Jennifer Jeffers, Beckett’s Masculinity. Houndsmill: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. 216pp. £54. $84.
Jennifer Jeffers’ book represents an important first attempt to study Beckett’s masculinity in a sustained manner, and joins a growing number of publications addressing Irish masculinities. Joe Valente’s recent The Myth of Manliness in Irish National Culture (2011) has set the bar in this area, and it will take some time before it is surpassed, but masculinity in Beckett has been understudied, as Jeffers points out, since issues of gender have tended to be lost in characterizations of Beckett’s characters as universalised, so that masculinity has remained an implicit and transparent norm (1). The goal of the book is to change this:
[I]t is time to try to speak about Samuel Beckett’s masculinity. After decades of depicting Beckett characters as bizarre asexual eccentrics, it is time to acknowledge that Beckett’s texts bear a cultural and societal imprint of masculinity (2)
As an initial charting of the territory from the perspective of Beckett’s Irishness, the book deserves attention. However, one can already notice a slippage in the above quotation between Beckett’s masculinity, that of his characters, and that of his texts. The title suggests that we are studying Beckett’s masculinity, but the analysis itself switches between text, character and author in ways that can cause some difficulty. To what extent can Beckett’s masculinity be inferred from his texts? How are his characters to be taken as evidence of his masculinity? These are questions that will inaugurate some heated debate, and Jeffers’s book will be central to that debate for some considerable time to come. For Jeffers, ‘masculinity as it relates to community and cultural identity is the core issue throughout Beckett’s career’ (7).
This is an ambitious claim, and one that Jeffers seeks to justify by way of an account of Beckett’s ‘traumatized’ Anglo-Irish masculinity (9-37). For Jeffers, Beckett’s oeuvre consists in repeated attempts to respond to the emasculation of the Anglo-Irish after independence. Jeffers appeals to trauma theory to stress how Protestant masculinity was ‘completely obliterated’ (10), ‘murdered’ (10) and ‘destroyed by the new hegemonic Gaelic Irish masculinity’ (11). In the circumstances, Jeffers offers a Freudian reading of Beckett’s return to Ireland in his writing as a form of fidelity to the trauma of emasculation that his class experienced in the early 1920s: ‘In the new Free State’, Jeffers argues, ‘Beckett’s generation of young, promising Anglo-Irish writers and intellectuals have been, in effect, made absent or rendered “dead”’ (57). For some, this will seem to overstate the case in relation to what were often rather meddlesome and inconvenient recalibrations of power that left many of the bastions of Anglo-Irish privilege, such as banking or the legal profession, more or less intact for many decades afterwards, and there might be some danger of overstatement in applying trauma theory in such a context.
Beckett’s Masculinity contains accounts of many of Beckett’s most important texts, including Murphy, Watt, the post-war fiction, Waiting for Godot, Endgame, Krapp’s Last Tape, Not I and the late prose. Tracing the relevance of Beckett’s reading in psychology in the 1930s, Jeffers argues that Adler’s theory regarding the importance of inferiority over sexuality can explain the intricacies of Beckett’s relationship with his mother who was ‘the most outwardly available reminder of his emasculation in Ireland’ (45), and she uses the same material to argue that Murphy is Beckett’s ‘first full-fledged enactment of the trauma of emasculation and exile’ (47). Similarly, with Watt, ‘buried under the games and linguistic puzzles is Beckett’s compulsive repetition of the masculine return to and departure from Ireland’ (59). The Four Novellas continue to ‘repeat the traumatic loss of nation and masculine patriarchy’ (70) while, later on, Molloy ‘abandons sentiment and more boldly parodies Western patriarchal masculinity’ (69). ‘For many readers’, she argues, ‘Molloy’s first admission that he is uncertain as to the sexed body of Ruth/Edith could be interpreted as repulsive; but to then associate this ambiguous experience to his mother scandalizes Western heteronormatives’ (78).
On the subject of masculinity generally, Jeffers’s book is clear where it wants to position itself historically, but less clear on where it stands theoretically. Jeffers invokes a number of different theorists of masculinity in her readings, and it is difficult, at times, to discern a guiding theoretical thread. Early on, for example, we are told that ‘gender is the fundamental ontological source of one’s identity’ (2), while some pages later we are asked to attend to Beckett’s ‘Anglo-Irish Protestant performatives’ by way of the work of Judith Butler (14). To many, these different emphases will seem opposed and irreconcilable. Perhaps it is the diversity of representations of masculinity in Beckett that shapes Jeffers’s approach, which draws on everything from muscular Christianity (Charles Kingsley and Thomas Hughes) and masculinity studies, to Adler and Freud, to Butler, Foucault, Bourdieu, Nora and Deleuze. This is a difficult act to pull off.
The chapter on Endgame and Godot is based on the idea that their peculiar power ‘arises from Beckett’s rejection of masculine genderized standards and normatives’ (95), in that to ‘write over a “naturalized” masculine subject position is to upset the entire balance of Western society in the twentieth century’ (95). Jeffers traces how Godot ‘appears to enact patriarchal stability’ (96) which slowly collapses until only Lucky ‘contains the remains of the Western patriarchal masculine tradition, which is everything from proper comportment and elocution to proper knowledge of physical exercise to advanced scientific knowledge’ (101). Endgame is read as the enactment of ‘dead patriarchal lineage’ (109): ‘a staging of [the] painful impossibility of return to the father by the son’ (110), while Krapp’s Last Tape creates ‘a very particularized, concrete, and masculine character whose background is Protestant Anglo-Irish’ (121). Chapter 6 examines why Beckett decided to write a number of plays that would let Anglo-Irish women––‘those old crones’ (135)––speak, as in Happy Days and Not I, drawing on the work of Pierre Nora on sites of memory (135-149). In the final chapter, Jeffers returns to Adler, perhaps her main and most important source, to provide a reading of the late prose trilogy Nohow On as Beckett’s ‘final return’ to Ireland (154). As one can see, this is an ambitious book, one that seeks to offer a coherent account of the fundamental impulses underlying Beckett’s most famous works. Jeffers does undermine the assumption that Beckett’s imagination functioned outside history by highlighting Beckett’s gendered Irish roots, but the book would have benefitted greatly from a more focussed account of what masculinity might mean theoretically as well as historically.
Andrew Gibson, Samuel Beckett. London: Reaktion, 2010. 208pp. £10.95. $16.95
In a chapter on Beckett’s tour of Germany in 1936 and 1937 Andrew Gibson’s short, lively biography records his comments on certain historical models current at the time. Dismissing the German notion of Schicksal––fate or destiny––Beckett writes in his diary ‘the expressions “historical necessity” and “Germanic destiny” start the vomit moving upwards’. It is worth noting how Beckett rejects not only the Nazi obfuscation of the second phrase but also the more widely bruited determinism of the former.
In his book Gibson seems rather less sceptical about historical necessity, or at least confident that historical context is necessarily present in literary texts in ways that can be, fairly unproblematically, disinterred. This confidence results in a series of inspired, bravura readings of individual texts. Murphy as a novel of migration, the Trilogy as a whole as a ‘hauntingly vivid and wastefully well-told war story’ and The Unnamable in particular as a record of the purges of collaborators in post-war France. Waiting for Godot is persuasively linked to the Vichy-period practice of attentisme, a widespread active indifference to Petain’s regime. Late plays like Ohio Impromptu are read through the optic of a nascent neoliberalism. There are also interesting discussions of Beckett’s use of commodity culture and a sensitive account of the German Diaries. Every page where Beckett’s work is directly addressed has something fresh to say.
The historical approach usefully sets Gibson’s book apart from previous biographies by Knowlson and Cronin (both of whom Gibson acknowledges handsomely). In his Introduction however Gibson also feels obliged to address the paradox of historical enquiry itself, acknowledging that such a procedure presupposes an untenable transcendental position. Gibson claims to respond to this by turning to the particular instead of the universal. His book will attend above all to the local and the material and Gibson very often uses metaphors of the body when he is considering this model of engagement with the historical. As a result Samuel Beckett is ‘a book of historical spasms, seizures, flushes and shivers, fevers and cold sweats’.
This description of a biography of fits and starts is an accurate one in that Gibson is selective in what he examines: long sections are devoted to relatively short periods of Beckett’s life while whole decades are skipped over. Hence we get a fascinating chapter and several other shorter sections on the ethos, history and formative influence of the École Normale Supérieure yet practically nothing on the 1960s and 1970s. In other ways however the avowal of intermittency is misleading. It is true the narrative moves abruptly from one chronological sequence to another. But within these discrete sections the narratives of historical background, sometimes as long as five or six pages, are entirely conventional, thoroughly linear and indeed very familiar. When Beckett’s texts are examined in the light of these historical narratives there is little evidence of the sophisticated theoretical positions set out in the Introduction.
When theory returns in the Afterword so too do the somatic metaphors: here Beckett’s work is said to function as ‘a historical conduit, bearing off what Joyce called the “filthy streams” that obstruct others dreams’, and his writing is described as an agent of ‘historical ridding or voiding’. Although Gibson twice refers to recent work on Beckett and the body in faintly dismissive terms, the proximity of his rhetoric to Beckett’s own terminology of waste, disease and the suffering flesh results in some startling elisions.
The clearest example of this comes immediately after the ‘historical necessity’ quotation given at the start of this review. Considering the various ailments afflicting Beckett while in Germany, Gibson continues: ‘the theme of purging oneself of noxious waste is only partly metaphorical. It is also literal, physical. Beckett’s body starts to mimic the disorder around him’. Gibson criticises previous biographers for what he calls their ‘psychologism’ but passages such as this assert a direct relationship between historical context and the individual that is just as problematic. Can the boils and agues that Beckett suffered in Berlin and Munich really be seen as direct manifestations of the historical moment in which he found himself?
Gibson’s seeming reliance on the literal and metaphysical body as a kind of guarantee of the materialism of his historical approach is likely a function of the brevity of this book. There is simply not enough room here for the kind of patient philosophical explication exemplified by Beckett and Badiou. Surely however this study is merely a placeholder for a longer work on the model of Joyce’s Revenge, where such issues will be teased out at the requisite length, and the many brilliant insights of this book expanded upon and added to. I, for one, can’t wait.
S.E. Gontarksi, ed. A Companion to Samuel Beckett. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. 424pp. £95. €114.
It may be helpful, in the first instance, to clarify the title of this new volume of essays edited by S.E. Gontarski. Unlike the Grove Companion to Samuel Beckett, edited by Gontarski and Chris Ackerley (2004), this is not a handy reference guide for scholars. Nor is it an introductory text for those new to Beckett studies, despite the publisher’s claim that it will orientate ‘the beginning student in new fields of study and [provide] the experienced undergraduate with current and new directions’. Certainly, to an alert undergraduate or postgraduate student, there is plenty of fresh scholarship to dwell over here, but by way of introduction, it would be necessary to look elsewhere, perhaps to The Cambridge Companion to Samuel Beckett edited by John Pilling (1994) or Palgrave Advances in Samuel Beckett Studies edited by Lois Oppenheim (2004). The complete beginner would have to start with one of the numerous introductory texts to Beckett studies such as those by Rónán McDonald (Cambridge Introduction to Samuel Beckett, 2006), or Sinéad Mooney (Samuel Beckett, 2005) or Jonathan Boulter (Beckett: A Guide for the Perplexed, 2008). Gontarski’s volume, by contrast, is a book written by specialists for specialists and it does not function as a Virgilian guide to the terrain of Beckett studies.
That said, readers of The Beckett Circle will have no cause to complain of this deficiency. This Companion is a substantial volume weighing in at over 400 pages and containing essays, as the blurb states, ‘by a distinguished team of leading Beckett scholars’. Amongst them we find: a biographical essay by James Knowlson, essays by Anthony Uhlmann and Jean-Michel Rabaté on Beckett and philosophy, a contribution by H. Porter Abbott which theorises ‘The Legacy of Samuel Beckett’, Shane Weller on ‘Beckett and Ethics’, Mark Nixon on ‘Beckett and Germany in the 1930s’, C.J. Ackerley on ‘Samuel Beckett and Science’, David Pattie on Beckett and Ireland, Marjorie Perloff on ‘Beckett the Poet’, Graley Herren on ‘Beckett on Television’ and Sinéad Mooney on ‘Beckett in French and English’. One notices that the majority of above-named critics have published monograph studies which offer full-length treatment of the themes covered in their essays. So, for example, those who have read Shane Weller’s work on Beckett and ethics, in different publications, may not find anything new or surprising here. Likewise, Mark Nixon’s essay on Beckett and Germany seems to retrace some of his other coverage of similar terrain while Marjorie Perloff’s essay also draws from her previous writings on Beckett’s poetry while also seeming to agree with some of the classifications advanced by J.C.C. Mays in his essay ‘Beckett as poet: verse, poetry, prose poems’ (2006). Thus, one senses that a number of these essays are offshoots of more substantial research projects while others, such as C.J. Ackerley’s fascinating exposition of Beckett and science, are part of ongoing projects which will reach fruition in the near future. Certainly Ackerley’s contribution whets the appetite for his projected monograph study on Samuel Beckett and Science due from Continuum in 2013.
Although the twenty eight essays which make up this volume cover a diverse range of approaches to Beckett’s work, the volume does not attempt to be comprehensive or fully representative of all major currents in Beckett studies. Unlike the Cambridge Companion it rejects a chronological approach covering Beckett’s oeuvre from the early poetry to Worstward Ho. Nor can it be said to offer an exhaustive range of Beckettian topics: Beckett and psychology or Beckett and neuroscience are almost wholly absent, Beckett and politics or history and the related topic of Beckett and Ireland are lightly represented while postcolonial approaches are alluded to but not given a space for themselves. Meanwhile, the essays as gathered here fall under loosely differentiated headings which do not always seem cohesive. For example, the biographical first section titled ‘A Life in Letters’ contains four essays, three by Knowlson, Gontarski and Barney Rosset which are broadly biographical, and a fourth by Lois Gordon on ‘Samuel Beckett and Waiting for Godot’ which advances a (somewhat outdated) existentialist approach to the play, but where the minimal biographical content seems restricted to some well-known facts about Beckett’s pre-war Irish upbringing. The second section ‘Charting Territories’ seems appropriately labelled since it offers a range of thematically diverse approaches, although only some of these, such as Brett Stevens’ engaging analysis of mathematics in Quad, would seem to open onto uncharted territory. It is in this section where we find the archive used to most persuasive effect, notably in contributions by John Pilling, Mark Nixon and Ackerley. The third section, titled ‘Acts of Fiction’ is more focussed on Beckett’s individual works and the genres in which he worked. Gontarski and Ackerley perform the difficult feat of a close reading of Texts for Nothing, Marjorie Perloff and Sean Lawlor demonstrate the permeability of generic boundaries when speaking of Beckett’s poetic canon while Paul Shields writes well on meaning and non-meaning in Endgame.
Nonetheless, there are some oddities here. William Hutchings’ meticulous analysis of post-1989 performances of Happy Days would have been better placed in the concluding section of the book ‘Acts of Performance’ alongside David Bradby’s analysis of ‘Beckett’s Production of Waiting for Godot’. It is also somewhat regrettable that two of the least successful essays in the book are on two of Beckett’s most important texts, Molloy and Malone Dies. Patrick A. McCarthy’s essay on ‘Molloy, or Life without a Chambermaid’ is curiously limited as, for example, in its conclusion that: ‘The relationship of the narrator-protagonists [Molloy and Moran] to one another is a crucial element in the novel, whose persistent doubleness is never resolved.’ While we can concur on the centrality of that relationship, the essay does not offer new insight into the complexities of that ‘doubleness’. Susan Mooney’s contribution on ‘Malone Dies: Postmodernist Masculinity’ rightly points to examples of masculine, not to say phallic, aggression in the novel (and more generally in the Trilogy). But her feminist and psychoanalytically-informed reading seems to run the gauntlet of a literal or quasi-realist analysis (as, for example, in her description of Mrs Lambert as ‘an unrealized woman arrested in traditional activities’) while also trying to account for Malone’s manic and irrepressible manipulation of his stories and his puppet-protagonists. Her contention that ‘Beckett’s investigation of masculinity probes the foundations of masculine subjectivity as these are produced through the incest prohibition and Name of the Father, and also through kinship arrangements’ seems over-determined and her comparison of Sapo and Macmann’s escapades to the Bildungsroman and its patrilineal framework seems to underestimate the savagely parodic mode of Malone’s narratives.
Rather like the Grove Companion to Beckett, this is a book to be used pragmatically by scholars who will want to refer to individual essays rather than read the book from cover to cover. It’s utility will lie in the strength of individual contributions, many of which usefully survey some essential areas in Beckett studies and build on our post-centenary understanding of Beckett. In this way, A Companion to Samuel Beckett will indeed be a useful companion and addition to Beckett studies.
Published in The Beckett Circle, Autumn 2012.