The Beckett Circle

The Beckett Circle 23:2 (spring 2001).
H. Porter Abbott

As this novel enters its denouement, you will find a section titled "Endgame," in which the eponymous heroine gives our lovesick hero a copy of Beckett's Endgame in its original French.  It is, she points out, far superior to the miserable Polish translation.  The author of this superb and vigorously translated first novel should know.  As theatrical director, critic, and translator, Antoni Libera has done more for Beckett in Poland than anyone else.  So it is not surprising that there are traces of Beckett throughout this novel, including a silent citation on the last page. 

But Beckett isn't the only one cited, and by a wide margin.  Aside from the sheer skill by which this coming of age story is plotted (so that it is impossible to put down), what is most fun about the book is the way its reflexive awareness of literature builds the narrative itself.  It does this not simply in adaptations of a multitude of predecessor texts like Beckett's, but in the way the plot itself is a mystery that can only be solved by creation.  In this way, the balance of unveiling and fabricating is struck again and again by a sleuth who so aspires to a life worthy of narration that he hits on the plan of making this segment of his life out of "the magic power of words . . . . Not only could they change reality, they could create it, and in some cases supplant it. . . . I would not rely on Providence for opportunities to exploit the magic power of words.  I would create them" (66-67).  This would be his "Great Game" (68).

The central trope for this game is chess.  But as our hero proceeds in his "attack" it is not clear whether he is in charge of his trope, with its military language, or whether his trope is in charge of him.  So, for example, "Operation Queen's Gambit," (226) gives way to a "siege": "We'll take the citadel yet; if we can't shoot our way in, we'll starve out the enemy" (228).  So the beloved is the "enemy?"  And what do "take" and "shooting" and "starving" mean?  What, finally, does "victory" mean with reference to the object of his desire - a distant, stately, sophisticated, French-fluent headmistress, who happens to be named "Victoire?"  Our alarmingly chaste hero cannot say.  Imaginative as he is, his fantasies don't extend that far.  He is playing chess without any clear idea of what constitutes checkmate.

This dilemma is in fact a resource.  For this novel is about how works of literature stay alive by participating in spontaneous acts of propagation.  The catch is that they must do so under the stress of real passion aroused by real-life urgencies and with no clear end in sight.  This is how the "old times," mourned as a Golden Age when great and greatly narratable things happened, become contemporary.  Even more than Beckett, the central author from the old times in this novel is Conrad (also silently quoted on the last page), and of all his novels the central one is Victory, though necessarily in a French edition, Victoire, to complement the novel's heroine. That the central text of this novel is a French translation of a novel written in English by a Polish author perfects the theme of linguistic, literary, and national fluidity that is so important for the author, a Polish translator of works written in French by an Irish author.

Conrad's narrator in Victory defines the creative spontaneity that comes out of confusion: "'It is not the clear-sighted who lead the world," . . . great achievements, he claims, are born of  impulse, 'accomplished in a blessed, warm mental fog,' not in cold calculation" (216).  The enemy is institutional structure with its presumption of knowledge and control.  This is a constant theme, and the narrative of amorous pursuit is studded with interruptions by deadly representatives of bureaucratic conformity: "'No excuse,' said the Sergeant phlegmatically, 'It is the duty of each and every citizen to have his papers on him at all times'" (266).

But institutions are not the only constraints.  There is, after all, the sheer physicality of the world and the otherness of those who inhabit it.  For our hero, a narcissist who reads himself everywhere, these constraints can weigh heavily.  Yet in moments of clarity, he sees that, for all his gifts, he has been an avoider: "I would rather have semblance than truth.  Enclosed within myself, inaccessible, locked in the impregnable armor of my brain, I was nothing but irony and superficial wit, the eternal court jester, the buffoon" (314).  But the book also seems to say that there is creative energy in self-absorption, an energy that can, by its labors, actually find a way out of the prison of self.  When this happens, the "enemy" is discovered to be a real person, and the Great Game comes to seem "futile and empty.  I wanted something else: the real thing, the truth.  I wanted to make the Word flesh or the Word made flesh.  Yet I feared it" (367).

But along the way, our narrator also succeeds in escaping the clichés which mere garden-variety narcissists are doomed to inhabit.  Instead he invents something quite new out of generic bases, both venerable and kitsch (the quest, the romance, the agon, the Bildungsroman, the Künstlerroman, the voyeur's pornography, the melodrama, the cheesy love story).  One of the steamiest scenes of erotic encounter in all of literature is the midpoint of Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain when Hans Castorp is finally given his chance to woo Madame Chauchat.  Mann's narrative at this point converts from German to French, the language of passionate intimacy.  In a parallel climax, Libera's Polish Castorp woos in French for all he is worth, with the same chaste and awed regard, though with greater effrontery and much else in the way of invention.

In short, what he steals he changes.  If he steals Hans Castorp, he cross-breeds him with Felix Krull, then stirs in Tonio Kröger and a surprising touch of Aschenbach, plus Proust?s Marcel and Swann, plus Conrad?s Heyst, plus Ariel, Marc Antony, Werther, Hamlet, Hippolytus, Acteon.  In darker moods, Libera's hero is Jacques, the Misanthrope, Beckett's Hamm.  Thus, in the above-mentioned scene of wooing, he is not simply Castorp crossed with Kröger and Krull, he is both Racine and Phaedra.  All this is performed quite self-consciously, in a set of ingenious inversions that the novel has long been preparing.

Behind it all, of course, is someone who, for want of a better term, we'll call the author, but who also on occasion lets himself slip sideways into the narrative.  "You can't identify Antony with Shakespeare" (339), our hero thinks to himself.  And of course he is right.  Antony is a hero, Shakespeare is an author.  But then Antoni is an author, and our hero is nameless.  It is at moments like these that the reader is drawn across a line that separates the triumphal ego of the modernist creator from the hall of mirrors of postmodernism where identity is at once everywhere and nowhere.  My final feeling, however, is that in this novel we don't go all the way into the hall of mirrors.  We are drawn back again by a creator who, unlike the emergent artist of his creation, appears to be very much in control.  He, after all, is our true hero (Antony Shakespeare), doing with his pen in seven chapters - which, as his surrogate immodestly notes, correspond to the seven days of Creation - what really good writers have always done.  He keeps literature alive by making it new.

But making it new means, as our hero learns, returning to earth.  To succeed, our narrator's "Great Game" must let the real world in.  In other words, it must be more than a game.  Early and late, in Madame, Hamm's wonderful line is repeated: "Use your head, can't you, use your head, you're on earth; there's no cure for that."  It is a wonderful line in part because it acknowledges that there are constraints on what our language games can do and that there is a reality where our bodies reside.  It may not be an entirely empirical reality ("Use your head"), but it is the condition in which we find ourselves, and there is no escaping it.  In short, there is wisdom in this story of youth burdened by prodigious gifts.