Shout, Sam, If You Still Can by Maylis Besserie review – The Last Days of Beckett | Fiction

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Maylis Besserie is not lacking in audacity. His novel is a fictional account of the last months of Samuel Beckett’s life, which he spent in a Paris nursing home, the Résidence Tiers Temps. As she says in an author’s note, the book “reconstructs a version of Beckett from real and imagined facts, as if he were a character at the end of his life, like those who inhabit his own work”.

To embark on the portrait of a master stylist, the author of Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable, would discourage the most experienced writer. Whether it is the debut of Besserie, the first part of a projected ‘Irish trilogy’, is remarkable; that she wins so convincingly, with such momentum and such poetic force, is a wonder.

Fittingly, the narrative is first-person – or last-person, as Beckett would say – as the sick old writer clings to the unraveling shreds of consciousness. The chapters of Beckett’s voice are interspersed with fictionalized medical reports of his condition by the house’s nurses, doctors, and psychiatrists. These toneless pages establish a telling counterpoint to the rich musicality of the main body of the book. Besserie does not imitate the style of Beckett’s threnodies, but does evoke, subtly and with great skill, appropriate intensity, dark lyricism and black humor.

Readers familiar with Beckett’s work will note the resonant echoes here of the post-war trilogy, in particular, but also of numerous plays, and later, astringent texts such as Ill Seen Ill Said, The Lost Ones and Stirrings Still. There are passages that evoke with a strange immediacy the voice of Beckett’s abandoned narrators – for it is really one voice – by turns declamatory, pitiful, bitter and comically slanderous.

When asked why he chose the title Company for one of the later texts, Beckett replied that, well, a book is a company. Besserie’s version of the writer spends much of his time wandering among familiar shades in the land of the dead. The most precious of his missing is his wife, who died on July 17, 1989, just before the start of the story. “She is dead. I have to constantly remind myself that Suzanne is not in the room. She is not with me. She is no longer present. Compare, or compare, with the opening of the first novel in the trilogy de Beckett, Molloy: “I’m in my mother’s room. I live there now.”

Beckett’s mother, the redoubtable May, is the other of the two poles between which the novel oscillates and swings. And talking about his mother inevitably leads to reflections on the mother tongue. He remembers his time working for James Joyce when he was writing Finnegans Wake. “I type his English full of Ireland. It spits out page after page the Ireland of our mothers… It took me a long time to get over it.

He wonders why he didn’t kill his mother. It would have been, he says, “a happy escape” – for both, we assume. Yet in Besserie’s novel there are exquisite and moving passages through which May paces like her namesake in this belated dramatic masterpiece Footfalls: “As the wind that blows dead branches, ready to fall, the light weights that rest on the living in hopes of holding them back, my mother’s trembling hands rested on the glass in the hope that the glass would hold them in place. In vain.

Another of his lingering ghosts is that of Lucia, Joyce’s doomed daughter. She was in love with and rejected by Beckett, and spent most of her long life in psychiatric clinics. Beckett never stopped feeling guilty about his treatment of Lucia. “The words left her. Everyone left her. Here as elsewhere, Besserie presents Beckett to us as the poet of finality, of narrow ways and straits, the Beckett who was, as she says, “unfit for the world”.

Shout, Sam, If You Can Again is the work of a writer already in command of a sonic style and broad artistic reach. No doubt she will do a stellar job in the future, given that this is her first book – which won the Goncourt prize for first novel in her native France. Praise is also due to Clíona Ní Ríordáin. Although the title is a mistake – why not The Third Age, as in the French original? – little seems to have been lost in translation. Indeed, the book reads as if it had been written in English, with many puns skilfully and inventively taken from the French. And there are some good jokes. Here’s Beckett struggling to follow his physical therapist’s orders and get off the floor without using his hands: “I tried again. Failed again. Not better.”

Shout, Sam, if you still can by Maylis Besserie, translated by Clíona Ní Ríordáin, is published by Lilliput (£13). To support the Guardian and the Observer, buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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