Which leads directly into the lunacy of the subsequent sentence, with its hilarious, altogether unexpected double negative. “In particular Mr. Graves’s way of speaking did not displease Watt.” The narration seems to be strangling itself. The words are tied up in knots. Even the sounds of the words are unpleasant. “Speaking” followed by “displease,” with its grating repetition of the long e shriek. Fingernails scratching on a blackboard. You ask yourself: What is he doing, and where is he going with this?
Then a little air. “Mr. Graves pronounced his th charmingly.” The tone has suddenly shifted from the convoluted to the clear, and how comforting that “charmingly” feels, which is such a good-natured, warm-hearted word. You find yourself beginning to breathe again.
“Turd and fart…” You are breathing again, and an instant later you find yourself laughing. Schoolboy humor surging up through the fake-scholarly discourse of the opening sentences, an utter surprise in the context of what came earlier, and then, before you can fully adjust, you understand that Beckett is talking about Ireland and the music of the English language when it comes out of the mouth of a working-class Irishman. “Turd and fart, he said, for third and fourth.” And indeed, it is a fair rendering of that music, you say to yourself, even as you go on laughing at Beckett’s prank.
I was 19 years old when I first read this paragraph, and I remember that it was the next sentence, the fifth sentence, that turned my growing laughter into a full-throated roar and convinced me that the book I was holding in my hands was the work of a master writer. “Watt liked these venerable saxon words.” It struck me then, and still strikes me now, as a perfect sentence. The crucial word is “venerable.” Think of all the other adjectives Beckett might have chosen: filthy, pungent, earthy, delightful, bawdy, resonant, blunt—the list is endless. “Venerable” avoids the obvious. It defies expectations with its dignity, its somber bow to tradition, to the long historical life of a language, and yet how funny it is, how deeply funny when you stop and think about it, to call “turd and fart” venerable, to call any word venerable, for that matter, and yet because “venerable” is therefore slightly off, and yet entirely apt at the same time, it is magnificent.
The last sentence of the paragraph, by far the longest sentence of the six, is a small work unto itself, a brief poem that begins as an exercise in self-conscious blarney and ends with a philosophical punch-line that is at once a cry of existential despair and a joke about despair, a beautiful bit of silliness and feeling that could have been written by no one else but the author of Watt: “And when Mr. Graves, drinking on the sunny stoop his afternoon stout, looked up with a twinkle in his old blue eye, and said, in mock deprecation, Tis only me turd or fart, then Watt felt he was perhaps prostituting himself to some purpose.”