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Dr. James McNaughton

July 2019

Interview by Carolle Morini

Dr. James McNaughton, photo courtesy of University of Alabama
Dr. James McNaughton, photo courtesy of University of Alabama

James McNaughton is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Alabama. Dr. McNaughton's work examines the intersections among history, politics, and modernist aesthetics. Twentieth-century Irish writing, British and Irish poetry, and international modernisms are his specialties. You can read some of his work in Journal of Modern Literature and Modern Fiction Studies.

Samuel Beckett and the Politics of Aftermath was published by Oxford University Press in October 2018. During his sabbatical, 2015–2016, he toiled away on the fifth floor for many days. When the book was released, I was fortunate to attend Dr. McNaughton’s talk at Boston University and catch up with him. This spring, as the book hits our new book shelves, I wanted to reconnect and ask him some questions about his research and interests. 

Q: Some background, if you don’t mind. Talking with you I hear an accent that is not completely the American South. Where were you born and raised? What is your educational background?

DR. JAMES MCNAUGHTON: When I emigrated to Atlanta from Dublin in secondary school, my accent was already mostly fixed. I’ve let go of saying “yis” and freely use “y’all”; I rarely call anything “banjaxed” aloud anymore, even though I’m sure it is the right word for these times! I graduated from UGA and from there to Michigan for a master’s and PhD in English.

Q: When were you first introduced or interested in Beckett? Being from an Irish family, was Beckett part of your youth, your upbringing, or did you discover him later on?

JM: I discovered Beckett later. A former professor and current friend, Adam Parkes, gave me a copy of Beckett’s The Complete Short Prose as a parting gift for graduate school. We read “From an Abandoned Work” together over drinks. I was taken by the narrator’s “awful English,” that wry way Beckett courts failure on the syntactical level, cultivates artfully bad writing to illuminate so much. I could have read Waiting for Godot in high school, but it wasn’t until then, later on, that Beckett’s work hit me. 

Q: What is it that initially attracted you to Beckett and his place in history?

JM: Gosh. I became attracted to Beckett’s work because his writing has so much damn integrity. By integrity I don’t just mean that he rejects simple answers, even ones he entertains personally. I mean how, like few other writers, Beckett confronts us with the thorough degradation of the subject in modernity, even as he exposes how literature, philosophy, history, journalism, even language itself, are ill-equipped to come to terms with this outcome. His critique is often appallingly funny. Until he stills even our laughter. I like the honesty of that experience.

I also recognized a scholarly need. Some of the main interpretations of Beckett’s work misread or ignore his specific critique of the culture and politics of his time. Beckett was deeply affected by the pervasive legacy of European colonialism, the rise of Nazism, the consequences of Stalinism, for instance. His writing is profoundly diagnostic and richly original. He is not the apolitical writer he has been taken to be. Biography itself cautions against it. Beckett came of age during a revolution in Ireland; he worked closely with Joyce; he spent seven months touring Nazi Germany, which experience led him to vow to put himself at the service of France should war break out; he had a close friend who died after imprisonment in a concentration camp.

But it is the writing, more than biography, that I focus on. Beckett’s early work is often sophisticated political satire. And in specific and thoroughgoing ways his writing reworks Nazi propaganda, Holocaust survivor accounts, and even debates over what should count as genocide. What is most strange is that Beckett gets at all this by ironically performing art as a failed project. Narrators or characters try to cover up or transcend atrocity: Beckett has them fail. Characters want to forget history or become forgotten. But as their stories fall apart, humanity's history of erasing “undesirable” people reappears. A more horrible world is steadily brought to mind.

Q: Where did you travel to research this book? What libraries and archives did you use?

JM: Beckett’s main archival collections are held in the Harry Ransom Center, Austin, in Trinity College, Dublin, and at the University of Reading, in England. Actually, that last collection is housed in the Museum of English Rural Life, which means you have to pass through a room of old farm equipment to get to the manuscripts. Threshers and mangles: maybe that’s the right equipment for the archives! I spent weeks, over repeated trips in each of the collections. I also spent time, as you know, at the top of the Athenæum, writing the last chapter in the high calm and light of that wonderful vaulted room. There’s a lot of dignity and concentration possible at those tables for one. My wife Mary would usually be writing a few tables away. She’s a professor of creative writing at Babson College outside Boston.

Q: What surprised you with the research? Did you uncover different conclusions or find new areas of focus that you did not expect?

JM: When I first went to the archives, I had no idea what to expect. Going was part of the ritual of scholarly seriousness, to witness how drafts and translations took shape, to read unpublished letters. The bounty was staggering: censored stories, vocabulary notebooks, 600-page-long diaries kept in Germany, and folders of unpublished letters. Some of that material has since begun to be published. The story, “Echo’s Bones,” which I write about in the book, appeared with Faber a few years ago. Many of Beckett’s letters, though far from all, have been published by Cambridge. And there is a big digital manuscript project underway to map Beckett’s drafts, which will take decades longer to finish. From these trips emerged my sense of Beckett’s struggle to develop an aesthetic in the face of 1930s politics. You see Beckett following Hitler’s speeches carefully, hanging out with banned Jewish art collectors, listening in dry disbelief to his Nazi landlord, struggling himself at times to preserve art from politics, but coming away with an obligation to explore that relationship. You learn from letters that Beckett was an avid newspaper reader and that those newspapers, though often considered irrelevant to literary research, often hold the political language Beckett’s works play against. I didn’t expect to find any of that. Also, did you know that Beckett is a skillful doodler of the most intricate figures?

Q: What did you wish to find in the archives that did not exist? We all have experienced research disappointments and wish something was in that folder in that box but, sadly, doesn't exist.

JM: There’s a danger, particularly alive in Beckett scholarship, of thinking that we can only write about a literary work’s range of meaning, if the Author, capital A, wrote about that connection somewhere in drafts, as if the literary work is bound by what the author intends, as if Beckett recorded everything he thought. This problem is made trickier because, when Beckett does write about politics, whether Irish, Nazi, French, or Russian, he uses joke, understatement, aside, and irony. He hates pedantry. Sometimes it’d be nice if he dished up some of our modern, recognizable outrage, so that you can say—here, lookit—Beckett said so simply and directly. But he doesn’t much go for self-satisfied expression.

Q: From what I understand, Beckett wrote in French. Did he write in other languages? Did this cause any confusion during your research?

JM: When reading Latin, Beckett sometimes took notes in Latin; he records phrases and passages in German, since he learned that language too; and he translates in and out of French. Beckett’s handwriting, even in English, is hard to divine. Sometimes, you have to hold it at a distance, change the angle, try again, read it aloud, change the angle, try it again. When he suddenly switches into phrases from another language, your arms don’t feel long enough and sometimes the only angle left is nudging the scholar next to you to ask them what they think.

Q: Is there a chapter or idea you worked on that you are most fond of, or a part of your book you wish you had more pages for?

JM: I’m particularly proud of the last chapter on Beckett’s Endgame.

Q: Do you have a particular work of Beckett's that you return to more often? Not necessarily a favorite work (though it could be a favorite), but a work that you find yourself in conversation with more often than others?

JM: Beckett’s works operate in a series; so they loop back to old questions with different answers, often against a history that has gotten worse. The Three Novels illustrate this wonderfully; they are, I think, his soaring achievement.  

Q: Why do you think the work of Beckett has been so lasting? What do you think is the attraction to his work?

JM: I don’t know exactly. The question of art and endurance is a fraught one, isn’t it, and not always premised on sustained relevance, originality, or force. I think that Beckett’s work has a truth content deeply connected to its unwillingness to resolve profound contradictions we face: that the language we use to understand suffering inevitably takes us away from it; that reason which should free us can also destroy nature and ourselves; that needed aesthetic rebellions are also impotent and already a tool of those in power. Beckett is also pretty good at tailoring the contradictions to his audience: En Attendant Godot appears to perform attentisme, the slang term for those French who refused to take sides during WWII, waiting instead for the arrival of outside salvation. It loses that specific satire in English, but constellates around other meanings to do with the persistence of imperial racism, even when imperialism, as figured in Pozzo and Lucky, is exhausted. There’s something for everyone!

Samuel Beckett and the Politics of Aftermath, Oxford University Press
Samuel Beckett and the Politics of Aftermath, courtesy Oxford University Press.

Q: Do you have a particular performance of a Beckett play that stays with you? Is there a play you’ve seen multiple times and will continue to see whenever on stage? What do you learn from each new performance?

JM: I saw Waiting for Godot in London, headlined with Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen as Didi and Gogo. A few years later, in 2017, I saw it put on by the Druid Theater in Galway. Both performances were stunning. The London performance played up the vaudevillian physical humor, the bowler hat swaps, the comic routine, the absurdity. The Druid version, which was also funny, vested the performance in pauses and looks that communicated, how do I say it, a profound and moving sense that the catastrophe of meaning was historical, that the “charnel house” around the characters was also a weighty impingement of real killing and cultural failure. This Lucky (played by Garrett Lombard) snatched desperately at the air when the words he’s given to understand his situation—Lucky’s nonsense speech is part eugenics and part imperial celebration of “flying dying sports"—suddenly become physical and fail him in fraudulence. I came away thinking it might have been better had the Irish audience seen the English version and the English audience seen the Irish one.

Q: If someone never read Beckett before, what title do you think they should begin with? Do you assign his work to your students? What is their response, generally speaking?

JM: I think I’d tell them to start with the “Beckett on Film” series, which presents all of Beckett’s plays on film. It’s four discs, available if you still rent discs. I might start with Happy Days. I teach a class called Beckett/Not Beckett, where for each Beckett work, I match him with someone he is not—George Orwell, Agatha Christie, Primo Levi, and so on. It lets the students see the genres Beckett reworks.

Q: If not Beckett who would fill in the blank:  ________ and the Politics of Aftermath?  

JM: Mary just said it should be “Prince.”

Q: Are you willing to speak about your next project? Anything you are excited about researching next?

JM: I’ve finished up an essay this week on the Irish collage artist Seán Hillen. And I’m working this summer on some other articles. I’m researching a second book on Beckett that takes the project forward from where I stopped.

Q: When you are not reading Beckett, teaching, or doing other research, what do you like to read? Any contemporary authors you enjoy?  Any beach reads you're looking forward to tackling from your "to-read pile?" Are you a person who reads big works in the summer or do you relax with a mystery or light biography? Maybe you forgo all reading and watch television.

JM: On the last long flight in May, I read Christos Ikonomou’s Good Will Come from the Sea. Archipelago Books publishes superb contemporary fiction in translation, and I read from this list for pleasure. My summer reading is a mixed bag. I just read Sabrina, a graphic novel by Nick Drnaso. I’m also reading Theodor Adorno’s Lectures on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, partly to see how he structures a lecture series for his students and partly to learn how he performs immanent critique. I’m also reading Identity: The Necessity of a Modern Idea by Gerald Izenberg which is a superb intellectual history of identity politics.

Q: Any last thoughts?

JM: Thanks!