February 27, 2008

Babble with Beckett

How foreign languages can provide writers with a way out of the familiar

About twenty years ago, a friend from Paris gave me a copy of Premier Amour (1945), one of Samuel Beckett’s very early works in French. This friend especially treasured this little-known short récit, but there was a word he did not understand. The protagonist does some kind of business with a “panais”. “Qu’est-ce que c’est qu’un panais?”, he asked. “It’s a parsnip.” “Yes, so the dictionary says. But what is a parsnip? The French don’t eat parsnips. They feed them to animals.” The appearance of the panais in Premier Amour is ruefully comic; it brings into play the cryptic, the abject and the theatrical. It hints, according to punning dream logic, at the proverb, “Fine words butter no parsnips”. Beckett was finding his way out of fine words.


When Beckett was asked why he wrote in French, he gave a celebrated answer: “Pour faire remarquer moi”. Like the word “panais”, this is a phrase that is not quite French but purposely askew; it draws attention to itself on purpose to say, “to make people take notice of me”. The turn of phrase is “pidgin”, Michael Edwards has commented, adding that this deliberate clumsiness establishes “a gap, a confusion, and we find ourselves conversing in Babel”. Beckett thus shares with Mallarmé a pleasure in unfamiliarity and also a sought-for dépaysement, an estrangement through the foreign tongue. For Beckett did not assume French identity in the trilogy of novels in which he first adopted the language: the man himself might have come back from Paris and shocked his parents in the respectable Dublin suburb of Foxrock by wearing a beret and smoking Gauloises, but his literary personae stick to Irish caps or vaudeville toques. They have names like Molloy, Moran or Malone. In En Attendant Godot, also first written in French, the cast names nod more to Grockian circus clowning (Vladimir and Estragon), the Italian commedia dell’arte tradition, and their American metamorphoses in the routines of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. The translation into a different language helps estrange the characters and their setting – strands them somewhere else, somewhere their speech and their own labels do not match exactly.

In philosophical terms, this draws attention to the made-up character of Beckett’s scenes and tales, and allows the artifice free development. He breaks with representation by this foundational severance of the word from the world. As Edwards comments, “a foreign language is already a kind of fiction”. The foreign word takes us to a different level, where its embodied character, its sound and shape, act more directly on our physical receptors because they are freed from intelligibility. The physicality of a word grows lighter and less substantial when we know what it means without having to think. How to avoid this attenuation, with its corresponding drying up of the aesthetic response, becomes the writer’s task.


“Beckett . . . disengages himself from memory [and] signals the danger of familiarity. One can feel so much at home in one’s language and in the world which that language enters, illuminates, and sweetens, that one forgets one’s exile, and the writer in particular needs to mistrust the wontedness of words, and experience at times, or maybe on a particular occasion, the foreignness of his own tongue.”


Language is a mysterious universe, a strange place in which pre-existing patterns, dimly perceived, seem to bespeak some original harmony. As we follow the threads of its labyrinthine lace, the everyday meanings of language become obscure. Homophony comes to haunt it with the spectres of other meanings, and the skeletons of etymology begin to rattle in their cupboards. Syllables break loose from their verbal context, and, like the sibyls of old, call up the shades from an other, spirit world. In the ensuing darkness new constellations of meaning begin to glimmer. The former, seemingly unproblematic representational function of language has sunk beneath the horizon to be replaced by the non-representational Idée, by Mallarmé’s music of the spheres . . . . The reader’s task (and the critic’s) is to listen to this “music”.


In illness words seem to possess a mystic quality. We grasp what is beyond their surface meaning, gather instinctively this, that, and the other – a sound, a colour, here a stress, there a pause – which the poet, knowing words to be meagre in comparison with ideas, has strewn about his page to evoke, when collected, a state of mind which neither words can express nor the reason explain . . . . In health meaning has encroached upon sound. Our intelligence domineers over our senses. But in illness, with the police off duty . . . words give out their scent and distil their flavour . . . . Foreigners, to whom the tongue is strange, have us at a disadvantage.


At other times, Dante’s characters communicate most vividly not through their mouths and lips but through their eyes and beetling brows. But the monstrous body in Dante also speaks through nether orifices, most unforgettably through the anus, as when Malacoda (“bad tail”) rallies his troop of demons at the close of Canto XXI:

Per l’argine sinistra volta dienno;

ma prima avea ciascun la lingua stretta

coi denti verso lor duca per cenno;

ed elli avea del cul fatto trombetta.

(They [the demons] wheeled round by the dike on the left; but first each pressed his tongue between his teeth at their leader for a signal and he made a trumpet of his rear.)

This episode made a lasting impression on Beckett. As the devils march off with Virgil and Dante, the brutal expressiveness of their leader’s “trumpet” replicates the inventive brutte parole – swear words – of the names the poet has dreamed up for them: Scarmiglione, Calcabrina, Cagnazzo, Barbariccia, Libicocco, Draghignazzo, Graffiacane, Farfarello, Rubicante. With rasping onomatopoeia, these names evoke the devils’ monstrosity, character and actions. But the words are also made-up hybrids – nicknames – that sound farouche and terrible apart from their associations, and demand a kind of violent tonguing in order to pronounce them at all.

Beckett reprises the name Malacoda, the farting demon, in one of his early poems where he figures as the undertaker who came to prepare Beckett’s father for burial. This aspect of Beckett’s writing does of course keep him tightly connected to Joyce, but it leads us to another reason for his adoption of a foreign language, one that returns us to the vital relation between sound and sense.

The key concept here is Babel: babel as babble, babble as a word – babiller in French – that itself imitates exactly the first sounds of a baby learning to speak, and speaking at that stage of development a kind of nonsense that brings joy in the utterance, that fills both speaker and listener with delight, and causes answering babble in the mother or father or grandparent or nurse or friend playing with the infant as he or she stumbles out of the state of speechlessness (infans) into speech. But babble also connotes the failure of powers – in senility and in mortality’s triumph. The “tristi” of Canto VII are the only sinners whom Dante encounters who have no voice of their own, as Virgil explains to the poet:

“e anche vo’ che tu per certo credi

che sotto l’acqua è gente che sospira,

e fanno pullular quest’ acqua al summo,

come l’occhio ti dice, u’ che s’aggira.

Fitti nel limo, dicon: ‘Tristi fummo

nell’aere dolce che dal sol s’allegra,

portando dentro accidïoso fummo:

or ci attristiam nella belletta negra’.

Quest’inno si gorgoglian nella strozza,

chè dir nol posson con parola integra.”


In the notes to the script Beckett writes, “It may be supposed [the room] is his mother’s room, which he has not visited for many years and is now to occupy momentarily, to look after the pets, until she comes out of hospital”. He then adds, “This has no bearing on the film and need not be elucidated”. The mood in the film is, however, valedictory, not hopeful; it does not anticipate the return of the room’s occupant, but rather conveys strongly that O is returning to it and opening it after her death. There is no magic word that will make her come back; like so much of Beckett’s work, the pain of elegy lies within reach of consciousness, perception and art through a language that hovers on the brink of its own non-being: that dissolution he conveys through language from the start of speech, as when first learned. Words arrived then like music, sense coming up behind the sounds, and seemed to have power both to quicken loved things and loved ones into being there, and then again, to still them.