Samuel Beckett
Samuel Beckett Watt book jacket

Having completed Joyce’s Ulysses last week, an experience that began with a lengthy uphill incline, I have followed on with a re-read of Samuel Beckett’s Watt which has been a gentle downhill glide of immense fun. Gratitude goes to my English tutor of many years back, who had us all read Watt and who was therefore responsible for introducing me to Beckett’s novels, a happy collision from which I have since sought no recovery! Ever since then I have found Beckett’s novels to be endlessly entertaining and have gravitated to the shelves to dip in and out frequently. But this is my first full re-reading of a Beckett novel in many a year. Will I still enjoy this rather acquired taste?

Watt, the eponymous manservant to Mr Knott, could never have been a Hoo or a Wair. People and places are far less important to Beckett than ever they were to Joyce. He is a What, displaced here into Watt, because the circumstances of Watt’s existence are mysterious even to him. It is as if What? is the question that Watt might always have been asking himself. The book was Beckett’s answer to that.

Guy Davenport's illustration of Samuel Beckett's character Watt walking
Guy Davenport’s illustration of Samuel Beckett’s character Watt walking

In war-torn France of 1942, Beckett fled from Paris after the Nazis had uncovered his Resistance cell. (At the end of the war he was awarded the Croix de Guerre for his work in the Resistance.) He ended up in the rugged Roussillon region in the unoccupied zone where his chances of concealment might have been better. His work on Watt, which he had begun in Paris, became “a daily therapy”, “a way of staying sane”. Watt’s pedantic logic and repetitive behaviours occupy a fictionally shrunken zone of existence that in retrospect seems to have been a sort of coping strategy against the mayhem and brutality of war. Within these shrunken horizons, we are presented with our first glimpse of Watt:

Watt’s way of advancing due east, for example, was to turn his bust as far as possible towards the north and at the same time fling out his right leg as far as possible towards the south, and then to turn his bust as far as possible towards the south and at the same time to fling out his left leg as far as possible towards the north, and then again …

Without the benefit of copy-and-paste, Beckett cycles this explanation through several leg flings — with north replacing south and left replacing right — until we have some measure of Watt’s perambulatory style. This sets the tone for what follows: a protracted series of Cartesian logic riddles which unpick Watt’s here and now and shuffles their constituent parts in an attempt to better understand them. This straddles the line between reason and madness, fails to explain Watt’s circumstances (though it illuminates them vividly), entertains the reader — assuming he or she is of that bent — and floats the novel out onto waters previously navigated by Rabelais, Swift, Sterne (Laurence), Flaubert, Proust and Joyce. Watt (both book and eponymous character) is Beckett’s riposte to the Cartesian method, demonstrating that, taken to extremes, it ends in a philosophical impasse and in madness.

After the polyglot omnipotence of Joyce’s Ulysses, Watt is a breath of fresh air, a breezy music hall turn of linguistic economy. Where Joyce added meaning with encyclopaedic lists, crowds of characters and an onslaught of vocabulary, Beckett lightens it with simplicity, paradox and lacuna. Where Joyce barely repeated the same adjective, Beckett rotates the same nouns and verbs through cycles of permutational possibilities. Progress is easier, more fluid and less turbulent. It is algorithmic and thus defies the narrative’s forward progress, which is the very point of the book. It is also musical as in the Krak! Krek! Krik! of the famously croaking frogs, though even here the performance is algorithmic. Arrays are seeded and then randomised for n cycles. Risk of embarrassment when reading the book in public and shaking with fits of the giggles is high. This is still fun.

The book’s plot is flawed, sabotaged by the author himself, who declares towards the end (page 214) that:

As Watt told the beginning of his story, not first, but second, so not fourth, but third, now he told its end. Two, one, four, three, that was the order in which Watt told his story. Heroic quatrains are not otherwise elaborated.

The dutiful reader could thus have been puzzled by this chronological fracturing had they not been sufficiently entertained by Watt’s comings and goings not to have been bothered by this. In fairness too, there are many comings and goings with various characters appearing and disappearing, most for comic effect as they serve as pivots around which Beckett’s spins another Cartesian puzzle, rather than as acting as a foil for Watt by way of illuminating his circumstances. For none of them do. They are comic, such as is Sam, chief suspect amongst the Lynch family of impregnating his cousin Ann:

Some said it was her cousin Sam, whose amorous disposition was notorious, not only among the members of his immediate family, but throughout the neighbourhood, and who made no secret of his having committed adultery locally on a large scale, moving from place to place in his self-propelling invalid’s chair, with widow women, with married women and with single women, of whom some were young and attractive, and others young but not attractive, and others attractive but not young, and others neither young nor attractive, and of whom some as a result of Sam’s intervention conceived and brought forth a son or a daughter or two sons or two daughters or a son and a daughter, for Sam had never managed triplets, and this was a sore point with Sam, that he had never managed triplets, and others conceived but did not bring forth, and others did not conceive at all, though this was exceptional, that they did not conceive at all, when Sam intervened. And when reproached with this Sam with ready wit replied that paralysed as he was, from the waist up, and from the knees down, he had no purpose, interest or joy in life other than this, to set out after a good dinner of meat and vegetables in his wheel-chair and stay out committing adultery until it was time to go home to his supper, after which he was at his wife’s disposal.

But this is one hypothesis of many and Watt’s need for “semantic succour” remains unsatisfied. Why he arrives at Mr Knott’s house — and why he is eventually replaced by another — is never revealed to him. Indeed, how Mr Knott signals his need for Erskine to attend him (a task that will eventually fall to Watt himself) remains ultimately obscure. Watt hears a bell and supposes that this is Mr Knott’s means of requesting attention. But when Watt considers this in greater detail, the basis for this arrangement collapses into uncertainty. He had never seen the bell ring, nor the bell-push being pushed, so short of gaining access to either (or both) end(s) of the chain of command at the moment of its use Watt remains in the dark as to what the causative link between the two acts can be.

The question of who pressed the bell that sounded in Erskine’s room, in the night, was a great source of worry to Watt, for a time, and kept him awake at night, on the qui vive. If Erskine had been a snorer, and the sound of the bell coincided with the sound of a snore, then the mystery, it seemed to Watt, would have been dissipated, as the mist, by the sun. But there, Erskine was not a snorer. And yet to look at him, or hear him sing his song, you would have taken him for a snorer, a great snorer. And yet he was not a snorer. So the sound of the bell came always on the stillness. But on further reflexion it seemed to Watt that the bell’s coinciding with the snore would not have dissipated the mystery, but left it entire. For might not Erskine simulate a snore, at the very moment that he reached out with his arm and pressed the bell, or might he not simulate a long series of snores culminating in the snore that he simulated as he pressed the bell, in order to deceive Watt and make him think that it was not he Erskine who pressed the bell, but Mr Knott, in some other part of the house? So the fact finally that Erskine did not snore, and that the sound of the bell came always on the silence, made Watt think, not that the bell might be pressed by Erskine, as at first it had made him think, no, but that the bell must be pressed by Mr Knott. For if Erskine pressed the bell, and did not wish it known, then he would utter a snore, or in some other way dissemble, as he pressed the bell, in order to make Watt think that it was not he Erskine who pressed the bell, but Mr Knott. But then it occurred to Watt that Erskine might press the bell not caring whether it were known or not, that it was he who did so, and that in that case he would not trouble to utter a snore, or otherwise dissemble, as he pressed the bell, but let the sound of the bell come on the stillness, for Watt to make of what he would. Watt decided in the end that an examination of Erskine’s room was essential, if his mind was to be pacified, in this connexion. Then he would be able to put the matter from him, and forget it, as one puts from one and forgets the peel of an orange, or of a banana.

Watt’s epistemological uncertainty dominates, careens on like this for twelve pages before he establishes that “There was a bell in Erskine’s room, but it was broken”.

At the level of ‘convention’, the reader harbours a sense of pity for Watt as he occupies his world penumbrally. Poor man, halfwit, unhinged madman. He serves as a reflection of ourselves for those moments when we too lose the plot and plunge momentarily into self-doubt. But the persistent image is of a character who is a vehicle for Beckett’s comic vision, part existential absurdity, part vaudevillian walk-on, rather than a three-dimensional person. What other purpose is served by the following, for example?

At the same time my tobacco-pipe, since I was not eating a banana, ceased so completely from the solace to which I was inured, that I took it out of my mouth to make sure it was not a thermometer, or an epileptic’s dental wedge.

Though it is true that Beckett’s style turns towards linguistic economy — which supports the twists and turns of logic and epistemology — that’s not to say that everything is simple and easy. Beckett’s vocabulary is largely accessible although one does encounter words that one may never have met before — and never will again. They don’t litter the path of his text but they are flinty trip-ups that the unwary can stumble upon. Some examples:

  • anhelating (page 28, describing the station and train staff puffing and panting in time with the steam trains whose purpose they serve)
  • xenium (page 130, offerings given to strangers or ambassadors by ancient Romans or Greeks, here used by Watt to describe his own “tenth-rate” observation about the lack of action in Mr Knott’s establishment)
  • velleitary (page 139, the weakly volitional nature of the kisses that Watt bestows upon Mrs Gorman)
  • floccillating (page 143, a delirious picking at the bedclothes by fevered or dying patients, here used to describe how Mr Graves picked at his hard hat having removed it)
  • obnubilated (page 168, the sun which, for Mr Graves, had so long been covered as if with a cloud)
  • squames (page 168, Arthur, at the start of his lengthy story, describing his skin as being covered with scales or flakes)
  • inanition (page 170, describing Louit’s prolonged emptiness, hunger, lack of mental and spiritual vigour, as his boots were sucked from his feet by a bog)
  • sinciput (page 174, the hairless front of Mr MacStern’s skull from the forehead to the crown, Beckett appropriately using an alternative term for skull in the bizarre sequence where members of the committee attempt to exchange glances but fail to make adequate eye contact)
  • corollae (page 175, the outer whorl of Mr MacStern’s right ear, contrasted with the petal of a flower, being far from fragrant but dingy)
  • exiguity (page 199, the lack or scantness of information that Watt had accumulated about Mr Knott during his stay in his household)
  • ataraxy (page 207, the state of serene calmness that Watt felt “covered the entire house-room, the pleasure-garden, the vegetable garden and of course Arthur”)
  • entelechies (page 219, a strangely perfect encapsulation of Watt vital principle, his realised potential: “Or was it not perhaps something that was not Watt, nor of Watt, but behind Watt, or beside Watt, or before Watt, or beneath Watt, or above Watt, or about Watt, a shade uncast, a light unshed, or the grey air aswhirl with vain entelechies?” A stylistic stone dropped into an otherwise featureless pool of description.)
  • hortulan (page 222, of a small garden: “The remaining heavenly bodies (stars) also, though situated for the most part at a great distance, poured down on Watt, and on the hortulan beauties through which he moved”.)
  • sigmoidal (page 233, Watt’s exhausted, s-shaped droop in the station waiting-room)
  • contabulated (page 234, a floor, planked, not tiled or carpeted)

It is as if Beckett’s throttling of his vocabulary could not hold back his learning with signs of it bursting through the otherwise spare tissue of the narrative. (Laying these word use instances out here feels like some form of Beckettian act in itself.)

So, yes, Watt remained endlessly entertaining in this, my second reading of it. As Beckett’s second novel (Murphy being the first) — and his last in English — it contains flashes of his later poetry, spare and elegiac. It is unmistakably Irish, both in its rural landscape and its mercuriality. The gags and twists and turns are fun. The narrative runs its course and gathers one up as a dazzled, curious and often puzzled traveller. Beckett established in Watt a mesmeric prose flow, authoritative but calm, if not yet on the open road of his magisterial trilogy of Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable, then prefiguring it with a settled pace. Watt is the teenager to the trilogy’s adult, lacking the latter’s evident despair. I am now going to turn to that for another Beckett re-read.