Images provided by the author
I’ve spent the last three years reading only the writings of Samuel Beckett.
I exaggerate a little: I have read newspapers and the books of friends and a few literary journals, but I have not wandered in search of other major writers to discover or reread. I have read (and reread) only Beckett (and books about his work), while also becoming a member of the Samuel Beckett Society, subscribing to the Journal of Beckett Studies out of Edinburgh University, attending a Beckett conference, in Phoenix, and visiting the Beckett Collection at the University of Reading in England, then Antwerp, with Halifax next, as the Beckett conferences roll on.
I am 62 years old. How many years of reading do I have left? Let’s say 20, which is a little optimistic but not unreasonable. I’m healthy. Let’s assume so. My eyes are good.
At this age, I know who it is I want to read—though, really, have I read all of Shakespeare or Dickens or (any of) Balzac? Should I? I have not read the bulk of Proust even—prochaine, prochaine. So it is Beckett. I just don’t know why. The dedicated Beckett reading began as I waited out the publication of my first book of stories. These stories were much about identity and adoption and fathers and heirs both literary and otherwise and I did not know what the book’s reception would tell me about myself—I would have to wait and see. I sometimes think I don’t like waiting but the opposite is true—I find waiting for something inherently exciting—and waiting for a book to be published is particularly exquisite; I even find waiting for something miserable, like, say, a colonoscopy, a luxury, as every day that is not the dreaded day has a certain satin lining. Even so, during such an interim as prepublication represents, I was concerned about having a focus to my activities.
As I woke up each day anticipating an eventual book launch, and readings and a party and, god help me, reviews, I didn’t want to make it up each day, my reading that is. I wanted to have decided that already, to have had it decided. One of the things I learned in writing my short fiction was to interrogate what a given story is about. This often helped me shape it—or abandon it. So as I plunged into my Beckett reading two summers ago, rereading James Knowlson’s biography, and Beckett’s early stories, and a book about the diaries he kept while in Germany in the late 1930s, I asked myself this question: Why Beckett? In the ensuing months I have chased that ball, let me tell you. For example, I was convinced I had discovered that Beckett was the father of an American writer, which promised to be a shocking revelation, not only to those who understand Beckett as having such insight into life’s lack of meaning that he would never bring another being into it—“They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night,” says Pozzo in Godot—but a shock as well to the Beckett estate: a sole “heir of the body?” I became transfixed by the work of this American writer, little known broadly but admired and respected by a certain avant-garde, here and in Europe. Her work is marked by a deep engagement with a purely American—indeed New England—tradition of puritanism filtered through a metaphysics of writing, feminism, and the spiritual extremism of a historic poetics convinced of God’s Immanence. This seemed to me not the polar opposite of Samuel Beckett’s inherited tradition and his rebellions, but a crafted dissent. This is not me, her work declared. I am not my father’s daughter. Not that father. I have another.
There is no dispute about Beckett having had an affair with the American writer’s mother in the late summer of 1936, a Dublin woman with whom Beckett had grown up in Foxrock. The families knew each other well. The woman, in 1936, was already married to an American legal scholar—she had just returned to Dublin as chaperone for two unmarried Boston ladies in the style of the day. But Beckett’s family, wary of a scandal, urged the end to the liaison. Beckett fled to Germany—as he had done before when under duress—and the woman returned to Boston. The daughter was born nine months later. She looks like Beckett. She affects a Beckett look, to this day—short cropped gray hair; she is possessed of the aquiline nose and what look like Beckett’s gnarled fingers, possibly from Dupuytren’s contracture, sometimes known as “the Celtic hand.” Her literary style is austere, her aesthetic uncompromising, a kind of literary abstraction.
Beckett sent a gift when she was born. He sent it to America. Most scholars I have spoken to off the record say the math doesn’t work—more than nine months between the mother’s return by boat to Boston and the birth of the daughter. I tired of doing the math, which proved no such thing—parturition is 40 weeks, not nine months, for starters. The math doesn’t rule anything out—or in. But a DNA test does, proving that the writer is not Beckett’s daughter but the daughter of the legal scholar and her mother, a relief, no doubt, for her mother too was unsure, and often tormented her young daughter and then not-so-young daughter that indeed she might be a Beckett.
As an adoptee myself, having wondered about my origins, who my parents were, for 50 years, and trying to figure this out while pursuing writing, I felt for this American writer. I was deeply curious about how this affected her practice. But I dropped it.
I thought, that’s not “Why Beckett”—it is her story, not mine.
What caught my attention in this paper was that the habitually self-derogating Beckett actually liked these pieces. “Some of the little Textes pour Rien of 1951 are all right I think,” he wrote in a letter to a friend. He said in another letter, “They are worth publishing.” A pleased Beckett! This I had to understand.
I first heard of Samuel Beckett when I was a teenager living in a small town in upstate New York.
The world beyond, such as we understood the concept, came to us through the network evening news. I figure, in retrospect, that it was the spring of 1970, when Beckett’s play Breath had its premiere in the U.K. It made the end of the half-hour newscast as a curiosity, as something outrageous and, I thought, it might just be fun.
The anchor, or news reader, was Walter Cronkite, by then famously war- and assassination-wearied. Near the end of his broadcast, he presented news of a play by an Irish playwright that, from curtain to curtain, lasted half a minute, nothing but a pile of junk on stage, a cry, and one inspiration of breath, and one breath out. The theater patrons were angry, said Uncle Walter. The playwright had won the Nobel Prize the year before, so they expected an exalted night at the theater, not a short glimpse of rubble. The world and beyond was coming apart, this seemed clear to Walter Cronkite. He said, “And that’s the way it is,” at which he arched his eyebrows a bit, which said to me, “C’mon, people, we’ve seen worse.”
In 1974 I got away from the Catholic university I was attending in order to spend my junior year abroad studying Irish literature and history in Dublin. Beckett—and Joyce and Yeats—were colossal figures in dirty old Dublin, and we all had our work cut out for us—none of us had any idea of the dramatic and very public career of Yeats the poet, or of the magnificence of Ulysses and Portrait and Dubliners, or of the mystifying Beckett, still alive and living in Paris. We read his first novel, Murphy, his collection of stories and the imposing trilogy—or, as Beckett preferred them to be called, Three Novels. Murphy and the book of stories weren’t sold to us as great literature; and the three novels were more of a curiosity, as far as I could tell. The Irish seemed more enamored of Flann O’Brien than Samuel Beckett at that time. We students were encouraged to take our measure of the Irish literary tradition in and about Dublin—we visited the Martello Tower, Sandymount Strand, Davey Byrne’s Pub and 7 Eccles Street, all sites in Ulysses. There were Yeats plays on at any given time in our stay, and we saw several, all fairly awful—but there were no Beckett plays. However, in the common room at the school I attended there was a hi-fi and several “Irish” records—the Chieftains, the great tenor John McCormack, and a Caedmon recording of an actor named Jack MacGowran reading Beckett texts.
I can still recall MacGowran’s richly comic Irish accent, and the way he dove through texts that looked banal on the page and made them funny, sad, vital. “I shall soon be quite dead at last in spite of all. Perhaps next month. Then it will be the month of April or of May. For the year is still young, a thousand little signs tell me so. Perhaps I am wrong, perhaps I shall survive Saint John the Baptist’s Day and even the Fourteenth of July, festival of freedom. Indeed I would not put it past me to pant on to the Transfiguration…” The scorn in MacGowran’s voice in “festival of freedom” and the impatience with the character’s likely persistence in hanging on was shocking to me, yet I found myself laughing. At least, when I left Dublin, if I had not seen a Beckett play, I had his voice. The voice he liked, at least one anyway, was that of Jackie MacGowran, whom Beckett would help until the hard-drinking actor’s death, in New York, at age 54, assistance that was extended to MacGowran’s widow. “Happy to waive performance royalties anytime and anywhere for the benefit of Jackie’s Gloria,” Beckett wrote.
The three novels: I remember thinking they were all one novel, I thought they talked about each other, but I swear that this was not an approved way of looking at Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable at that time (though now it is). There was no biography yet. Beckett was lumped in with existentialists—with Sartre, Ionesco. I read more about an obscure Flemish philosopher named Guelincx, not knowing quite why, and boned up on Dante, not his Inferno or Paradiso but Purgatorio, because Beckett favored a character there named Belacqua, a paragon of indolence who enjoyed the fetal position at all times, preferably in the lee of a boulder. Dante was fond of Belacqua also. Back at my Catholic university for my senior year, an acting company from San Quentin came to campus and put on Beckett’s Endgame. A guy doing life played Hamm. The audience coughed throughout the performance. Our professor said to us after, over schooners of beer in a nearby pub, it was “manifestations of discomfort” in the crowd. I found the play hilarious—even if it was about the end of the world.
At the Beckett Conference in Phoenix, I heard a paper delivered on Beckett’s Texts for Nothing, 13 beautiful prose pieces composed in the early 1950s, as Beckett wound down from the brutal but brilliant period of post-war creativity, a “frenzy of writing,” one biographer called it, in which Beckett wrote his most famous works—Godot, Endgame, and the novels Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable. What caught my attention in this paper was that the habitually self-derogating Beckett actually liked these pieces. “Some of the little Textes pour Rien of 1951 are all right I think,” he wrote in a letter to a friend. He said in another letter, “They are worth publishing.” A pleased Beckett! This I had to understand.
I came to love these Texts for Nothing pieces so much that I read them over and over and convinced myself that I was a quite superior reader. As I read them, silently to myself, they sounded like poetry, comedy, philosophy. I looked around for audio recordings of these beauties. But there was only a little of Jack MacGowran—just a portion of one of the 13 pieces—and some performances by Bill Irwin that, alas, went unrecorded.
I was on my own.
When you read the whole of Beckett, even if you think you are caught going nowhere, you are going somewhere.
I decided I would record all 13 of the Texts for Nothing and put the audio files on the Internet.
Let the Beckett Estate come after me for copyright violation. But I was stymied by the very first text, which begins, “Suddenly, no, at last, long last.” I couldn’t convincingly render that reversal, almost a deletion, despite many takes—how to negate one utterance with another within six words and then carry on believably?
I tried Text 3: “Leave, I was going to say leave all that. What matter who’s speaking, someone said what matter who’s speaking. There’s going to be a departure…” What emphasis or intonation to put on the first “leave?” I was over my head. Text 4: “I’ll describe the place,” writes Beckett, and then, “that’s unimportant.”
I happen to think place is most important, not that Beckett doesn’t—he goes on in Text 4 to give an “unimportant” description of “place”: “The top, very flat, of a mountain, no, a hill, but so wild so wild.” Enough. He adds “Enough.” But it is not enough for me. Beckett was either all inflection or no inflection. He was either theater or mathematics. I laughed at myself and my little iPhone audio files and deleted them—there’s a reversal for you. I had before me the cut pages of my Calder & Boyars edition of Texts for Nothing. I had arrayed the pages on the floor so as to not hear on the recording the sound of my amateurish turning of those pages: a waste.
When you read the whole of Beckett, even if you think you are caught going nowhere, you are going somewhere. Whether in Watt’s house, in the inescapable cylinder of The Lost Ones, waiting interminably by a tree, on a country road, of an evening, or on the road with A and C in Molloy, you have a momentum if not a particular destination. Though many stories recur throughout the entire oeuvre, they are all childhood memories of one Samuel Barclay Beckett, born April 13, 1906, in Foxrock. For all the literary abstraction that seemed to be the terminus of Beckett’s work—his near-to-last prose work, Worstward Ho!, is a steady pulse of ingenious lexical negations—he never forgot the intimate tales of his own life, not tales, always, but always sensations, of being a child, of being at his mother’s knee, staring up into the fierce face of May Beckett, or of walks, often hand in hand, with his father, Bill, through the Dublin hills, or having an adventure story read to him in the early evening, seeing the ships at sea or the mountain cairns or hearing “the consumptive postman” whistling on his rounds. These memories are Beckett at his most lyrical, and for all the severity and blasted landscapes that mark his plays and many of the later texts, the lyrical found purchase everywhere. No matter how abstracted the literary affects, Beckett is always writing from the source material of his own life. Indeed, his famous revelation, walking on the Dun Laoghaire East pier in 1945, he wrote, and then corrected to a shorter pier south of there, and corrected again to “my mother’s room”—was that it was his self that would be his topic or at least the occasion for his explorations of the conditions and the impulse for expression. Beckett told Lawrence Harvey in 1962 that “Being is constantly putting form in danger,” and that there was no form Beckett knew of that didn’t violate being “in the most unbearable manner.” From his earliest writings, form could barely contain him—Proust, his first published book (at 24), was “more a creative encounter between one great writer and another” than a critical monograph, wrote John Pilling. And then there are the crazy stories that made their way into More Pricks Than Kicks, pieces that showed a restless brilliance at war with conventional language and form. Beckett, not unlike Proust, considered being, or self itself, to be “the real originator of disorder,” as the helpful Pilling puts it. Although it is not uncommon to see passages such as the well-known sucking-stone incident in Molloy cited as evidence of the self’s gallant (if absurd) attempt to render some order in the world, the larger point of Beckett’s work seems to be that Being is going to thrash form at every turn. It’s not that form is oppressive to Beckett—it is as beloved as routine!—and that’s what makes Beckett funny, that contradiction, that paradoxical accommodation.
In 1981, journalist Larry Shainberg, out of the blue and with no introduction, sent Beckett a copy of a book he’d written, on brain surgery. Shainberg, with whom I had a drink recently, in the old style, in the lounge of a hotel, said he was surprised that the Nobel Prize-winner, known as a very private man, responded. Indeed, Beckett was quite interested in Shainberg’s book. “Where do they put the skull bone while they are working inside?” Shainberg was a lucky guy. Beckett agreed to meet him in London, where Endgame was in rehearsal with Rick Cluchey’s San Quentin players. Shainberg was invited to the theater and got to see Beckett richly in his milieu, greeting well-wishers and longtime collaborators like Billie Whitelaw, Alan Schneider, and Irene Worth. Shainberg was very moved by the Beckett he saw “incarnate.” He found the experience “inspiring and disheartening, terrifying, reassuring, and humbling in the extreme.”
From all that I have read, to know Samuel Beckett was to like him immensely. Both shy and relaxed, funny and strict, he was always good-hearted, except when crossed by bumbling or censorious publishers and theater agents. He always had his good reasons for being unpleasant. To know Beckett, or to know his work, as Shainberg became well aware, is to risk falling under the spell of his style. “Writers with Beckett too much in mind,” Shainberg wrote, “can sound worse than the weakest student in a freshman writing class.…”
“[I]n the wake of one of Beckett's convoluted, self-mocking sentences,” wrote Shainberg, “one can freeze with horror at the thought of any form that suggests ‘Once upon a time,’ anything, in fact, which departs from the absolute present. But if you take that notion too far you lose your work in … the belief that you can capture both your subject and your object in the instant of composition: ‘Here I am, sitting at my desk, writing Here I am, sitting at my desk.’ ”
Larry mentioned this to me at the Marlton Hotel lounge, as if it was a common thing to understand, and yet I realized at that moment that I had no idea how to be free of “Beckett’s convoluted, self-mocking sentences” or the economy of his comic timing (Vladimir: “I can’t go on like this.” Estragon: “That’s what you think.”).