13 DECEMBER 1963, Page 28

A Master Sty list

Watt. By Samuel Beckett. (Jupiter Books, by arrangement with Olympia Press: John Calder, 8s. 6d.) The Run of Night. By Peter de Polnay. (W. H. Allen, 18s.)

SOME explanation (but certainly no excuse) is needed for reviewing two novels written respec- tively twenty-five and twenty years ago: Murphy was published here in 1938, but only a few hundred copies were sold before the rest were destroyed during the blitz, and Watt has only been available here in a limited edition printed in France. The importance of the republication in paperback of Samuel Beckett's first two novels is that this should now make general the con- viction of most of those who have already read all his novels that Beckett is the finest prose stylist and most original novelist now living, and that, interesting as his plays are, they are no more than dramatised footnotes to the novels.

Murphy is the most nearly conventional of Beckett's novels, and the best introduction to his work (like Joyce, he should be read in chrono- logical order). It is set chiefly in London, where Murphy is part of a ring of lovers, each of whom loves someone who does not return the love: 'Love requited,' as one character observes, 'is a short circuit.' Murphy short-circuits to Celia, a prostitute whom he persuades to give up work in exchange for a promise that he will look

for work. This he does very reluctantly, for his real desire is to live only in his ,mind (Murphy tries to act according to the philosophy of Geulincx, a follower of Descartes, who believed that the mind was quite separate from the body) and Celia all too tangibly reminds him of the existence of his body. Eventually he finds a job in a mental hospital where he lives alone in an attic and can transcend his body by sitting naked for hours strapped by scarves to a chair: only then can he come alive in his mind.

By no means a difficult or obscure novel, Murphy does demand close, attentive reading and occasional reference to a good dictionary (often this is comically rewarding, as when, for example, the second element of triorchous is found to mean 'testicle'). It is one of the funniest novels ever written, and many of its sequences (the chess game against a mental patient who plays all his pieces but for two pawns out and back again without Murphy being able to do anything about it, the scene where Murphy con- sumes 1.83 cups of tea whilst paying for only one) are quite hilariously original.

The style of Beckett's first novel is excellent, but it is not original, not that spare, tense, lapidary use of language which is at once pre- cise and definitive yet easily accommodates the fantastic and the grotesque. It was in Watt that this superb individual style was evolved, a puri- fication of English diction comparable only with Eliot's similar service to poetry in the Twenties: and it is all the more remarkable in that it was achieved during the war when Beckett was in hiding from the Germans in the Vaucluse and had n9 library to which to refer.

Watt is the key work for a proper under- standing and appreciation of all Beckett's later novels and plays: in some ways it is also his greatest. It has a narrative progression rather than a plot. Watt is on a journey to take up a post as a servant to a Mr. Knott; he arrives, displaces his predecessor, serves his term, and is in turn displaced; the book ends with Watt again on a journey. Like Murphy, Watt tries to behave according to a philosophic system: this time one based on Wittgenstein. And, again like the first novel, Watt is very funny Marry will be forty years old next March, D.V.,' said the lady. 'That is the kind of thing Dee always Vees,' said Mr. Hackett), but there is also a bitterness in the humour which looks forward to the novel trilogy and to Waiting for Godot.

The rest of this week's fiction inevitably suffers beside Beckett. Flight of the But is a professionally done air thriller with plenty of pace and no pretensions to being literature. The Russians land rockets in Hyde Park and Wash- ington; Paris and Bonn with notes to the effect that if the West cannot prove their armaments by landing a message in Red Square within a week, then submission or annihilation must follow. NATO rockets cannot pierce the Soviet defences, and the final effort devolves on the Bat, an RAF piloted supersonic aircraft which flies at low level beneath the radar screen. The attempt is made with ingenious use of marine radar and an aircraft instrument which projects a map of the country ahead on to a screen in front of the navigator.

Some technical detaiLs are not completely con- vincing, the characters are strictly subservient to their parts in the plot, and moral issues are either ignored or simplified. This is a book to be read quickly and not thought about after- wards: which, considering its subject, is hardly to praise it.

The Cuttninghams was first published in New Zealand in 1948, and is now issued here for the

first time. David Ballantyne writes of a 01'11 town seen in the late Thirties through the c}es of a tubercular husband, his wife (strugglirl to keep a home and five children on a mca0 and irregular pension, and escaping to her lo‘et when she can), and their adolescent eldest His obvious familiarity with the New Zeak01; he describes and with its people and their arg! makes this a convincing, realistic novel WIJ likeable characters whom it was a small pleastiff to meet. On almost every page of The Run of Nigie there are faults of sentence construction, pal; tuation, or grammar: this is the kind of nod! which reads as though it was never revised (Id alone proof-read), and which makes this rt viewer itch to correct it with a red pen. Ilk° a schoolchild's essay. Its banal plot concerns ° frightened wife who escapes her husband en° suicidal car journey only to undergo a peripatet; night in wildest Sussex encountering various dreary and unconvincing eccentrics. It seen° difficult to imagine good reasons for writing, publishing, or buying this book. B. S. JoilN04 B. S. JoilN04