short fiction from lydia davis by way of homage to beckett

A place. Where none. A time when try see. Try say. How small. How vast. How if not boundless bounded. Whence the dim. Not now. Know better now. Unknow better now. Know only no out of. No knowing how know only no out of. Into only. Hence another. Another place where none. Whither once whence no return. No. No place but the one. None but the one where none. Whence never once in. Somehow in. Beyondless. Thenceless there. Thitherless there. Thenceless thitherless there.

—from Samuel Beckett’s Worstward Ho












Southward Bound, Reads Worstward Ho

Sun in eyes, faces east, waits for van bound for south meeting plane from west. Carries book, Worstward Ho.

In van, heading south, sits on right or west side, sun in through windows from east. Highway crosses and recrosses meandering stream passing now northeast and now northwest under. Reads Worstward Ho: On. Say on. Be said on. Somehow on. Till nohow on. Said nohow on.

Road turning and van turning east and then north of east, sun in eyes, stops reading Worstward Ho.

Road turning and van turning east again and south, shadow on page, reads: As now by way of somehow on where in the nowhere all together?

Road and van turning briefly north, sun at right shoulder, light not in eyes but flickering on page of Worstward Ho, reads: What when words gone? None for what then.

Van turning off highway, sun behind, sun around and in window and onto page, does not read.

Van pointing east motionless in station, in shadow of tree, reads: But say by way of somehow on somehow with sight to do.

Van pointing south and moving, reads: So leastness on.

Van turning off highway, sun behind, sun around and in window and onto page, does not read.

Van pointing east then north of east motionless, in treeless station not in shadow, sun in face, does not read.

Van turning, sun ahead, sun around and in opposite window, shadow on page, van pointing south and moving, reads: Longing the so-said mind long lost to longing. Dint of long longing lost to longing. Said is missaid. Whenever said said said missaid.

Van turning off highway, sun behind, sun around and in window and onto page, does not read.

Van turning last time back onto highway, sun ahead, sun around and in opposite window, shadow on page, reads: No once. No once in pastless now.

Van turning last time off highway, sun ahead, sun around and in window, does not read.

Van farthest south motionless in shadow, pointing north, reads last words: Said nohow on.


beckett on writing poetry

Beckett held the idea of the ‘professional’ poet in abhorrence. To him it was virtually a contradiction in terms. Craft, structure, rhythm, linguistic energy were assumed prerequisites, but poetry was a calling, not a profession, not something you could decide to do at a certain moment. He meant what Keats meant, whose work he knew so well, when he wrote that ‘if poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all’. He certainly did not mean that poets should not earn money – he himself had taught for a while (was miserable during that time), had translated prolifically, written essays and reviews — but that the poem itself should not be academic or intentional, that the library shelves must not crush the furze. Beckett was a poet down to his teguments, ligaments, cells; standing or sitting, poetry’s presence in his presence was as pervasive as oxygen.

—from Anne Atik, How It Was: A Memoir of Samuel Beckett. Faber & Faber, 2001.

beckett and the old questions

(from a 2009 production of Endgame at The American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge, MA)

Hamm:                    Do you remember when you came here?


Clov:                      No, Too small, you told me.


Hamm:                    Do you remember your father.


Clov (wearily):         Same answer.


                             You’ve asked me these questions millions of times.


Hamm:                    I love the old questions


(With fervour.)         All the old questions, the old answers, 
                             there’s nothing like them!


(Pause.)                  It was I was a father to you.


Clov:                      Yes.


(He looks at Hamm fixedly):


         This was that for me.


— Samuel Beckett, Endgame. Grove Press, 1958, p. 38

samuel beckett’s molloy on his (true?) love

She had a somewhat hairy face, or am I imagining it, in theinterests of the narrative? The poor woman, I saw her so little, so little looked at her. And was not her voice suspiciously deep? So she appears to me today. Don’t be tormenting yourself, Molloy, man or woman, what does it matter? But I cannot help asking myself the following question. Could a woman have stopped me as I swept towards mother? Probably. Better still, was such an encounter possible, I mean between me and a woman? Now men, I have rubbed up against a few men in my time, but women? Oh well, I may as well confess it now, yes, I once rubbed up against one. I don’t mean my mother, I did more than rub up against her. And if you don’t mind we’ll leave my mother out of all this. But another who might have been my mother, and even I think my grandmother, if chance had not willed otherwise. Listen to him now talking about chance. It was she made me acquainted with love. She went by the peaceful name of Ruth I think, but I can’t say for certain. Perhaps the name was Edith. She had a hole between her legs, oh not the bunghole I had always imagined, but a slit, and in this I put, or rather she put, my so-called virile member, not without difficulty, and I toiled and moiled until I discharged or gave up trying or was begged by her to stop. A mug’s game in my opinion and tiring on top of that, in the long run. But I lent myself to it with a good enough grace, knowing it was love, for she had told me so. She bent over the couch, because of her rheumatism, and in I went from behind. It was the only position she could bear, because of her lumbago. It seemed all right to me for I had seen dogs, and I was astonished when she confided that you could go about it differently. I wonder what she meant exactly. Perhaps after all she put me in her rectum. A matter of complete indifference to me, I needn’t tell you. But is it true love, in the rectum? That’s what bothers me sometimes. Have I never known true love, after all?


—from Molloy, pp. 75-76

“may we not speak of the old days?” [silence]—samuel beckett’s come and go

samuel beckett’s very short dramatic piece come and go is best understood through its title, its structure, and the overt allusion to macbeth at its outset.  most tellingly, at the play’s conclusion, the three figures link hands “in the old way”, turning the whole piece—for me, at least—into a carefully wound möbius strip of drama about life and the ever-present effects of temporality.

Come and Go opens with three similar figures of indeterminable age—Flo, Vi, and Ru— childhood friends who once attended “Miss Wade’s” together. They are sitting side-by-side on a narrow bench-like seat, something they used to do in the playground as children, and are wearing colourful full-length coats, somewhat dulled by time, In effect, they three faded flowers. “Drab nondescript hats … shade [their] faces.”

The play’s structure is circular or ring-like, and is divided into three equal segments of seven lines during which a character exits and enters after completing her circuit, and takes a seat different from the one she previously occupied. In this sense the characters also move around their seats in a ring shape. Hence the typical interpretation of the play as being about time, terminality and infinity. The play’s first line, with its deliberate echoes of Macbeth, seem to confirm that interpretation that Shakespeare’s meditation on time is an informing principle:


Wherefore was that cry?

The queen, my lord, is dead.

She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.


Come and Go

A dramaticule

For John Calder


Written in English early in 1965. First published in French by Editions de Minuit, Paris, in 1966. First published in English by Calder and Boyars, London, in 1967. First produced as Kommen und Gehen, translated by Elmar Tophoven, at the Schiller-Theater Werkstatt, Berlin, on 14 January 1966. First performed in English at the Peacock Theatre, Dublin, on 28 February 1968 and subsequently at the Royal Festival Hall, London, on 9 December 1968.





(Age undeterminable)


Sitting centre side by side stage right to left FLO, VI and RU. Very erect, facing front, hands clasped in laps.


VI : When did we three last meet?

RU : Let us not speak.
     Exit VI right.

FLO : Ru.

RU : Yes.

FLO : What do you think of Vi?

RU : I see little change. [FLO moves to centre seat, whispers in
RU’s ear. Appalled.] Oh! [They look at each other. FLO
       puts her finger to her lips,] Does she not realize?

FLO : God grant not.
        [Enter VI. FLO and RU turn back front, resume pose. VI
        sits right.
        Just sit together as we used to, in the playground at Miss 

RU : On the log.
      Exit  FLO left.

VI : Yes.

RU: How do you find FLO?

VI : She seems much the same. [RU moves to centre seat,
      whispers in
VI’s ear. Appalled.] Oh! [They look at each 
. RU puts her finger to her lips.] Has she not been 

RU : God forbid.
       [Enter FLO. RU and VI turn back front, resume pose. FLO
       sits left.]
       Holding hands . . . that way.

FLO : Dreaming of . . . love.
        Exit RU right.

VI : Flo.

FLO : Yes.

VI : How do you think Ru is looking?

FLO : One sees little in this light. [VI moves centre seat, 
        whispers in
FLO’s ear. Appalled.] Oh! [They look at 
        each other
. VI puts her finger to her lips.] Does she not 

VI : Please God not.
      [Enter RU. VI and FLO turn back front, resume pose. RU
      sits right.

      May we not speak of the old days? [Silence.] Of what
      came after? [Silence.] Shall we hold hands in the old

      [After a moment they join hands as follows : VI’s right
      hand with
RU’s right hand. VI’s left hand with FLO’s left
, FLO’s right hand with RU’s left hand, VI’s arms
      being above
RU’s left arm and FLO’s right arm. The three
      pairs of clasped hands rest on the three laps.

FLO: I can feel the rings.








Successive positions





















































RU         VI        FLO




Soft, from above only and concentrated on playing area.
Rest of stage as dark as possible.


Full-length coats, buttoned high, dull violet (RU), dull red (Vi),
dull yellow (Flo). Drab nondescript hats with enough brim to
shade faces. Apart from colour differentiation three figures as
alike as possible. Light shoes with rubber soles. Hands made up
to be as visible as possible. No rings apparent.


Narrow benchlike seat, without back, just long enough to
accommodate three figures almost touching. As little visible as
possible. It should not be clear what they are sitting on.


The figures are not seen to go off stage. They should disappear a
few steps from lit area. If dark not sufficient to allow this,
recourse should be had to screens or drapes as little visible
as possible. Exits and entrances slow, without sound of feet.


Three very different sounds.


As low as compatible with audibility. Colourless except for
three ‘ohs’ and two lines following.

Watch an adaptation of Come and Go on

céline’s prose style explained, plus more from normance . . .

. . . Normance is a full-throttle grotesquery. The prose rears up at the reader like an exploding grenade, pumping shards of hate and disgust into the air, the pages littered with the fallout of sentences and word shrapnel. The novel lacerates linear narrative, leaving grammatical scars and the broken bones of syntax. What plot there is is lost in invective and fire-and-brimstone prose. Louis/Ferdinand – the novel’s narrator – trapped in a Paris apartment block, under siege during an air-raid by Allied forces during April 21-22 1944, dodges bombs, falling masonry, spastic dancing furniture, occasionally giving a slap to his girlfriend Arlette/Lili, while all the time aiming his own verbal volleys at Jules the hunchback, pervert sculptor he believes is directing the aerial assault and who has fingered Louis/Ferdinand as “a Kraut, a spy! A traitor!” Huddled under a table or squeezed into the concierge’s office, the inhabitants of the apartment block do anything to survive. The characterization of the narrator, the thug Ottavio, and the monstrous and eponymous Normance force the reader to question how far humanity will go – and how low individuals will stoop – to stay alive. The apartment block is an apocalyptic version of Georges Perec’s building in Life: A User’s Manual, but whereas Perec’s building had its rooms exposed to view, as if the façade had been carefully taken down by the author, Céline’s apartment block has had its floors and ceilings ripped out by Allied ordnance; indeed, Normance could be subtitled Death: A User’s Manual. Normance resists categorization, resists the history of the novel. 


. . . Exclamation marks mirror the bombs’ detonations, used together with Céline’s trademark use of ellipses … which pepper the paragraphs and act like punctuative landmines, these explosive points !!!!! – even before he became politically ostracized – placed Céline beyond the confines of French literature, beyond even his near-contemporary and un-familiar Jean Genet. This anti-academic approach made  Céline a hero to a new generation of American writers such as Jack Kerouac (the prose velocity), William Burroughs (use of the ellipsis and view of humanity), and Tom Wolfe who – in Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test – took Céline’s experimentation in punctuation to the limits of English grammar: 


Sandy hasn’t slept in days::::::how many::::::like total insomnia and everything is bending in curvy curdling lines. 


—just then—




—Cassady—twenty feet away across the beach road has suddenly wheeled and fired the four-pound sledge hammer end-over-end like a bolo and smashed the brick on top of the fence into obliteration, fifteen feet from the Mexican. 

Compare to Céline’s:

I can hear him!… ‘grrumph!…hraah!’ there’s a rattle in his throat…he’s got a bit of a cold…see, I’m being precise… you don’t care about the little details? well, tough luck!… I’m not going for artistic effect, that “almost-like-life” stuff! I was there, and while there I saw the following sights! that’s my motto!

Other writers, including Jean-Paul Sartre, Samuel Beckett, Philip Roth, and Ken Kesey, have also claimed Céline as an influence. But try to place Céline in a school of writing and your task becomes near impossible. The closest I can get is some awful hybrid writer/monster: Henry Miller + William Burroughs + Pierre Guyotat but that would be without Miller’s ego and Burroughs’ archness. If Zola is an obvious forerunner, then Pierre Guyotat – albeit from a reverse political pole – is the heir to Céline’s incendiary prose and explosive style. We can even see Céline’s influence on contemporary writers: Dan Fante’s A Gin-Pissing-Raw-Meat-Dual-Carburetor-V8-Son-Of-A-Bitch from Los Angeles is straight Céline “stinking ammoniac piss-sodden tippling snitching thieving spying abominable agitator” filtered through Bukowski. Céline defies and denies the canon, is resistant to history and political correctness.

. . . Is Céline a racist? An anti-Semite? A Nazi sympathizer and apologist? A collaborator? A misanthrope? Is he a novelist? A pamphleteer? And do these questions really matter when his prose is still shocking and fresh and a whole new generation of readers will have access to the phantasmagoric Normance? What Céline offers the reader is a fresh yet ugly take on human weakness, violence, and suffering – far from accusing the good doctor of  treason, we should applaud him for his honesty. Céline doesn’t blink when faced with human excess and pride – his prose may be rebarbative but it is necessary. Like William Burroughs, Céline preferred felines to human beings (the narratorof Normance worries more about the whereabouts and fate of his pet cat Bébert than he does the suffering of his neighbours). Ultimately, both Burroughs and Céline were moralists, their experimental styles and inflammatory prose became their means to deal with the 20th century’s absurd terrors. Despite the dodgy politics, Céline is an unflinching chronicler of humanity’s ethical depravity and moral relativism.

…they talk about love, in verse, prose, or songs, they can’t help themselves! the nerve! and always procreating! unloading fresh Hell-spawn on the world! and then speechifying! and their endless promises! … constantly swollen with pride! drooling and strutting around! only when they’re prostrate, dying, or sick do they lose a little of their human vileness and become poor beasts again, and then you can stand do go near them… 


—from Steve Finbow, “Roaring Up from the Depths”

Cover Image


Ferdinand versus Jules “the jerk-off artist”:

— Hey, Jules! Hey, Jules!

He could at least answer!

— You try calling him!

He gestures to us to leave him alone… he’s sulking… brooding…

— Leave me the fuck alone!

I can hear him clearly… between two tremendous bombs… a moment of calm… he wants a drink! Ah, a drink?… he’s outta luck!

The whole garden is flaming, all the shrubs…

It’s amazing that he doesn’t catch on fire, and his gondola and platform with him! considering the waves of sparks!

— Hey bozo, in the cart! jump! weirdo!

He called me a Kraut, a spy! a traitor! I can talk trash as well! all the names in the book!

— Faggot! hey, faggot!

— Please, Ferdinand! Take it easy!…

Always trying to calm me down! me, so tolerant and fair!… me, who he’d offended horribly! and publicly! and intentionally!…

— I hope your Jules roasts, the pig! the sub-pig! you were in on it together? tell me you were! admit it!

— No, Louis, calm down! Of course not!

— I hope that bozo of yours roasts! your fondler! I’d like to see him glazed in the flames all right! he’s poised for it! right into the pot!

Vrrouum! vrroum!

You’re probably finding me monotonous… I’m imitating the ruckus… what can I do? that’s how it is, period!… twenty squads fly over us, seething…

Ah! the windmill is leaning! and us! our whole building!… a powerful puff of air!… up above, Jules pitches against the rail, I think he’s going to crash through… no! he slams into it and ricochets off to the other side… he was thirsty, the gondolier now it must be a bit worse! he must have no tongue left!… it’s a dry wind from Levallois! even in our room, we’re baking in this heat!… especially our eyes! our eyes! our eyelids won’t close!… I’m not making it up!… the people who were there will tell you: an eruption! fifty… a hundred bomb craters spurting into the sky!… and not just in the sky, all around! and the windmill still isn’t burning! you want proof: Jules in all his glory on his skates! look how he maneuvers! and pivots! swerves! but he doesn’t break the barrier!… no! no!…

— Nut-job! Lunatic!

I howl at him!

He’s really taking a ride! his little platform is swaying, pitching, rolling and he’s still riding it in his gondola! from one railing to the other!… and in a hell of a wind! it’s blowing in from the Renault factory! from the west, a real oven! tornado after tornado! I’m not making any of this up! all the outskirts are an eruption… not just one little neighborhood!… the factories are torching!… the clown in his crate catches it all… right in the face! he’s a lot more exposed to the wind than we are… the whole windmill is leaning into the wind!… the whole frame… and the big strut and the ladder!… him up there, he rolls with the swells, pitching, then he shoots off again! if the platform really tips, that joker’s going to take a dive! in the lilacs! in the fire-and-phosphorous lilacs! jeez , he catches the railing! pivots! and off again! ah, he’s the acrobat of the elements! if he were overcome with rage, he’d fling himself off!… all the same I’m insulting him good and plenty! he tacks straight up against the swell… seems to me… I think… really!… they played a trick on him bringing him up there… or did he ask his pals to bring him? isn’t that the question?… there are strange forces at work, frequency waves, and more!… nothing would surprise me seeing how Jules behaves! the way he hangs onto his traffic light… acrobat artiste!

— Jump, you vampire!

There’s a little lull… the windmill straightens up… but the wind starts up again from the other side, towards Dufayel… a terrible aftershock!… this quake, I think this is it!

Sail, ship’s pup

The wind is up

I sing to him… he doesn’t give a fuck!… he throws himself against the other rail! his torso, face and nose are lit up… he’s all you see above Paris… naturally, being so high in the air! take a look at all the sparks hitting him! gust after gust!… even for us in our room, what swarms pouring in the window! crackling over us! we should have caught on fire too! we’re as lucky as Jules!

— I’m thirsty, Lili!… aren’t you thirsty?

She doesn’t answer… I shake her… I pick her up in my arms…

Aren’t you thirsty, Lili?

All she’s watching is Jules!… her eyes are glued to him! Jules up there, doing acrobatics with the bombs! I yell at him!

— Go on, chickie! dive!

It’s true, he’s stalling, the jerkoff artist!… I’m spurring him on!… he takes off at a zigzag, starts over! what a scene!… he’s never gonna break the rail!… and it’s flimsy too…


read more from Normance:

adam thirlwell’s favourite books & authors populate a novel set of narratives

Buy Miss Herbert 


Mind your language

By A.S. Byatt


November 24 2007

Miss Herbert (The Delighted States in the U.S.)
By Adam Thirlwell

Miss Herbert is a thoughtful, and frequently hilarious, study of the nature of literary translation. It is also a work of art, a new form. Juliet Herbert was the English governess of Flaubert’s niece, Caroline. She wrote a translation of Madame Bovary, which Flaubert approved, and which has disappeared, unread. This ghost is a central character in a tale of conversations between writers, languages and forms.


Flaubert’s carefully wrought style, his “mania for sentences”, makes him in one sense untranslatable. The same could be argued of James Joyce’s layered wordplay, local detail and complicated rhythms. Novelist Adam Thirlwell, the author of Politics, discusses the tension between literal translation of words and attempts to translate a “style”. He argues that — always with some slippage or accidents — styles can be translated and transmitted. He has a cosmopolitan taste in novels, and describes his own canon, ranging from Cervantes to Machado de Assis, from Italo Svevo who was taught English by Joyce, to Witold Gombrowicz and Bohumil Hrabal.


A good example of the way he proceeds is his discussion of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, a novel in verse, in an intricate rhyming stanzaic form. Pushkin read Tristram Shandy in a less-than-adequate French translation. Thirlwell remarks: “The first great Russian novel was a rewrite of a French travesty of an English avant-garde novel.” Later he discusses Nabokov’s ideas of translation. Nabokov came to the conclusion that a verse translation of Pushkin’s novel was theoretically impossible. He published his own literal word-by-word translation in four volumes with notes and commentary. Thirlwell decides he prefers the idea behind Nabokov’s earlier translation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which changed names and references freely into Russian ones.


What does Thirlwell think makes a style, and what does he admire? A style must convey “real life”, a phrase that is constantly defined and redefined in this book. He quotes Diderot on the necessity for detail — a pox-mark on a perfect face — and gives splendid examples of precise recording, from Chekhov to Nabokov. He says: “Good novelists (or maybe more honestly the novelists I like) are often not just avant-garde in terms of technique; they are morally avant-garde as well. They are disrespectful (for one definition of cosmopolitan after all is the refusal to know one’s place).” I like this definition, partly at least because it does not use that meaningless word “subversive”. “Disrespectful” is a good word. Thirlwell also does not praise “authenticity”, sticking to more solid words such as “real” and “true”. The novelists he admires are, he says, “libertines” using that word to mean writers who record awkward or complicated truths. They are all, apart from Gertrude Stein, male and ironic. Thirlwell says somewhere that reality is ironic. I’m not sure of the meaning of that.


John Hawkes wrote that the enemies of the novel were “plot, character, setting and theme”. The novelists who are the “characters” of this novel about novels seem to believe that the true enemies are sentimentality, Romanticism, lazy derivativeness and high-mindedness. There is also a tendency to be hostile to plot as a form of unreality. Thirlwell quotes Gogol, Flaubert, Austen and Nabokov in one paragraph, which appears to end with the assertion that “life itself is plotless”. This is as untrue as it is true. Life, in my experience, is full of plots. But further down the same page Thirlwell produces another epigram: “The art of the novel centres not on authenticity but truth. And truth is a fabrication.” It is novelists, precisely, who understand that – and in a world where truth is a fabrication, there is room for plots and stories.

So what is a style? It is more than the sum of its parts — the choice of words, the speed of telling, the angle of vision. One of the pleasures of this elegantly produced book is a series of squiggles — many of them from Tristram Shandy, including Trim’s flourish with his stick which Balzac reproduced in La Peau de Chagrin — but also Hogarth’s “line of beauty”, and some twirls by Paul Klee. These flourishes, handed on from writer to writer and changed, are like musical notation. At the end of the book’s third part Thirlwell writes: “A style is not just a prose style. Sometimes it is not even a form of composition. Style is a quality of vision; a soul. This word soul is not my favourite word, it is not one I would use if I could help it, but I am not sure I have any choice.” And that kind of seriousness is very much Thirlwell’s own style.



The Delighted States

By Adam Thirwell


Chapter 1


Normandy, 1852: Two Letters from Gustave Flaubert About Style


This all begins in private, with Gustave Flaubert’s correspondence.


On 24 April 1852, Gustave Flaubert — an unpublished novelist, who had abandoned one novel, and recently begun another — wrote a hopeful letter to his mistress, Louise Colet.


‘I’ve imagined a style for myself,’ he told her, ‘a beautiful style that someone will write some day, in ten years’ time maybe, or in ten centuries. It will be as rhythmical as verse and as precise as science, with the booming rise and fall of a cello and plumes of fire’. And five years later, on 12 December 1857, after his first novel, Madame Bovary, had finally been published, Flaubert was writing to a fan, whose name was Mademoiselle Leroyer de Chantepie, and still saying roughly the same thing: ‘You say that I pay too much attention to form. Alas! it is like body and soul: form and content to me are one; I don’t know what either is without the other.’

Ever since Gustave Flaubert finally published his first novel, some novels have been explicitly as well written as poetry; they have shown the same care as poetry for style, and form. Every word in these novels has the same weight and poise as a word in a poem. And this is not without its problems.


The novel is an international art form. As soon as a novel becomes as well written as poetry, therefore, as soon as style is everything, then the translation of a novel becomes not a peripheral problem, but a central one. Or, as Milan Kundera wrote in the introduction to the fourth, but still only penultimate, English-language translation of his first novel, The Joke: ‘Once prose makes such a claim, the translation of a novel becomes a true art.’


This book — which I sometimes think of as a novel, an inside-out novel, with novelists as characters — is about the art of the novel.It is also, therefore, about the art of translation.


Chapter 2


Warsaw, 1937: Witold Gombrowicz Writes a Review


In 1937, the Polish novelist Witold Gombrowicz wrote a piece for a Warsaw magazine — Kurier Poranny — on the French translation of James Joyce’s novel, Ulysses. Sorrowfully, he did not think that Ulysses was really translatable. Meditating wistfully on the happier position of the English-speaking reader, he offered his own paradoxical and contrasting position, that while the ‘perfection and power of this complex style’ made it obvious how good — even in translation — Ulysses was, the dual language gap still prevented ‘more intimate contact’. And Gombrowicz ended his piece with an irritable flourish: ‘It is annoying to know that somewhere over there, abroad, a previously unknown method of feeling, of thinking and of writing has been born whose existence renders our methods completely anachronistic, and to tell oneself that only purely technical obstacles prevent us from having a deep knowledge of so many new inventions.’


Ulysses had made Polish novelists outdated: Gombrowicz could see that: but in French, his second language, he could not precisely see how. The technical details, he argued, escaped him.


But I am not sure that this is true. If style were purely a matter of technique — if form and content, as Flaubert sometimes thought, were the same thing — then perhaps Gombrowicz might be right. But style is not purely a matter of technique, which is why translation is still possible.


That is the subject of this book.


Often, I wonder if the idea of the untranslatable is really hiding a secret wish for translation to be a perfect fit, and this wish conceals a corresponding wish for style to be absolute. Whereas there are no perfect translations, just as there are no perfect styles. Something is still translatable, even if its translation is not perfect.

Like the example of Witold Gombrowicz himself.


About ten years later, Gombrowicz would be in exile — from the Nazis, and then the Communists — in Buenos Aires. In 1945, his friend Cecilia Benedit de Benedetti gave him an allowance to translate his novel Ferdydurke into Spanish. Ferdydurke, which had come out in 1937, the same year as his essay on Ulysses, had made him famous in Poland. This translation eventually became the preserve of a dedicated group, led by the Cuban novelist Virgilio Piñera and the Cuban writer Humberto Rodríguez Tomeu, as well as Gombrowicz, over eighteen months. The translation took place during sessions in the chess room on the second floor of the Café Rex, Gombrowicz’s favourite café in Buenos Aires. According to one of his early collaborators, Adolfo de Obieta, the translation was therefore inherently amusing: it was charmingly amateur — ‘transposing from Polish into Spanish the book of a Polish author who barely knew Spanish, assisted by five or six Latino-Americans who scarcely knew two words of Polish’.


No Polish-Spanish dictionary existed at the time. ‘It was an experimental translation in macaronic Spanish,’ recalled Tomeu. ‘At that time, he already knew some Spanish. Later, he spoke it well but always with a very strong accent. We therefore discussed each sentence under every one of its aspects: choice of words, their euphony, their cadence and their rhythm. Witold’s observations were always pertinent.’ The translation came out in April 1947, accompanied by a defensive note from Piñera, who worried that the unwarned Spanish reader might impute the language’s oddness to a lack of competence on the part of the translators. No no, he argued. It was all a matter of Gombrowicz’s new and different manner of envisaging language in the original Polish. (Which Piñera, of course, could not read.)


But he did not convince the public: Ferdydurke was not a success. It bemused its new Latin-American public.


The history of the novel is, simultaneously, a history of an elaborate and intricate international art form — and also a history of errors, a history of waste.



Chapter 3


Paris, 1930: James Joyce in Paul Léon’s Living Room


While Witold Gombrowicz, in Warsaw, was fretting at the French translation of Ulysses, James Joyce was making things even harder. In Paris, Joyce was completing the novel which was being serialised in the small magazine transition as Work in Progress, but which would finally be called Finnegans Wake. Famously, this novel is hardly even written in English: itself a description of a dream, Joyce wanted the English of his novel to mimic, in its language, the operations of a dream. Just as the images in dreams are dense with over-determination, so the language in Finnegans Wake, therefore, Joyce hoped, was unstable, impacted, polyglot. So that the reader of its first instalment would have been unpleasantly surprised to discover a style that made puns with more than one language, and had a sentence like this: ‘What clashes here of wills gen wonts, oystrygods gaggin fishygods!’


Maybe, with Finnegans Wake, Joyce had reached a point of stylistic density which could not survive any transition to another language – a realm of pure poetry, a nonsense style. Perhaps Gombrowicz was right. Maybe translation was finally impossible.


But maybe not.


In 1930, Joyce agreed to supervise a translation into French of the Anna Livia Plurabelle section of Work in Progress: the translation had been begun by Samuel Beckett and his French friend Alfred Péron. Beckett, however, had gone back to Ireland after completing a first version of the opening pages. His work was then revised by a group of Joyce’s friends: Eugene Jolas, the editor of transition; Ivan Goll, a poet; and Paul Léon.


Léon (whose wife, Lucie, was a family friend of Vladimir Nabokov) was a Russian émigré, who had left Russia in 1918: he had first gone to London, and then, in 1921, had arrived in Paris. He was a lawyer by training, and literary in his tastes. He soon became a kind of secretary to Joyce.


At the end of November 1930, after the first draft of the French translation had been completed, the French Surrealist writer Philippe Soupault was instructed to meet Joyce and Léon in Léon’s flat. At Léon’s round table, they would sit for three hours, starting at 2.30 every Thursday, and go through the translation.


(And I hope that the Léons kept this table for a while, because then it would be the same table at which, eight years later, in 1938, Nabokov would sit with Lucie — as she helped him with the English of his first novel written directly in English, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight.)


Joyce smoked in an armchair; Léon read the English text and Soupault read the French, at the same time, breaking off to consider any problems. After fifteen of these meetings, they reached a final draft. This was sent to Jolas and Adrienne Monnier — Joyce’s friend, who had published the French translation of Ulysses — who suggested further changes. The finished translation of Anna Livia Plurabelle was published in the Nouvelle Revue Française on 1 May 1931.


There is no need to understand French to hear how talented this translation was. A lack of French is fine. Joyce shocked everyone with his care for sound over sense. In its new language, he was more concerned to preserve the form than the content.


Anna Livia Plurabelle falls asleep


Can’t hear with the waters of. The chittering waters of. Flittering bats, fieldmice bawk talk. Ho! Are you not gone ahome? What Thom Malone? Can’t hear with bawk of bats, all thim liffeying waters of. Ho, talk save us! My foos won’t moos. I feel as old as yonder elm. A tale told of Shaun or Shem? All Livia’s daughtersons. Dark hawks hear us. Night! Night! My ho head halls. I feel as heavy as yonder stone. Tell me of John or Shaun? Who were Shem and Shaun the living sons or daughters of? Night now! Tell me, tell me, tell me, elm! Night night! Tellmetale of stem or stone. Beside the rivering waters of, hitherandthithering waters of. Night!


Anna Livia Plurabelle falls asleep, this time in French


N’entend pas cause les ondes de. Le bébé babil des ondes de. Souris chance, trotinette cause pause. Hein! Tu n’est past rentré? Quel père André? N’entend pas cause les fuisouris, les liffeyantes ondes de, Eh! Bruit nous aide! Mon pied à pied se lie lierré. Je me sens vieille comme mon orme même. Un conte conté de Shaun ou Shem? De Livie tous les fillefils. Sombre faucons écoutent l’ombre. Nuit. Nuit. Ma taute tête tombe. Je me sens lourde comme ma pierrestone. Conte moi de John ou Shaun. Qui furent Shem et Shaun en vie les fils ou filles de. Là-dessus nuit. Dis-mor, dis-mor, dis-mor, orme. Nuit, Nuit! Contemoiconte soit tronc ou pierre. Tant riviérantes ondes de, courtecourantes ondes de. Nuit.


Occasionally, the sense, and its connotations, has to alter. But this is so that the rhythm of the words, the sentences’ musicality, can still remain. The style, even of this work in progress, is still there.


Yes, the history of the novel is a history of an elaborate but international art form.


—from Adam Thirwell, The Delighted States: A Book of Novels, Romances, & Their Unknown Translators, Containing Ten Languages, Set on Four Continents, & Accompanied by Maps, Portraits, Squiggles, Illustrations, & a Variety of Helpful Indexes

from samuel beckett’s letters

"Is there any reason why that terrifyingly arbitrary materiality of the word surface should not be dissolved . . . so that for pages on end we cannot perceive it as other than a dizzying path of sounds connecting unfathomable chasms of silence?”

there any reason why that terrifyingly arbitrary materiality of the
word surface should not be dissolved . . . so that for pages on end
we cannot perceive it as other than a dizzying path of sounds
connecting unfathomable chasms of silence?”

Cover Image


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 when most efficiently abused . . . . 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. . . . . Or is literature alone to be left behind on that old, foul road long ago abandoned by music and painting? Is there something paralysingly sacred contained within the unnature of the word that does not belong to the elements of the other arts? Is there any reason why that terrifyingly arbitrary materiality of the word surface should not be dissolved, as, for example, the sound surface of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony is devoured by huge black pauses, so that for pages on end we cannot perceive it as other than a dizzying path of sounds connecting unfathomable chasms of silence? An answer is requested.


from a 1937 letter by Samuel Beckett to Axel Kaun in Martha Dow Fehsenfeld and Lois More Overbeck (eds.), The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume One: 1929–1940, Cambridge University Press, 2009

“busy shopping centre… middle of the throng… staring into space… mouth half-open as usual”

"Not I . . . is an aural mosaic of words, which come pell-mell but not always helter-skelter, and that once it is over, a life, emotions, and a state of mind have been made manifest, with a literally stunning impact upon the audience.”


Two reviews of Samuel Beckett’s Not I

Edith Oliver, The New Yorker 2 December 1972, p. 124:

The nearest I can come to describing ‘Not I’ is to say that it is an aural mosaic of words, which come pell-mell but not always helter-skelter, and that once it is over, a life, emotions, and a state of mind have been made manifest, with a literally stunning impact upon the audience. Even then, much of the play remains, and should remain, mysterious and shadowy. It opens in total darkness. A woman’s voice is heard (but so quietly that it almost mingles with the rattling of programs out front) whispering and crying and laughing and then speaking in a brogue, but so quickly that one can barely distinguish the words. Then a spotlight picks out a mouth moving; that is all the lighting there is, from beginning to end. The words never stop coming, and their speed never slackens; they are, we finally realize, the pent-up words of a lifetime, and they are more than the woman can control. She refers to her own ‘raving’ and ‘flickering brain,’ and to her ‘lips, cheeks, jaws, tongue, never still a second.’ Yet something of great power and vividness— tatters of incidents and feelings, not a story but something—comes through from a dementia that is compounded of grief and confusion. We hear of a sexual episode that took place on an early April morning long ago, when she was meant to be having pleasure and was having none. There is talk of punishment for her sins, and of being godforsaken, with no love of any kind. She is obsessed with the idea of punishment. There was a trial of some kind, when all that was required of her was to say ‘Guilty’ or ‘Not guilty,’ and she stood there, her mouth half open, struck dumb. Since then (or maybe not since then), she has been unable to speak, except for once or twice a year, when she rushes out and talks to strangers—in the market, in public lavatoriesonly to see their stares and almost die of shame. She has ‘lived on and on to be seventy.’ The light slowly fades, the gabble slides off to whispers and to silence. All the while, a man in monk’s garb has been standing in the shadows, listening and occasionally bowing his head. Miss Tandy gives an accomplished performance in what must be an extremely difficult role. Henderson Forsythe is the listener. This production of ‘Not I’ (I have no idea what the title means) lasts around fifteen minutes. They are about as densely packed as any fifteen minutes I can remember.

Benedict Nightingale, New Statesman, 26 January 1973, pp. 135–6:

When I was a boy, in the 1940s and 1950s, one of the most famous sights of the West Kent countryside was a woman in a rough brown smock with string round her waist, body bent forwards, arms working like pistons as she bustled towards Tunbridge Wells station. There she was planning to meet her husband, who had been killed in the first world war. In time, her walk lost its fever and became a sort of doleful trudge, and she disappeared from the roads. I don’t know if she may conceivably still be found in some geriatric ward, staring out of the window and wondering when the war will end; but I do know that her image came forcefully back to me when I saw ‘Not I’. If the spot that lit up the speaker’s mouth, and that only, had spread to reveal the whole of her body, I would have expected to see much the same hump and rags: if the old woman of Kent had spoken, I daresay much the same anguished gabble would have poured from her. All Beckett’ s plays may be seen as threnodies to wasted lives; but ‘Not I’ is more concrete in its characterisation than most, and as starkly visual as any in its evocation of the all-but-invisible piece of human driftwood whose monologue it is. It is also unusually painful—tearing into you like a grappling iron and dragging you after it, with or without your leave.

The mouth belongs to Billie Whitelaw; and, for some 15 minutes, she pants and gasps out the tale of the character to whom it belongs, her broken phrases jostling each other in their desperation to be expressed. It is a performance of sustained intensity, all sweat, clenched muscle and foaming larynx, and one which finds its variety only upwards: a frantic cackle at the idea that there might be a merciful God; a scream of suffering designed to appease this uncertain deity. But it must be admitted that the breathless pace combines with the incoherence of the character’s thoughts to make the piece hard to follow: which is why I’d suggest either that it be played twice a session (though this might prove too much even for Miss Whitelaw’s athletic throat), or that spectators should first buy and con the script, which Faber is publishing this week at 40p. After all, one of the many assumptions which Beckett’s work challenges is that a play should necessarily strip and show its all (or even much of itself) at first encounter. Like good music, ‘Not I’ demands familiarity, and is, I suspect, capable of giving growing satisfaction with each hearing. Meanwhile, let me piece together a crib for those too poor or proud to get the score proper.

‘Mouth’, as Beckett calls her, was born a bastard, deserted by her parents, brought up in a loveless, heavily religious orphanage. She became a lonely, frightened, half-moronic adult, forever trudging round the countryside and avoiding others.

busy shopping centre…supermart…just hand in the list…with the bag…old black shopping bag… then stand there waiting…any length of time… middle of the throng…motionless…staring into space…mouth half-open as usual…till it was back in her hand… the bag back in her hand…then pay and go…not as much as goodbye.

Once she appeared in court on some unnamed charge, and couldn’t speak; once and only once, she wept; occasionally, ‘always winter for some reason’, she was seen standing in the public lavatory, mouthing distorted vowels. But otherwise ‘nothing of note’ apparently happened until a mysterious experience at the age of 70. The morning sky went dark, a ray of light played in front of her. Her reaction (‘very foolish but so like her’) was that she was about to be punished for her sins, and she tried to scream. Yet neither did she feel pain, nor could she make a sound; nor hear anything, except a dull buzzing in the head. Then, suddenly, her mouth began to pour out words, so many and fast that her brain couldn’t grasp them, though she sensed that some revelation, some discovery, was at hand. And ‘feeling was coming back… imagine… feeling coming back’—to her mouth, lips and cheeks, if not yet to her numb heart. It is that feeling, those words, which we are presumably hearing in the theatre; that mouth, bulging and writhing in its spotlight like some blubbery sea-creature on the hook, which isnow virtually all that is left alive of the speaker after decades of dereliction.

Or could it be, as some suspect, that the mouth is talking, not of itself, but of someone else? I don’t think so. True, the story is told entirely in the third person, and the play is baldly called ‘Not I’. But Beckett helpfully provides a stage direction which seems to explain that. At key moments, the speaker repeats with rising horror, ‘What? Who? No SHE’ : which is, we’re told, a vehement refusal to relinquish third person’. In other words, she can’t bring herself to utter the word ‘I’, and that, I’d suggest, is because she dare not admit that this wilderness of a life is hers and hers alone. Whenever she gets near the admission, we get instead that cry of ‘no’ and howl of ‘she’, as if she was denying any possibility so awful. Things like that happen to other people: they cannot happen to ‘me’. Again, she seems to show symptoms of what psychiatrists call ‘depersonalisation’, the condition in which the sufferer has lost nearly all capacity for emotion and is left with the sensation, not only of not being himself, but of scarcely being human at all. Thus she thinks of herself in the third person and, on two occasions, talks of her body as a ‘machine’, disconnected from sense and speech. But it is, of course, quite inadequate to argue that Beckett is offering a clinical study of a schizophrenic: her predicament is much more representative. Which of us doesn’t shut his eyes to his failures, and who wouldn’t rather say ‘he or ‘she’ of much of his own irrecoverable life? Who isn’t guilty of both evasion and waste?

The play’s resonance is typical. Beckett commonly takes a particular character, pares it down to the moral skeleton, and leaves us with the pattern, the archetype: he refines individuals into metaphors in which we can all, if we’re honest, see bits of ourselves. What distinguishes ‘Not I’ from most of his work is the extent to which ‘mouth’ is individualised and the relative straightforwardness of its implications. Once the code is cracked, the stream of consciousness channelled, it isn’t a hard play, nor is it as stunningly pessimistic as some critics believe. In ‘Endgame’, for instance, Hamm’s room is Hamm’s room, a dying man’s skull, the family hearth, society and the planet Earth, forcing the spectator to spread his poor, bewildered wits over four or five levels at once; ‘Not I‘s’ stage is a barrenly furnished human mind, and that only. Again, I can think of few gloomier plays than ‘Happy Days’, which equates happiness with gross stupidity, or the one-minute ‘Breath’, which defines life as two faint cries and the world as a rubbish- heap. Invocations of God notwithstanding, ‘Not I’ has nothing definite to say about the society, world or universe in which ‘mouth’ spins out her existence. It could be that some self-fulfilment is possible there for those who don’t evade life by crying ‘not I’: that might be the revelation that tantalises but eludes her. Unlikely, knowing Beckett; but conceivable. We should seize hopefully on the slightest chink in such a man’s determinism, the barest scratch on the dark glasses through which he surveys us all.

It’s an entirely self-sufficient play, but not without echoes from earlier ones: the omnipresence of irrational guilt; the idea that love causes only suffering; and a shapeand tone that owes something to ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’which is presumably why that piece is also on the programme, with Albert Finney poised over the recording machine, spooling his way through yet another null past. Finney proves a bit cavalier with the stage directions, but achieves a good deal with a voice that markedly thickens and coarsens over the years, and with a face that scarcely has to move to suggest fear, bewilderment, a sudden raddled tenderness. I would recommend the production; but its ‘Not I’ that lingers in my mind, not because it’s more exquisitely written, but because it is, I think, even more deeply felt. At any rate, the old woman’s predicament strikes me as more moving than the old man’s. Perhaps this is because he is cleverer, and she more fragile and vulnerable, and less responsible for her failures; perhaps not. Whatever the reason, it is hard not to identify with the bent, cowled figure Beckett calls the ‘auditor’, who stands half- invisible in the murk of the stage watching the mouth and, finally, raising his arms ‘in a gesture of helpless compassion’. Compassion is indeed and exactly what ‘Not I’ provokes, and more powerfully than anything I’ve yet seen by Beckett.

—from L. Graver and R. Federman, editors, Samuel Beckett: The Critical Heritage, Routledge, 1979, pp. 368-373.

“i don’t know when i died”: another bit of brightness from beckett




“Suddenly a young woman perhaps of easy virtue, dishevelled and her dress in disarray, darted across the street like a rabbit. That is all I had to add. But here a strange thing, yet another, I had no pain whatever, not even in my legs. Weakness. A good night’s nightmare and a tin of sardines would restore my sensitivity. My shadow, one of my shadows, flew before me, dwindled, slid under my feet, trailed behind me the way shadows will. This degree of opacity appeared to me conclusive."

Samuel Beckett: the Complete Short Prose, 1929-1989



“The Calmative” 

by Samuel Beckett 


I don’t know when I died. It always seemed to me I died old, about ninety years old, and what years, and that my body bore it out, from head to foot. But this evening, alone in my icy bed, I have the feeling I’ll be older than the day, the night, when the sky with all its lights fell upon me, the same I had so often gazed on since my first stumblings on the distant earth. For I’m too frightened this evening to listen to myself rot, waiting for the great red lapses of the heart, the tearings at the caecal walls, and for the slow killings to finish in my skull, the assaults on unshakable pillars, the fornications with corpses. So I’ll tell myself a story, I’ll try and tell myself another story, to try and calm myself, and it’s there I feel I’ll beold, old, even older than the day I fell, calling for help, and it came. Or is it possible that in this story I have come back to life, after my death? No, it’s not like me to come back to life, after my death. 


What possessed me to stir when I wasn’t with anybody? Was I being thrown out? No, I wasn’t with anybody. I see a kind of den littered with empty fins. And yet we are not in the country. Perhaps it’s just ruins, a ruined folly, on the skirts of the town, in a field, for the fields come right up to our walls, their walls, and the cows lie down at night in the lee of the ramparts. I have changed refuge so often, in the course of my rout, that now I can’t tell between dens and ruins. But there was never any city but the one. It is true you often move along in a dream, houses and factories darken the air, trams go by, and under your feet wet from the grass there are suddenly cobbles. I only know the city of my childhood, I must have seen the other, but unbelieving. All I say cancels out, I’ll have said nothing. Was I hungry itself?. Did the weather tempt me? It was cloudy and cool, I insist, but not to the extent of luring me out. I couldn’t get up at the first attempt, nor let us say at the second, and once up, propped against the wall, I wondered if I could go on, I mean up, propped against the wall. Impossible to go out and walk. I speak as though it all happened yesterday. Yesterday indeed is recent, but not enough. For what I tell this evening is passing this evening, at this passing hour. I’m no longer with these assassins, in this bed of terror, but in my distant refuge, my hands twined together, my head bowed, weak, breathless, calm, free, and older than I’ll have ever been, if my calculations are correct. I’ll tell my story in the past none the less, as though it were a myth, or an old fable, for this evening I need another age, that age to become another age in which I became what I was. 


But little by little I got myself out and started walking with short steps among the trees, oh look, trees! The paths of other days were rank with tangled growth. I leaned against the trunks to get my breath and pulled myself forward with the help of boughs. Of my last passage no trace remained. They were the perishing oaks immortalized by d’Aubigné. It was only a grove. The fringe was near, a light less green and kind of tattered told me so, in a whisper. Yes, no matter where you stood, in this little wood, and were it in the furthest recess of its poor secrecies, you saw on every hand the gleam of this pale light, promise of God knows what fatuous eternity. Die without too much pain, a little, that’s worth your while. Under the blind sky close with your own hands the eyes soon sockets, then quick into carrion not to mislead the crows. That’s the advantage of death by drowning, one of the advantages, the crabs never get there too soon. But here a strange thing, I was no sooner free of the wood at last, having crossed unminding the ditch that girdles it, than thoughts came to me of cruelty, the kind that smiles. A lush pasture lay before me, nonsuch perhaps, who cares, drenched in evening dew or recent rain. Beyond this meadow to my certain knowledge a path, then a field and finally the ramparts, closing the prospect. Cyclopean and crenellated, standing out faintly against a sky scarcely less sombre, they did not seem in ruins, viewed from mine, but were, to my certain knowledge. Such was the scene offered to me, in vain, for I knew it well and loathed it. What I saw was a bald man in a brown suit, a comedian. He was telling a funny story about a fiasco. Its point escaped me. He used the word snail, or slug, to the delight of all present. The women seemed even more entertained than their escorts, if that were possible. Their shrill laughter pierced the clapping and, when this had subsided, broke out still here and there in sudden peals even after the next story had begun, so that part of it was lost. Perhaps they had in mind the reigning penis sitting who knows by their side and from that sweet shore launched their cries of joy towards the comic vast, what a talent. But it’s to me this evening something has to happen, to my body as in myth and metamorphosis, this old body to which nothing ever happened, or so little, which never met with anything, loved anything, wished for anything, in its tarnished universe, except for the mirrors to shatter, the plane, the curved, the magnifying, the minifying, and to vanish in the havoc of its images. Yes, this evening it has to be as in the story my father used to read to me, evening after evening, when I was small and he had all his health, to calm me, evening after evening, year after year it seems to me this evening, which I don’t remember much about, except that it was the adventures of one Joe Breem, or Breen, the son of a lighthouse-keeper, a strong muscular lad of fifteen, those were the words, who swam for miles in the night, a knife between his teeth, after a shark, I forget why, out of sheer heroism. He might have simply told me the story, he knew it by heart, so did I, but that wouldn’t have calmed me, he had to read it to me, evening after evening, or pretend to read it to me, turning the pages and explaining the pictures that were of me already, evening after evening the same pictures, till I dozed off on his shoulder. If he had skipped a single word I would have hit him, with my little fist, in his big belly bursting out of the old cardigan and unbuttoned trousers that rested him from his office canonicals. For me now the setting forth, the struggle and perhaps the return, for the old man I am this evening, older than my father ever was, older than I shall ever be. I crossed the meadow with little stiff steps at the same time limp, the best I could manage. Of my last passage no trace remained, it was long ago. And the little bruised stems soon straighten up again, having need of air and light, and as for the broken their place is soon taken. I entered the town by what they call the Shepherds’ Gate without having seen a soul, only the first bats like flying crucifixions, nor heard a sound except my steps, my heart in my breast and then as I went under the arch, the hoot of an owl, that cry at once so soft and fierce which in the night, calling, answering, through my little wood and those nearby, sounded in my shelter like a tocsin. The further I went into the city the more I was struck by its deserted air. It was lit as usual, brighter than usual, although the shops were shut. But the lights were on in their windows with the object no doubt of attracting customers and prompting them to say, I say, I like that, not dear either, I’ll come back tomorrow, if I’m still alive. I nearly said, Good God it’s Sunday. The trams were running, the buses too, but few, slow, empty, noiseless, as if under water. I didn’t see a single horse! I was wearing my long green greatcoat with the velvet collar, such as motorists wore about 1900, my father’s, but that day it was sleeveless, a vast cloak. But on me it was still the same great dead weight, with no warmth to it, and the tails swept the ground, scraped it rather, they had grown so stiff, and I so shrunken. What would, what could happen to me in this empty place? But I felt the houses packed with people, lurking behind the curtains they looked out into the street or, crouched far back in the depths of the room, head in hands, were sunk in dream. Up aloft my hat, the same as always, I reached no further. I went right across the city and came to the sea, having followed the river to its mouth. I kept saying, I’ll go back, unbelieving. The boats at anchor in the harbour, tied up to the jetty, seemed no less numerous than usual, as if I knew anything about what was usual. But the quays were deserted and there was no sign or stir of arrival or departure. But all might change from one moment to the next and be transformed like magic before my eyes. Then all the bustle of the people and things of the sea, the masts of the big craft gravely rocking and of the small more jauntily, I insist, and I’d hear the gulls’ terrible cry and perhaps the sailors’ cry. And I might slip unnoticed aboard a freighter outward bound and get far away and spend far away a few good months, perhaps even a year or two, in the sun, in peace, before I died. And without going that far it would be a sad state of affairs if in that unscandalizable throng I couldn’t achieve a little encounter that would calm me a little, or exchange a few words with a navigator for example, words to carry away with me to my refuge, to add to my collection. I waited sitting on a kind of topless capstan, saying, The very capstans this evening are out of order. And I gazed out to sea, out beyond the breakwaters, without sighting the least vessel. I could see lights flush with the water. And the pretty beacons at the harbour mouth I could see too, and others in the distance, flashing from the coast, the islands, the headlands. But seeing still no sign or stir I made ready to go, to turn away sadly from this dead haven, for there are scenes that call for strange farewells. I had merely to bow my head and look down at my feet, for it is in this attitude I always drew the strength to, how shall I say, I don’t know, and it was always from the earth, rather than from the sky, notwithstanding its reputation, that my help came in time of trouble. And there, on the flagstone, which I was not focussing, for why focus it, I saw haven afar, where the black swell was most perilous, and all about me storm and wreck. I’ll never come back here, I said. But when with a thrust of both hands against the rim of the capstan I heaved myself up I found facing me a young boy holding a goat by a horn. I sat down again. He stood there silent looking at me without visible fear or revulsion. Admittedly the light was poor. His silence seemed natural to me, it befitted me as the elder to speak first. He was barefoot and in rags. Haunter of the waterfront he had stepped aside to see what the dark hulk could be abandoned on the quayside. Such was my train of thought. Close up to me now with his little guttersnipe’s eye there could be no doubt left in his mind. And yet he stayed. Can this base thought be mine? Moved, for after all that is what I must have come out for, in a way, and with little expectation of advantage from what might follow, I resolved to speak to him. So I marshalled the words and opened my mouth, thinking I would hear them. But all I heard was a kind of rattle, unintelligible even to me who knew what was intended. But it was nothing, mere speechlessness due to long silence, as in the wood that darkens the mouth of hell, do you remember, I only just. Without letting go of his goat he moved right up against me and offered me a sweet out of a twist of paper such as you could buy for a penny. I hadn’t been offered a sweet for eighty years at least, but I took it eagerly and put it in my mouth, the old gesture came back to me, more and more moved since that is what I wanted. The sweets were stuck together and I had my work cut out to separate the top one, a green one, from the others, but he helped me and his hand brushed mine. And a moment later as he made to move away, hauling his goat after him, with a great gesticulation of my whole body I motioned him to stay and I said, in an impetuous murmur, Where are you off to, my little man, with your nanny? The words were hardly out of my mouth when for shame I covered my face. And yet they were the same I had tried to utter but a moment before. Where are you off to my little man, with your nanny! If I could have blushed I would have, but there was not enough blood left in my extremities. If I had had a penny in my pocket I would have given it to him, for him to forgive me, but I did not have a penny in my pocket, noranything resembling it. Nothing that could give pleasure to a little unfortunate at the mouth of life. I suspect I had nothing with me but my stone, that day, having gone out as it were without premeditation. Of his little person I was fated to see no more than the black curly hair and the pretty curve of the long bare legs all muscle and dirt. And the hand, so fresh and keen, I would not forget in a hurry either. I looked for better words to say to him, I found them too late, he was gone, oh not far, but far. Out of my life too he went without a care, not one of his thoughts would ever be for me again, unless perhaps when he was old and, delving in his boyhood, would come upon that gallows night and hold the goat by the horn again and linger again a moment by my side, with who knows perhaps a touch of tenderness, even of envy, but I have my doubts. Poor dear dumb beasts, how you will have helped me. What does your daddy do? that’s what I would have said to him if he had given me the chance. Soon they were no more than a single blur which if I hadn’t known I might have taken for a young centaur. I was nearly going to have the goat dung, then pick up a handful of the pellets so soon cold and hard, sniff and even taste them, no, that would not help me this evening. I say this evening as if it were always the same evening, but are there two evenings? I went, intending to get back as fast as I could, it would not be quite empty-handed, repeating, I’ll never come back here. My legs were paining me, every step would gladly have been the last, but the glances I darted towards the windows, stealthily, showed me a great cylinder sweeping past as though on rollers on the asphalt. I must indeed have been moving fast, for I overhauled more than one pedestrian, there are the first men, without extending myself, I who in the normal way was left standing by cripples, and then I seemed to hear the footfalls die behind me. And yet each little step would gladly have been the last. So much so that when I emerged on a square I hadn’t noticed on the way out, with a cathedral looming on the far side, I decided to go in, if it was open, and hide, as in the Middle Ages, for a space. I say cathedral, it may not have been, I don’t know, all I know is it would vex me in this story that aspires to be the last, to have taken refuge in a common church. I remarked the Saxon Stützenwechsel. Charming effect, but it didn’t charm me. The brilliantly lit nave appeared deserted. I walked round it several times without seeing a soul. They were hiding perhaps, under the choir-stalls, or dodging behind the pillars, like woodpeckers. Suddenly close to where I was, and without my having heard the long preliminary rumblings, the organ began to boom. I sprang up from the mat on which I lay before the altar and hastened to the far end of the nave as if on my way out. But it was a side aisle and the door I disappeared through was not the exit. For instead of being restored to the night I found myself at the foot of a spiral staircase which I began to climb at top speed, mindless of my heart, like one hotly pursued by a homicidal maniac. This staircase faintly lit by I know not what means, slits perhaps, I mounted panting as far as the projecting gallery in which it culminated and which, separated from the void by a cynical parapet, encompassed a smooth round wall capped by a little dome covered with lead or verdigrised copper, phew, if that’s not clear. People must have come here for the view, those who fall die on the way. Flattening myself against the wall I started round, clockwise. But I had hardly gone a few steps when I met a man revolving in the other direction, with the utmost circumspection. How I’d love to push him, or him to push me, over the edge. He gazed at me wild-eyed for a moment and then, not daring to pass me on the parapet side and surmising correctly that I would not relinquish the wall just to oblige him, abruptly turned his back on me, his head rather, for his back remained glued to the wall, and went back the way he had come so thatsoon there was nothing left of him but a left hand. It lingered a moment, then slid out of sight. All that remained to me was the vision of two burning eyes starting out of their sockets under a check cap. Into what nightmare thingness am I fallen? My hat flew off, but did not get far thanks to the string. I turned my head towards the staircase and lent an eye. Nothing. Then a little girl came into view followed by a man holding her by the hand, both pressed against the wall. He pushed her into the stairway, disappeared after her, turned and raised towards me a face that made me recoil. I could only see his bare head above the top step. When they were gone I called. I completed in haste the round of the gallery. No one. I saw on the horizon, where sky, sea, plain and mountain meet, a few low stars, not to be confused with the fires men light, at night, or that go alight alone. Enough. Back in the street I tried to find my way in the sky, where I knew the Bears so well. If I had seen someone I would have stopped him to ask, the most ferocious aspect would not have daunted me. I would have said, touching my hat, Pardon me your honour, the Shepherds’ Gate for the love of God. I thought I could go no further, but no sooner had the impetus reached my legs than on I went, believe it or not, at a very fair pace. I wasn’t returning empty-handed, not quite, I was taking back with me the virtual certainty that I was still of this world, of that world too, in a way. But I was paying the price. I would have done better to spend the night in the cathedral, on the mat before the altar, I would have continued on my way at first light, or they would have found me stretched out in the rigor of death, the genuine bodily article, under the blue eyes fount of so much hope, and put me in the evening papers. But suddenly I was descending a wide street, vaguely familiar, but in which I could never have set foot, in my lifetime. But soon realizing I was going downhill I turned about and set off in the other direction. For I was afraid if I went downhill of returning to the sea where I had sworn never to return. When I say I turned about I mean I wheeled round in a wide semicircle without slowing down, for I was afraid if I stopped of not being able to start again, yes, I was afraid of that too. And this evening too I dare not stop. I was struck more and more by the contrast between the brightly lit streets and their deserted air. To say it distressed me, no, but I say it all the same, in the hope of calming myself. To say there was no one abroad, no, I would not go that far, for I remarked a number of shapes, male and female, strange shapes, but not more so than usual. As to what hour it might have been I had no idea, except that it must have been some hour of the night. But it might have been three or four in the morning just as it might have been ten or eleven in the evening, depending no doubt on whether one wondered at the scarcity of passers-by or at the extraordinary radiance shed by the street-lamps and traffic-lights. For at one or other of these no one could fail to wonder, unless he was out of his mind. Not a single private car, but admittedly from time to time a public vehicle, slow sweep of light silent and empty. It is not my wish to labour these antinomies, for we are needless to say in a skull, but I have no choice but to add the following few remarks. All the mortals I saw were alone and as if sunk in themselves. It must be a common sight, but mixed with something else I imagine. The only couple was two men grappling, their legs intertwined. I only saw one cyclist! He was going the same way as I was. All were going the same way as I was, vehicles too, I have only just realized it. He was pedalling slowly in the middle of the street, reading a newspaper which he held with both hands spread open before his eyes. Every now and then he rang his bell without interrupting his reading. I watched him recede till he was no more than a dot on the horizon. Suddenly a young woman perhaps of easy virtue, dishevelled and her dress in disarray, darted across the street like a rabbit. That is all I had to add. But here a strange thing, yet another, I had no pain whatever, not even in my legs. Weakness. A good night’s nightmare and a tin of sardines would restore my sensitivity. My shadow, one of my shadows, flew before me, dwindled, slid under my feet, trailed behind me the way shadows will. This degree of opacity appeared to me conclusive. But suddenly ahead of me a man on the same side of the street and going the same way, to keep harping on the same thing lest I forget. The distance between us was considerable, seventy paces at least, and fearing he might escape me I quickened my step with the result I swept forward as if on rollers. This is not me, I said, let us make the most of it. Finding myself in an instant a bare ten paces in his rear I slowed down so as not to burst in on him and so heighten the aversion my person inspired even in its most abject and obsequious attitudes. And a moment later, keeping humbly in step with him, Excuse me your honour, the Shepherds’ Gate for the love of God! At close quarters he appeared normal apart from that air already noted of ebbing inward. I drew a few steps ahead, turned, cringed, touched my hat and said, The right time for mercy’s sake! I might as well not have existed. But what about the sweet? A light! I cried. Given my need of help I can’t think why I did not bar his path. I couldn’t have, that’s all, I couldn’t have touched him. Seeing a stone seat by the kerb I sat down and crossed my legs, like Walther. I must have dozed off, for the next thing was a man sitting beside me. I was still taking him in when he opened his eyes and set them on me, as if for the first time, for he shrank back unaffectedly. Where did you spring from? he said. To hear myself addressed again so soon impressed me greatly. What’s the matter with you? he said. I tried to look like one with whom that only is the matter which is native to him. Forgive me your honour, I said, gingerly lifting my hat and rising a fraction from the seat, the right time for the love of God! He said a time, I don’t remember which, a time that explained nothing, that’s all I remember, and did not calm me. But what time could have done that? Oh I know, I know, one will come that will. But in the meantime? What’s that you said? he said. Unfortunately I had said nothing. But I wriggled out of it by asking him if he could help me find my way which I had lost. No, he said, for I am not from these parts and if I am sitting on this slab it is because the hotels were full or would not let me in, I have no opinion. But tell me the story of your life, then we’ll see. My life! I cried. Why yes, he said, you know, that kind of—what shall I say? He brooded for a time, no doubt trying to think of what life could well be said to be a kind. In the end he went on, testily, Come now, everyone knows that. He jogged me in the fibs. No details, he said, the main drift, the main drift. But as I remained silent he said, Shall I tell you mine, then you’ll see what I mean. The account he then gave was brief and dense, facts, without comment. That’s what I call a life, he said, do you follow me now? It wasn’t bad, his story, positively fairy-like in places. But that Pauline, I said, are you still with her? I am, he said, but I’m going to leave her and set up with another, younger and plumper. You travel a lot, I said. Oh widely, widely, he said. Words were coming back to me, and the way to make them sound. All that’s a thing of the past for you no doubt, he said. Do you think of spending some time among us? I said. This sentence struck me as particularly well turned. If it’s not a rude question, he said, how old are you? I don’t know, I said. You don’t know! he cried. Not exactly, I said. Are thighs much in your thoughts, he said, arses, cunts and environs. I didn’t follow. No more erections naturally, he said. Erections? I said. The penis, he said, you know what the penis is, there, between the legs. Ah that, I said. It thickens, lengthens, stiffens and rises, he said, does it not? I assented, though they were not the terms I would have used. That is what we call an erection, he said. He pondered, then exclaimed, Phenomenal! No? Strange fight enough, I said. And there you have it all, he said. But what will become of her? I said. Who? he said. Pauline, I said. She will grow old, he said with tranquil assurance, slowly at first, then faster and faster, in pain and bitterness, pulling the devil by the tail. The face was not full, but I eyed it in vain, it remained clothed in its flesh instead of turning all chalky and channelled as with a gouge. The very vomer kept its cushion. It is true discussion was always bad for me. I longed for the tender nonsuch, I would have trodden it gently, with my boots in my hand, and for the shade of my wood, far from this terrible light. What are you grinning and bearing? he said. He held on his knees a big black bag, like a midwife’s I imagine. It was full of glittering phials. I asked him if they were all alike. Oho no, he said, for every taste. He took one and held it out to me, saying, One and six. What did he want? To sell it to me? Proceeding on this hypothesis I told him I had no money. No money! he cried. All of a sudden his hand came down on the back of my neck, his sinewy fingers closed and with a jerk and a twist he had me up against him. But instead of dispatching me he began to murmur words so sweet that I went limp and my head fell forward in his lap. Between the caressing voice and the fingers rowelling my neck the contrast was striking. But gradually the two things merged in a devastating hope, if I dare say so, and I dare. For this evening I have nothing to lose that I can discern. And if I have reached this point (in my story) without anything having changed, for if anything had changed I think I’d know, the fact remains I have reached it, and that’s something, and with nothing changed, and that’s something too. It’s no excuse for rushing matters. No, it must cease gently, as gently cease on the stairs the steps of the loved one, who could not love and will not come back, and whose steps say so, that she could not love and will not come back. He suddenly shoved me away and showed me the phial again. There you have it all, he said. It can’t have been the same all as before. Want it? he said. No, but I said yes, so as not to vex him. He proposed an exchange. Give me your hat, he said. I refused. What vehemence! he said. I haven’t a thing, I said. Try in your pockets, he said. I haven’t a thing, I said, I came out without a thing. Give me a lace, he said. I refused. Long silence. And if you gave me a kiss, he said finally. I knew there were kisses in the air. Can you take off your hat? he said. I took it off. Put it back, he said, you look nicer with it on. I put it on. Come on, he said, give me a kiss and let there be an end to it. Did it not occur to him I might turn him down? No, a kiss is not a bootlace, he must have seen from my face that all passion was not quite spent. Come, he said. I wiped my mouth in its tod of hair and advanced it towards his. Just a moment, he said. My mouth stood still. You know what a kiss is? he said. Yes yes, I said? If it’s not a rude question, he said, when was your last? Some time ago, I said, but I can still do them. He took off his hat, a bowler, and tapped the middle of his forehead. There, he said, and there only. He had a noble brow, white and high. He leaned forward, closing his eyes. Quick, he said? I pursed up my lips as mother had taught me and brought them down where he had said. Enough, he said. He raised his hand towards the spot, but left the gesture unfinished and put on his hat. I turned away and looked across the street. It was then I noticed we were sitting opposite a horse-butcher’s. Here, he said, take it. I had forgotten. He rose. Standing he was quite short. One good turn, he said, with radiant smile. His teeth shone. I listened to his steps die away. How tell what remains. But it’s the end. Or have I been dreaming, am I dreaming? No no, none of that, for dream is nothing, a joke, and significant what is worse. I said, Stay where you are till day breaks, wait sleeping till the lamps go out and the streets come to life. But I stood up and moved off. My pains were back, but with something untoward which prevented my wrapping them round me. But I said, Little by little you are coming to. From my gait alone, slow, stiff and which seemed at every step to solve a stato-dynamic problem never posed before, I would have been known again, if I had been known. I crossed over and stopped before the butcher’s. Behind the grille the curtains were drawn, rough canvas curtains striped blue and white, colours of the Virgin, and stained with great pink stains. They did not quite meet in the middle, and through the chink I could make out the dim carcasses of the gutted horses hanging from hooks head downwards. I hugged the walls, famished for shadow. To think that in a moment all will be said, all to do again. And the city clocks, what was wrong with them, whose great chill clang even in my wood fell on me from the air? What else? Ah yes, my spoils. I tried to think of Pauline, but she eluded me, gleamed an instant and was gone, like the young woman in the street. So I went in the atrocious brightness, buried in my old flesh, straining towards an issue and passing them by to left and right, and my mind panting after this and that and always flung back to where there was nothing. I succeeded however in fastening briefly on the little girl, long enough to see her a little more clearly than before, so that she wore a kind of bonnet and clasped in her hand a book, of common prayer perhaps, and to try and have her smile, but she did not smile, but vanished down the staircase without having yielded me her little face. I had to stop. At first nothing, then little by little, I mean rising up out of the silence till suddenly no higher, a kind of massive murmur coming perhaps from the house that was propping me up. That reminded me that the houses were full of people, besieged, no, I don’t know. When I stepped back to look at the windows I could see, in spite of shutters, blinds and muslins, that many of the rooms were lit. The light was so dimmed by the brilliancy flooding the boulevard that short of knowing or suspecting it was not so one might have supposed everyone sleeping. The sound was not continuous, but broken by silences possibly of consternation. I thought of ringing at the door and asking for shelter and protection till morning. But suddenly I was on my way again. But little by little, in a slow swoon, darkness fell about me. I saw a mass of bright flowers fade in an exquisite cascade of paling colours. I found myself admiring, all along the housefronts, the gradual blossoming of squares and rectangles, casement and sash, yellow, green, pink; according to the curtains and blinds, finding that pretty. Then at last, before I fell, first to my knees, as cattle do, then on my face, I was in a throng. I didn’t lose consciousness, when I lose consciousness it will not be to recover it. They paid no heed to me, though careful not to walk on me, a courtesy that must have touched me, it was what I had come out for. It was well with me, sated with dark and calm, lying at the feet of mortals, fathom deep in the grey of dawn, if it was dawn. But reality, too fired to look for the right word, was soon restored, the throng fell away, the light came back and I had no need to raise my head from the ground to know I was back in the same blinding void as before. I said, Stay where you are, down on the friendly stone, or at least indifferent, don’t open your eyes, wait for morning. But up with me again and back on the way that was not mine, on uphill along the boulevard. A blessing he was not waiting for me, poor old Breem, or Breen. I said, The sea is east, it’s west I must go, to the left of north. But in vain I raised without hope my eyes to the sky to look for the Bears. For the light I steeped in put out the stars, assuming they were there, which I doubted, remembering the clouds. 



Born in Foxrock, Ireland, in 1906, Samuel Beckett was a pivotal figure in the development of modern drama. Published in both French and English, Beckett’s plays, novels, short pieces, and poems explore the bleaker aspects of human existence. He is probably best known for his 1952 drama, Waiting for Godot, and his trilogy of novels, Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnameable. Beckett died in Paris in 1989.



—from Barney Rosset (ed.), The Evergreen Review Reader: 1967-1973 (1998)