Company (1979) | Samuel Beckett.
Domain: Literature. Genre: Prose, Poem. Country: Ireland, Europe.
Author of this text: Dirk Van Hulle, James Joyce Centre - University of Antwerp
Company is one of the most fascinating of Samuel Beckett’s bilingual texts. He wrote it in English, translated it into French (Compagnie, published by Minuit in 1980), and then adapted the English original again. The writing process of this prose text (or prose-poem) largely coincided with the genesis of the play A Piece of Monologue. Beckett started writing Company in May 1977. In August the actor David Warrilow asked Beckett if he wanted to write a play for him; on the first of October Beckett wrote a letter to Warrilow suggesting a central theme: “My birth was my death,” emphasizing the undeniable fact that each person happens to be born at the very moment his process of dying begins. Although Beckett thought he would not be able to write a complete play on this theme, he started the next day, 2 October 1977. The first draft opens indeed with the words “My birth was my death.” In the upper left corner, Beckett added “all 3rd” (circled), indicating that the first person narrator had to be changed into the third person singular throughout. So in the first typescript the text opens as follows: “Birth was his death. Put that another way. Birth was the death of him.”
In the meantime, Beckett continued his work on the piece of prose, Company. In May 1978 (17 May 1978), one year after he started writing Company, Beckett considered the possibility of incorporating a piece of the play in the prose text, as paragraph 54. In order to do so, he made a few remarkable changes, most of which involve the deletion of visual (i.e. typically dramatic) elements. Apart from this deletion of visual elements, the present tense (“never dies”) is changed into the narrative past (“never died”). And “Birth was the death of him” became “the death of you”. Eventually, Beckett decided to stop the generic crossover operation and extracted the piece again, to develop A Piece of Monologue and Company as two separate works.
Company consists of 59 paragraphs. The implicit reference to the almost, but not quite full circle of the clock (seconds per minute, minutes per hour) may be seen as a comment on the human conventions to systematize time. Beckett often employed the text’s formal structure to thematize the arbitrariness of these conventions, Lessness (1969) being a particularly good example. Fifteen of these 59 paragraphs focus on a scene from the past, apparently the past of the “one on his back in the dark”. The opening paragraph reads: “A voice comes to one in the dark. Imagine.” The narratological situation is made more explicit in the second paragraph: “That then is the proposition. To one on his back in the dark a voice tells of a past.” Apart from the “voice” and the hearer – who would use the first person pronoun if he could speak – there is mention of an “other”: “Use of the second person marks the voice. That of the third that cankerous other” (paragraph 3). In the middle of the text, the opening lines of paragraph 30, this “cankerous other” is described as the “Deviser of the voice and of its hearer and of himself. Deviser of himself for company.” The text thus seems to be the elaboration of Hamm’s line in Endgame (1956): “Then babble, babble, words, like the solitary child who turns himself into children, two, three, so as to be together, and whisper together, in the dark.” But in the end the text returns to the level-headedness of existential reality; the last paragraph of Company is one single word: “Alone.”
Of the fifteen memory sections, one paragraph with the birth of “you”, seven with his early childhood, two with adulthood, four with old age, and one (the penultimate paragraph) has no specific indication of age. Especially the first memory section (paragraph 7) seems to have made a deep impression: “A small boy you come out of Connolly’s Stores holding your mother by the hand.” The small boy looks up at the blue sky and asks his mother if the sky is not in reality much more distant than it appears. His mother does not answer and some hundred paces later he asks the same question again. For some unfathomable reason his mother’s reaction is inexplicably vehement. She shakes off his little hand and makes a “cutting retort you have never forgotten”. As Enoch Brater has pointed out, this seems to be the same scene that is recounted in Malone meurt (1951) when “mama” replies to her son that the sky is precisely as far away as it appears to be.
Apart from the narrative correspondences, Company seems to be a further anatomy of the “self” that was still called “Malone” or named “the Unnamable” in the trilogy (published in the 1950s). In Company, the “devised deviser” is not Malone but simply alone, even when “he” tells himself to call the hearer “M” and “himself some other character. W.” (paragraph 41; paragraph 35 suggests that the hearer could “be named H. Aspirate. Haitch.”). “M” was Beckett’s favourite letter. As the thirteenth of the alphabet it suggests a link with the thirteenth of April, the author’s birthday, which in 1906 happened to be Good Friday. Hence the reference in the 54th paragraph to Christ’s death: “You first saw the light and cried at the close of the day when in darkness Christ at the ninth hour cried and died.” This coincidence – which may also be underlying the first line of A Piece of Monologue, “Birth was the death of him” – is meaningful in the sense that life in Beckett’s writings is inextricably connected to suffering and death.
Most of the memories may have had their origin in Beckett’s own life, but the text – insisting on the homophony of “lying” (supine/untruthful) – constantly undermines their “verisimilitude” (paragraph 27) and suggests that they are all lies: “as he lies the craving for company revives. In which to escape from his own” (paragraph 54). As in Not I, the “unthinkable last of all” is “Unnamable. Last person. I. Quick leave him” (paragraph 28). However autobiographical this text may seem, the third-person narrative constantly interrupts the second-person, autobiographical narrative. This way, Beckett draws attention to the act of narration and the fact that remembrance, autobiography, and the creation of a “self” is an endless process of revision. The anecdotes remain “figments” and the attempts to go back in time (“whithershins”) to regain time – as in the last part of Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu – are doomed to fail. But the importance of this failure is that it shows how the “self” is constantly being written and rewritten, constructed and reconstructed with hindsight in a mind that is “unstillable” (paragraph 26). The “stirrings still” or the “unformulable gropings of the mind” already foreshadow Beckett’s last prose work, Stirrings Still. This reverberation between works within Beckett’s oeuvre reflects the poetics of process implied in Company, suggesting that each person is a work in progress, a temporary invention (“Imagine”) of some kind of “company” that implies an “escape from his own,” an amalgamation of constructions that constantly change and expand like a cancer, “that cankerous other” (paragraph 3).
The penultimate paragraph implicitly refers to “the old lutist” Belacqua, “waiting to be purged” in Purgatorio (in Dante’s Divina Commedia). In the same manner “you” is sitting “huddled in the dark” in foetal position. The memories thus almost coincide with the present situation: “Huddled thus you find yourself imagining you are not alone while knowing full well that nothing has occurred to make this possible. The process continues none the less lapped as it were in its meaninglessness. You do not murmur in so many words, I know this doomed to fail and yet persist.” Many aspects of Beckett’s poetics come together in this passage: the insight, formulated in Watt, that every attempt to eff the ineffable is doomed to fail; the idea, formulated in Endgame, that “the end is in the beginning and yet you go on”; and especially the inexplicable urge to continue “none the less,” in spite of the obvious meaninglessness of the process.
As Charles Krance points out in the introduction to his bilingual variorum edition of Company / Compagnie, the original English version (that was published after the French text) shows traces of the translation. For instance the word “trait” in the sentence “Another trait its repetitiousness” was originally “characteristic”; Beckett then changed it into “peculiarity”; and only after having translated the phrase as “Autre trait le rabâchage” did he decide to employ “trait” in the English version as well. The translation has an impact on its source text, thus creating a form of interdependence that reflects the imaginative and retrospective constructions by the “crawling creator” (paragraph 51), the “devised deviser devising it all for company” (paragraph 44).
Dirk Van Hulle, James Joyce Centre - University of Antwerp
First published 17 September 2004