Northridge, California: Lord John Press, 1982. Octavo. Original half navy morocco fore-edge binding by David Bourbeau, with blue paste paper covered boards, two vertical dotted gilt rolls to each of the covers, and spine lettered in gilt. [viii], 9-45, [i + colophon] pp. Letter N of 26 specially-bound copies, from a total edition of 325 copies. Signed by Beckett on the half-title. The present volume was designed and printed by Henry Morris. The text was set in Bembo type, with paragraph openings printed in blue, on Bugrabutten moulded paper. Item #62
John Banville has characterized Ill Seen Ill Said as “the pinnacle of [Beckett’s] achievement” (NYRB: Nov. 14, 1996). This claim is not without warrant, for this short prose piece (comprising only 36 pages in the present issue) is the stylistic and thematic culmination of Beckett’s mature work. It is a meditation on the limits of language and literature, a pendulum swaying between saying and silence, and a reflection on change, duration, isolation, and death.
Ill Seen Ill Said, published originally as Mal vu mal dit by Les Éditions de Minuit, made its first appearance in English in The New Yorker (Oct. 5, 1981). It appeared in book form later that year, issued as a slim volume by Grove Press, followed in 1983 by its inclusion in John Calder’s collection Nohow On. In Nohow On, the story appears alongside Company and Worstward Ho. With the exception of Stirrings Still (1988) and the collection of fragments published as As the Story was Told (1990), the works appearing in Nohow On were Beckett’s last.
Provisionally titled ‘The Evening or the Night’, Ill Seen Ill Said recounts the experience of an elderly woman, living alone in an isolated cottage, as she awaits death. We find that the woman, the narrator, and perhaps literature more broadly, can only ill say; for ambiguity, obscurity, and contingency, time and movement, have already undermined the gaze’s attempts to fix itself and its objects. Whatever we encounter, whatever the narrator reports, has already been ill seen.
We are forced to accept that what is ill seen will be ill said, and that clarity and stillness are reached only as a final terminus: “Grace to breathe that void. Know Happiness.” Though the story, and ultimately literature itself, fail to have redemptive power, as Banville observes, the “tenderness with which Beckett depicts the solitary woman is unmatched in his work, and is deeply moving” (NYRB: Nov. 14, 1996).