Desperately Seeking Sam
Remembering Beckett twenty years after his death.
November 19, 2009
Nov 19, 2009
19 Min read time
Remembering Beckett twenty years after his death.
I could not have gone through the awful wretched mess of life without having left a stain upon the silence. –Samuel Beckett
The first and last time I saw Samuel Beckett, he was walking down a Paris street, the Rue Rémy Dumoncel. At least, I think it was Beckett. The height was right; the near-skeletal thinness was right; the location was right—near the nursing home where he died not long after. I think he was wearing a hat and coat, but I can’t be sure. It was twenty years ago.
Seen always from behind whithersoever he went. Same hat and coat as of old when he walked the roads. –Beckett, Stirrings Still
But I never got close enough to be certain. I was across the street, behind a row of parked cars, admiring, if memory serves, a silver Porsche. Unusually for July in Paris, it was a gray, drizzly day, what Parisians call “la grisaille,” and it was a bit misty, as if in November. Despite all that, I could easily have crossed over and asked my suspect if he was, in fact, the One True Sam. But I didn’t. I funked it. He disappeared. Six months later he was dead. And I had wanted to meet him for years.
I first learned of his work from Mr. Achkar, my French teacher in high school in Geneva, who was most enthusiastic about Oh les Beaux Jours (Happy Days), of which he’d seen the Paris premiere in 1961.
“What a play!” he enthused.
A woman sinks slowly into the earth while reciting the inanities of her everyday life … c’est magnifique! Does anyone understand as well as Beckett does the banality of tragedy and the tragedy of banality? This woman, she could be my wife: the eternal optimist despite all the evidence. Non, mais non, c’est magnifique.
There were the other plays, notably Waiting for Godot, that incomparable hymn to the vital nothingness of life (the play in which, in the words of the Irish critic Vivian Mercier, “nothing happens, twice”); Krapp’s Last Tape, Beckett’s melancholy homage to memory and failure; Rockaby, the tender death-lullaby; and the great Fin de Partie (Endgame), Mr. Achkar’s favorite—and mine. What could be more thrilling than the apocalyptic minimalism of a play set inside an apartment with two high windows—like the eye sockets of a skull—featuring a man who can’t sit down (Clov), a man who can’t stand up (Hamm) and the latter’s legless parents (Nagg and Nell) living in his-and-her dustbins? (The austere decor of the premiere was designed by Alberto Giacometti, a thoroughly Beckettian artist who once claimed to sculpt not figures but their shadows.) The play went through the bourgeoisie like a knife through cheese, said Mr. Achkar, who was a bit of a communist. Not one myself, I was correspondingly less eager to slice up the bourgeoisie, of which I was a dutiful member. I doubted that there was an identifiable politics in Beckett’s work, just an anguished existentialism. I retain that belief and agree with the Irish writer Fintan O’Toole, who maintains that Beckett’s politics, such as they are, “are the politics of the body and of the voice.” The politics, that is, of the human creature in extremis, but not those of any “system.”
I approached the man’s work cautiously, as if fearing contagion. The spare stage sets, the suffering solitaries, the painful remembering (Krapp) or equally painful forgetting (Godot): it all seemed somewhat pointless—which, I eventually saw, was the point. And, paradoxically, this seemingly pointless work was crucial to the understanding of modern life. But Beckett was a paradox in more ways than one, a man of mystery despite himself. This mysteriousness was no doubt instrumental in seducing the Nobel-awarding Swedes, who rival the English in their industrial-strength production of murder mysteries (Henning Mankell, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, Åsa Larsson, et al.) and who are titillated by paradoxes and conundrums—and the Irish. (Oddly, the Nobel committee got it right with Beckett, Yeats, and Heaney, but never anointed Joyce.) “Mix a powerful imagination with a logic in absurdum,” Dr. Karl Gierow of the Swedish Academy said, on the occasion of Beckett’s enNobelling in 1969—sans Sam, who hid out in Tunisia until the flap was over—“and the result will be either a paradox or an Irishman. If it is an Irishman, you will get the paradox into the bargain.” True enough, especially with this Irishman. After all, how many rock-solid Dubliners (cloth cap, Jamesons) were also bona fide Parisian intellectuals (beret, cognac)? It was a combination I was leery of. But each of his cultures fed the other, although he was only a Frenchman in between being an Irishman first and last.
• • •
Samuel Barclay Beckett’s long downward journey into himself began in 1906, in the comfortable Dublin suburb of Foxrock, on April 13 (not Good Friday, despite one of his later whiskey-fueled declarations). He was the second son of middle-class parents: his father, William, was a building contractor, his mother, May, a nurse. His early life was a standard bourgeois Irish-Protestant trajectory, through upscale Portora Royal School in County Fermanagh and Trinity College, Dublin. Both institutions had once been attended by that other maverick Protestant Dubliner Oscar Wilde, with whom Beckett had otherwise little in common, being closer in temperament to an even earlier Protestant Irishman, the sardonic and bitter and frequently hilarious Jonathan Swift. But the young Sam, far from being the solitary introvert one might imagine, was actually something of a big man on campus—painfully self-conscious in the way of sensitive youth, and a world-class hypochondriac, but also a brilliant linguist, a rugby scrum half, a cricket champion, and a long-distance walker. Anthony Cronin, his most perceptive biographer, describes the young Beckett as
if anything, an outdoor type rather than an indoor one. He enjoyed games and was good at them. He roamed by himself as well as with his cousin and brother; and though he often retreated to his tower with a book and was already noticeable in the family circle for a certain moodiness and taciturnity, he could on the whole have passed for an athletic, extrovert little Protestant middle-class boy with excellent manners when forced to be sociable.
He loved to take long walks in the Dublin mountains with his father, with whom he communicated mostly in a warm silence. Such silences stayed with him and became his preferred conversational ambience, interrupted by the clink of a glass, the striking of a match, a Schubert impromptu. The landscape of Dublin and Wicklow stayed with him, too, and pops up lyrically at unexpected moments in his work, as here, from Watt:
The long blue days for his head, for his side, and the little paths for his feet, and all the brightness to touch and gather. Through the grass the little mosspaths, bony with old roots, and the trees sticking up, and the flowers sticking up, and the fruit hanging down, and the white exhausted butterflies, and the birds never the same darting all day into hiding.
He taught briefly and unsuccessfully at Trinity College, then lit out for the wider world: London, where he underwent psychoanalysis; Berlin, where he observed the rise of Nazism; and Paris, where in 1928 he met fellow-Dubliner James Joyce. In Paris he taught for a while—again unsuccessfully; he was a meandering, diffident, and impatient teacher—before resuming his family-financed wanderings through the art galleries and cafés of Italy and Germany while those two nations heaved and buckled under their respective fascist takeovers. Beckett seldom commented on these events, although of course he was aware of them, and deplored the rise of barbarism in the bastions of Western culture. But his eye was mostly on art and literature and the mastery of language. (Along with fluency in English and French, he eventually spoke or read German, Italian, and Spanish well, and had smatterings of Dutch and Russian.) His first publication, in 1929, was an egregiously learned article entitled “Dante . . . Bruno. Vico . . . Joyce,” on Joyce’s approach to writing as well as Dante, on whose work Beckett was an expert; the 18th-century Italian philosopher-historian Giambattista Vico; and other topics. The analytical monograph Proust, one of those works that serves only to deepen an obscure writer’s obscurity, appeared and disappeared in 1930. Other ambitious odds and ends followed: Whoroscope (1930, poetry), More Pricks Than Kicks (1934, short stories), Echo’s Bones (1935, more poetry). With constipated slowness, Murphy, his first novel, emerged, only to be rejected by more than forty publishers until Routledge brought it out in 1938—upon which, like all his other pre-Godot works, it promptly sank into oblivion. Later, of course, his fame revived it.
Murphy is a comic masterpiece. When I read it I discovered an allusive, fey, hilarious, all-Irish kind of humor, heavily dependent on grim irony, absurdity, and wordplay. It was not about the bourgeoisie, or the working class, or the church, or the corporate state, or anything so constricting. No, in his first full-bore fiction effort, Beckett cut to the chase and, like any great humorist, satirized life itself. His style rings with the same note of hifalutin absurdity found in Irish masters such as Thomas Moore and John Millington Synge and Flann O’Brien and, of course, Joyce:
The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new. Murphy sat out of it, as though he were free, in a mew in West Brompton. Here for what might have been six months he had eaten, drunk, slept, and put his clothes on and off, in a medium-sized cage of northwestern aspect commanding an unbroken view of other medium-sized cages of southeastern aspect. Soon he would have to make other arrangements, for the mew had been condemned.
I split my sides. It was a revelation. After my sides healed, I used Murphy as fertilizer for my own field of endeavor, which yielded Killoyle, in which a character is named Murphy in homage. (No Beckett, no Killoyle; know Beckett, know Killoyle!) “Funniest, perhaps, of his novels,” said Leslie A. Fiedler, “Murphy evokes a ferocity of terror and humor that shames most well-made novels of our time.”
When Beckett joined the resistance, it was a matter of conscience, not politics: ‘I was fighting against the Germans, who were making life hell for my friends,’ he said.
The humor remained, but the ferocity got fiercer in Watt, Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable, the four novels (the last three forming the Trilogy), that Beckett labored over during and immediately after World War II and that came to form the heart of his prose canon. It is not that long a way from Murphy to the Trilogy. Murphy’s inability to deal with life leads to the progressive dissolutions of the Trilogy, from Molloy and his paralyzed ramblings, through the raptures and death of Malone—Molloy’s probable reincarnation—right through the unnamed, ghostly Unnamable, reflecting the growing unreality, almost irrelevance, of physical existence in Beckett’s prose fiction. What is so real, he wondered, about life itself? The narrators of the Trilogy are caught in a vortex of despair and black humor that the author was undoubtedly on intimate terms with. Ironically, however, as he was amassing material for the Trilogy and writing its prologue, Watt, Beckett became, for the only time in his life, an active participant in major external events: un homme engagé. He joined the French Resistance.
Beckett’s engagement was a matter of conscience, not politics. He had been alarmed by the rising tide of anti-Semitism throughout the 1930s and when the Nazis occupied Paris and the Statut des Juifs (Jewish Statute) was passed in October 1940, depriving Jews of their rights as citizens and requiring them to wear the Star of David in public, Beckett’s fears for his Jewish friends grew acute. He began to feel that he could no longer in good conscience sit out the war as a neutral citizen of Ireland, as he had originally planned to do.
The fate of his friend Paul Léon, Joyce’s former secretary, was decisive. In August 1941, more than a year into the Nazi occupation of Paris, Beckett ran into Léon walking openly down the street in full view of German troops. Horrified, Beckett urged his friend to leave the city right away. Léon assured him he would, the next day, as soon as his son took his baccalaureate exam. Instead, the dutiful father was arrested on the following morning by the Gestapo and interned in a concentration camp where he later died.
Within days of hearing the news, Beckett had joined the Resistance. He worked at first as a courier and translator of odds and ends of clandestine information, which were relayed to Free French HQ and British Intelligence in London. Then, when his Resistance cell in Paris was betrayed by an informant, he and Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, his companion and future wife, fled south, to the village of Roussillon in the Vaucluse, where Beckett continued his resistance work—what he called “Boy Scout stuff”—until the end of the war. Although he was later awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Medal of the Resistance, he always downplayed his contribution, and maintained that neither politics nor love of France had anything to do with his decision. “I was fighting against the Germans, who were making life hell for my friends, and not for the French nation,” he later said, true to his apolitical nature.
Beckett’s time in Roussillon marked his shift of linguistic gears. While translating and composing cryptic messages for the Resistance, he worked on his own equally cryptic novel Watt, the last book he wrote in English first. He and Suzanne were surrounded by French country folk (except, in a farcical touch he greatly enjoyed, a jolly Irish lesbian and her morose companion, a Vladimir-and-Estragon pair avant la lettre). Like the characters of his plays, he communicated on a banal level about everyday things. Thus immersed in the quotidian French language, yet emotionally detached from his surroundings, he realized that writing in French would enable him to stand back from his work and be more objective about the misery of life, to communicate depth of feeling through ordinary language.
This thought coalesced into a conviction. Thereafter, Beckett, who so valued control over his work and the paring down of language to its essence, chose French as his primary writing medium because he was afraid his wild Irish English would run away with him, as it had with his mentor, Joyce. The ironic result was a great writer in two languages who was a true master of only one. The contrast was pointed out by Beckett’s fellow exile Vladimir Nabokov, American novelist and Russian aristocrat, who admired Beckett as “the author of lovely novellas”—in English. Himself fluent in French, Nabokov observed that Beckett’s French was “a schoolmaster’s French, a preserved French, but in [his] English you feel the moisture of verbal association and of the spreading live roots of his prose.” Of course, it was precisely that “preserved” quality that Beckett sought in French, but his native music never left his soul. Indeed, in his later works, and in his translations of his own French compositions, the melody is loud and clear.
Less. Less seen. Less seeing. Less seen and seeing when with words than when not. When somehow than when nohow. Stare by words dimmed. Shades dimmed. Void dimmed. Din dimmed. All there as when no words. As when nohow. Only all dimmed. Till blank again. No words again. Nohow again. Then all undimmed. Stare undimmed. That words had dimmed.
An Irish reel danced, as in a dream, under a ghostly moon.
But even in his bleakest writings, even in the daunting Trilogy, that barren Purgatorio, some passages are buboes of the craziest and most bilious humor ever created. The crazy bit was Irish, like the gibberings of Mad King Sweeney. The bilious part was French, the scathing laughter of Rabelais. God is unfair, complains the superstitious Irishman. God does not exist, declares the rational Frenchman. Beckett unites them in Endgame into Hamm’s exclamation, “The bastard! He doesn’t exist!” With those words, the Franco-Irish sage came alive for me. I understood the Franco- half and the -Irish half. The Frenchman crafts a tableau vivant of life’s unfairness, in between cognacs, rationally, taking it bit by bit, discretely. La vieillesse est un naufrage, in the words of De Gaulle, “old age is a shipwreck.” But Beckett the Irishman sees all of life as one long shipwreck and depicts it as such in his work. Then, seized by a very Irish dread of being over-serious, he makes jokes, or concocts absurd situations, as in Molloy:
She bent over the couch, because of her rheumatism, and in I went from behind. It was the only position she could bear, because of her lumbago. It seemed all right to me, for I had seen dogs, and I was astonished when she confided that you could go about it differently.
“It seemed all right to me, for I had seen dogs.” This is the laugh-out-loud side of human decrepitude. Both impulses—the methodical dissection of life’s unfairness, the mockery of it—sprang from the nihilism at the root of Beckett’s nature. Both required being human first, French or Irish second. Both required an interchangeability of nationality and language, or rather a balancing-out of his two halves, the French ying and Irish yang (or vice versa).
• • •
By the late 1980s, living the life of an underpaid teacher and writer in New York, I had developed a great fellow feeling for Sam, having read most of his work and having, like him, long breathed deep of what he, pre-Godot, had called the “vivifying air” of failure. I felt sometimes that he wrote from my perspective, even from inside my head: a common fancy young writers have about admired older ones. But I had the bit in my teeth. God, I thought, I would give anything to have just one short drink with Sam, however awkward such an encounter might be—and awkward it would almost inevitably have been. His interlocutors tended to fall into two categories: those, like his father and Joyce, with whom he felt most comfortable sitting in reciprocal silence, and those who did most of the talking, mostly purveying gossip, sports (he was always a rugby fan), and news from Ireland. I had no gossip, no news from Ireland, and no interest in sports. The Boylan-Beckett dialogues would have been DOA. I would have babbled, and the silences would have been leaden.
The logistics were also complex. With three short stories and a few book reviews on my publishing C.V., as a writer I was an impecunious nonentity. Still, for all his supposed reclusiveness, Beckett was renowned for his generosity and openness to others; he gave away half his Nobel Prize money to needy scribblers, including Djuna Barnes, author of Nightwood, and the English experimental novelist B.S. Johnson (who allegedly bought a sports car on the proceeds). So in late ’88 I wrote a letter humbly requesting an interview, with groveling assurances that my sole intention was to buy him a drink and shake his hand in token of my appreciation of his work. I addressed the letter to “M. Samuel Beckett, 38 Boulevard St. Jacques, Paris 14e.” I never received a reply.
Like all old people, Beckett went back, in his mind. Like all old people—like his own creations Krapp, Winnie, Hamm, etc.—he was, in the end, alone.
Yet still I dreamed. I doubted I could afford the trip. Then, by a fluke, an old college friend living in the Dordogne, in the southwest of France, offered me room and board and a small stipend if I lent a hand in the refurbishing of an old farmhouse. Being still without dependents, I managed to scrape together the air fare to Paris, and went over in the summer of ’89, when France was celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Revolution. I had spent a great deal of feckless-youth time in Paris, so I had no trouble finding Beckett’s comfortable and nondescript Left Bank apartment building behind the Santé prison. But no one was around, so I inquired locally—in a supermarket, a used-book store, a café—about his whereabouts, or indeed if he still existed. I learned that his wife Suzanne did not, as of about a week previous, and that he did, but barely, being now in a nursing home, “Le Tiers Temps”—meaning, according to one’s interpretation, “the third age,” “the third time,” or “part three” (or perhaps “last call,” according to taste).
It augured ill for my quest, Beckett having just lost his wife of nearly 30 years and companion of far longer. But, impelled by the momentum of indecision, I set off for the nursing home anyway. It was nearby, in the general neighborhood of the Parc Montsouris. The sky descended suddenly, as it does in Paris. It drizzled, then poured, then drizzled some more. A short walk along the Boulevard Raspail (location of the defunct Théâtre de Babylone, where in 1953 Waiting for Godot was first performed, after being rejected by 35 directors), then down a side street—one of those sudden oases of bourgeois silence in the bustling metropolis—took me to the nursing home, a nondescript building of four stories plus mansarde, its reception area visible through a plate-glass door. A professional-looking woman in a white coat sat behind the plate glass. Older people were visible inside, moving about. I imagined board games, TV, bingo. Tired and nervous, I dithered, had a smoke and considered leaving. It was drizzling hard. I was distracted by a fine silver Porsche parked across the street. I also had that train to catch. Should I go in and boldly inquire, or find a phone booth and call? I imagined the possibilities for misunderstanding over the phone, and fell prey to a Beckettian reluctance to act.
I was about to leave when—there he was. He came from the direction of a pharmacy on an adjoining sidestreet, walking with the deliberation of the aged, head bowed slightly, looking down at the reflection of his feet in the wet pavement. Mourning Suzanne, life, himself? He walked into the nursing home. I dawdled for a few minutes, then left to catch my train. I had a wonderful time in the Dordogne. Beckett died six months later.
I subsequently learned from those who knew him that he was as content in that nursing home as one of his temperament could be in such a place: He had plentiful whiskey (Jamesons, Tullamore Dew) and smokes (Havanitos Planteros cigarillos), a TV, select books (mostly collections of English verse, plus Dante), a stereo on which he could listen to his beloved Schubert, and a small ground-floor room facing onto a courtyard. He reminisced about the youthful days of his walks in the Dublin hills, according to visitors such as the poets John Montague and Derek Mahon. Like all old people, Beckett went back, in his mind. Like all old people—like his own creations Krapp, Winnie, Hamm, etc.—he was, in the end, alone. And like all old people, he welcomed the rare visitor. It would have been my opportunity. But I was too young to understand old age except as something to be pitied. So what would I have said?
Many years later, I did finally visit him, where his remains and Suzanne’s lie in the Montparnasse cemetery, under a slab of granite upon which, when I was there, admirers had deposited an unused Metro ticket; a used Dublin bus ticket, one-way to Foxrock; and a packet of Havanitos. I left nothing. Except, perhaps, a stain upon the silence.
No matter how no matter where. Time and grief and self so-called. Oh all to end.
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November 19, 2009
19 Min read time