Books: A Week in Books

Why Beckett brevity is the soul of wit
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The Independent Culture
THIS IS the time of year (to adapt Cyril Connolly) when wars break out and gossip-writers in search of a fine quarrel look for revelations from the judges of the Booker Prize. Here's one. Reading 129 novels back to back - as I have just done - stretches one's tolerance for the fat book that outstays its welcome to the very limit and beyond. This year's crop included at least two elephantine fables from gifted writers which really should have slimmed to less than half their length. As for all those 600-page epics that chronicle in grinding detail the career of (let us say) the first Lieutenant-Governor of Tasmania, they do make one think about the virtues of a CAP-style set-aside scheme that would pay over- productive novelists to lie fallow for a year or five.

"Ornament is crime", thundered the austere Viennese architect Adolf Loos. Until now, I never quite grasped what made him so furious with pointless excess in art. Not only does it waste aeons of time; it sours the senses and dulls the mind. How refreshing, then, to be reminded of the strict and ruthless standards upheld by literature's own Monarch of Minimalism.

The Beckett Festival, staged by Dublin's Gate Theatre, continues until 18 September at the Barbican Centre with its complete programme of drama, from the relative garrulity of Waiting for Godot to the last word (or rather, last gasp) of Breath. Reading about it also sent me back to Beckett's incomparable prose - the picaresque hilarity of Murphy; the chilly lyricism of the 1950s Trilogy; and the dazzling quarter-century of ever-harder fictional gemstones, from How It Is in 1961 up to Stirrings Still in 1988.

John Calder, Beckett's friend and long-time publisher, has just released a new edition of Mercier and Camier (pounds 6.99). Beckett wrote this savagely funny sequence of farcical trips taken by a pair of philosophical drunks in French, in 1946. As his prose grew even tighter, he came to distrust its comparative laxity, and only got round to writing an English version after 1970.

Sam Beckett's laxity, of course, would be any other author's diamond- hard exactitude. The 120 pages of Mercier... manage to embrace a huge array of mordant one-liners ("It's the foul old sun again, punctual as a hangman"), pin-sharp dialogues that look ahead to Godot, and bar-propping shaggy-dog stories - not to mention the theology of artificial insemination ("sin arose whenever the sperm was of non-marital origin") and the faulty design of gentleman's legwear ("the male trouser has got stuck in a rut..."). If anyone else has read too many slack, dull novels of late (a hastily- packed holiday suitcase?), here is the antidote.

Fans of the kind of novel that Henry James called a "loose, baggy monster" may ask why someone should bother to write short when they might write long. Where is the moral value in brevity? Well, consider the role of one Resistance worker in the Nazi-occupied Paris of 1940 to 1942. Informants from his "Gloria SMH" Resistance cell send him details of German forces' movements from all over France.

In danger every day of torture and slow death at the hands of the Gestapo, this man - although a citizen of a neutral country, Ireland - then condenses all the diffuse data so that it can be microfilmed and sent to London. His powers of concision and clarity save lives, direct the Allied efforts, and help defeat the Reich. No wonder that the modest hero identified (in Beckettian style) by the Special Operations Executive as "Dark hair. Fresh Complexion. Very silent. Paris agent" came to see that every word must count.