Samuel Beckett’s “Alternative Facts”

If you are feeling anxious about the Trump administration, perhaps it’s time to start reading Samuel Beckett. In a piece for The New Yorker published earlier this month, Jon Michaud revisits a novel penned by Beckett during the Second World War. This idiosyncratic text, published as Watt, is described by Michaud as possibly “the least loved and least read of Beckett’s major prose works”. But that is no reason to dismiss it. He praises its bleakness and its humour, while singling out its “uncompromising […] indifference to such readerly comforts as plot and accessibility”. To give some explanation of its difficulty, Michaud outlines the troubling circumstances that produced it:

“In the summer of 1942, Samuel Beckett and his partner Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil fled their apartment in the German-occupied city of Paris. After more than a month on the run, including stints sleeping in parks and hiding in trees from Nazi patrols, they wound up in the town of Roussillon d’Apt, in the unoccupied zone. The couple had reason to fear for their lives. In Paris, both had been active members of a Resistance cell known as Gloria, which was compromised by the Nazis. Numerous members of the cell were arrested by the Gestapo, including Beckett’s close friend Alfred Péron, who was interrogated and eventually sent to Mauthausen concentration camp, in Austria. He died two days after the camp was liberated, in 1945.”

Beckett’s Watt is a novel that, in its own unique way, documents a period of cultural and historical crisis. And Michaud admits that he was prompted to return to Beckett’s strange and elusive text by our current political moment. Watt‘s approach to language and meaning can serve as a critique that addresses the Trump era of “alternative facts”, where even the most established cultural institutions fall under threat. Beckett’s text not only manages to address such concerns, but also draws on humour, parody, and mimicry to relieve some of the tension:

“That unrelenting ambiguity is what drew me back to the book earlier this year. Like so many others contending with the current Administration’s loose relations with the truth, I’ve found myself questioning my own sanity. If “Watt” could keep Samuel Beckett from losing his mind, I decided, perhaps it could do the same for me. I hope it’s working.”.

I hope so, too.

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