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Indulgence: Joyce, Beckett, Oulipo

Via correspondence to Bellona Times, Paul Kerschen tells of a story of Joyce dictating Finnegans Wake to Beckett:

There was a knock at the door which Beckett didn’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. Beckett was fascinated and thwarted by Joyce’s singular method. (Ellmann, 649)

In other words, Beckett was pissed off. There are so many who worry about slaving away in the darkness to an audience of one, only seen as cranks by the rest of the world, and there are impudent jokers like Joyce who implicitly ridicule them. For those of us who still wonder about the point of chapter 14 of Ulysses next to its massive show-off, the sight can be wearying.

I haven’t read enough of the Wake to comment on how dastardly the intrusion actually is–I’ve looked at the passage and it seems obtrusive and isolated enough to be disregarded–but it is this ethic that, intuitively to me, seems to reflect itself in the act of exhibitionism to young girls that figures early on in Finnegans Wake. But Joyce’s own private use (private even, I believe, from Stuart Gilbert) of the sigla does seem to mitigate against the charge of pure japery, and it’s that somewhat submerged ethic that keeps even non-obsessives wondering if the thing holds the meaning of the universe. On the other hand, it could just be a joke on the third item in Ray’s taxonomy of desperation, a tinge of regret that he gave up the five or six schema variations too quickly. But Joyce wasn’t that much of a joker.

(And Beckett had his own preoccupations as well.)

What later became a proving ground for indulgence vs. earnestness was the Oulipo, whose trickeries have overshadowed the vast differences between the efforts of its authors. Harry Mathews has more in common with B. S. Johnson than with Raymond Queneau, Italo Calvino, and Georges Perec, and even Perec and Queneau, the most famous of the French set, are atypical next to, say, Jacques Roubaud, a seemingly more archetypal Oulipo writer who bears more of a resemblance to Donald Barthelme than he does to any of the aforementioned. That the rubric doesn’t include Robbe-Grillet or Claude Simon, who can be considered defiantly post-surrealist and viably experimental, makes the affiliation seem rather superficial: these authors were brought together by their love of palindromes, of games, of metafictional tour-de-forces.

And I think this is the reason that, with the possible exception of Perec, these authors’ most significant work was done outside of their association with the Oulipo, and their work inside of it was their most playful. (With Mathews, I see the difference as almost polar, particularly in his later work like Cigarettes and The Journalist.) The indulgence was a consequence of the context, of the avowed project.

The name-dropping in the last two paragraphs isn’t so important. The point is that the oil and water of logorrheic brinksmanship and the drive towards hidden universals (e.g., the sigla) can coexist. Some authors, like Beckett and Barthelme but also, for example, Lawrence Sterne, mostly reject one or the other. Many of the Oulipo authors worked with both at different times. In Ulysses, Joyce worked with both simultaneously. I suspect the same is true of Finnegans Wake.

1 Comment

  1. Mathews called Cigarettes his most oulipian novel, but as he does not believe in revealing the constraint, it is not clear exactly what it was. It seems to involve a permutation in the pairing of characters but also of situations.

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