1953 Olympia Press edition
Watt was Samuel Beckett's second published novel in English, largely written on the run in the south of France during the Second World War and published by Maurice Girodias's Olympia Press in 1953 (an extract had been published in the Dublin literary review, Envoy, in 1950). A French translation followed in 1968.
Narrated in four parts, it describes Watt's journey to (and within) Mr Knott's house; here he becomes the reclusive owner's manservant, replacing Arsene, who delivers a long valedictory monologue at the end of section one. In section two Watt struggles to make sense of life at Mr Knott's house, experiencing deep anxiety at the visit of the piano tuning Galls, father and son, and a mysteriously language-resistant pot, among other incidents. In section three (narrated by one Sam) Watt is in confinement, his language garbled almost beyond recognition, while the narrative veers off on fantastical tangents such as the story of Ernest Louit's account to a committee of Beckett's old university, Trinity College, Dublin of a research trip in the West of Ireland. The shorter fourth section shows Watt arriving at the railway station from which, in the novel's skewed chronology, he sets out on a journey to the institution he has already reached in section three.
The novel concludes with a series of Addenda, whose incorporation into the text 'only fatigue and disgust' have prevented, but which should nevertheless be 'carefully studied'. These take the form of concepts and fragments apparently intended for the novel but not used.
Themes and context
The character of Ernest Louit is only one of many satirical digs at Ireland contained in the novel. Others include the recognisably south Dublin locale and respectable citizenry of the novel's opening, Dum Spiro, editor of the Catholic magazine Crux and a connoisseur of obscure theological conundra, and Beckett's exasperation at the ban on contraception in the Irish Free State (as previously remarked on in his 1935 essay 'Censorship in the Saorstat').
Watt is characterised by an almost hypnotic use of repetition, extreme deadpan philosophical humour, deliberately unidiomatic English such as Watt's 'facultative' tram stop, and visual exempla such as a frogs' chorus, a notated mixed choir, and heavy use of ellipsis towards the end of the text. The novel's final words are 'no symbols where none intended'.
Beckett himself said it was written in Roussillon as "just an exercise" while waiting for the war to end. Described as "the white whale of Beckett studies, a mass of documentation that defies attempts to make sense of it," (S E Gontarski in The Grove Companion to Samuel Beckett, 2004), the manuscript was consulted by Jorge Luis Borges while visiting the University of Texas at Austin.
A corrected text, edited by C.J. Ackerley, was published by Faber and Faber in 2009, removing the many errors in all previous editions.
- "An extract from Watt", by Samuel Beckett, Envoy, Vol.1, No.2, January 1950
- Watt by Beckett quoted in: Booth, Wayne C. (1975) A rhetoric of irony By Wayne C. Booth Chicago University Press p258 ISBN 0-226-06553-7