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Watt af Samuel Beckett

Watt (udgave 1994)

af Samuel Beckett (Forfatter)

MedlemmerAnmeldelserPopularitetGennemsnitlig vurderingOmtaler
9551416,136 (4.01)64
In prose possessed of the radically stripped-down beauty and ferocious wit that characterize his work, this early novel by Nobel Prize winner Samuel Beckett recounts the grotesque and improbable adventures of a fantastically logical Irish servant and his master. Watt is a beautifully executed black comedy that, at its core, is rooted in the powerful and terrifying vision that made Beckett one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century.… (mere)
Forfattere:Samuel Beckett (Forfatter)
Info:Riverrun Press (1994), 256 pages
Samlinger:Dit bibliotek

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Watt af Samuel Beckett


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did not finish
  mikeemcg | Jun 28, 2020 |
The Strangest Book of the Twentieth Century

One consequence of having belatedly read Watt (after all the other novels) is that it strengthens my bewilderment that Beckett can be so widely appreciated. I can understand the popular reception of Godot and other plays, and I can see postwar works as exemplars of existentialism, but I am baffled that a book as bizarre, as emotionally and affectively opaque, as formally unaccountable, as multiply wrecked and fragmented, as little in control of its logic, could ever come to be widely understood as a classic of the kind that attracts Nobel committees. Watt makes "The Third Policeman" and "The Dalkey Archive" seem congenial. It makes "Memoirs of my Mental Illness" look like a simple diagnosis.

How can it possibly begin to explain Watt's weirdness to note that it was composed while in hiding from the Nazis, as if that particular anxiety had diffused through the book, metastasing into the exotic bruises and bacterial growths of Watt's imagination? Anyone who finishes this book and experiences mainly the cryptic complaints of a Resistance fighter in hiding has refused the words that Beckett wrote, which have nothing to say about war or exile. One of Beckett's principal scholars, David Hayman, thinks of him as a "difficult" author, a "St. Sebastian type" with a "paranoid personality," whose reception "has always rested on the willingness of a masochistic(?) audience to surmount the obstacles placed in its way in order to join a limited group of adepts, to share in Beckett's mind set." (Hayman, "Continuing Now: Crisis Enjambments in the Watt Manuscripts," 2002, p. 212 , n. 8.) What does "difficult" mean if it amounts to such a simple diagnosis? Beckett is not a club with a steep membership fee, furnished on the inside with comfortable lounge chairs.

This is a novel of barely managed compulsions, of nearly uncontrolled experiences of meaninglessness. The narrator is like a helium balloon tethered to his own life by unraveling threads. He secures and resecures his experiences to their meanings by rehearsing self-imposed conditions and lists. He finds it especially comforting -- although the comfort lasts only as long as the rehearsal -- to run through lists of two things, arranged in groups of three, or three, taken in pairs, or four, taken in groups of three, or six, taken in pairs... it hardly matters, provided there is a combinatorics that can be rehearsed without omissions. I assume it is equally unclear both to the narrator and the author how these sorts of rehearsals, which keep freezing the narrative into mechanical lists, can possibly reattach experience to meaning, except by the act of threading and rethreading sets of objects to one another, pulling out the thread with each new stitch. Entire pages of "Watt" are ceystallized into short phrases separated by commas:

"Not that Watt felt calm and free and glad, for he did not.. but he thought that perhaps he felt calm and free and glad, or if not calm and free and glad, at least calm and free, or free and glad, or glad and calm, or if not calm and free, or free and glad, or glad and calm, or if not calm and free, or free and glad, or glad and calm..." (p. 133)

Watt exercises constant vigilance for understanding and control of his own experiences. As a reader one finds onself watching for the first signs of the impending autistic combinatorics. Sometimes alliteration or slant rhyme is the first sign:

"And from [Mr. Knott's room] this ambience followed him forth, when he moved, in the house, in the garden, with him moved, dimming all, dulling all, stilling all, numbing all, where he passed." (p. 199)

At this point I felt the prose tightening: an attack of combinatorics was coming on. The subject matter does not matter. What concerns a reader is what will be listed, and how long will it take? The narrator continues:

"The clothes that Mr. Knott wore, in his room, about the house, amid his garden, were very various, very very various. Now heavy, now light; now smart, now dowdy; now sober, now gaudy; now decent, now daring (his skirtless bathing-costume, for example)."

The sentences become increasingly rhythmic, like the signs of a seizure. He continues:

"Often he wore, by his fireside, or as he mooched about the rooms, the stairs, the passage-ways of his home, a hat, ora cap, or, imprisoning his rare his wanton hair, a net."

Short phrases are often the trigger, and on the next page the list commences. I quote just the first couple of lines (they occupy more than a full page):

"As for his feet, sometimes he wore on each a sock, or on the one a sock and on the other a stocking, or a boot, or a shoe, or a slipper, or a sock and a boot, or a sock and a shoe, or a sock and a slipper, ora stocking and a boot, or a stocking and a shoe, or a stocking and a slipper..." (p. 200)

On the following page this mechanical recitation simply stops, and the narrative continues. The reader and narrator may be "transported" (as Arthur's story does on p. 198) -- clearly these lists are presented as therapeutic -- but the relief is temporary. An itch has been scratched, but it will start to bother the narrator again soon. Amazing lyrical paragraphs, done with long periods as in Proust or some Joyce, have a special tendency to collapse into lists (pp. 173, 201-203). The lists may have "great formal brilliance," but also "indeterminable import," and they end without comment. (p. 71)

This sort of narrative behavior can't be "designed" to "render" the narrator's thoughts "simultaneously absurd and rigorous" as Hayman says: that's their effect, but the judgment about design and rendering assumes the author has control of his invention. Why, then, would he wish to demonstrate it again and again? I experience the author here as struggling, not at all demonstrating or rendering. (Hayman, "Beckett's Watt -- The Graphic Accompaniment: Marginalia in the Manuscripts," Word andImage 13, 1997, p. 177.)

A better formulation is S. E. Gontarski's proposal that Beckett (1) "created absences" by deleting "detail" and"explanation" from experiences, (2) "destroyed" chronology, and (3) created "an alternative arrangement or internal relationship" that could emphasize "pattern." Dirk Van Hulle quotes this in his book "Manuscript Genetics, Joyce's Know-How, Beckett's Nohow" and says the emphasis on pattern and order "counterbalances and nuances Beckett's (over)emphasis on not being in control of his material." (2008, p. 120) I don't like that parenthetical (over)! Might it be possible to countenance the possibility that artists mean it when they report their lack of system?

I doubt Beckett could have produced anything resembling an explanation for the structure of "Watt," except in the obvious sense that there are stages to Watt's employment. I imagine Beckett understood perfectly well -- perhaps I should say excruciatingly well -- that nothing could explain or justify the length of the book's set pieces or speeches. Hayman says it is "astonishing" to find out Beckett had no plan at the beginning:

"It may seem astonishing, but when he set out to write what was to become his ur-Watt, Beckett had no idea where he was going, no project, no outline, no plot, no setting, and effectively no characters: tabula rasa." ("Getting Where? Beckett's Opening Gambit for Watt," 2002, p. 28.)

This is really as close to idiocy as literary criticism gets. Of course it is not "astonishing" to learn Beckett did not know where he was going with Watt. By the fifth page any reader who is listening for something other than a clue or a key or a plot knows this is desperate stuff. There will not be any understanding, only coping.

That is the end of my notes on Watt. What follows has to do with the images, which is a special interest of mine. (See writingwithimages.com.) The manuscript has hundreds of images, and the published book has three typographic insertions that are like musical notation. I will consider each in turn.

(A) Visual and musical elements

The six-volume manuscript of "Watt," in Austin, still has not been reproduced in facsimile. A book by Mark Byron, The Making of Samuel Beckett's Watt: The Beckett Manuscript Project, is the next step (due 2020). I agree with Hayman that some of the marginal doodles, caricatures, cartoons, and diagrams in the manuscript were probably intended as illuminations. (Hayman, "Beckett's Watt -- The Graphic Accompaniment," p. 177.)

The most extended ekphrasis in the book is the description of an abstract painting of a broken circle and a dot (pp. 129-31). Hayman's essay "Beckett’s Watt, the Art-Historical Trace: An Archeological Inquest" (2004) relates this to Beckett's 1936 trip to Germany, which was an attempt to provide himself with credentials as an art historian. Hayman says that in the sketches the passage is much longer:

"I should add that the original version was anything but straightforward. It was in fact complicated by long digressions on the relationship of the circle to its center, on the person who could have brought the picture there, on the servant to whom it might have belonged, etc. Nested in this larger art historical setting are the passages that relate to the artist who painted the image and to Watt’s experience with the art world." (p. 97)

In the notebooks, the passage is also full of art historical "procedures and preoccupations" (MS, vol. 3:160–77; typescript, pp. 317–29):

"For example, Watt first describes the location and mounting of the image and even names its painter. Then he tries to explain its aesthetic impact: what is on the canvas, what illusions it conveys, how the center relates to the circumference, how the illusion is conveyed. He tries to establish who could have brought it to Quin’s house and when, and whether or not it enjoys permanent status there
(whether it is a “classic”). In the early drafts, he even attempts attribution before positing the names of other works that could have preceded it." (pp. 97-98)

What remains in the book is not "universals" or "tropes," as Hayward says, but a mechanically formalist examination of a very restricted set of possible meanings for the circle and dot. It comes across as an idiot savant's attempt at an inventory of symbolic meanings.

Watt imagines the painting in different orientations, and in the notebooks, there is a page showing the painting in different orientations. (It is online, and in Hayward's "Word and Image" essay.) Hayward says only this might reflect "an aesthetic impulse" (but why? and why that one?). I would rather not blur what happens here with the term aesthetic: this is a combinatorics, licensed by his invention of such a simple two-part painting. It is like one of Beckett's stage sets, or like Knott's room in the novel: a game of simple movable parts.

(It's interesting that the painter Beckett probably had in mind, Bram van Velde, subject of his first published essay in French, made work that is nothing like the painting in Watt, despite Hayward's weak protestations. Elsewhere Beckett mentions Elsheimer, Seghers, and Friedrich, although he was allergic to Freidrich's pantheism: "Kreuz im Gebirge won’t do at all, appeals to the very dregs of aesthesia.")

(B) What is music in Watt?

There are three typographic interruptions in the text that are musical or rhythmic. There is a "mixed choir" (pp. 32-33), a chorus of frogs (pp. 135-37), and the words to the "descant" heard earlier (pp. 254-55).

I may well have missed a scholarly source, but I haven't seen much discussion of these aside from some notes on variants in different editions. (Byron and Ackerley, "Watt Is Not a Well-Wrought Pot," 2015, pp. 38-39.) None is normal music notation.

The first looks like music because it has rhythms noted as eighth notes, quarter notes, and rests, but it has no pitches. Some of the words may denote pitches ("Fifty two point two eight five seven" may be sol re do re do sol ti), but others are not ("Great gran ma Ma grew do you do blooming thanks..."). It is carefully set in the typescript, with errata, suggesting there's method in it that hasn't yet been located. Dirk Van Hulle points out it is a canon "with the subject and countersubjects greatgranma, granma, mama, [and] Miss Magrew," and the "contrapuntal states" of "blooming, withering, drooping, forgotten." (p. 165) He also points out the canon is echoed on p. 231. But this doesn't address how it is to be read or heard.

Same with the frogs' chorus. I'm not especially patient with puzzles, but this seems to be one. Beckett says the frogs croaked at "one, nine, seventeen, twenty-five, etc" (p. 135) and if I count line by line, that gives me the "Krak! Krek! Krik!" etc. down the left-hand column. Then he says they croak by "one, six, eleven, sixteen, etc.," that nearly corresponds with the second column. I wonder if this is meant to be puzzled out: it's polyrhythm, resulting from the superposition of several sequences.

And the "descant" (pp. 254-55), which supposedly gives the rhythm of the "mixed choir" (pp. 32-33) only adds different words, and does not correspond to the rhythm of the choir, though I assume it's supposed to.

Puzzles aside, I wonder at the sense of music, or rhythm, that we're supposed to get. I can tap out the frogs's chorus, but I can't sing the choir. I can't even understand what its words are. It's a graphical notation, like a table or chart, which reminds me of music, but isn't, for a reason I am not given.

It's also interesting that these three interpolations have the same unresolved epistemology as images often do in fiction: it is not clear who transcribed them and put them on the page for us to see. Watt could have shown his transcriptions to the narrator, but the narrator is silent about that. (This is a common theme in novels with images, when the narrators are not carrying cameras; see writingwithimages.com). As Byron and Ackerley note:

"Intentional infelicities and inconsistencies in the text
are ascribed to the narrating voice, but it is not certain, for
example, that the narrating voice is responsible for the inclusion of the musical scores." (Byron and Ackerley, p. 37.)

It is curious that none of the marginal doodles and diagrams in the manuscript survived into the book, but the three typographic musical interruptions were retained. That makes Watt one of the very few novels with something resembling printed music. Perhaps it was the whimsical nature of the caricatures that made Beckett decide to exclude them: the musical graphics are different, because they are ciphers like the unaccountable acts of counting that perforate the text.

This is a strange book, and its strangeness is what counts, not its puzzles, its process of composition, its supposedly underlying philosophy, or its political moment.
1 stem JimElkins | Jan 8, 2020 |
This was another book by Beckett that I could not get into. The nature of absurdity that follows this book, through its plot-lines, characters, themes, and so forth was too minimalist and seemingly without purpose for me to attach much importance to it. What I believe Beckett excels at was not present here, instead being found in his trilogy. It was not a bad read, per se, but I found that there was little substance holding the book together and, for that reason, I could not enjoy it. I will move forward and read Beckett's other novels, instead, hoping for more. This one was a miss.

2 stars. ( )
  DanielSTJ | Jul 6, 2019 |
"Esilarante", ih ih!

[ "...La risata amara ride di tutto ciò che non è buono, è la risata etica.La risata sorda ride di tutto ciò che non è vero, è la risata intellettuale. Ma la risata cupa è la risata dianoetica, giù lungo il grugno...ah!... così. E' la risata delle risate, il risus purus, la risata che ride del ridere, quella contemplativa, quella che saluta la beffa più divertita, in una parola la risata che ride... silenzio, prego... di tutto ciò che è infelice."

Dalla "breve" dichiarazione di Arsene] ( )
  downisthenewup | Aug 17, 2017 |
There is some fun to be had in this early experimental novel by Beckett but there are also many pages with additive/reductive repeating patterns which you will be tempted to just scan over rather than actually read. It reminded me more of Gertrude Stein rather than Beckett's mentor James Joyce. I imagine those parts of it would likely benefit from a skilled audiobook reading or from being sung/performed in an opera by Philip Glass or Steve Reich. Beckett somewhat scores one of the works himself with the spacing/printing of the frog song "krek, krik, krak" which runs for a page in itself.

I'm in the middle of a Samuel Beckett run right now, having just read Jo Baker's "A Country Road, A Tree" which is a semi-fictional novel about the time when Beckett and his companion Suzanne Déchevaux-Dumesnil were on the run from the Gestapo in WWII Occupied France and which was also the time period (1941-1945) when "Watt" was written, although it did not find a publisher until 1953. ( )
  alanteder | Jul 2, 2017 |
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In prose possessed of the radically stripped-down beauty and ferocious wit that characterize his work, this early novel by Nobel Prize winner Samuel Beckett recounts the grotesque and improbable adventures of a fantastically logical Irish servant and his master. Watt is a beautifully executed black comedy that, at its core, is rooted in the powerful and terrifying vision that made Beckett one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century.

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