Samuel Beckett wrote his novel Dream of Fair to Middling Women in 1932, when he was 26, and on the lam from old Ireland. He wrote it in a Paris hotel. A few months later he moved to World's End, Chelsea, where he wrote his novel Murphy. Murphy was published, while Dream was consigned to 'the chest into which I threw my wild thoughts'. 'Chest', with its suggestion of treasure trove, seems a good word here. Towards the end of his life, Beckett permitted a friend, Eoin O'Brien, to take for publication a text - this text - which for 60 years Beckett had not wanted to publish, though he had plundered the chest from time to time, so that Dream material became incorporated in other writings. O'Brien is the author of an illustrated book entitled The Beckett Country.
Beckett's tramps or derelicts may be thought to originate in the one who figures in this book: Belacqua - Bel, for short - who is also present in the excellent story 'Dante and the Lobster'. In Dublin and in Vienna Bel is involved in usually abrasive encounters with, in the main, two women. He is the sort of recluse who is willing to go to a party, and the party in question rounds off the book. Unlike Cinderella, he is in a frightful state when he arrives at the ball - dirty and dishevelled, a pool forming at his poor feet. But his hostess welcomes him without consternation. Perhaps she sees in him the Sam Beckett who used to be invited to things in Dublin, and to hang around with some of its girls.
Bel is Beckett's 'principal boy' here: both, in some sense, Beckett himself and the object of his jokes, ironies and allusions. The novel evokes the Belacquan consciousness - its sense of itself and theories of itself. Bel is no common tramp: he is a student and a scholar - one of the company of scabrous and learned layabouts which has crawled from Joyce's overcoat, from Joyce's self-portrait of the artist.
This man seeks to 'troglodyse' himself, to curl up in sloth away from the shocks and somethings of the world outside him. Should he die? Should he allow his ill-fated aching feet to stagger on? The novel refers to its principal boy's 'ipsissimosity' - which consists of his being, in his recoil from the world, very much himself, while also a variety of selves, and in a bad way. 'So little capable even as a behaviourist of versatility did he appear' that he is recognised in the street and 'the hats of friends flew off spontaneously to him as he passed.' In other words, his shape-changing isn't good enough to keep him from being spotted. My guess is that we are witnessing a kind of negative incapability - that of a protean refuser to respond to the world. Keats's experience of the world, we deduce, must have been very different.
Bel's two principal girls are the very different Smeraldina-Rima and Alba. There's a passage in Murphy - leaner and more harmonious than almost any here - which says of a certain female that she 'could think ill of her partners, past, present and prospective, without prejudice to herself. This is a faculty which no young man or woman, stepping down into the sexpit, should be without.' Bel thinks ill of the first of his two women, by whom he is deflowered in a manner that he thinks demeans him: she is loud and lustful and sentimental, whereas Alba is witty and austerely sympathetic. Beckett conveys that Belacqua has not lain with her, nor she with him. None of that kind of thing here, if you don't mind. In her acerbity and perspicacity, she is a match for him. She is also the belle of the ball at which Bel turns up in hobo mode - in vagrante delicto, as Beckett might have put it.
He has been drinking and appears drunk. There is a prime element of 'maybe drunk' about the book. It reveals a dissolute scene in which, whatever else there is, sexual intercourse, certainly in any pleasurable form, is conspicuous by its absence. This is the Irish way of life, according to more than one of Ireland's authors, with abstinence at one level exceeded only by indulgence at another, with bodily parts and bodily pain a joke, and women, by and large, another joke. Dream may be said to drink its way through a preoccupation with sex and love and the difference between them, a preoccupation with brothels and Beatrices.
The Alba episode is piquant and moving; it has a confidence and precision which can't be caught among the allusions, ellipses and serpentine ironies of the material that precedes it. The preceding material is often gruelling and exasperating, though sometimes funny in the black, bleak Beckett style, which can seem like the whole man as far as his writings are concerned, or the whole soul of these writings. This is a youthful work, youthfully styled. He was to become a writer of very, very few words. Here there are plenty of words.
Beckett was a stylist who affected to despise style. 'Writing style, that vanity, he compared to the bow-tie about a throat cancer,' reported a fellow Irish writer. In this book style is a grandiloquence which can be enjoyed as irony and parody, but which can also be taken straight. Style requires that the book be written at times in foreign languages, including Latin, as if to repel Ireland's punters and bosthoons. It uses many words which I had to look up in the dictionary, and many of these words were missing from the dictionary. Many words are misspelt. I had an instructive brush with the word apodasis. Would it refer, as many of the other strange words had proved to refer, to a part of the body, a bodily affliction, a lesion, a skin condition, an itch? I looked it up, but it wasn't there. But apodosis was there. Meaning a grammatical feature. This made sense, and it offered one order of explanation for the fact, conceded by Mr O'Brien, that it can be hard to know what Beckett is on about here.
Belacqua is, as I say, a poor fellow but a literary one - quite plainly a university graduate. And Beckett evokes him by means of a web of literary allusion which greatly adds to the very great taxingness and tryingness of several sections of the book. Two of the allusions I recognised are of interest. 1. 'In the heat of their endeavours they loose their siftings unashamed'. These defecators are birds. The allusion is to the 'liquid siftings' of nightingales which stain a dishonoured shroud in a poem by Eliot, and which are associated with Agamemnon. Eliot is referring to birdshit, rather than, as is sometimes supposed, birdsong, nightingales, odes. But why is Beckett referring to Eliot? 2. 'The rain fell in a uniform untroubled manner. It fell upon the bay, the champaign-
land and the mountains, and notably upon the central bog it fell with a rather desolate uniformity.' This occurs late in the book, at the time of Bel's sad sitting-down on a rain-swept pavement: the very image of the romantic solitary for whom he can sometimes - when all ironies are said and done - be taken or mistaken. The allusion here is to the famous ending of Joyce's story 'The Dead', when husband is estranged from wife and the eye goes drifting westward ho, out over Ireland and its Bog of Allen. At this point in the novel Alba and Belacqua have been with each other in friendship, and have parted again.
This is a work which Beckettians will be anxious to study. In his rewarding short book on Beckett, published in 1973, A Alvarez says that Murphy was 'his first step towards creating a powerful and perfect artistic world out of those states of mind which were once denied and hidden away in lunatic asylums but which, by the 1960s, had come to seem mirror images of our own world.' We can now see that there was a step before Murphy - in the same direction. So this is an important text - but not, for the most part, a moving or other than fairly wild one. It is nevertheless one that enables you to feel that Belacqua is very like a tramp, and very like a human being. Alvarez's words indicate that Beckett brings together sanity and madness, and this may indeed belong to the writer's intention on the early occasion of the present novel. If so, it may also be one of the ways in which his art resembles that of another Irishman, the bedlamite Francis Bacon.
The book has no footnotes, and would benefit from some. It has a preface by one of the editors, Eoin O'Brien, which contains the following account of Beckett's intention: 'He also experimented with words and deliberately flaunted grammatical convention at times outrageously so that in truth there were occasions when only he could have said what was in-
tended.' It might seem from this that Beckett's difficult stuff has been edited by someone who does not know what 'flaunt' means, and is unwilling or unable to punctuate his own sentences, or to construct them in readable form. What sort of transcriber can he have been? Many more editions like this and we could all end up with a bad case of apodasis.
'Dreams of Fair to Middling Women' is published by John Calder at pounds 18.99Reuse content