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Beckett before Godot.

Beckett before Godot. By JOHN PILLING. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1997. xiii + 277 pp.

As John Pilling is well aware, the works before Godot, with the exception of Murphy, scarcely deserve study for their intrinsic interest as literature. However, Beckett scholars who are seeking to understand the creative sources of the mature works will be grateful for the very substantial help they are offered by this detailed and comprehensive intellectual biography of the author's apprentice years. This takes us chronologically from the pieces that appeared in transition in 1929, analysed with some of the 'waspishness and wit' Pilling sees as being Beckett's own characteristics when reviewing, to The Calmative (written in 1946) 'the first Beckett text to realize the Beckettian ambition [...] "Here form is content, content is form"' (p. 222).

The approach is to combine biographical context with detailed textual analysis, and this proves a fruitful interraction. A work such as Proust, while quite unsatisfactory as a study of Marcel Proust, reveals a good deal about Samuel Beckett and his aesthetic. Pilling draws on all the main strands of critical discussion, not extensive for this period even when unpublished theses and correspondence are included. He has also researched exhaustively among the secondary and manuscript material, using it to inform his analysis of the texts. He has had the courage, for instance, to battle though the 'almost trackless waste' of the six notebooks Beckett made while writing Watt and extract some insights into both the novel and its importance in the 'series' the author already envisaged when he was composing it. Pilling is too experienced a Beckettian to attempt to make clear where clarity has been deliberately excluded and, while he admits that his account of the notebooks is inevitably 'more connected' than the mass of heterogenous data they contain could justify, he uses it principally to show how Watt came to be an 'exercise in the eradication of contour' (p. 184), and why this is so important for a study of Beckett's development as a writer.

Watt is clearly a major apprentice work, but the same kind of scrupulously detailed method is applied to the reviews in The Bookman or The Dublin Magazine, to show that Beckett uses these as a 'platform from which he can deliver his own truths' (p. 121). In his chapter on Murphy, Pilling anticipates a reviewer's potential quibble when he wryly comments that details of Beckett's advice to his friend MacGreevy about dry rot and joists might strike the reader as an excess of 'particulars' but, if these are indeed like the 'demented particulars' in Celia's narrative, they are ingeniously related to the construction of the novel in which that narrative occurs. The biographical details and the critical analysis are presented in a very readable form, and the book succeeds in giving a clearer idea of how one of the most original creative minds of the twentieth century came, after long years of struggle, to find a way of 'failing better' that led to the works after Godot.


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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Rothenberg, John
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 2000
Previous Article:The Life of Celine.
Next Article:Beckett a la lettre: 'En attendant Godot', 'Fin de partie'.

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