Juliette Taylor (Trinity and All Saints College, Leeds)
Imperfect Mastery? Language learning and error in L’Innommable
Beckett once famously professed his hope for a time when ‘language is most efficiently used where it is being most efficiently misused’. Indeed, he defined his own turn to French in negative terms: he sought to ‘impoverish’ himself linguistically, and to write ‘without style’. Underlying Beckett’s attention to language is thus a desired position of relative incompetence, and a fascination in particular with the semi-competence of the foreigner. This position relates closely to the linguistic insecurities of his own characters; it also, crucially, bears direct relevance to the ways in which Beckett defamiliarises language(s): his prose is often produced by a peculiar mastery over various forms of linguistic misuse and inelegance. Indeed, in his work, both the French language and his ‘own’ English are defamiliarised in ways that at times seem uncomfortably close to ‘real-life’ error.
In this paper, I propose to examine the nature of Beckettian defamiliarisation in the light of such sought incompetence, and specifically in the context of language learning and teaching.
Nabokov once said of Beckett that ‘[his] French is a schoolmaster’s French, a preserved French’. Nabokov did not mean this as a compliment, but his comment is nonetheless astute: in The Trilogy, protagonists are constantly referring to the foreignness of their language, and in L’Innommable, the context of language-learning is most explicit: the prose is characterised by an excessive formality and grammaticalisation, and often closely resembles the convoluted litany of the grammar drill. Beckett was himself a
Samuel Beckett, ‘letter to Axel Kaun,’ trans Martin Esslin, Disjecta, ed. Ruby Cohn (London: Calder, 1983)171-2.
Cited in Leslie Hill, Beckett’s Fiction: In Different Words (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990) 37.
As Beckett told Niklaus Gessner: ‘c’est plus facile d’écrire sans style’. Cited in Ruby Cohn, Back to Beckett (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973) 58.
Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions (New York: Vintage International, 1990) 172.
linguist and, briefly, taught French. He would thus have been acutely aware of the problematic nature of language-learning: rote-learning and repetition are the means of converting initially meaningless words into automatically-signifying, non-arbitrary entities, yet such interminable repetition risks turning those very words, conjunctions and syntactical structures into mere formulae. As I will argue, however, it is precisely this paradox that enables Beckett to construct his alienating forms of defamiliarisation.
The paper will focus on the Trilogy, and especially L’Innommable. I will examine the ways in which Beckett subverts language, not by flaunting the rules of language, but by working within them: the preserved formality of his language adheres to rules in such an excessive manner that those very rules are subtly undermined. Indeed, it could be argued that Beckett, in L’Innommable, sought not ‘misuse’ but that form of excessive correctness that can characterise the foreigner’s imperfect mastery over language.