'You're on earth, there's no cure for that,' says Hamm to Clov in Endgame. This is sometimes taken as a summary of what is alleged to be the distinctively bleak Beckettian world-view, but for it even to be a starter in this role, one would have to figure out what it means. For, as the philosopher Stanley Cavell observed, the meaning(s) will vary according to the stress-pattern the actor's voice imposes on its principal terms; if, for example, on 'cure', this of itself would not preclude other worthwhile possibilities for our terrestial condition, and if on 'that', there could be an implicit invitation to countenance other-worldly aspirations. Similar considerations of a less starkly ultimate kind might arise in connection with the subtitle of James Knowlson's new biography: 'The Life of Samuel Beckett'. (The main title looks suspiciously like a publisher's wheeze, a low-grade spin on Beckett's desperate formula for the modern artist as doomed to fail or, more tantalisingly, as driven by a 'fidelity to failure' and the mind-bending imperative of Worstward Ho: 'Fail. Fail again. Fail better.') In the subtitle, is the stress to fall on noun or definite article? If the former (implying an account of the life-story of Samuel Beckett), there is already a problem. How might such an account proceed in relation to its subject given the peculiar inflection of 'autobiographical' discourse provided by the subject himself (in his description of How It Is)?
LRB 14 November 1996 | PDF Download