Undoing Time: The Life and Work of Samuel Beckett
Jennifer Birkett, Undoing Time: The Life and Work of Samuel Beckett, Sallins, Irish Academic Press, 2015, xii + 226 p., ISBN: 978 0 7165 3290 3.
1This new monograph by Jennifer Birkett, Emeritus Professor of French Studies at the University of Birmingham, explores the paradox inherent in the concept of “undoing time” in Beckett’s work. While “doing one’s time” initially refers to jail slang to describe prisoners waiting for the moment when they are released, with Beckett, every man has to do his time on Earth, oscillating between tedium and suffering, waiting more or less eagerly or consciously for the liberation that is death, like Krapp’s “intense longing for death: ‘drowned in dreams and burning to be gone’” in Krapp’s Last Tape, (132). Birkett though is not satisfied with this univocal claustrophobic dark reading of Beckett. She highlights the converse process of undoing time in his writings. To do so, she looks chronologically, in seven chapters, at Beckett’s poetry, novels, shorter prose, theatrical works and then again shorter dramatic works to identify a refining process in Beckett’s treatment of time and failure. Her book investigates Beckett’s collaboration with the BBC Radio and Television – in chapter 7 – as well as his bash at cinema with Alan Schneider in Film in 1967.
2Negation, substraction, alongside a fierce lucid sense of humour – as in Molloy or Endgame – are Beckett’s best known weapons. These, Birkett posits, allow readers to “enter […] into a different understanding of not what, but how it is to be human” (1). By writing about futility and exhaustion, Beckett defeats, “dilates” time, turning failure into play, impasses into inner journeys, even verging on the lyrical towards the end of his life as in Ohio Impromptu.
3Though chapter one – inevitably dealing with the Joycean father figure – and the coda focus more on biographical data, quoting from James Knowlson’s work, the great bulk of Birkett’s study aims to outline Beckett’s singular innovative stance on the postwar literary scene. She shows the enduring Irishness of Beckett’s work despite his aversion to realist details. The notion of gender often proves apt. As Birkett notes “the figure of the Mouth [in Not I] was […] inspired by the many bent old women who staggered along the country roads of Ireland” (146). She pays special attention to women characters in plays, as in Happy Days, Footfalls or Not I and insists on the real women Beckett encountered throughout his life, from Suzanne Déchevaux-Dumesnil – his wife –, Barbara Bray – BBC script editor, translator, critic and lover – to Billie Whitelaw – his “perfect actress”. Finally, this study focuses on reception, especially theatrical reception, developing the taunting bourgeois figure of the “thousand-arsed Spectator” (123) that Beckett disliked but gradually grew indifferent to, concentrating on the increasingly choreographic minimalist forms he could give to his work.
4In this thorough yet concise academic survey, the reader will find a readable introduction to Beckett’s philosophy. Life is nothing doing, “even dying is a form of bluff” (128).
Pour citer cet article
Thierry Robin, « Undoing Time: The Life and Work of Samuel Beckett », Études irlandaises, 40-2 | 2015, 162-163.
Thierry Robin, « Undoing Time: The Life and Work of Samuel Beckett », Études irlandaises [En ligne], 40-2 | 2015, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2015, consulté le 29 mars 2017. URL : http://etudesirlandaises.revues.org/4756Haut de page
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