The Magazine

Contradictory Beckett

Voluble and silent, funny and grim.

Sep 11, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 48 • By JOHN SIMON
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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?