I intended Watt to be a palate cleanser after reading Proust. One doesn’t take away characters, stories, or ideas from Beckett in the normal way. Rather, it’s a certain effect that he creates, and it’s one that’s intimately involved with the reading of the text; it’s less easy to carry around with you. So his books make for better rereading than most.
Watt isn’t as focused and abstract as Beckett’s post-Molloy work; nor is it as borderline-normal as Murphy. The extensive lists and permutations make their first big appearance here, but they’re at their most pointless. The title character, a man of no imagination but much logic, relentlessly explores possibilities for every small event as he enters the employ of Mr. Knott as a servant. He doesn’t meet Mr. Knott while a servant on the first floor, giving him plenty of time to form hypotheses about the circumstances of Knott’s life and habits. He moves to the second floor, but we only hear of his experiences there through what he tells the narrator. There is much pedantry, but every so often there is stark beauty. Of Knott, Watt says the following sentences in reverse (I have reversed them for reader convenience):
Abandoned my little to find him. My little to learn him forgot. My little rejected to have him. To love him my little reviled. This body homeless. This mind ignoring. These emptied hands. This emptied heart. To him I brought. To the temple. To the teacher. To the source. Of nought. (106)
People (including me) think of Beckett as a terminal figure, like Godard, someone who pushed an approach as far as it could go, so that his successors had to turn back and follow other approaches. But after three-thousand-some pages of Proust and the trappings of Parisian high society, the empty nought Watt finds after leaving behind his “little” reads as distressingly liberating. Hardly a good freedom, but one in which language no longer carries the incredible weight which Proust invested in it; where, rather, it can hardly be tied down.