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Samuel Beckett-100 Years ed. by Christopher Murray (Dublin: New Island, 2006)

172 pp.

Paperback. ISBN 1905494084 €14.95

Hardback.  ISBN 1905494297 €39.95

Samuel Beckett-100 Years is the published version of a series of radio talks, known as the Thomas Davis lectures, which were broadcast earlier this year on RTE Radio in Ireland in honour of the Beckett Centenary. Produced by New Island, the book is, perhaps surprisingly, one of the few Beckett publications to be published on the occasion of the writer’s centenary by an Irish company.  Edited by Christopher Murray, as a compendium of papers by different commentators its format is not unlike that of the 1929 work of Joycean exegesis, Our Exagmination, to which the young Beckett himself notably contributed a memorable and useful essay in explication of Joyce’s method in Finnegans Wake.

A comprehensive refutation of the stereotype of Beckett as a minimalist writer, this collection shows how ample and diverse is the world he created. It also demonstrates how well Beckett’s writing stands up to different forms of analysis ranging from the historical, social and philosophical through to the literary, theatrical and poetic. Murray has assembled a strong, largely Irish-based team, for the task, with the contributors including academics from the fields of literature, drama and philosophy, actors, a biographer and a novelist. Well-known names include John Banville, Terence Brown,  Anthony Cronin, Declan Kiberd, and Barry McGovern. Apart from an understandable reliance on Beckett’s Three Dialogues , which contains the writer’s irresistible comments about «having nothing to express and nothing with which to express…together with an obligation to express», there is remarkably little repetition and, in general, the lectures dovetail together well to form a substantial survey of Beckett’s achievements, one hundred years on.  To give just one example, Brown’s emphasis on the Dublin locations in Beckett is immediately followed by Gerry Dukes’ tracing of the influence of the French Vaucluse region on the terrain of Waiting for Godot.

The book’s aim of looking at Beckett anew, on «firm Hibernian ground» as the editor calls it, liberates it from a dependence on academic trends and is only occasionally let down when a  tendency to avoid reference to other criticism results in the airing of well-worn critical commonplaces. Murray himself explores the combination of tragedy and comedy in Beckett’s work using the recently published play, Eleutheria, to good effect. Terence Brown provides a strong piece of social and historical analysis, usefully locating Beckett in a comfortable Protestant upper-middle-class elite that was thoroughly shaken by the political upheavals in Ireland between 1916 and 1922, before identifying this as a primary source of the sense of displacement and placelessness which haunts his work. Declan Kiberd concentrates on the 1938 novel, Murphy, which he rightly describes as underrated, and illustrates how Beckett presents the awkwardness of human relationships, particularly between the would-be lovers, Celia and Murphy. However, I depart from Kiberd’s view that the book is an attempt «to document the plight» of the Irish in England. There are insights into the emigrant’s woes certainly, but Beckett is an incidental sociologist and doesn’t react as quickly as some of his critics to depict a national culprit:  he has bigger psychological fish to fry.

Dermot Moran and Richard Kearney examine the philosophical ramifications of Beckett’s work, Kearney discovering an intriguing parallel between contemporary notions of «virtual reality» and Beckett’s depiction of a world between the imaginary and the real. The theatre of Beckett is covered from a number of different angles with contributions from Anthony Roche, Katherine Worth and Rosemary Pountney.  Pountney provides useful practical advice for anyone interested in staging Beckett by drawing on her own experience of performingRockaby and other plays. Similarly, as one of the foremost theatrical interpreters of Beckett, Barry McGovern writes with authority about the singular suitability of radio for his work, allowing as it does for storytelling by voices in the dark rather than through the presence of embodied actors. He goes on to trace similarities between these radio voices and the breathy «panting» monologues which give such anonymous energy to works such as The Unnamableand Not I. Possibly the most satisfying essay in the book comes from J.C.C. Mays, whose cogent text-based readings reveal a consistently poetic sensibility throughout the writer’s work.

John Banville mixes anecdotes with an analysis of the literary quality of the late prose.  I was surprised by his comment that he found something «almost of  Enid Blyton» in the childhood memories in Company, as to me these sensitive recollections are carefully framed and controlled.  However, what did strike me about Banville’s essay was his citation from the middle-period prose piece, From an Abandoned Work, of an astonishing «tender passage» about the body decomposing into the earth. If Banville finds elements of the traditional novel in Beckett’s late work and praises his «interesting plots», Anthony Cronin, by way of contrast, interprets the seminal novels of Beckett’s Trilogy as resisting the lyrical and uplifting qualities of literature and identifies «savage and exaggerated realism» as their defining stylistic feature. He also offers a definition of «Beckett man» as an anti-social, alienated loner, aware of inferiority, reacting in fear and possessing only the rags of moral and civic responsibility.

This collection has much to recommend it to both the academic and the general reader. Each essay affords insight into the works of Beckett and the points of contention which arise as an inevitable by-product of the book’s diversity of approach encourage the reader to articulate his or her own point of view. Throughout, the book’s appeal for the non-specialist is enhanced by the avoidance of academic jargon and a palpable and laudable desire to communicate. Although the visual dimension of Beckett’s work is not covered on this occasion, nonetheless in mapping a considerable area of the author’s terrain, Samuel Beckett-100 Years provides routes –and roots–  for making further excursions into the depths of Beckett’s imagination all the more rewarding.