Book Review: The Making of Samuel Beckett’s Company/Compagnie

6 December 2021

Jonathan McAllister, University of Cambridge

Georgina Nugent-Folan, The Making of Samuel Beckett’s Company / Compagnie (Brussels: University of Antwerp Press, 2019).

Tried to get going again in English to see me through, say for company, but broke down. But must somehow.

Samuel Beckett to Ruby Cohn, 3 May 1977.[1]

One of the arguments often levelled against genetic criticism is the following: tracing the composition of an artwork tells us little about the significance of the work itself. The most concise formulation of this critique of which I know is given by the late Roger Scruton: ‘what a thing is and how it came to be are two different questions, and the answer to the second may not be the answer to the first’.[2] For this reason, one critic has unreasonably argued that ‘genetic criticism explains nothing, and never has’.[3] But Georgina Nugent-Folan shows that there are substantive intellectual reasons for pursuing a compositional analysis of Beckett’s work. Of relevance to my review is the processual nature of his prose, which foregrounds the pursuit and motive of reading and writing creative texts. What genetic criticism allows scholars to do is offer tentative answers to the questions of how and why we go about these strange activities. 

This is the ninth volume in a series of studies that trace the composition of Beckett’s works to uncover his writing methods and intertextual influences.[4] Under discussion is Beckett’s late prose work Company / Compagnie (1980), which tells the story of a man lying on his back in the dark who fables away his life for company. Through a close study of the circumstances out of which this text was born, Nugent-Folan observes that ‘during its lengthy and often interrupted composition, Beckett regularly referred to the text – then unnamed – as one that was keeping him company, with the title itself seemingly derived from the role it was playing in Beckett’s life’ (22). While this is not a novel argument, its substantiation through close textual reading and compositional analysis has until now been lacking in the criticism.[5] Nugent-Folan is guided in her analysis by a small note that Beckett made in the manuscript for the English text, a formula for the creation of company through the dissociation of self: ‘[C]ompany = A [‘hearer – creature’] + V [‘Voice’ / ‘Scenes from Past’] + B [‘devised – deviser’]’ (30). By splintering the self into ‘hearer-creature’, ‘Voice / Scenes from Past’, and ‘devised-deviser’, Nugent-Folan argues that Beckett was able to bring into being this curious and unstable text that kept him company through periods of social isolation, imparting to the world a creative work that itself functions as company to the reader (29-30). 

The study follows a standard format familiar to readers of the Beckett Digital Manuscript Project (BDMP): a short introduction that proposes a thesis regarding the text; a detailed summary of the extant manuscript sources; and a close analysis of the composition process. For seasoned genetic critics, terms such as ‘epigenetic’, ‘paralipomenon’, and ‘open variant(s)’ will be familiar, but a glossary containing definitions of genetic terms may have been useful for new readers unfamiliar with this specialist language. Nonetheless, the reader is encouraged to read the study ‘in tandem with the digital editions of Compagnie / Company available on the BDMP website’ (36), an invaluable resource that allows scholars to follow the analysis with the textual evidence pertaining to the study.[6] Nugent-Folan adeptly guides the reader through the messy process of composition, helping to date portions of the manuscript and interpret the temporal logic of its creation. By historicising the text in this way, Nugent-Folan is able to make connections between context and text in ways that shed light on the artistic methods deployed throughout Company / Compagnie.         

In advancing her thesis, for example, Nugent-Folan ranges widely over Beckett’s oeuvre to argue that his increasing work across genres in the 1970s fine-tuned his artistic sensibilities: ‘The increasing miscibility across genres in Beckett’s late works […] was aided by Beckett’s own back-and-forth across genres throughout this same period’ (146). Following the readings of scholars before her, Nugent-Folan convincingly shows that Beckett’s work with radio and TV drama in the late 1970s attuned him to the production and nuance of voice, which contributed to the ‘inherently transmedial perspective’ (149) of Company; likewise, the influence of his work in theatre led to the inclusion of ‘taste, smell, and the tactile nature of the figure’s surroundings as well as the more traditional parameters of sight, sound, and narrativized memory’ (149). Similarly, Nugent-Folan attends to the interactions between the English and French texts through carefully reconstructing the translation process, to show that there was an increasingly ‘intertwined oscillation between the French and English versions of this text’ (101). In particular, the opening of the work – ‘A voice comes to one in the dark. Imagine.’ – was composed in both English and French, with Beckett settling on the second one-word sentence via the French (201).[7] This instability between original and translation is convincingly interpreted by Nugent-Folan in the following way: ‘The enjoined nature of these texts […] [makes] them both an original and translation that defy the very remit of these same classifications’ (200).

Nugent-Folan also observes that Company / Compagnie ‘is widely acknowledged as one of Beckett’s most explicitly autobiographical works’ (156), including those ‘Scenes from Past’ on which Beckett drew to impart a history and narrative to his creature. Yet, Nugent-Folan argues, Beckett ‘de-authorises [these] “real life” incident[s], rendering [them] autographic’ (236). The argument here is that Beckett ‘vaguened’ – a term used by the late Rosemary Pountney to signify the process by which Beckett wrote out identifying particulars – biographical details to reflect on the ambiguous processes of narrativization and memory within the text.[8] As such, the text scrutinises the developments of selfhood and individual history within language, rather than claiming an authority over memories of the past: ‘it is the very authenticity not only of memory, but of all narrativised versions of the past that appears to be under interrogation throughout Company’ (201). Again, such an argument is by no means novel, but the compositional analysis carried out attends to the texture of this process as it manifests in Beckett’s redrafting of his text. This is where the strengths of such genetic criticism lie: it allows the critic to take up those passages where Beckett seems to ‘invite (or perhaps incite?) the reader familiar with his biography’ (218) to make connections between fiction and life, subjecting them to close scrutiny in order to examine the experiment he conducts in writing the self. Nugent-Folan ultimately shows that those ‘3 years onning and offing’ with the writing of Company / Compagnie were Beckett’s attempt to further his investigations into the nature of selfhood and narrative fiction.[9]  

[1] Samuel Beckett, The Letters of Samuel Beckett, ed. George Craig, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Dan Gunn and Lois More Overbeck, IV vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), IV: 1966-1989, p. 457.

[2] Roger Scruton, On Human Nature (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2018), p. 19.

[3] Cal Revely-Calder, ‘Curates, Cretins, Critics: Saving Beckett from Beckett Studies’, Times Literary Supplement, February 12 2021. See also, The Samuel Beckett Society, ‘The Times Literary Supplement: A Response’, Samuel Beckett Society, February 24 2021.

[4] The other volumes can be viewed at [accessed 9 November 2021].

[5] See, James Knowlson, Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett (London: Bloomsbury, 1997), p. 651.

[6] While all the volumes of the BDMP can be read without consulting the manuscript sources, Nugent-Folan notes that ‘this study is best read in tandem with the digital editions’ (36).

[7] Samuel Beckett, Company, Ill Seen Ill Said, Worstward Ho, Stirrings Still, ed. by Dirk Van Hulle (London: Faber and Faber, 2009), p. 3.

[8] Rosemary Poutney, Theatre of Shadows: Samuel Beckett’s Drama 1956-76. From All That Fall to Footfalls with commentaries on the Latest Plays (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1988), p. 149.

[9] Beckett, Letters, IV: 1966-1989, p. 519.

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