Samuel Beckett's Signature in Years 1929–1938

Reflecting on the Thought Process: Language, the Neutrum and Memory

by Rafał Borkowski (Author)
©2022 Monographs 202 Pages


The study offers new readings of early works, both novels and short stories, of Samuel Beckett in the context of Beckett’s signature. The author analyses the given signature through such terms as language, the neutrum and memory, simultaneously incorporating the mentioned terms in the context of Beckett’s early prose. The first part of the book is theoretical and concentrates on coining the term signature through different philosophical viewpoints (e.g., Lotman, Blanchot, Bergson), whereas the second part analyses Beckett’s early works in the context of the signature (e.g., Proust, More Pricks Than Kicks, Murphy). The book also analyses a posthumously-published short story Echo’s Bones that opens new interpretation paths for twenty-first century Beckettologists.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • Part One
  • Chapter 1: The Concept of the Signature
  • Chapter 2: The Signature of Samuel Beckett
  • Chapter 3: The Language
  • Chapter 4: The Neutrum
  • Chapter 5: Memory and time
  • Part Two
  • Chapter 1: Early criticism in Dante… Bruno. Vico.. Joyce. (1929) and Proust (1931)
  • Chapter 2: More Pricks Than Kicks (1934)
  • Chapter 3: Murphy (1938)
  • Chapter 4: ‘Echo’s Bones:’ A short story (wr. 1933 – publ. 2014)
  • Conclusions
  • Bibliography
  • Index of Names
  • Series Index

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The aim of this dissertation is to trace the origins of the artistic signature in the earliest works of Samuel Beckett (1906–1989). The time frame discussed in the thesis includes the years 1929–1938, the former date refers to Beckett’s double debut in a literary magazine transition, where he published his short story ‘Assumption’ and a critical text Dante … Bruno. Vico.. Joyce, whereas the latter date indicates the year of publishing the novel Murphy. The research material is limited to six texts including two early works of criticism Dante … Bruno. Vico.. Joyce (published 1929) and Proust (published 1931), one collection of short stories More Pricks Than Kicks (published 1934) from which were selected two short stories, the opening ‘Dante and the Lobster’ and the third in the collection ‘Ding-Dong;’ one novel Murphy (published 1938), and one short story entitled ‘Echo’s Bones’ that was rejected to be published in 1933 and was published posthumously in 2014. In my work, it was decided to scrutinise neither early Beckett’s poems nor his other rejected novel Dream of Fair to Middling Women (written 1932, published 1992). Such a choice was a result of a vast interpretational material that the selected six texts offer. Nevertheless, the fragments of some poems such as ‘Echo’s Bones’ (which should be distinguished from the same-titled short story) and fragments of Dream will also appear in this thesis.

In the early years of his artistic carrier Samuel Beckett struggled with publishing his texts. For this reason, there can be observed an artistic process of incorporating already written texts into others works. For example, fragments of Dream can be found in a short story ‘What a Misfortune.’ One can also observe that the discussed texts appear in the chronological order, including ‘Echo’s Bones’ that functions as a coda to the whole pre-war oeuvre of Samuel Beckett. The reasons for including this story in my dissertation are as follows: firstly, the text allows us to examine the writer’s artistic process from the perspective of the twenty-first century Beckett researcher to be more precise. Secondly, the motifs and themes that appear in this story, such as the search of the unnamable, the body—mind relation and the endless work of the subject to constitute itself through the language can be used for further research both in the context of Beckett’s pre- and post-war works.

The second aspect that needs further explanation is the notion of the ‘signature’ that is used in the title of this thesis. The starting point for my research is a physical quality of signature, i.e., the graphical sign that allows the receiver to recognise one’s work. The examples of signatures that appear in William ←9 | 10→Shakespeare, Heinrich Isaac and Michelangelo’s hand-writing function as a pretext to illustrate the switch from the signature’s physical to abstract features. It is also taken into consideration that a certain degree of physicality that is epitomised in the natural language is indispensable.

The abstract qualities of my definition of the signature will be predominantly based on notions introduced by Yuri Lotman. My main interests will pivot around the concept of the ‘semiosphere,’ the uniformed semiotic space that generates meanings on the semiotic signs and that uses the ‘boundary’ to filter the signs from the outer, the non-textual world. That juxtaposition between the external—internal and the text—non-text is also visible in other Lotman’s notions, i.e., ‘I’ and ‘other.’ All these terms suggest that the act of signature is happening in-between these two spheres, where the ‘I’ of the artist needs to intermingle with the ‘other,’ understood as the receiver of the text. Owing to that the artist’s signature requires a certain degree of recognition in the collective consciousness of the ‘others,’ such a consciousness allows the receiver to decode the artist’s signature without a need of its physical representation, such as a painting or a sculpture.

The third aspect of the signature is the role that the natural language plays in it. The language should be recognised as a transmitter that not only conveys meanings between these two spaces but also play a role of a generator of new meanings. The motifs, notions and ideas that a language has cumulated in itself will allow the artist, in our case Beckett, to artistically modulate and create new meanings. In that case, the significance of Lotmanian ‘I’ needs to be discussed once again. On the one hand, the ‘I’ conveys in itself the artist’s individuality and uniqueness, on the other the ‘I’ intermingles with the ‘other,’ where that sense of uniqueness is multiplied and infiltrated by the ‘Is’ of the ‘others.’ That feature of the signature finds its reflection in Derek Attridge’s term of ‘singularity,’ the singular experience that is happening within the artist’s work and that allows the receiver to reveal his or her signature. Thus, the sense of uniqueness (singularity) is recognised as an intellectual act where the artist’s well-known signature is revealed to the receiver as a singular experience every time the receiver encounters the work of art.

Having defined my understanding of the signature, I would like to discuss the reasons that stand behind choosing that particular period of time in Beckett’s writing carrier. First and foremost, the pre-war period of Beckett’s literary activity is still not fully explored. Nowadays, we can observe that the increasing number of researchers concentrate on the writer’s early works. For example, Mark Nixon has published Samuel Beckett’s German Diaries 1936–1937 (2011), Samuel Beckett’s Library (together with Dirk van Hulle, 2013) and edited Beckett’s short ←10 | 11→story Echo’s Bones (2014). The other book collection that has allowed to reveal new aspects of Beckett’s early years are the four volumes of The Letters of Samuel Beckett (edited by Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Lois More Overbeck, 2009–2016). Volume I covering the years 1929–1940 is particularly vital for my study as the author’s letters to his friends and editors allow us to trace the artistic process that stands behind Beckett’s early writings.

I also found useful Brigitte Le Juez’s Beckett before Beckett: Samuel Beckett’s Lectures on French Literature (2008) that analyses the memories on Beckett as a literary scholar at Trinity College Dublin in 1930–1931, John Pilling’s Beckett before Godot (2004) that concentrates on the write’s formative years as well as Ruby Cohn’s A Beckett Canon (2005) which attempts to describe all Beckett’s works, including less-known pre-war texts. In the recent years the critical versions of the early writings are becoming more and more popular. In addition to the already mentioned scrupulously edited ‘Echo’s Bones,’ we should mention Christopher Ackerley’s Demented Particulars: The Annotated Murphy (2010) that scrutinise Beckett’s first published novel. Samuel Beckett’s texts that I work on are, in general, versions published in The Selected Works of Samuel Beckett Volumes I-IV (2010). The only exceptions are Dream of Fair to Middling Women (2012) and Echo’s Bones (2014) since they were published separately.

As the above examples well illustrate, one can notice that the intensified research in the area of the pre-war texts covers the last 20 years, which means that this period of Beckett’s oeuvre has not been fully revealed and elaborated yet. The main reason of researching the pre-war texts of Beckett is the publication of ‘Echo’s Bones’ in 2014. The short story that was originally to be a part of the More Pricks Than Kicks yet was dismissed by the publisher, when read from the diachronic perspective through the prism of the whole oeuvre reveals that the motifs that eventually become significant in his late works, can be traced in its embryonical form in ‘Echo’s Bones.’ These motifs include: the importance of the voice, the search of the neutral language and the reduction of the meanings to its pure forms. Thus, the research on that particular period of Beckett’s artistic activity allows us to indicate that his works, even though written almost one hundred years ago, are still a vital, evolving element of the contemporary culture. The ideas developed in this doctoral thesis were preceded by my two papers, namely ‘Beckett przed Beckettem? Poszukiwania początków sygnatury Beckettowskiej na przykładzie opowiadania ‘Echo’s Bones’ [‘Beckett before Beckett? In Search of the Origin of Beckett’s Signature based on ‘Echo’s Bones’]. In: Wiśniewski, Tomasz (ed). Beckett w XXI. Wieku. Rozpoznanie. Gdańsk University Press, 2017 and ‘Bergson—Beckett—Lotman: A Semiotic Analysis of Samuel Beckett’s “A Wet Night” from More Pricks Than Kicks.’ In: Beyond Philology, Gdańsk ←11 | 12→University Press, 14.2/2017. My research covered in these papers concentrated on recognising what Samuel Beckett’s signature is as well as how Lotman’s notion of semiosphere can be juxtaposed with Beckett’s texts in general.

My decision to write the thesis in English has been motivated not only by my background of an English philologist but also by the lack of translations of the discussed works in Polish. Among the works that were translated into Polish and are discussed or appear in this thesis there is Dream of Fair to Middling Women (Sen o Kobietach Pięknych i Takich Sobie, translation Barbara Kopeć-Umiastowska, Sławomir Magala, 2003). The translations of Dante… Bruno. Vico.. Joyce and Proust appear in Antoni Libera’s anthology Samuel Beckett. Utwory wybrane (2017), whereas ‘Dante and the Lobster’ was translated by Marek Kędzierski, Antoni Libera and Ewa Jankowska in Twórczość (4/1981). Thus, the choice of writing in English is both practical, as instead of working on non-ideal philological translation of my own, I can concentrate on the analysis of the works discussed in the thesis and personal as it is grounded in my educational background. Moreover, that particular period of Beckett’s writing is still not fully discovered by the Polish academia;1 thus, raising that subject can be a good starting point to the discussion on Beckett’s early texts.2

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The thesis is divided into two parts, Part One consists of five chapters while Part Two of four chapters. Whereas Part One is of a theoretical character and attempts to define the notion of the signature in general, not only in Beckett’s context, Part Two concentrates on interpretation of Beckett’s texts in a chronological order through his signature. Chapter 1 of Part One concentrates on distinguishing the qualities of the signature – in particular, on its relation with physical qualities (1.1). It is also presented why I have decided on the term ‘signature; instead of ‘manner,’ ‘style’ or ‘poetics’ (1.2). Section 1.3. examines the features of the signature as an act and event, following Derrida and Attridge.

Chapter 2 of Part One focuses on the definition of signature in general terms as well as on defining the artistic signature of Samuel Beckett. It needs to be mentioned that Sections 2.1 to 2.3 cover more general views on the definition of signature and do not focus on Samuel Beckett’s signature as the latter will be examined from Section 2.4. Section 2.1 concentrates on the role of the receiver in the signature seen in light of Eco’s principles. Section 2.2. presents differences between the terms ‘signature’ and ‘poetics,’ whereas section 2.3 attempts to define the term ‘signature.’ Section 2.4 concludes the principles of Beckett’s artistic signature by evidencing three leading themes that appear to be the core for the author’s interests, namely language, neutrum and memory. The search of ‘pure’ language, i.e., the language that, without conveying any meaning, can only exist in a neutral space and is aimed at a maximal reduction, to a single sign, as understood by Blanchot, appear to be the second theme of Beckett’s interests. Even though Beckett became familiar with Blanchot’s text as late as after the Second World War, he presents similar observations in his early works. The next three chapters attempt to characterise core elements of Beckett’s signature defined in this book. Chapter 3 presents the origins of the writer’s interests in the language itself, including information on Beckett’s early language education. Chapter 4 attempts to define the neutrum, by referring to different philosophers and notions such as Blanchot’s ‘neutrum,’ Hill’s ‘aporia,’ and Husserl’s ‘epochē.’ It is worth mentioning that information about Beckett’s reading covered in Samuel Beckett’ Library are a vital element of tracing what books or ideas could have influenced Beckett’s intellectual development, thus a vast number of names used in the whole thesis can find its reflection in Nixon and van Hulle’s book.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2022 (August)
semiosphere reduction sign semiotics symbol mind
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2022. 202 pp.

Biographical notes

Rafał Borkowski (Author)

Rafał Borkowski holds a PhD in English Literature Studies from the University of Gdańsk (Poland). He has published articles on British and Irish literature. His interests pivot around early Samuel Beckett’s works, semiotics and Scandinavian languages.


Title: Samuel Beckett's Signature in Years 1929–1938