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Clark Lunberry (University of North Florida)
Setting an Empty Stage: Proust’s Presence in Beckett’s Absence

    In his prescient, early study of Marcel Proust, Samuel Beckett focuses upon several specific episodes in Remembrance of Things Past where the narrator Marcel abruptly sees before him time’s corrosive invasion. In one of the more poignant scenes described by Beckett, the young Marcel returns rapidly to Paris from his travels in order to be with his ailing grandmother. The day before, in Doncières, he had spoken with her on the telephone, hearing a voice almost unrecognizable, so different, Beckett writes, from the one “that he had been accustomed to follow on the open score of her face that he does not recognise it as hers.” Marcel arrives at his grandmother’s home and quietly, unannounced and unseen, enters the drawing-room where she is sitting alone, resting and reading. But, as Beckett states, the narrator suddenly feels “he is not there because she does not know that he is there. He is present at his own absence.” The domestic scene disrupted, the familiar sentiments disturbed, “His eye functions with the cruel precision of a camera [….] And he realises with horror that his grandmother is dead, long since and many times [….] This mad old woman, drowsing over her book, overburdened with years, flushed and coarse and vulgar, is a stranger whom he has never seen.”

    Something of this harrowing moment, as described by Beckett, recalls a theatrical enactment of vanishing and loss within the strict confines of the grandmother’s drawing-room: as if upon a stage, the vivid installation of a site of time, a quietly dramatic space of lucid awareness. Indeed, the depicted scene reads like one that the young Beckett might have found instructive for some of his own future stagings in which, so often, to be is to be seen—Esse est percipi—and to not be seen is to be rendered abruptly absent; the alienated eyes suddenly see that they have never seen, raising the unsettling question as to whether they, staring dumbly at their own blindness, are now seeing that, the movement of disappearance that will not reveal itself. The grandson, the grandmother together, but separately, the one watching the other, and us, separately, strangers, watching them both watching.

    In this blinding encounter between the loving grandson and the unseeing grandmother, what is it that Beckett was to see in Proust, and what is it that Proust allowed Beckett to see in this particularly Proustian engagement with absence? In my presentation, I will examine the vital presence of Proust in Beckett’s wide oeuvre and, in particular, the manner in which it afforded Beckett both a conceptual and a corporeal orientation to time and

habit that would remain central to his work. Finally, I will discuss what Beckett was to call the “Proustian solution” to one’s “automatically separated consciousness of perception” in which “Time is not recovered,” but instead it is “obliterated,” and the varied consequences that such a “solution” might suggest.

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