fri 12/08/2022

Samuel Beckett: Dream of Fair to Middling Women review – the literary titan laid bare | reviews, news & interviews

Samuel Beckett: Dream of Fair to Middling Women review – the literary titan laid bare

Samuel Beckett: Dream of Fair to Middling Women review – the literary titan laid bare

Beckett’s re-released early work offers a fascinating insight into the author’s mind

Samuel Beckett

That any writer “struggling to make ends meet” would apply themselves to the making of Dream of Fair to Middling Women is something of a complexity.

Written in Paris in 1932, when Beckett was just twenty-six years’ old, this nebula – of autobiography, literary in-jokes, and musings on everything from philosophy, art and music, to the very novel that Beckett is in the process of piecing together – was shelved after multiple rejections for being too scandalous, too risky. There it would remain for another sixty years, until in 1992 it was finally published.

His dissenters weren’t wrong. Dream opens with a lewd dramatisation of Belacqua, in essence an earlier incarnation of the eponymous figure of Molloy (1951), indulging his own emotional suffering in masturbatory fashion. The novel’s “young hero” urges himself towards climax before “choking it back in the very act of emission”, allowing his tears to settle. After which, he begins again. Such heavy innuendo is nowadays rather worn, and betrays the novel’s age. But Beckett’s resorting to it for his treatment of the novel’s main theme – Belacqua’s youthful love, divided between two women: “the Smeraldina-Rima” and “the Alba” – sets the tone both for Dream, and for the wry tragicomedy that would become the hallmark of Beckett’s oeuvre.

Dream never aims for the gravitas of those later works. It is frivolous, unrefined; the young Beckett less interested in a weighty examination of the human condition than in establishing his name as a writer. As for who that writer might be, an indication is offered in the form of the novel’s elusive narrator. The scathing, satirical commentary lends the novel a Shandean quality and, like Sterne, the Beckett of Dream takes a strong stance against the aspects of the novel he finds displeasing, dismissing the “spurious” notion of cause and effect, as in Austen (“the divine Jane”), or Balzac, whose limp, pre-meditated realism, he argues, gives only a “chloroformed world”.

By contrast, Beckett is content to be led by the creative impulse: “Oh did I do well to leave my notes at home” – a necessity rather than a choice, to which literature must be reconciled. So, in a passage that describes Dream at its most succinct, the narrator commits to “wander about vaguely, or send Belacqua wandering about vaguely, thickening the ruined melody here and there”. Reactive and experimental, Beckett is formulating a style “without style”. His intentions are no less interested in the “human”, but represent the first attempt towards a closer approximation of our lived experience.

And yet, behind all the artifice, there is something moving about a work that Beckett would later describe as “the chest into which I threw my wild thoughts.” Dream is pretentious, but it has an intimacy about it, too; that he would seek to “thicken” his plot is indicative of a writer very much in his infancy, still in thrall to his literary idol and (then, at least) superior, James Joyce. It would be more than a decade until Beckett’s famous epiphany, realised during a return trip to Dublin, that his own way “was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than in adding.”

Dream is very A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, though Beckett’s effort is more vibrant, far livelier, and certainly cleverer, in the most knowing, smug sense of the word. Its plea to the reader to “suspend hostilities … abdicate your right to be entertained” is serious, but only in-part. His later works draw inwards, but here we find a Beckett still reaching out to his reader – “if”, he asks, “you will be so kind to lower the lights”. The novel lays bare, during its most formative years, the Beckettian way of thought, and it is unsurprising to know that Beckett should have requested its “key” were reserved “for some little time” after his death. This, then, is real value of Dream: as memoir, or diary, “in ovo”, from a titan of literature in the twentieth century.




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