Putting Beckett in the title of my last posting here turned out to be particularly Beckettian as by the time I finished going on about opera, I had totally forgotten to discuss Beckett. Each month, the Capital James Joyce Group meets at Politics and Prose bookstore in DC: after reading Joyce's novels and stories aloud, we decided to tackle three short Samuel Beckett novels.
Beckett's relationship to Joyce comes from their common origins in Ireland although the Protestant Beckett (1906-1989) went to Trinity College, Dublin, and Joyce (1882-1941), a Catholic, to University College. Both left Ireland to create their work and reside in exile. In Beckett's case, he was mostly in Paris, where when Joyce spent some years there, Beckett served as his secretary. Both, of course, charted totally new courses for the novel.
Beckett lived long enough to win the Nobel Prize in 1969. Beckett's prose is usually not as dense with allusion and other semi-hidden content as Joyce's; this does not make it any easier to read as his characters rant or reflect seemingly endlessly as they confront what generally looms in his work as the meaninglessness of existence. You can conclude that it does not matter where you pick up a Beckett novel because starting in at any point does not make much difference.
The pearls in Joyce are actually more obvious, excepting, as always, Finnegans Wake, which remains sui generis and probably resulted from his effort over the last two decades of his wife to virtually create a new language which incorporates the many others in which he was fluent. But in Ulysses, there is a generous view of life in 1904 Dublin, complete with humor as well as pathos.
Joyce's musicality makes reading his prose aloud lends a great deal to enjoying his work. Beckett also gains from hearing his writing aloud because his sometimes endless sentences and paragraphs can otherwise make it difficult to digest or even grasp what he's saying. If his characters didn't focus so much on the quotidian and the practical obstacles of life, which often results in humor, his stories would lean toward depression. His overall theme has been stated as despair followed by the will to live.
Beckett himself once addressed how he differed from Joyce: "I realized that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, [being] in control of one’s material. He was always adding to it; you only have to look at his proofs to see that. I realized that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than in adding."
One critic once noted in describing Waiting for Godot that Beckett succeeded in writing a play in which nothing happens and then repeated in the second act what he had written in the first and so succeeded in writing a play where nothing happens twice. Godot, however has become much more accepted in the theatrical canon (which might disturb Beckett) because every time you see it (as with Joyce, his work plays more effectively than it reads), you discern more.