One of the many things that Adorno admired about Beckett's writing was its 'scrupulous meanness', to borrow Joyce's description of his own literary style in Dubliners. Beckett's works take a few sparse elements and permutate them with Irish-scholastic ingenuity into slightly altered patterns. Complete dramas are conjured out of reshuffled arrangements of the same few scraps and leavings. It is an economy with which Beckett had some acquaintance in real life, when towards the end of the Second World War in Nazi-occupied France, he and his wife scrabbled about for a few carrots or onions along with the rest of the half-starved population. The tramps of Waiting for Godot (though who says they are tramps?) are similarly reduced to hoarding the odd vegetable. Beckettian humanity is famished, depleted, emptied out of any rich bourgeois inwardness; and though there may be an Irish memory of famine here for Beckett, Adorno could find in this image the poor forked creatures of Auschwitz. The Jew and the Irishman could find common ground in this stark extremity, as they find common ground in Ulysses and in many popular jokes. Both understood that one could live and write well only by preserving a secret compact with failure.
LRB 19 June 2008 | PDF Download