biographical fallacy

May 15, 2009

As previously implied, I’ve really been enjoying all of the long-form magazine reviews of the recently published first volume of Beckett’s letters.  I’ll probably never read Beckett’s letters myself, partially since there’s no promise of any minimalist mash notes to Peggy Guggenheim but also because, as previously implied, I have enough unhappiness in my life as it stands.  Still, I like to read smart people talking about interesting books and things and stuff in long-form magazine reviews so I’ve read a lot of the reviews of Beckett’s letters and enjoyed them.  Tonight, I read John Banville’s review of Beckett’s letters, “The Word-Stormer,” in The New Republic, which I saw linked to in a post on metafilter.  I read “The Word-Stormer” and I enjoyed it, although maybe not as much as I enjoyed other long-form magazine reviews of Beckett’s letters, such as Coetzee’s “The Making of Samuel Beckett” in the NYRB or Anthony Lane’s review in the New Yorker (which includes an abso. adorabs line describing Beckett as “a lecturer in English at the École Normale Supérieure, which is far more superior than normal” — zing!).  The post I read which linked to the Banville review also linked to several of Banville’s other essays on Beckett and, eager to read more sourced summaries of Beckett’s genius rather than making another go at The Unnamable myself, I clicked through and began to read one of Banville’s older essays, a piece from the New York Review of Books entitled “The Painful Comedy of Samuel Beckett.” Only…I’d already read it?

1.

From Banville’s November 14, 1996 review of several Beckett biographies in The New York Review of Books, “The Painful Comedy of Samuel Beckett“:

Samuel Barclay Beckett was born in Foxrock, a well-to-do suburb of Dublin, on Good Friday, April 13, 1906. His birth certificate (incidentally, what a Beckettian notion it is that a human being should have a certificate attesting to his birth!) records the date as May 13, which has led many people to assume that Beckett was lying about the correct date in order to invest the moment of his entry into “this bitch of a world” with the spurious portentousness of religious and superstitious connotations. Cronin is neutral in the matter, though he is inclined to think the confusion was the result of error rather than Beckett’s pretensions. Knowlson, however, has verified the Good Friday date by the simple expedient of checking the “Births and Deaths” column of The Irish Times – and who could doubt that august organ?

From Banville’s May 20, 2009 review of Beckett’s letters in The New Republic, “The Word-Stormer“:

Samuel Barclay Beckett was born in Foxrock, a well-to-do suburb of Dublin, on Good Friday, April 13, 1906. His birth certificate records the date as May 13, which has led some commentators to believe that Beckett was lying about the correct date in order to invest the moment of his entry into “this bitch of a world” with the spurious portentousness of religious and superstitious connotations. But James Knowlson, in Damned to Fame, his superb and definitive biography of Beckett, verified the Good Friday date by the simple expedient of checking the Births and Deaths column of The Irish Times.

2.

The subsequent paragraph and quotation, from “The Painful Comedy of Samuel Beckett”:

The Becketts, of Huguenot descent, were a prosperous Protestant family who had made their money in the building trade. In describing their class, Cronin quotes the Irish critic Vivian Mercier to good effect:

The males and some of the females of the typical Protestant family took the train every weekday to office, school or university in Dublin. In all these places they were likely to be associating almost exclusively with fellow Protestants. The females who stayed at home spent their leisure time with other Protestant ladies, though their maids and gardeners were usually Catholic. If one preferred to think of oneself as English there was really no reason not to.

However, in one of numerous instances where Cronin shows to advantage his native grasp of the subtleties of Irish life, he cautions against misconceptions, pointing out that “to call this class Anglo-Irish and to lump it in with the Protestant land-owning aristocracy – the class to which Yeats affected to belong and to which J. M. Synge and Lady Gregory actually did – is to create considerable confusion.” The Becketts and the few other families with whom they associated were hardy, assured, comfortable members of the professional middle class; they were survivors who would successfully weather the storms of revolution and civil war that battered the country in the first twenty-five years of this century.

The subsequent paragraph and quotation, from “The Word-Stormer”:

The Becketts, of Huguenot descent, were a prosperous Protestant family who had their money from the building trade. They and the few other families with whom they associated were hardy, assured, comfortable members of the professional middle class; they were survivors who would successfully weather the storms of revolution and civil war that battered the country in the first twenty-five years of the twentieth century. Writing of the caste to which Beckett, whether he liked it or not, belonged, the Irish critic Vivian Mercier is perceptive:

The males and some of the females of the typical Protestant family took the train every weekday to office, school or university in Dublin. In all these places they were likely to be associating almost exclusively with fellow Protestants. The females who stayed at home spent their leisure time with other Protestant ladies, though their maids and gardeners were usually Catholic. If one preferred to think of oneself as English there was really no reason not to.

3.

Subsequent paragraphs in the same section, from “The Painful Comedy of Samuel Beckett”:

The house in which Beckett was born, Cooldrinagh, was a spacious structure standing in its own ample grounds (it was sold again earlier this year for half a million pounds); life there was comfortable, ordered, and stultifying, and Beckett had a sheltered but not unhappy childhood. His mother, May, was a loving but stern, brooding woman given to unpredictable fits of anger followed by lengthy bouts of depression, behavior which roughened the tranquil life of Cooldrinagh. Beckett, like so many other Irishmen, was deeply attached to his mother in a classic love-hate relationship that was to endure long after her death; his later decision to settle permanently in France, and to write in French, seemed as much a flight from mother as from the motherland. Beckett’s father, Bill, a bluff, vigorous, kindly man whom Beckett loved very much, was a surveyor with offices in Clare Street, near the back gate of Trinity College. Both parents figure throughout Beckett’s work, emblematic of loss, of constraint, of mortality, and of the power and limits of love.

Beckett attended Portora Royal School in County Fermanagh in what was, after partition in 1920, to become Northern Ireland; Oscar Wilde had also been a pupil there, a fact not much boasted of by the school authorities in those strait-laced times. Young Samuel, or Sam, was a brilliant student and a keen sportsman, starring on the school’s cricket eleven and playing on the rugby team in his final two years there, hard as it is to imagine Beckett in a rugby scrum. From Portora he made the natural progression to Trinity College, Dublin, where his main interest was French literature, from the Troubadors to the Moderns. He studied under Thomas Rudmose-Brown, professor of Romance languages. Beckett was much favored by “Ruddy” who, he said, “opened all kinds of doors for me.” Knowlson writes

[secondary quotation redacted for clarity]

Ruddy brought a whiff of luxe, calme, et volupte to the sober corridors of Trinity – the parties he gave for students Beckett later described as “very sexy” – but he was also a strong scholarly and literary influence on Beckett to whom he introduced modern French authors such as Proust, Gide, and Larbaud. Beckett immersed himself in the French masters, especially Racine, an enthusiasm which would register strongly later on in his own work for the stage. He also read widely in Italian literature – Dante was to be his companion throughout his life – and also read the great German philosophers, finding Schopenhauer particularly congenial.

Subsequent paragraphs in the same section, from “The Word-Stormer”:

The house in which Beckett was born, Cooldrinagh, was a spacious edifice standing on its own ample grounds. Life there was comfortable, ordered, and stultifying, and Beckett had a sheltered and happy, or at least not unhappy, childhood. He attended Portora Royal School in County Fermanagh in what was to become, after partition in 1920, Northern Ireland; Oscar Wilde had also been a pupil there, a fact not much boasted of by the school authorities in those strait-laced times. From Portora he made the natural progression to Trinity College, Dublin, where his main interest was French literature, from the Troubadors to the Moderns.

At Trinity he studied under Thomas Rudmose-Brown, professor of Romance languages. Beckett was much favored by “Ruddy,” who brought a whiff of luxe et volupte–if not much calme, as he seems to have been an excitable fellow–to the sober corridors of Trinity; he was also a serious scholarly and literary influence on Beckett, whom he introduced to modern French authors such as Proust and Gide. Beckett immersed himself in the French masters, especially Racine, an enthusiasm that would register strongly later on in his own work for the stage. He also read widely in Italian literature and in the great German philosophers, finding Schopenhauer particularly congenial, which is hardly a surprise.

I could go on, but I won’t go on (LOLBeckett).  An automated analysis reports that there’s a 21% copy rate from one essay to the next, although that seems slightly inflated by the presence of identical quotations as well as some nitpicking.  I don’t put all of this here in such bright and shining color to “call out” John Banville; one can hardly be accused of plagiarizing oneself, right?  (Although I guess The New Republic might not see it that way, depending on what they’re paying him for each of his copied and pasted words.)  I think, though, that in light of Banville’s subject matter, there’s another way to read the situation, maybe one that’s slightly less disheartening or is at least disheartening in an appropriately Beckettian way.  Sure, it’s possible to see Banville’s repetitions as lazy but maybe it’s also possible to see them as a reflection of the difficulty of writing, of telling a story, which, as we know, serves as the subject and form of so much of Beckett’s work.  Maybe the small differences between Banville’s Beckett biographies that I’ve quoted, the difference between “structure’ and “edifice,” between “strong” and “serious,” between “not unhappy” and “happy, or at least not unhappy,” maybe they represent something more serious than simple copying and pasting or the trouble of trying to figure out whether your parenthetical joke is a divertisment or just a distraction.  Maybe instead they’re a cold, hard reminder of the true difficulty, even for a famous and successful writer, of sitting alone in your chair in front of a blank page and waiting for a voice that just won’t come.  One of the final passages that Banville quotes in “The Word-Stormer” is a letter from Beckett to Joyce, in which Beckett writes:

It is indeed getting more and more difficult, even pointless, for me to write in formal English. And more and more my language appears to me like a veil which one has to tear apart in order to get to those things (or the nothingness) lying behind it. Grammar and style! To me they seem to have become as irrelevant as a Biedermeier bathing suit or the imperturbability of a gentleman. A mask. It is to be hoped the time will come, thank God, in some circles it already has, when language is best used where it is most efficiently abused. Since we cannot dismiss it all at once, at least we do not want to leave anything undone that may contribute to its disrepute. To drill one hole after another into it until that which lurks behind, be it something or nothing, starts seeping through–I cannot imagine a higher goal for today’s writer.

Whether Banville is taking part in some lowly literary onanism or whether he’s abusing his language for a higher purpose, I don’t know.  The answer’s probably the former but, God, I’ve been reading all of these long-form magazine reviews of Beckett’s letters and they, like Beckett’s work, almost always leave me with a note of hope amid the anxiety and pain and frustration they describe, the struggle of working and writing and being, and so that’s how I want to leave you, too, to make my mask pulling and veil ripping of John Banville’s language seem uplifting and heroic instead of opportunistic and cheap.  I don’t know how to do it like that, though, I don’t know how to write that, I’ll have to keep trying, hoping and praying against everything to find words and order them in a way that will say what I want to say in exactly the way I want to say it and in a way that no one’s said it before. Until then, though, I guess I’ll just have to let Sam (and John) play it again.

banville

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