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.