Samuel Beckett Smiles

by Henry Farrell on May 4, 2005

Two blogospheric manifestations of Beckett. First, Maud Newton links to an old piece in the Guardian, defending the critically panned novel, _Mercier and Camier_ as a good starting-point if you want to start reading Beckett. While I agree, I think that his early novel, _Watt_ is even better; it’s a sort of evolutionary missing link between Flann O’Brian and Beckett’s own later work. Some very fine jokes; I especially like the railway porter who is both “stout” and “bitter.” If you start by reading Beckett’s earlier novels, you’re more likely to get and enjoy the less obvious (but still real) comedy of his later work. _Waiting for Godot_ is a very funny play if you’ve got a particular sense of humour.

But if you really want to find out about the brighter side of Beckett, you need to ask Janice Brown. Mark Kleiman gives her grief for perverse reading and misattribution in this widely cited (and rather scary) speech, but by far the best bit is her stirring closing paragraph, in which she puts Beckett to work ladling out some Chicken Soup for the Conservative Soul.

Freedom requires us to have courage; to live with our own convictions; to question and struggle and strive. And to fail. To Fail. Recently, I saw a quote attributed to Samuel Beckett. He asks: “Ever tried? Ever failed?” Well, no matter. He says, “Try again. Fail better.” Trying to live as free people is always going to be a struggle. But we should commit ourselves to trying and failing, and trying again. To failing better until we really do become like that city on the hill, which offered the world salvation.

This passes beyond misprision into an appalling sort of creativity. What _would_ that city on the hill look like if Beckett were the architect? Inquiring minds would like to know.

Update: small changes following comment from Jacob Levy.

Update 2: title changed following realization that a Bad Pun was trapped in the post’s main body, waiting to be liberated.



nick 05.04.05 at 11:03 am

C’est elle dans la poubelle.


Jimmy Doyle 05.04.05 at 11:30 am

Bloody hell. Coming soon: The Little Book of Beckett; Kafka is from Mars, Beckett is from Venus etc etc


Ginger Yellow 05.04.05 at 11:35 am

Of course Godot is funny. It’s never even occurred to me that anyone might not think so. There’s great humour in almost all his plays.


Jacob T. Levy 05.04.05 at 11:56 am

Is this a misquotation of Beckett? I’ve seen the words attributed to him before. The use of them is entirely at odds with the spirit of Beckett’s own use, of course.

I know Henry doesn’t refer to this as a misquotation, but it follows on his reference to Mark’s use of the word “misquotation,” when as far as I can tell he’s identified one misattribution (of the sort that’s cringe-inducing but common enough– attribution to a secondary source who herself didn’t think to footnote because of an assumption of shared cultural literacy) and one true statement that Mark thinks is being given an unwarrantedly sinister cast (that Marshall was Keynes’ teacher), and no misquotation.

Mark doesn’t say he’d identified misquotations, either– he compares her to the misquoting Otto. But– game of telephone– Henry characterizes Mark as having caught her in misquotations.


Wrye 05.04.05 at 12:07 pm

There’s a funny story about the first big premiere of Godot; I don’t have the details handy and can’t research while at work, but the gist is,it was cast with two famous comedy actors of the time, and the promoters didn’t really know what the play was all about, so the posters and promotions of the day talked it up as “the laugh riot of three continents”. Audiences were baffled, to say the least.

It’s funny–but it’s not the three stooges, either. Same deal with Chekhov. He always described his plays as comedies, but I’m not sure your average theatre goer would agree…


Thomas 05.04.05 at 12:13 pm

I always assumed that natural starting point would be Murphy rather than Watt. Murphy is far more accessible and just as good.

And based on the Guardian article, it sounds like Beckett scholars consider his English writings to be apprentice material or something. What the hell.


Wrye 05.04.05 at 12:14 pm

I should clarify…the first big *North American* premiere


Henry 05.04.05 at 12:39 pm

Jacob, you’re right about Mark and misquotation – I’ll correct it forthwith. And what I identify isn’t a misquotation (the quotation is accurate); it’s a sort of misprision in Bloom’s sense of the word (a sort of perversely creative misreading).


JoeO 05.04.05 at 1:07 pm

>Recently, I saw a quote attributed to Samuel Beckett.

She is not pretending that she is using the quote in context. She doesn’t really care who wrote it. She is using the quote as an aphorism. Just like everyone else who uses the quote.

The rest of the speech is pretty scary. (If I understand it right. Damn Straussians.)


Steve 05.04.05 at 7:43 pm

it was cast with two famous comedy actors of the time, and the promoters didn’t really know what the play was all about, so the posters and promotions of the day talked it up as “the laugh riot of three continents”. Audiences were baffled, to say the least.

Bert “Cowardly Lion” Lahr as Estragon and Tom Ewell (who I pretty much know solely as Marilyn Monroe’s foil in The Seven Year Itch) as Vladimir.


Jackmormon 05.05.05 at 6:31 am

That Beckett quote makes me think of a song from Brecht’s Threepenny Opera:

If first you don’t succeed,
Then try and try again,
And if you don’t succeed again,
Just try and try and try.

Useless, it’s useless,
You can never try enough,
Take it from me, it’s useless,
You haven’t got the stuff.

Which is of course sung to a jaunty, stacatto, major-key show tune.


peter luciak 05.06.05 at 7:56 am

In case you care, here’s the source of the quote (the whole thing seems to be hardly readable)


BobM 05.08.05 at 3:27 pm

She invoked conservative saint Friedrich A. Hayek, but didn’t mention what he said about social insurance programs. In The Road to Serfdom, he wrote that there was no reason why a society as wealthy as ours could not guarantee “security against severe physical privation, the certainty of a given minimum of sustenance for all. . . . without endangering general freedom.” Today’s wingnuts probably would call him a RINO.

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