Beckett between Scylla and Charybdis

José Ángel García Landa

Universidad de Zaragoza, 1993

Electronic edition 2004


Towards the end of Malone Dies there is an echo of Virgil's Aeneid:

L'île. Encore un effort. Elle est petite, mangée de criques du côté du large. On pourrait y vivre, si la vie était une chose possible, mais personne n'y vit. L'eau profonde vient jusque dans ses parties les plus secrètes, entre de hautes parois rocheuses. Un jour il n'y aura plus que deux îles, séparées par un abîme, étroit d'abord, puis de plus en plus large à mesure que s'égrainent les siècles, deux îles, deux rochers, deux récifs. Il devient difficile dans ces conditions de parler des hommes. (Malone meurt 188).

The island. A last effort. The islet. The shore facing the open sea is jagged with creeks. One could live there, perhaps happy, if life was a possible thing, but nobody lives there. The deep water comes washing into its heart, between high walls of rock. One day nothing will remain of it but two islands, separated by a gulf, narrow at first, then wider and wider as the centuries slip by, two islands, two reefs. It is difficult to speak of man, under such conditions. (Malone Dies 262).


Here follows Virgil's text, in Allen Mandelbaum's translation, describing the origin of the Messina strait, on each side of which lurk the monsters Scylla and Charybdis:

But when you have departed, when the wind
has carried you to the Sicilian coast,
just where the strait gates of Pelorus open,
then though the way be long you must still shun
the shoreline and the waters to the right;
seek out the left-hand seas, the left-hand coast.
When these two lands were an unbroken one
in ancient times, they say, a vast convulsion
tore them apart by force (through time's long lapse,
such overwhelming changes come to pass).
Between them violently burst the sea;
waves split apart the shores of Italy
and Sicily. Along the severed coasts
a narrow tideway bathes the fields and cities.

This seems to be little more than an homage paid by Beckett to Virgil, and a transformation of a classical theme into his own personal world-view. 


(Note, 2005): Virgil's passage is retaken by Torquato Tasso in Jerusalem Delivered, this time with reference to the Strait of Gibraltar:

Already they have arrived where the sea floods in between the land by the strait that was fabled to be the work of Alcides; and perhaps it is true that it was one continuous shore that a mighty ruin divided into two. The ocean forced its passage through and the ocean wave drove back on this side Abyla, and Calpe on that; Spain and Libya it parted with a narrow strait; so much change can the long passage of ancient time effect. (XV.22)

Beckett seems to be parodying, thus, a locus classicus of geological time in epic poetry, which suits well with the "loss of self" and demythologizing drive in his prose.


Works Cited

Beckett, Samuel. Malone meurt. Paris: Minuit, 1951.
_____. Malone Dies. In The Beckett Trilogy. Pan Books, 1979.
Tasso, Torquato. Jerusalem Delivered, ed. and trans. Ralph Nash. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1987. Virgil. The Aeneid of Virgil. Trans. Allen Mandelbaum. Toronto: Bantam, 1971.