Ira Nadel (University of British Columbia)
Beckett in Memory/ Memory in Beckett
What do we learn from memoirs of Beckett -- and how have a set of recent memoirs by John Calder (2000), Ann Atik (2001), James Knowlson (2003) and Gregory Mosher (2005), published or composed since Knowlson's 1996 biography, altered or confirmed the portrait of Beckett expressed in earlier works and autobiographies? Additionally, how do these memoirs correlate with the presentation of memory in Beckett's texts?
Beginning with James Olney's discussion of Beckett in Memory and Narrative (1998), I shall consider how personal knowledge of Beckett recalled in memoirs matches or contradicts the image of Beckett established by earlier writers and biographers. Furthermore, if we accept the premise that Beckett's work is autobiographical, do his self-portraits match the recorded impressions of those who knew him, allowing, of course, for the distortions of memory and confusion of the past? Is it possible for memoirs to legitimately supplement (but not supplant) biography? "Memoirs are killing," Beckett writes in "The Expelled,"but in Malone Dies, the narrator says "a minimum of memory is indispensable, if one is to live really."
On first meeting Beckett in 1981, Herbert Mitgang remarked that "everything about him seemed at once familiar and unexpected." What prompted that response, or that of Israel Horovitz in 1989 when he said Beckett in youth and old age was "an old crab," contradicted by James Knowlson in 2003 when he declared that it was difficult to be in Beckett's company for "more than a few moments without laughter joining you." The diversity and usefulness of memoirs, and their association with the presentation of memory in Beckett's work, will be the larger consideration of his paper which will pay particular attention to the last years of Beckett's life.
Beckett and Austen
What did Beckett learn from Jane Austen? In February 1935, she was much on his mind: he read her work, visited her grave and traveled to the Pump Rooms of Bath to examine the world she knew so well. To Thomas MacGreevy, he wrote that he "liked Jane's manner:" "There is material that can be situated most conveniently in the crochet mode,"although he criticized her "cult of the home"(Knowlson 657 n.26; Bair 199).
Nevertheless, Austen was important for Beckett's early fiction and development. More Pricks than Kicks and Murphy, in particular, reflect his absorption with her writing. Comedic monologues, dialogues and psychological challenges to the self are obvious links; others include her depiction of the abnormal and a set of irregular unions, most notable in short fiction like Henry and Eliza. Austen's detached, almost impersonal style of precision and exactness also appealed to Beckett, as well as her critique of institutions unable to contain curious or animated characters. Beckett even borrowed a name from Austen: Lucy, one of two mercenary Steele sisters in Sense and Sensibility. In Walking Out,from More Pricks than Kicks, she is the fiancée of Belacqua whose description of her embodies the Austen method (see MPK 105).
Beckett's reading and use of Austen will establish her importance for him from her style to comic technique, a mix of romantic misfortune and darkness (a Mr. Palmer in Sense and Sensibility, for example, reverts to sarcasm and silence). The action of the beautiful Cassandra, in Austen's story of the same name, could easily be that of any Beckett character: in costume, "she . . . proceeded to a Pastry-cook's where she devoured six ices, refused to pay for them, knocked down the Pastry Cook and walked away." The clarity, absurdity and directness of her actions anticipate many moments in Beckett. And with Beckettian simplicity and glee, she congratulates herself at the end of her excursion with "This is a day well spent." Additional moments in Austen contain similar situations which parallel Beckett. Their importance and influence on his work will form the balance of this presentation.