Surreal Beckett? Non.

From Journal of Beckett Studies

Alan Warren Friedman, Surreal Beckett: Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, and Surrealism. Routledge Studies in Twentieth-Century Literature. New York and London: Routledge, 2018. 248pp. $149.95, hardback ISBN: 978-1138103023.

Book review by Michael Coffey


‘A Mangled Bus, and Bodies: “It Was Grisly. It Was Surreal”’. Thus read a headline in the New York Times on 31 October 2017, describing yet another deadly terrorist attack on pedestrians in an urban location, this time one block from my apartment in New York City, where this morning I sit down to shape into a book review my notes on Alan Warren Friedman’s Surreal Beckett: Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, and Surrealism. Having struggled for a couple of weeks with Friedman’s mercurial concept of what Surrealism is, or was, and what, in Beckett, or Joyce, might ‘recall’ it, ‘allude’ to it, ‘impact’ on it, ‘echo’ it, ‘anticipate’ it or ‘anticipate if not influence’ it, I am brought up short by the use of the word ‘surreal’ today to describe a tangle of dead bodies on a bike path on a bright blue autumn afternoon.

Is it a disservice to Friedman to invoke the common application of the noun today in the course of assessing the merits of a book principally about the 1920s art, literary, and political movement known as Surrealism and its effect on a great literary figure? Yes–if Friedman himself had not repeatedly traded on such base equivalences in his effort to locate evidence supporting his argument, which is that Surrealism had a ‘complex and lasting impact on [Beckett] and his writings’ (xviii). Indeed, Friedman makes much of what he identifies as surreal imagery – strewn body parts (94), ‘partial figures’ (for example, Winnie) (95), eyeballs, blindness (109), and the collision of the animate with the inanimate, as when Molloy’s bike runs over Lousse’s dog (84). These are ‘Surrealist connections’, contends Friedman, because such things can be found in the films of Buñuel, the photographs of Angus McBean, and the paintings of Magritte, among other works and artists. Friedman continues in this manner, citing bowler hats (79), an obsession with chess (88), the presence of clowns (or rather, Beckett’s personification of ‘clownishness’) (79), and the plasticity of time (105) as additional evidence of Surrealism’s pull on Beckett, all of which might be of interest if Friedman did not content himself with mounting merely a circumstantial case for Beckett having ‘engaged and interacted with the Surrealists to a greater extent than has generally been acknowledged’ (xviii).

Friedman, who has edited two books dealing with Beckett’s translation work, begins this study by treating the reader to a recounting of ‘Surrealism’s Origin and Evolution’, from the precursors (Bosch, Nerval, Lautréamont), to the French Symbolists (Baudelaire etc.), to the heavy-hitters – Appollinaire, Tzara, Breton, Éluard, Ernst, Dalí.1 There is little to argue with here and it serves as a refresher on the movement that Breton defined as ‘psychic automatism in its pure state’. What, then, follow are chapters in which Friedman establishes Beckett’s inarguable connection to Joyce, Joyce’s connection to Eugene Jolas’s transition, Beckett’s connection to (I would argue, financial dependence on) transition, and transition’s connection to Surrealism. The tedium of this survey is somewhat redeemed by the lively characters (and a couple of Irish geniuses) at the heart of it.

Friedman’s claim that the extent of Beckett’s engagement with Surrealists has been understated or insufficiently explored can be easily dismissed. In fact, throughout the book, he cites every significant scholar who had weighed in on the matter, even drawing up various squads – Ackerley, Gontarski, Cronin against reducing Beckett to ‘a Surrealist writer’, Lois Gordon and Daniel Albright ‘at the other end of the spectrum’, Ben Keatinge, Enoch Brater and others taking up the vast ‘middle ground’ (xvii). All this ground is slippery. Brater, for example, although having written insightfully about the surreal elements of Not I, concludes that surrealism ‘did not offer [Beckett] a formal structure to meet its own demands [. . .] the domain that Beckett would make so securely his own [. . .]. Beckett was a formalist’ (Brater, 2011, 30). Albright in his Beckett and Aesthetics, which Friedman says ‘comes closest to a full-length study’ of Beckett and Surrealism, offers that Beckett ‘spent his whole life under the spell of the Surrealist exhibition’, and that ‘questioning the tenability of the various antitheses that govern [a] medium’, as Beckett does, is also one of Surrealism’s central tenets (Albright, 2003, 9, 8). This makes Albright’s a fascinating study that nonetheless remains elusive when it comes to conclusions. One area left unexplored by Friedman – and most everyone else – now need not be explored, thanks to Emilie Morin’s recent book Beckett’s Political Imagination, in which she exhaustively details the connections between Beckett and ‘the political idioms of the international Left’ (Morin, 2017, 80), which attracted him to Surrealist circles as much perhaps as the need for income from translation work. Beckett’s politics (and economic need) in 1930s Paris led to him translating two anthologies (Negro and The Anthology of Mexican Poetry) and publishing translations in two Surrealist-dominated periodicals, the aforementioned transition and This Quarter. Necessity and sympathy made for a period’s associations. What seems clear today, in light of Morin’s pioneering section on Beckett and Surrealism, is that the movement’s central coherence was political, not aesthetic. As Morin also shows, Beckett’s politics were fairly consistent; as an artist, however, he continued to move into new ground till the very end and was wholly original once he got Joyce out of his system.2

What benefit is it today to consider Beckett in light of an aesthetic that is long gone, its only remnant a word used loosely in headlines and by anyone confronted by something unaccountably bizarre? For this reader, the benefit of reading Friedman’s book was the opposition it inspired, here rendered, I hope, respectfully. In some way, measuring Beckett’s work against a particular aesthetic brings out just what makes Beckett’s work different, always resistant to ‘the neatness of identifications’.

Although Albright claims that a certain ‘contrapuntal friction among […] competing media’ is in itself an aspect of Surrealism (10), and certainly Beckettian, there are too many other avowed Surrealist concerns that simply are not. The illogical juxtapositions that characterize Surrealism, for example – the sewing machine and umbrella on the operating table, in Lautréamont’s formulation – are not for Beckett, who works in the opposite direction, focusing on logical processes, paring away that which might obscure or confuse a simple operation–the distribution of food scraps to the Lynch dogs, for example, or how to leave no stone unsucked and none sucked twice in the greatcoat. To the melted clocks in Surrealism Beckett brings his metronome.

Despite the fact that Beckett and a group of Surrealists were operative in the same city and published in the same journals, and, as Morin adduces, shared a similar politics, they parted ways, responding to different aesthetic imperatives, their fates bound up (though they did not know it) in the limits of those programmes.  The Surrealists, in their effort, as Dalí put it, to ‘discredit reality’ (Friedman, 2018, 67), could not help but repeat themselves, trapped in the coil of virtuosic reinvention; whereas Beckett proceeded via subtraction, a process that, in theory, could end, though Beckett never found the end of it. Beckett’s practice did not intend to discredit reality but to discredit representation itself, which was his project, as David Lloyd has most recently shown (Lloyd, 2016, 222). Whereas Surrealism ran out of ideas and became a style, Beckett worked assiduously to escape style, that was his idea. Not for Beckett the extreme scalar discrepancies of Dalí and Magritte. On the contrary, Beckett sought, however impossibly, to align his work with a reality, to understand relations of subject and object. He wanted to know how far the moon.

There seems to be a good deal of filler in this book, the ‘Surrealist connections’ of Joyce and Beckett spent after three chapters. Having apparently rested his case, Friedman presents a few good pages (121–3) on Magritte and Breton and then runs down all the usual suspects in a lengthy Chapter 4, ‘Beckett and Visual Art’. Dreams and voice get their own short chapters (in the latter, for a moment back on topic, Watt’s pot is compared to Magritte’s pipe). To conclude things – and unwittingly underscore the arbitrariness at the heart of the book – Friedman appends ‘Beckett and Surrealism: A Chronology’. The entry for 1950: ‘May Beckett Dies, Buñuel, Los Olvidados [. . .]’. Surreal.

Michael Coffey

DOI: 10.3366/jobs.2018.0241



1. Friedman, Alan Warren, ed. (2000), Beckett in Black and Red: The Translations for Nancy Cunard’s Negro (1934), Lexington: University Press of Kentucky. And Friedman, Alan Warren, Charles Rossman and Dina Scherzer, eds., (1987), Beckett Translating/Translating Beckett, University Park: Pennsylvania University Press.

2. It is interesting to note here James Knowlson’s contention in Damned to Fame that Beckett never warmed to the Surrealists because they were ‘distinctly cool’ to Joyce (113). However, Conor Carville, in his new book, Samuel Beckett and the Visual Arts, makes the case for a trace of Surrealism in Watt, which he attributes to the influence of Duchamp and Breton (150).



Albright, Daniel (2003), Beckett and Aesthetics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Brater, Enoch (2011), 10 Ways of Thinking About Samuel Beckett: The Falsetto of Reason, London: Methuen.

Carville, Conor (2018), Samuel Beckett and the Visual Arts, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Knowlson, James (1996), Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett, London: Bloomsbury.

Lloyd, David (2016), Beckett’s Thing: Painting and Theatre, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Morin, Emilie (2017), Beckett’s Political Imagination, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.