Monthly Archives: March 2011

The flute

In the morning they came up out of the ravine and took to the road again. He’d carved the boy a flute from a piece of roadside cane and he took it from his coat and gave it to him. The boy took it wordlessly. After a while he fell back and after a while the man could hear him playing. A formless music for the age to come. Or perhaps the last music on earth called up from out of the ashes of its ruin. The man turned and looked back at him. He was lost in concentration. The man thought he seemed some sad and solitary changeling child announcing the arrival of a travelling spectacle in shire and village who does not know that behind him the players have all been carried off by wolves.

– Cormac McCarthy, The Road

Lack of perspective

You know what our problem is? I tell X. Lack of perspective. We’re like a drunk rolling around looking for his glasses. Or an animal tapped in a well. Isn’t that what we’ve been told in so many words, by so many people? If only we had perspective! I say. To have minds that opened up beyond ourselves, beyond our bedrooms, beyond our flat. Over the sprawling broads, across the seas and into space, beyond space and into God himself.

Kingfisher farm cider

Kingfisher farm cider in a music-free pub. Does it get better? No, we agree. At last we can relax, at last we can think, we agree. A few sips in and it feels like we’ve gone to our reward, we agree. We want to stay here forever. Unfortunately there’s only one pub that’s music-free and only one pub that serves Kingfisher farm cider. Fortunately we’re in it. Hoo, I’d forgotten how heady this stuff is, I say. Lightweight, says X. What was it the publican said that time? I say. Sponsored by NASA, says X contentedly. Best drink ever, he says. An epic drink, I agree. And no music! Does it get better? Like mountain air. Crisp and flat and pure and cold and dry. The very distillation of applehood. Dewy dawns in Edenic orchards! Some day I’ll write an ode to Kingfisher cider, I say, some day I’ll give it the ode it deserves. Whatever, says X, get me another one, will you? OK but you won’t walk right, I say… My ears have gone weird, I say later, I can’t hear anything, what’s this stuff doing to me? Relax, he says, stay calm and take it steady like I told you. It won’t turn against you if you stay calm.

The search becomes the work

As in all of Beckett after the great crisis of 1945-50, when he gradually realised that the ‘dark he had struggled to keep under’, as he wrote to a friend, was actually what he had to write about rather than escape from, a voice searches for the right formulation, does not find it, and gives up, but the search becomes the work. To read such pieces is not to enter another world but to enact a desperate movement in the inner reaches of one’s being and to find, at the end, that the enactment of failure has led not to triumph but to a quite physical sense of release.


When will we understand?

When will we understand? I ask X. There is no understanding, he says. We’d have to step outside of everything to understand. We’d have to step out of our stupidity, out of ourselves.

Fail better

Worse still (and heading worstward) what about ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better’, surely the most misread sequence in all of Beckett? He would have been horrified to see it appropriated as a catch-all stoic maxim (e.g. ‘OK, you’re destined to fail, but never mind, keep trying, keep failing in such a way that your failures come closer to success’). Beckett would have poured scorn on this sort of chocolate-box philosophy. The intended meaning is, directly and literally, ‘fail more fully, more catastrophically. Absolutize your failure.’ Not especially Guardian-friendly, is it?

– From a comment here.


There’s something else going on – an asceticism, but in a novel form. If Beckett suffered from depression, he was able to make it an instrument better than most. Which reminds me of George Steiner’s thought that Proust and Dostoevsky were artists who used their own illnesses as great perceptive instruments. It’s in Beckett’s rejections (that we start to see in the first volume of letters), for instance going from a positive to a negative on Jane Austen, that we start to see something like depression become a true instrument.

– From a comment here

I can’t take you anywhere

I can’t take you anywhere, I tell X. You just stand there with your dead eyes. People get embarrassed. Sometimes they get angry. Then I have to try to smooth things over because you won’t or can’t. I look like a fool and you berate me for it.

Too late

We came too late, I say. Our first word was too late. What did we do? Something bad happened, something was destroyed so we could come and say our first word, which was already too late.


Late for what? We don’t know. Our first word delayed us, plunged us into lateness, that’s all we know. Are we responsible? Something disappeared when we began to find the words for it, that’s all we know.


We were born into the world by violence and by a stranger violence we reclaimed it. Then the words themselves began to disappear and the real farce began. Aren’t our lives synonymous with this triple fall?


What should we have done? We shouldn’t be here, says X. But what’s to be done now? How do we use the power that was given to us, that we claimed so greedily? Can we even use it? It seems to fall apart in these very words. We shouldn’t even be here, says X, we shouldn’t have come.


How do we restore what dies for us? We endure by an ancient violence, we know no other way. If we can’t go back we must die too, X says, die even more strangely than we began, together with what our words destroy.


But how to give up words when words are all we have? The answer is in the question, one of us says. Let the trail of ink have its way, let the words dispense with us. Let what was killed in our names, which we can no longer even name, resurrect itself in these words: our words without us.

Once when attending a conference featuring her work with fellow Brazilian novelist Nélida Piñon, she left the room, beckoning Piñon to follow her: ‘Tell them,’ Clarice [Lispector] said to her friend, ‘that if I had understood a single word of all that, I wouldn’t have written a single line of any of my books.’

Jenny McPhee