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Ronan McDonald (University of Reading, UK)
In line with the theme of ‘New Perspectives’, this paper assesses critical approaches to Beckett’s Irish origins and considers what future relationship, if any, Beckett might have with Irish studies. In other words, the primary focus here is on criticism, or on the use to which primary texts are put, rather than texts themselves. In recent years, particularly since the publication of James Knowlson’s 1996 biography, fresh attempts have been made to consider Beckett’s work from contextual and historicised perspectives. But the enduring question still remains in what national canon – if any – he should be located. There are dangers here of reductive treatment, coarsely or coercively placing Beckett in an exclusive literary tradition. He is clearly a metropolitan writer whose range and influences are eclectic – moreover, he tended himself to scorn the idea of a ‘national’ tradition. His deracinated settings and lack of geographical specificity has always posed a dilemma for Irish studies, even more than other Irish modernists with a strong internationalist bent such as James Joyce. Hence, Irish studies has tended to dwell on Beckett's earlier prose, venturing tentatively into his trilogy, where the Irish geography is a more shadowy presence. In general the drama (apart from the very 'Irish' radio drama) and the later prose have been eschewed. But is there any mechanism by which critics can attend not just to Beckett's memory of Irish geography but also to the Irish geography of Beckett’s memory? Apart from the ‘empirical’ or identifiable Irish settings of his work – comprehensively identified by John Harrington – there have been more controversial attempts to tackle the question of Beckett’s Irishness. Two additional approached might be identified. The first emphasises Beckett affiliation with certain strands of an Irish or Anglo-Irish literary tradition. So for instance, Vivian Mercier has pointed at Beckett’s kinship with an Irish comic tradition and others have argued for the influence of Berkeley, Swift, Synge and Yeats on his imagination. Finally, and most theoretically (and perhaps controversially) Beckett has not escaped the post-colonial turn in English Studies in the last fifteen years, an approach which of course wants to emphasise his Irish origin. How then should the next generation of Beckett criticism handle the question of his Irishness? Are there any profitable lines of cooperation between Beckett studies and Irish studies? How has criticism handled the idea of deracination in Beckett? What discourses of the ‘elemental’ or ‘fundamental’ are deployed as an alternative to the ‘national’? This paper in assessing the history of Irish ‘approaches’ to Beckett will also try to suggest future ways of attending to the Irish element in Beckett work, without coercively pulling him into a rigid national tradition.
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