The Magazine

Contradictory Beckett

Voluble and silent, funny and grim.

Sep 11, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 48 • By JOHN SIMON
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Beckett Remembering/ Remembering Beckett

A Centenary Celebration

by James Knowlson

and Elizabeth Knowlson

Arcade, 336 pp., $27.95

In this Samuel Beckett centenary year, a slew of books by or about him have come out, including a four-volume collected works. But it needs no centenary for Beckett items to pop up. Posthumous tomes--by or about Beckett, new or reprinted-- proliferate.

Beckett Remembering/Remembering Beckett: A Centenary Celebration (hereafter BRRB) is one charming volume. The title minimizes punctuation, with BECKETT always in block capitals. And a capital book it is, edited by the spouses James and Elizabeth Knowlson, James being also the author of Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett which, supplemented by BRRB, strikes me as the definitive biography.

Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) made vivid impressions on whomever he came in contact with: Remembrances, letters, significant pictures, and objects keep materializing.

Playwright and fictionist, but also poet and (unsuccessful) critic, Beckett survives also as a magnificent eccentric to whose name anecdotes cling in inexhaustible array.

For someone who, in his work and often in his life, was an advocate for and seeker after extinction--whose artistic career was a voyage toward diminishment of every kind and, ultimately, silence, disappearance, death--he nevertheless managed to turn lopping and dropping off into a grimly droll, grotesquely diverting, oeuvre and existence.

Happily for us, he was an uncannily acute hearer and observer, whether of the outside world or the one inside him. And the smaller the world of his fictional or dramatic characters became, the more they--or, rather, he--could squeeze out of that smallness. Godlike, he was in the details.

BRRB is partly the man reminiscing about his childhood and younger years, partly others, from famous to obscure, reminiscing about him. The sources are letters, conversations, articles, interviews, with not a few pieces solicited especially for this book. There are also a goodly number of pictures of Beckett and people and places in the book, and of productions of the plays, often as directed by himself. Productions in French and English, the languages he wrote in, but also from Germany, where, too, he directed. The book's effectiveness is increased by copious head- and footnotes by the authors, but never endnotes, thus obviating the tiresome labor of flipping back and forward, and making BRRB not only readable and informative, but also eminently user-friendly.

We learn a good deal about Beckett's bourgeois Anglo-Protestant boyhood in Catholic Ireland, about his alternating Sundays of long walks with Dad and churchgoing with Mom. "The Bible," Sam has said, "was an important influence on my work. I've always felt it's a wonderful transcript, inaccurate but wonderful." He liked his easygoing businessman father, and feared and loved his strict, dog-loving mother. He and his brother Frank, with a scientific bent very different from Sam's, were similar in their shyness about girls, never even talking to the ones with whom they played tennis.

Sam was naturally athletic, excelling at sports and games, but equally interested in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. He could sing their arias almost letter-perfectly while accompanying himself on the piano.

Schoolmates recall Sam's keen sense of humor, his charming smile, his sometimes bizarre behavior. Not very sociable, he tended to keep to himself. This was so also later, at Trinity College, which he sometimes represented in sports. His field was Romance Languages and Literatures; after graduating, he worked on Jules Romains and unanimism, and the poet Pierre-Jean Jouve.

He also taught at Trinity, but, afraid of his students, he was not a good teacher. Some found him brilliant; others, an exhausted aesthete despising them. They wished he would explain his explanations. A typical sample: "Rimbaud harpooned his similes, but Verlaine netted them." Often he escaped abroad. He spent much time in Kassel, Germany, home of his first cousin, Peggy, with whom he conducted a two-year affair.

He spent more and more time in Paris, where he also studied, and, meeting James Joyce, became his part-time secretary. Poor and abstemious, he could make a dinner of two ounces of cheese bought at a little charcuterie. A more permanent stop, too, was London, where he went for psychoanalysis, outlawed in Ireland. He had a couple of years of it while also peddling his novel, Murphy. He failed at being a critic, and kept getting rejections from publishers. When Rutledge finally brought out the novel, it did poorly.

Settling in Paris and finding himself no good at anything else, he took up writing seriously. He was influenced by Joyce, but mostly ab contrario: Joyce was a maximalist, always adding; Beckett, a minimalist, always bent on subtraction. During the war years, he and his wife, Suzanne, retired to a small village in Roussillon, where he worked on his novel, Watt. Both were active in the Resistance. Later, Sam was to get sundry medals from the French government, but never mentioned them to anybody.

An American woman observed that Beckett never forgave anyone who had done him a favor. Nathalie Sarraute applied to him Proust's line: "A very ordinary man may inhabit a genius." Patrick Bowles, who worked with Beckett on the English translation of the novel Molloy, written in French, observed: "He talked of his books as if they were written by someone else."

"There are many things I don't understand in my books," Beckett said. "They are positive statements of negative things."

Beckett was very conflicted about which language to write in. In English, he could take things "more slowly, without missing so many details. And yet in French, without all the old associations . . . the outlines were clearer." (Make of this what you can.) He was a man self-effacingly attired in sober, conventional gray from top to toe. Yet he proclaimed, "It is the extreme that's important. Only at the extreme can you get to grips with the real problem."

Jean Martin, the Lucky of Waiting for Godot's world premiere, and Roger Blin, who directed it and played Pozzo, complained of the slow pace Beckett was imposing on his plays. But he learned over the years. And especially after he himself directed Godot in Berlin, he came to realize the need for faster, livelier rhythms. In London, there were boos and catcalls for Godot, and the daily reviews were poor. But once the weeklies brought Harold Hobson's and Kenneth Tynan's appreciations, everything changed.

It was Godot (1953) that established Beckett's international reputation; it also epitomized the duality that courses through the work and the man. Vladimir (Didi) is the thinker, Estragon (Gogo) the man of feeling; both are inside Beckett, separate yet fused forever. Contrariness, too, was always present in him. He couldn't understand why the audience laughed at the funny parts in his drama, while he himself found humor in sad and dreadful situations at which no spectator would laugh. He claimed to regret deeply naming the vainly awaited character Godot, whom everyone interprets as God, with whom he has nothing to do. But why, then, so name him?

Or take this, which may or may not appear somewhere in print, but which someone who knew Beckett told me. Sam would invite him and others to the Crazy Horse Saloon, Paris's premier burlesque house, with the best-looking nude showgirls. The audience sat at tables, and Beckett, hugely enjoying himself, always chose to sit with his back to the show.

As Beckett told a sympathetic academic, he aspired to what he recognized is the impossible task of eliminating form--not just breaking it down or working against it, but eliminating it. His idea was "to let in chaos and what is not ordered." He also called for a syntax of poverty and for drama without action, only words.

There is a contradiction between systematic paring down and inviting chaos in. This is Beckett's passive-aggressive attitude toward art as well as life: On the one hand, calmly endure things washing over him; on the other, extirpate and eliminate more and more. Like Walt Whitman, he was happy to contradict himself.

Aidan Higgins relates that John Beckett warned him it was no use writing to his cousin Sam, who never replied. But Beckett did reply, only it was no use: The handwriting was illegible. In later life, Beckett remarked that he, too, sometimes couldn't decipher things he had written a year or two before. A complicated fellow. Martin Esslin, then head of drama at the BBC, got a superb cast together for a Beckett tape on which they espoused his speech rhythms. Sam objected: "Too sentimental." As Esslin notes, "His own voice was extremely sentimental ["a wonderfully musical Irish voice with the slight lisp," the actor Alan Mandell called it], he shuddered from it, from his own voice." And this despite two years of psychoanalysis.

When the actress Brenda Bruce, playing Winnie in London's Happy Days, asked him about a line in it, Beckett answered, "'Tis of no consequence." Countless others over the years who put similar questions to him came away with like answers. When she told him that someone walked out on the show, he said, "Great, that's good." Was it modesty, playfulness, self-depreciation? Or was it the desire not just to reach people, but rather to get under their skin?

Beckett's relations with women were peculiar. The set designer Jocelyn Herbert, a close friend, commented savvily on Sam's marriage. He had met the pianist Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil in 1937 and became involved with her. But he did not marry her till 1961, then stayed married until her death in 1989.

"A lot of it," Herbert said, "was gratitude and loyalty. I think he felt remorse for . . . so many friends he got drunk with. She didn't drink. And he had after all endless other women."

What about them? The title of an early Beckett novel, A Dream of Fair to Middling Women, reveals much. Sam's beloved mother had a cigar-store-Indian face. Suzanne was no less homely; "a stumpy little woman," Esslin called her. Cousin Peggy in Kassel could at least pass for fair to middling. In Paris, Peggy Guggenheim was decidedly plain. Of the lovers I know about, only the Joyces' daughter Lucia was good-looking; is it significant that she was to go mad? Looks, evidently, did not matter much. The German actress who starred in Berlin's Happy Days recalled, "All women, including myself . . . had the feeling that they had to shelter him, to embrace him . . . as a human being, not necessarily as a man." But how many steps from one kind of embrace to the other?

To his frequent leading lady, Billie Whitelaw, then in a London revival of Happy Days, he complained that he "only recently realized how much [he] disliked it: particularly the first act." But actors adored acting for him, however exacting a director he was. Thus Horst Bollmann, the Berlin Estragon: "I consider that my encounter with Beckett is reward enough in itself for having been an actor all my life." So many performers noted that within the rigors imposed by Beckett's directing, they could most truly express themselves. This was especially true in the numerous productions performed in prisons by the inmates, who found the various confinements of Beckett's characters particularly applicable to themselves.

Beckett strongly disagreed with Wittgenstein's assertion that, about what cannot be said, one must remain silent: "That is the whole point. We must speak about it." Yet such hard, desperate pursuit in the work did not preclude pleasures in life, where hedonism mingled with asceticism. Beckett enjoyed his whisky and brandy to the extent of forcing them on his guests. Forbidden drink while he was getting vitamin injections, he exclaimed, "It is a bugger of a bastard of a bitch. . . . I'll make up for it later."

But you could not pay for a drink in his company; his generosity was legendary. He distributed his Nobel Prize money among his penurious friends. To Roger Blin, along with the hefty check, he wrote, "Neither thanks nor 'no.'" And always welcome, too, was his enduring wit. Told that "you pack a lot into a two-page text," he shot back, "I also pack a lot out." When his friend, the writer Raymond Federman, solicited him for a prestigious interview in The Paris Review, back came a one-line answer: "Dear Raymond, Sorry, I have no views to inter."

James Knowlson's account of Beckett's last phase, eventually in an old folks' home, is enormously moving. Sam was still writing, though he found it "very painful, very difficult. . . . It gets harder and harder to write a line that's honest." As the writer and filmmaker Anthony Minghella put it, "I think the healing [laughter] gradually disappeared from his writing. [But] no matter how miserable or dark or cruel it appears, his work is also profoundly uplifting. It's honest, naked, leavened with mischief. And full of pity."

Beckett admired Proust (though his book about Proust's work is impenetrable), Sean O'Casey, Goethe, and Yeats, and could quote, always in context, Yeats, Joyce, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Nicolas Chamfort, even the now almost forgotten Jose Maria de Heredia. He would recite a whole Mallarmé sonnet on a walk with friends. Rightly, he preferred Camus to Sartre.

"What remains is music," he said. The list of the composers he liked is impressive, stretching from Haydn to Webern, but excluding Bach and all of Wagner save Tristan. Strauss's Four Last Songs, Berg, and Bartok also made the cut. Fine arts similarly mattered. In Berlin, Ruby Cohn reports, he knew what was in every gallery. He sent her to see Caspar David Friedrich's Two Men Observing the Moon, which he, perhaps whimsically, claimed was the inspiration for writing Godot. He liked Kokoschka's early work very much, the later stuff less. He could recall exactly a Poussin in Ireland's National Gallery. And to the very end, he was interested in what was going on in the world.

As I reflect on his career, I note that, early in life, Beckett told a friend, "I'm not interested in the normal. I'm only interested in the abnormal." Though Beckett Remembering/Remembering Beckett doesn't mention it, the last thing he wrote was a poem called "Comment dire," which he translated as "What Is the Word." Perfect bookends.

In an abnormal world such as ours, abnormality commands attention. But for the writer, the first and last problem is to find the right words. Beckett, as nearly as anyone, found them.

John Simon writes about theater for Bloomberg News.