Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Samuel Beckett takes Dictation

Beckett in the late 1920s, when he met Joyce
Once or twice he dictated a bit of Finnegans Wake to Beckett, though dictation did not work very well for him; in the middle of one such session there was a knock at the door which Beckett couldn't hear. Joyce said, 'Come in', and Beckett wrote it down. Afterwards he read back what he had written and Joyce said, 'What's that 'Come in'?' 'Yes, you said that,' said Beckett. Joyce thought for a moment, then said, 'Let it stand'. He was quite willing to accept coincidence as his collaborator.

That's a famous story from Ellmann's biography, whose source is a 1954 interview with Beckett. It's an odd story in many ways - odd that Beckett didn't hear the knock on the door, and odd that whoever was knocking didn't come in.

It contradicts the usual image of Joyce as a writer fully in control of his work, 'like the God of creation', as Stephen describes the artist in A Portrait. It was Beckett himself who told his biographer, James Knowlsen, 'I realized that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, [being] in control of one’s material.'  Yet here he is describing Joyce surrendering control!

This is also the only account I know of Joyce dictating any of Finnegans Wake*. Ole Vinding, who met Joyce in Copenhagen in 1936, records this conversation:

'A Swiss surgeon has brought back a little of my sight in my left eye, just enough so I can see to write when I put an extra magnifying glass on....'
'Can't you dictate?'
'No, impossible.'
'Is it the style of your books which makes it impossible?'
'I can only write alone, more and more alone. It has developed that way, like my style, which has developed and changed so that what I write simply cannot be expressed in any other way than like dream talk. With day-time talk, such as I used in my youth, I would not achieve anything.'  

'James Joyce in Copenhagen', in Portraits of the Artist in Exile, ed Potts,

That doesn't disprove Beckett's story for, as Ellmann says, 'dictation did not work very well for him'.
 Another problem with this story is that, though the phrase 'come in' appears three times in Finnegans Wake, none are out-of-context interjections. There's only one 'Come in' as an imperative - 'come in, come on, you lazy loafs!' at 393.27, but that's in the Mamalujo episode, first published in the Transatlantic Review in 1924, three years before Beckett met Joyce.

You can have a look at the various appearances of 'come in', including 'coocome in' and 'come into' in fweet

It's possible that Joyce might have changed the phrase in a later draft - perhaps to 'Come indoor, Scoffynosey, and shed your swank!' at 257.13.  

Nathan Halper makes two other suggestions:

One—the story is apocryphal. I prefer the second. Ellmann says that Beckett was “fascinated and puzzled” by the other’s method. One would guess that Joyce did not miss this. Clive Hart has suggested that Joyce, “having made a good story of it to Beckett, quietly expunged it later.”

'On An Anecdote of Beckett's', A Wake Newslitter, III.3, June 1966

J.S.Atherton repeats the Beckett anecdote in The Books at the Wake:

The book was indeed his life and he believed that he was entrapping some part of the essence of life within its pages. While he could do 'anything with language' he believed that somehow the spirit of language was working through him of its own volition. An anecdote of Richard Ellman shows Joyce's unusual attitude. (He repeats the anecdote).... The very fact that the misunderstanding  had occurred in actuality gave it prestige for Joyce. This incident shows I think rather more than Ellmann suggests. Joyce was not in his own opinion simply writing a book, he was also performing a work of magic.

I think that's true, even if the Beckett story never took place. There is plenty of other evidence that Joyce, who was deeply superstitious, was willing 'to accept coincidence as collaborator'.

Chance furnishes me with what I need. I am like a man who stumbles along; my foot strikes something, I bend over, and it is exactly what I need.

Jacques Mercanton, 'The Hours of James Joyce', in Portraits of the Artist in Exile (ed Potts) 

He was always looking and listening for the necessary fact or word; and he was a great believer in his luck. What he needed would come to him.
Frank Budgen, James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses

It has been interesting to see Mr Joyce's very special method of working. His interest in the little events of the day, during a period filled with political upheavals, has been a constant source of wonder. Rivers, and mountains, and children, and apparently insignificant occurrences in the streets, preoccupy him....
 'This book', he sometimes says, 'is being written by the people I have met or known'. Sometimes he hardly seems to be listening to the conversation around him. Yet nothing escapes his prodigious memory, whether the dialogues be in English, French, German or Italian. It may be a slip of the tongue, a phantasmatic verbal deformation, or just a tic of speech, but it usually turns up later in its proper place.

Eugene Jolas, 'Homage to the Mythmaker', transition 27 (1938) 

'Really it is not I who am writing this crazy book,' Joyce told a party of friends. 'It is you, and you, and you, and that man over there, and that girl at the next table.'  

Eugene Jolas, 'My Friend James Joyce' in James Joyce: Two Decades of Criticism (ed Givens), 1948

  *In 2020, I learned that the National Library of Ireland has an early sketch dictated to Nora, which I've posted about here.

1 comment:

  1. On several occasions in the early 80's I met Beckett near his home on Bld. St. Jacques. Once I mentioned his contribution to a translation of parts of Anna Livia, how it gave me new insight to the original but that huge sections of the Wake remained unfathomable to me. He laughed and said: "Yes, some of it can be a bit bewildering!"
    I'm immensely enjoying this blog. Congratulations.