I wonder how many other readers have been provoked into reading Samuel Beckett’s enigmatic Worstward Ho courtesy of Dublinesque, shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize? Vila-Matas references so many works in his novel it’s hard to know where to begin, but having seen a couple of Beckett’s plays (Endgame and Waiting for Godot) I was curious about his other works and so I went exploring. Worstward Ho is included in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die and it’s only 40 pages long, and you can read it online, so why not, eh?
Well, some might agree with this cursory dismissal in something called Brief Notes:
A sterile, dreadful exercise, it might be said, and one does not, as Dr. Johnson remarked of “Paradise Lost,” wish it longer than it is.
I don’t blame this unidentified reviewer because I think I would be still struggling with the first couple of lines if I had not stumbled onto Colin Greenlaw’s elaborations, which showed me how to read it.
I printed it out, and read each section aloud, tried to make sense of it my own way, then read the elaboration to clarify it, and by the end of page two in my printout I was (mostly) able to skip the elaborations because I’d got the hang of it. For what it’s worth, this is my interpretation:
Firstly, I don’t think it’s ‘about’ anything. It’s Beckett, in his unique Beckettian way, playing with the idea of reducing writing to less rather than more. (What else can an author do, after James Joyce’s Ulysses, eh?)
So the reader witnesses the author trying to say the absolute minimum. Obviously there has to be something to say, or the task/quest/game can’t be done at all, it would be an empty page or maybe not even that. But to fit Beckett’s self-imposed brief, the fiction needs to be the very least it can be and yet not be nothing. (Are you still with me? I’m having great fun trying to explain this …)
We witness the author exploring setting: what is the very least it can be? Only dimness, dimness so dim that there is nothing there – but not a void because a void is nothingness, and there has to be something.
So leastward on. So long as dim still. Dim undimmed. Or dimmed to dimmer still. To dimmost dim. Leastmost in dimmost dim. Utmost dim. Leastmost in utmost dim. Unworsenable worst. (Beckett)
Thus they plod on towards the least, so long as there is dim still, undimmed dim. Or dim dimmed to dimmer still, to the most dim dim. They plod on leastmost in the most dim dim, in the utmost dim. They plod on leastmost in the utmost dim, in the unworsenable worst. (Greenlaw)
We witness his efforts with character. Can there be just one character in a piece of fiction? (It’s labelled a novella, but really, it’s not, trust me). He messes around disposing of crippled hands and hats and boots and faces till left with nothing but a stare (which whether it was meant to or not brought to mind Munch’s Scream) and (I think) comes to the conclusion that even if they are only shades (i.e. spirits of people) and as ‘good as gone’ and yet still be there, there must be three, a man, a woman and a child – or else there is no future, people will cease to be.
Back unsay shades can go. Go and come again. No. Shades cannot go. Much less come again. Nor bowed old woman’s back. Nor old man and child. Nor foreskull and and stare. Blur yes. Shades can blur. When stare clamped to one alone. Or somehow words again. Go no nor come again. Till dim if ever go. Never to come again. (Beckett)
I’ll go back and unsay that the shades can go, can go away and then come back again. No, the shades cannot go away – much less come back again. Nor can the bowed old woman’s back, nor the old man and child, nor the front of the skull and the stare. They can blur, yes: the shades can blur – when the stare is clamped to only one of them, or when somehow there are words again. But they cannot go away, nor come back again: not till the dim itself goes (if it ever does), never to come back again. (Greenlaw)
What about thought? Can there be a mind without people? Can there be words without minds? There must be, enough for joy. (This, farcically, made me think of IT in A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. This was surely not intended by Beckett.)
Remains of mind then still. Enough still. Somewhose somewhere somehow enough still. No mind and no words? Even such words. So enough still. Just enough still to joy. Joy! Just enough still to joy that only they. Only! (Beckett)
There are still remains of mind then, still enough: still enough of someone’s, somewhere, somehow. Can there be no mind and yet be words? Even such words as these? So there are enough remains of mind still – still just enough to joy. (Joy!) Just enough still to joy that there are only they. (Only!) (Greenlaw)
If you enjoy getting horribly tangled in your own thoughts, Worstward Ho is a fascinating game. This fiction (if that’s what it is) revolves around trying to write fiction describing almost nothing, portraying the least that anything can be without being nothing. Because if there were truly nothing, there would be no one around to define it. Even when you have a vacuum inside something, if you can see it there is light, so it’s not nothing and you are there describing it, and you’re not nothing either.
But what makes this game hard, is that Beckett (being Beckett), is also reducing the words to their bare minimum. He is using a minimum of short, sharp words, ditching verbs, prepositions and articles, and forcing the reader to infill with clichés such as ‘stretch‘ for ‘stretch of the imagination’. And doing this to accomplish a task that has had philosophers struggling for years. As he gropes towards his goal he changes his mind, has to go back and un-say things or acknowledge that his words were mis-said. Sometimes, in order to keep going with his project, he just has to say, ok, let’s just say this for now, otherwise he would get stuck. And in the end he has to be satisfied with not knowing.
Enough still not to know. Not to know what they say. Not to know what it is the words it says say. Says? Secretes. Say better worse secretes. What it is the words it secretes say. What the so-said void. The so-said dim. The so-said shades. The so-said seat and germ of all. Enough to know no knowing. No knowing what it is the words it secretes say. No saying. No saying what it is they somehow say. (Beckett)
There are still enough remains of mind to allow me not to know: not to know what they say, not to know what it is that the words the mind says say. (“Says”? Secretes, rather – for better or worse I’ll say “secretes”.) What it is the words it secretes say, what the so-called void says, what the so-called dim says, what the so-called shades say, what the so-called seat and germ of all says. It’s enough to know that there is no knowing: no knowing what it is that the words it secretes say, and no saying it – no saying what it all is that they somehow say. (Greenlaw)
I couldn’t have read it, or made any sense of it without the crib sheet to start with, and maybe Beckett scholars are scratching their heads in dismay at my ramblings, but hey, I had fun!
PS Don’t try this at home without reading it aloud.
PS This is Beckett’s Nobel Prize citation:
The Nobel Prize in Literature 1969 was awarded to Samuel Beckett “for his writing, which – in new forms for the novel and drama – in the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation”.
Cross-posted at Read the Nobels.