Thursday, April 30, 2009

Beckett - The Language As Obstacle

J.M. Coetzee reviews Samuel Beckett's letters in the latest New York Review of Books:

One of the recurring questions about Beckett is why he turned from English to French as his main literary language. On this subject a revealing document is a letter he wrote, in German, to a young man named Axel Kaun whom he had met during his 1936–1937 tour of Germany. In the frankness with which it addresses his own literary ambitions, this letter to a comparative stranger comes as a surprise: even to McGreevy he is not so ready to explain himself.

To Kaun he describes language as a veil that the modern writer needs to tear apart if he wants to reach what lies beyond, even if what lies beyond may only be silence and nothingness. In this respect writers have lagged behind painters and musicians (he points to Beethoven and the silences in his scores). Gertrude Stein, with her minimalist verbal style, has the right idea, whereas Joyce is moving in quite the wrong direction, toward "an apotheosis of the word."

Though Beckett does not explain to Kaun why French should be a better vehicle than English for the "literature of the non-word" that he looks forward to, he identifies " offizielles Englisch," formal or cultivated English, as the greatest obstacle to his ambitions.

1 comment:

Ian Thal said...

Could it be that French is a more logically consistent, "purer" tongue that keeps its dictionaries safe from foreign influences, unlike an acquisitive mixed-breed like English?