ Such was Jérôme Lindon’s reflection on his own decision to publish Molloy, after first reading Beckett’s manuscript. Possibly the earliest significant encounter of a reader with that novel, one nevertheless imagines the same thought – part mischievous, part anxious – running through the heads of the very latest readers of Beckett’s texts, or, rather, those readers setting out to write about Beckett at the present time. Like Mercier and Camier at the beginning of the novel that bears their names, those seeking to become Beckettians in the centenary year of Beckett’s birth find themselves at a confusing rendezvous, unable to work out whether they are early or late. This paper will explore this uncertainty which critics coming at Beckett for the first time must negotiate: are we arriving early or coming in late?
The sense that one has come in late, as over fifty years of Beckett criticism is surveyed, is palpable and intimidating, and the self-reflexive turn of recent work in Beckett studies suggests a discipline that has reached a considerable and comfortable degree of institutionalization. Coming in at this late stage, then, should we, as relative newcomers – novice Beckettians – have to explain ourselves, like tardy schoolchildren? One aspect of this notion of ‘lateness’ in relation to Beckett criticism which I shall examine in this paper is the question of whether, coming late to an already well established critical discourse, we must reflect as much on the contexts in which we read Beckett today, and why, as on Beckett’s texts themselves.
Yet, as much as the fledgling Beckettian may feel overwhelmed by this sense of being late, they will also be excited by the extent to which Beckett studies is, in many ways, still in its early days. After all, one hundred years after Beckett’s birth is less than twenty after his death. The first thorough biographies of Beckett appeared only a decade ago, and much important material remains unpublished, archives far from exhausted, and new avenues of enquiry in their nascent states. Thus I will also consider in this paper the idea that ‘now’ is an early time in Beckett criticism, and look in particular at the way this has been manifested – by way of a Beckettian paradox – in a return to history in recent studies.
As they begin to talk about Beckett now, then, new Beckettians are both early and late, and perhaps this is what Beckett’s readers always feel: the strangeness and familiarity of his work, which draws us in whilst simultaneously jolting us out of what we thought we thought – the same thing, perhaps, that made Jérôme Lindon want to publish Molloy, even though he suspected it would make people think he was crazy.