Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 698

Samuel Beckett’s first book, Whoroscope (1930), a ninety-eight-line poem which deals with the life of the French philosopher Rene Descartes and the subject of time, won for the impoverished twenty-four-year-old writer ten pounds and publication by Nancy Cunard’s modest Hours Press. Two of Beckett’s writer friends, Richard Aldington and Thomas McGreevy, immediately urged Charles Prentice, an editor at Chatto and Windus, to commission Beckett to write a monograph on Marcel Proust, the major modernist French novelist of the first half of the twentieth century, for its Dolphin series. Prentice, impressed by Whoroscope, agreed.

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At first delighted by the assignment, Beckett promptly set to work. He wrote Proust in Paris, where he had just finished a two-year teaching term at the Ecole Normale Superieure. Every day he sat in the Cafe de l’Arrive across from the Luxembourg Gardens, struggling with what eventually became a seventy-two-page essay. When he grew tired, he would walk through the nearby park to reenergize himself. Before long, however, delight turned into frustration. Beckett increasingly came to find his labor tedious, and finally even hateful. Nevertheless, he completed it late in the summer of 1930 and soon thereafter returned to Dublin, near which he had been born and spent his youth, to begin teaching at his alma mater, Trinity College. Proust appeared on March 5, 1931. Several positive reviews of it appeared, and it sold well enough for Beckett to be able to pay back to Aldington some money he had borrowed so that he could remain in Paris while working on his monograph.

The form of Proust may suggest some of the difficulty Beckett experienced while working on it. Clearly it suggests a Proustian emphasis on creative associative reasoning rather than careful critical argument. It contains no chapters in the conventional sense. Rather, it is composed of ten short, concentrated, slightly disjunctive sections, separated from one another by white space or asterisks. Some sections are no more than one paragraph in length, some are up to ten pages long. Often the logic of the section order is tenuous at best, and toward the end of the book clear and smooth transitions from paragraph to paragraph evaporate. Throughout, Beckett avoids the biographical and the anecdotal, concentrating instead on the philosophical and the aesthetic. Although Beckett would begin composing his fiction and drama primarily in French from the 1940’s on, he wrote Proust in English; he has said that he does not want it translated into French because such an action seems pretentious to him.

For Beckett, Marcel Proust and James Joyce were the two greatest novelists of the twentieth century. Consequently, the tone of Beckett’s critical essay is generally sympathetic, respectful, and admiring. Its style, which is often fairly lucid and pared down, marks a departure from the linguistic gymnastics and highly elliptical prose of his earlier critical pieces such as “Dante . . . Bruno. Vico . . Joyce” (1929). It also marks the obstipated antithesis of Proust’s ornate and convoluted style. Beckett, however, is ultimately dissatisfied with his essay, having scrawled in one copy of it: “I have written my book in a cheap flashy philosophical jargon.”

While contemporary critics often read Proust as a gloss on Beckett’s own work, Beckett actually intended it as an introduction to Proust’s seven-novel masterwork, A la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927; Remembrance of Things Past, 1922-1931), whose experimental symphonic design explores the consciousness of an author, isolated in his study, remembering the belle epoque high society of aristocrats, men of fashion, and demimondaines who frequented France at the turn of the century, while ultimately attempting to transcend the prison house of time itself through the production of art. Beckett’s book is aimed at a scholarly audience and is concerned with examining Proust’s “double-headed monster of damnation and salvation—Time.” Such a concern looks back directly to the theme of Beckett’s first book, Whoroscope, which was still fresh in his mind as he sat down to write Proust, and looks forward to the theme of many of Beckett’s most famous novels and plays, including L’Innommable (1953; The Unnamable, 1958), En attendant Godot (1952; Waiting for Godot, 1954), Krapp’s Last Tape (1958), and Comment c’est (1961; How It Is, 1964).

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