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French (De)composition: Samuel Beckett’s Trilogy

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Abstract

Joyce, at the end of ‘Oxen of the Sun’ and in Ulysses as a whole, explores the ways in which hybrid and creole forms demonstrate both the limits of language and the expressive diversity inherent in linguistic mixing, a mixing that find its apotheosis in what Paul Léon describes as the ‘probably perfect’ ‘petit nègre’ of Finnegans Wake.1 In Beckett, ‘petit nègre’, a pejorative term for ‘pidgin’ which is also, colloquially, used to denote the ‘bad’ or ‘broken’ French of the non-native speaker,2 is used by the narrator of L’Innommable to describe his own discourse (I 152), reflecting his sense of linguistic estrangement as well as the dual-language nature of the trilogy itself. Beckett translates the term, in The Unnamable, as ‘pidgin bullskrit’ (T 382), a sophisticated pun which, as this chapter will demonstrate, encapsulates the function of bilingualism in Beckett’s oeuvre: in these words, a simplified hybrid form of language (pidgin) which at the time carried strong connotations of misuse and involuntary error, combines with linguistic erudition (Sanskrit), to form deliberately meaningless obscenity (bullshit). That the term ‘pidgin bullskrit’ is itself produced in and through translation is significant, its punning semantic doubling reflective of the linguistic and textual doubling that underlies its existence. Pidgins develop as simplified languages to facilitate communication between different language communities; Beckettian ‘pidgin bullskrit’ functions instead to maximise the ambiguity, arbitrariness and complexity of interlingual processes.

Keywords

Foreign Language Mother Tongue Language Pedagogy Language Teacher Grammatical Rule 
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Notes

  1. 1.
    Richard Ellmann, James Joyce, rev. edn. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 630.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Samuel Beckett, Molloy (Paris: Minuit, 1951), p. 32. Subsequent references will appear in parentheses with the abbreviation M.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    Samuel Beckett, The Letters of Samuel Beckett Volume I:1929–1940, ed. Martha Dow Fehsenfeld and others (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), p. 514.Google Scholar
  4. 6.
    Beckett, The Letters of Samuel Beckett Volume I: 1929–1940, p. 516. Viola Westbrook’s recent translation of the letter to Kaun in this volume brings to light, for the Anglophone reader, the full sense of violence and violation against language that Beckett desires, and that Martin Esslin’s earlier translation had elided: Esslin translates Beckett’s desire as being for a time when language is being ‘most efficiently misused’ (Samuel Beckett, Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment [London: John Calder, 1983], pp. 171–2) whereas Westbrook renders this as ‘most efficiently abused’. And what Esslin had translated in implicitly playful terms — ‘sinning willy-nilly against a foreign language’ (Beckett, Disjecta, p. 173) — becomes in Westbrook’s translation the expression of ‘being allowed to violate a foreign language […] involuntarily’.Google Scholar
  5. 8.
    Samuel Beckett, Watt (London: Calder, 1963), p. 78.Google Scholar
  6. 10.
    Chiara Montini has examined closely the development of Beckett’s bilingualism not as a radical and sudden shift, but as a gradual genesis. She usefully defines three periods within this genesis: the first period (1929–37) as ‘monolinguisme polyglotte’ [polyglot monolingualism], the second (1939–45) as ‘bilinguisme anglophone’ [Anglophone bilingualism], and the third (1946–53) as ‘bilinguisme francophone’ [Francophone bilingualism]. Chiara Montini, “La Bataille du soliloque”: Genèse de la poétique bilingue de Samuel Beckett (1929–1946) (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007). The turn to French that characterises this third period has been dated by James Knowlson as occurring in March 1946, when Beckett, having begun a short story in English, draws a line down the page, and writes the rest in French (the story, ‘Suite’, was later renamed ‘La Fin’). James Knowlson, Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett (London: Bloomsbury, 1996), p. 358. See Sinéad Mooney, A Tongue Not Mine: Beckett and Translation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 81–2, 99–100 for a more detailed account of the significance of the story in the context of Beckett’s use of French.Google Scholar
  7. 12.
    In an early study of Beckett’s bilingualism, Brian T. Fitch writes that ‘[i]n whichever of the two languages Beckett happens to be writing at a given moment, there is always the presence of the other language with its wholly different expressive potential hovering at his shoulder, always at arm’s reach and within earshot’. Brian T. Fitch, Beckett and Babel: An Investigation into the Status of the Bilingual Work (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988), p. 156. Fitch is referring here to the bilingual writer’s linguistic consciousness, whereby both languages ‘take on […] something of the strangeness that characterizes any foreign language’ because, regardless of which language he is working in, ‘there remains ever present, ever available, ready to hand, the other alternative language’. Fitch, Beckett and Babel, p. 160. Later critical studies, however, find translational processes to be more directly related to composition. Charles Krance, for example, finds an increasing degree of ‘transtextual confluence’ in Beckett’s work, whereby in later works, translation becomes integral to processes of textual composition and revision. See his introduction to Samuel Beckett, Samuel Beckett’s “Company/Compagnie” and “A Piece of Monologue/Solo”: A Bilingual Variorum Edition, ed. Charles Krance (New York: Garland, 1993) and ‘Traces of Transtextual Confluence and Bilingual Genesis: A Piece of Monologue and Solo for Openers’, in Beckett in the 1990s, ed. Marius Buning and Lois Oppenheim (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1993), pp. 133–8. Most recently, Mooney argues for translation as entirely integral to the trilogy, not only in the ‘ontological homelessness’ indicated in the French text by a ‘mismatch of Irish proper names and French language’, but in the fact that the trilogy, in both ‘original’ and ‘translated’ form, ‘bears traces of an entire spectrum of incompatible translation strategies familiar to Beckett from his own translation work’. Mooney, A Tongue Not Mine, pp. 134, 135. See also Emilie Morin, Samuel Beckett and the Problem of Irishness (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), pp. 55–95, for a useful exploration of translation as ‘principle of composition’, particularly in relation to Irish Revivalist debates.Google Scholar
  8. 13.
    Emilie Morin, ‘Samuel Beckett, the Wordless Song and the Pitfalls of Memorialisation’, Irish Studies Review, 19 (2011), 185–205 (p. 188).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 15.
    William Butler Yeats, The Collected Works of W. B. Yeats Vol. V: Later Essays, ed. William H. O’Donnell (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1994), pp. 211–12.Google Scholar
  10. 18.
    Samuel Beckett, The Letters of Samuel Beckett Volume II: 1941–1956, ed. George Craig and others (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 462, 461, 465, 464. As Morin observes, ‘Beckett remained at a remove from the debates surrounding the revival of the Irish language; as a young man, he was amused by the frantic Gaelicisation of names in the Irish Free State, and, in a letter of 1933 to Thomas MacGreevy, he joked about the climate of hypocrisy and intellectual snobbery that surrounded the revival of Gaelic.’ Morin, Samuel Beckett and the Problem of Irishness, p. 87.Google Scholar
  11. 19.
    As Beckett told Ludovic Janvier, he began writing in French after the war ‘avec le désir de m’appauvrir encore davantage’ [‘with the desire to impoverish myself even more’]. Cited in Ludovic Janvier, Samuel Beckett par lui-même (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1969), p. 18.Google Scholar
  12. 20.
    Niklaus Gessner, Die Unzulänglichkeit der Sprache: Eine Untersuchung über Formzerfall und Beziehungslosigkeit bei Samuel Beckett (Zürich: Verlag, 1957), p. 32.Google Scholar
  13. 21.
    Richard N. Coe, Beckett (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1964), p. 14.Google Scholar
  14. 26.
    The argument that Beckett turned to French to elude the influence of Joyce is a critical commonplace in Beckett studies, but as Daniel Katz argues, ‘to simply accept the conventional wisdom that writing in French allowed Beckett to reject both his former master Joyce and the latter’s over emphasis on the “apotheosis of the word” […] in favor of a leaner and more modest, ultimately cleaner style, is to miss an obvious yet crucial irony: such a program is itself already entirely Joyce’s. It is Joyce who, in the figure of Stephen Dedalus, suggested that the recipe for artistic liberation or even self-engenderment is relocation to Paris and rejection of Irish or even Anglophone parochial standards, and it is Joyce who, lest we forget, described the style of his first great work, Dubliners, as one of “scrupulous meanness”. Thus, Beckett’s gestures of the forties, notably the turn to French, can be seen as much as a fulfilment of the Joycean project as its rejection.’ Daniel Katz, ‘Beckett’s Absent Paris: Malone Dies, Céline, and the Modernist City’, Études anglaises, 59(1) (2006), 7–17 (p. 8).Google Scholar
  15. 27.
    For a discussion of the significance of Mallarmé’s engagement with the English language, see Jean-Michel Rabaté, The Ghosts of Modernity, Crosscurrents (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996), pp. 102–21.Google Scholar
  16. 28.
    Georges Duthuit, ‘Notes About Contributors’, Transition Forty-Eight, 48 (1948), 146–52 (pp. 146–7).Google Scholar
  17. 29.
    Transition, which Duthuit edited, was a later incarnation of Eugene Jolas’s transition, which I discussed in Chapter 1. The earlier transition in particular favoured the publication of avant-garde work (including some of Beckett’s early work) that was linguistically innovative, often multilingual, and that displayed a singular disregard for the dictates of linguistic ‘correctness’. The ‘Revolution of the Word’ manifesto in transition 16/17, for example, explicitly declares the right of the ‘literary creator’ to ‘disintegrate the primal matter of words imposed on him by text-books and dictionaries’, and to ‘disregard existing syntactical and grammatical laws’. Eugene Jolas and others, ‘Proclamation’, transition, 16/17 (1929), 13.Google Scholar
  18. 30.
    Michael Edwards, ‘Beckett’s French’, Translation & Literature, 1 (1992), 68–83 (p. 69).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. 32.
    For a discussion of the performative function of language in the trilogy in relation to Beckett’s French, see my article ‘“Pidgin Bullskrit”: The Performance of French in Beckett’s Trilogy’, in Historicising Beckett/Issues of Performance, ed. Marius Buning and others, Samuel Beckett Today/Aujourd’hui: An Annual Bilingual Review/Revue Annuelle Bilingue, 15 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005), pp. 211–23.Google Scholar
  20. 34.
    Steven Connor, ‘Beckett and the Loutishness of Learning’, in Samuel Beckett: Debts and Legacies, ed. Erik Tonning and others, Samuel Beckett Today/Aujourd’hui: An Annual Bilingual Review/Revue Annuelle Bilingue, 22 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2010), pp. 255–73 (p. 264).Google Scholar
  21. 36.
    Hill, for example, notes ‘the ludic awareness of rhetorical conventions and formal rules’ that specifically characterises Beckett’s French prose, but argues that language-learning in Beckett’s time was characterised by a focus on translation, which therefore becomes the focus of his analysis. Leslie Hill, Beckett’s Fiction: In Different Words (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 43. Indeed, other studies of Beckett’s bilingualism tend likewise to note linguistic formalism, but to consider in more detail Beckett’s practice as a translator: most recently, for example, both Mooney and Montini have noted the formalism of the language of Mercier et Camier, but with Mooney focusing her analysis on the implicitly translational ‘nomadic’ disjunction between French language and Irish context in the novel (Mooney, A Tongue Not Mine, pp. 101–6), and Montini engaging in a detailed comparative analysis of English and French texts (Montini, “La Bataille du soliloque”, pp. 177–247).Google Scholar
  22. 40.
    Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions (New York: Vintage International, 1990), p. 172.Google Scholar
  23. 44.
    Samuel Beckett, Premier amour (Paris: Minuit, 1970), p. 10.Google Scholar
  24. 46.
    The significance of French to such grammatical formalism is reflected in the English translation of the story, ‘First Love’ (completed much later, in 1973), which omits references to the foreignness of the language used by the narrator. The English translation of the epigram, in particular, replaces the explicitly grammatical focus of the original text with a greater emphasis on semantic opposition: ‘Hereunder lies the above who up below / So hourly died that he survived till now’. Samuel Beckett, The Complete Short Prose 1929–1989, ed. S. E. Gontarski (New York: Grove Press, 1995), p. 26.Google Scholar
  25. 47.
    Claire Kramsch, The Multilingual Subject: What Foreign Language Learners Say About Their Experience and Why It Matters (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 60–6.Google Scholar
  26. 48.
    Gershon Weiler, Mauthner’s Critique of Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), p. 332.Google Scholar
  27. 49.
    The French-Romanian Ionesco himself worked as a French teacher for a number of years in Bucharest, and repeatedly highlights the absurdities of language pedagogy in his work. See in particular La Leçon, which dramatises the violence of pedagogical principles (a violence that reaches its peak in the teaching of absurd philological principles), and the dialogues that Ionesco contributed to Michel Benamou’s 1969 French textbook Mise en train, which, as Benamou explains, parody both Ionesco’s own work (especially La Cantatrice chauve) and ‘the lethal pabulum mouthed by our students (from Latin studiosus pronounced stooges), in the so-called “audio-lingual” programs of the sixties’. Indeed, for Benamou, ‘[t]he bond between literature and pedagogy is perhaps the nexus of Ionesco’s method’. Michel Benamou, ‘Philology Can Lead to the Worst’, in The Two Faces of Ionesco, ed. Rosette C. Lamonte and Melvin J. Friedman (Troy, NY: Whitston Publishing Company, 1978), pp. 75–7 (pp. 75, 76).Google Scholar
  28. 50.
    Eugène Ionesco, ‘La Tragédie du langage’, in Notes et contre-notes (Paris: Gallimard, 1962), pp. 155–60 (p. 156).Google Scholar
  29. 55.
    Joseph Conrad, Under Western Eyes (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1957), p. 11.Google Scholar
  30. 56.
    Anthony Cordingley, ‘Beckett’s “Masters”: Pedagogical Sadism, Foreign Language Primers, Self-Translation’, Modern Philology, 109 (2012), 510–43 (pp. 518–19).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. 60.
    It is notable that, as Nabokov recognised when he distinguished between Beckett’s ‘schoolmaster’s French’ and the ‘spreading live roots’ of the English prose, the impact of Beckett’s own learning of French is often most palpable in the French version of his texts. In Premier amour, for example, the references to the grammatical function of the narrator’s epitaph, as well as his indication that he is not French, are both omitted from the English translation; likewise, in the trilogy, some of the references to the otherness of language that we find in the French are omitted from the English text. For example, Molloy’s ‘Quelle langue’ (M 15) is rendered in English as ‘What rigmarole’ (T 13), and Malone’s reference to ‘votre langue’ (MM 46) is omitted altogether. Certainly, when writing in an acquired language, Beckett tends to bring to the fore the forms and functions of language to a greater extent than when writing in English. (This is the case in languages other than French too, and in Beckett’s earliest experiments with using another language: as Mark Nixon observes, in Beckett’s translation of the poem ‘Cascando’ into German in 1936, ‘the spurned love of the English version is replaced by a focus on “words”’. Mark Nixon, Samuel Beckett’s German Diaries 1936–1937 [London: Continuum, 2011], p. 111.)Google Scholar
  32. 61.
    Phil Baker, ‘Beckett’s Bilingualism and a Possible Source for the Name of Moran in Molloy’, Journal of Beckett Studies, 3 (1994), 81–83 (p. 81). Baker is tentative in suggesting the possibility that Beckett took the name ‘Moran’ from this source, but the evidence he presents is persuasive.Google Scholar
  33. 66.
    William Wordsworth, Lyrical Ballads, ed. Michael Mason (London: Longman, 1992), p. 82.Google Scholar
  34. 68.
    Marina Warner, ‘“Who Can Shave an Egg?”’, Times Literary Supplement, 29 February 2008, pp. 14–17.Google Scholar
  35. 70.
    Samuel Beckett, Malone meurt (Paris: Minuit, 1951). Subsequent references to pages in this work will appear in parentheses with the abbreviation MM.Google Scholar
  36. 79.
    As Cordingley explains, the concept of ‘l’ordre naturel’ ‘refers to the order of subject-verb-object in French; in the context of grammatical relations it was a relatively common expression in Beckett’s time and it remains so today. However, the justification for the naturalness of this order grew out of seventeenth century Rationalist philosophy of mind. Its argument most basically states that discourse is the image of thought, and that if thought operates according to the logic of reason, then discourse will itself offer a picture of the mind, and illustrate the laws of reason.’ Anthony Cordingley, ‘Beckett and “L’Ordre Naturel”: The Universal Grammar of Comment c’est/How It Is’, in All Sturm and no Drang: Beckett and Romanticism. Beckett at Reading 2006, ed. Dirk Van Hulle and Mark Nixon, Samuel Beckett Today/Aujourd’hui: An Annual Bilingual Review/Revue Annuelle Bilingue, 18 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007), pp. 185–99 (p. 193).Google Scholar
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    Tom Driver, ‘Beckett by the Madeleine’, Columbia University Forum, 4 (1961), 21–25 (p. 23).Google Scholar
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    Chris Ackerley and S. E. Gontarski, The Grove Companion to Samuel Beckett: A Reader’s Guide to His Works, Life, and Thought (New York: Grove Press, 2004), p. 431.Google Scholar
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© Juliette Taylor-Batty 2013

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