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Getting to the Bottom of Beckett – Scottish Review of Books
by John Calder

Getting to the Bottom of Beckett

October 28, 2009 | by John Calder

THERE ARE MANY Samuel Becketts, because he was a complex man who moved in so many circles that barely touched each other, and they all saw him differently. There is the Beckett described by his various biographers, all slightly different, who chronicle his life but give him different motivations and tend to put their personal tastes and prejudices inside his head. There is the Beckett who people encountered on the street or in a pub and with whom he spent hours, who never knew that he was a famous writer or even a writer at all. And there are the many friends who all thought they knew him intimately until they encountered other friends who had known a quite different man.

I am not even talking about the hordes of academics who would pursue him like vultures, all claiming great intimacy and boasting of how often they had had lunch with him or met him for a drink or had him answer their letters. He has been more intensely studied than anyone other than Jesus, Napoleon, Beethoven and Wagner, more than James Joyce, Queen Victoria or Wellington. But the real Samuel Beckett remains elusive and his work, the most intense of any modern writer’s, still holds secrets where even people like me, living with it daily for more than fifty years, can still make discoveries.

And yet, although his plays, novels, poetry and other writings are a treasure trove for those interested in the possibilities of modern literature, and what it contains in the way of artistic merit, style, philosophical content and pleasure to read, there is no writer so accessible to the ordinary reader in terms of humour, autobiographical anecdotage, and racy story-telling, providing that he or she is satisfied with a good read and is not necessarily looking for something that is life-changing. But he will never forget what he has read: Beckett sticks in the brain.

Born in Dublin in 1906 into a conventional and very comfortable protestant middle-class family, he had much religion pumped into him by his Quaker mother, while his father interested him in outdoor pursuits, walking in the mountains, swimming and sport. As he grew up he turned out to be very good at the latter, being the only major writer listed in Wisden because his university, Dublin’s Trinity College, toured its cricket team to Britain in the twenties. At Portora Royal High School, a famous and elitist establishment in Ulster that Oscar Wilde had once attended, and a bastion of Calvinism, he excelled at his studies and sport before going to Trinity, where, although a brilliant student of French, Italian and Philosophy, he began to develop bohemian ways that much worried his conventional family. They had expected him to go into the family business, which his younger brother eventually did instead of him.

As a young man he began to write novels, without success. His early work shows a clever young writer, very erudite and showing off his knowledge in a showy and anxious-to-impress style that might have amused his friends and professors, but not the reading public. He managed to get a commission from a London publisher to write a book on Marcel Proust, then much discussed, only because no one else could be found to undertake it, and having spent a summer reading the French novelist, then some years dead, he wrote a very odd short study that really expressed how Proust had influenced his own developing philosophical ideas. It is today a much-read classic among Beckett fans, telling us more about the author than the subject. Having heard about a £10 poetry contest announced by Nancy Cunard, the arty daughter of the head of the shipping line, he wrote a long poem within the guidelines of the competition and won the prize, as well as being collected by Nancy as one of her many lovers.

When the war started he had been living for some years in France, often acting as a general unpaid helper to James Joyce, who he admired so much that he bought shoes the same size and forced his large feet into tiny footwear. Partly subsidised by his despairing parents, and otherwise earning small sums by translating from French to English for small literary magazines, he had by the outbreak of war in 1939 written three works of fiction. Two of them were published unsuccessfully, while the third, Murphy, received only one good review in a student magazine from Iris Murdoch, then studying English at Oxford. Very few copies were sold and nearly the whole small edition was destroyed in the London blitz. Harold Pinter, thirty years later, found a copy in a public library that had never been borrowed, and kept it.

The war, as much as his studies and presence among the bohemian group of writers, painters and intellectuals of thirties Paris, forged Beckett into what he was to become. He was in Ireland on a family visit when war broke out, and Ireland remained neutral. But his friends were in Paris, and he rushed back to be with them. When they formed a resistance cell under the German occupation in 1940, he joined it. Loyalty to friends was a life-long characteristic. The cell was betrayed, many members of it were captured, tortured and died, but Beckett was lucky enough to escape. He had recently been involved with an older woman, a French piano teacher, Suzanne Dechevaux, and together they bicycled to the south, the self-governing Vichy regime under French fascists appointed by the Germans. In Roussillon, a hillside village in the Vaucluse mountains, they sat out the war, sometimes involved in guerrilla operations with the local Maquis. Suzanne and Sam were much in the company of a Jewish surrealist painter from Holland, having to hide in the woods whenever the Germans went through the village.

They earned money by working for a local farmer, mainly picking grapes, always in danger of being given away by someone who would get a reward for betraying them, or of being picked up by a German patrol. This is the background situation of Beckett’s most famous play, Waiting for Godot, written two years after the war ended, but universalised into a picture of all humanity, caught in a world that can never be fully understood, where the strong bully the weak, and survival, always a problem, depends on companionship and trust as well as whatever good luck blind fortune provides. The war gave Beckett the time to contemplate what life and the human condition is all about, to write his tragic-comic novel Watt and, when liberation came, to use his wartime experiences to create the most significant literature of his time, novels that go to the core of what humanity really is under all the pretence, poetry that, although sometimes a little obscure, carries a dynamic philosophical message, and plays that have changed the nature of modern theatre.

Waiting for Godot had its premiere in Paris in 1953 in a theatre about to go bankrupt, which the play rescued through its success. Although controversial, it interested enough people to be discussed everywhere it was performed, called existentialist in Western Europe and politically anti-communist in Russia and its satellites, while the English-language world gradually realised its intense poetical impact and connection with Shake-speare and older theatrical traditions, such as Greek drama. The years between 1947 and 1949 were crucial to Beckett. Exhausted by the war, with a visible growth in his cheek that he thought was probably a cancer that would soon kill him, and bursting to get on to paper a fusion of his experiences, thoughts and observations, he locked himself into a room for two years, seeing hardly anyone, except Suzanne who was still with him, in order to write. During that period he produced his three great novels Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable, his greatest poems, Waiting for Godot and much else. If he had written nothing before or after he would still be known as a great writer for the output of those two years.

But the growth in his cheek was eventually removed and it was not malignant. Nor was his constant prostate trouble, mirrored in his alter ego Vladimir in Godot, who constantly rushes off stage to pee, as Beckett did ten times during a meal whenever I saw him. His painter friend from Roussillon, Henri Hay-den, is also mirrored in Godot, as the ever-complaining, always-hungry Estragon, closer to everyday needs than the more philosophical Vladimir, finding in the oddities of metaphysical speculation much to make audiences laugh or the unquestioning believer think about what he really believes.

The relationship between religion (Beck-ett’s early life one might say), metaphysics (his tertiary education and maturity) and philosophy (his later career) is an interesting one. Religion is about answering questions that no one is encouraged to ask, metaphysics about investigating a small area of speculation, such as the nature of God or heaven, while philosophy is about asking questions without necessarily expecting to find an answer. Having been brought up with religion and knowing and remembering what he had been taught and read all his life, Beck-ett was to use it throughout his work, often with a devastating wit – not without a certain tongue-in-cheek wickedness – to send up many of the absurdities that are taught, the platitudes we hear daily, and the dogmas that do not stand up to reason. The devout Catholic Moran in Molloy drinks lager before communion and hopes to deceive the priest while worrying dogmatically about his sin; when he is lost in the wilderness he asks himself a series of metaphysical questions, the most telling of which is “What was God doing with himself before the Creation?”.

In the play Endgame, the principal character, Hamm, says of God that “He doesn’t exist, the bastard”, the pejorative negating the statement. The play itself is almost a religious morality play. The characters all have names meaning ‘nail’, in three languages (Nell, Nagel, Clov), while Hamm is a Hammer, so the whole play represents the nails hammered into the hands and feet of Jesus at the Crucifixion. Hamm was also the son of Noah and there are indications in the text that another great flood is beginning. One does not have to think of recent events in America and the alarms associated with global warming to realise that Beckett’s work in many ways can be seen as prophetic.

The Crucifixion keeps recurring in his writings, hardly an accident because he was very aware of having been born on a Good Friday. He constantly describes life as one long crucifixion. In that sense he uses Christianity more than any other modern writer, but only in terms of reference and metaphor, not of belief, because he lost his faith somewhere during his Trinity days. Not entirely, perhaps, because he never called himself an atheist, and he was certainly drawn towards the more ascetic mystics like Geulincx who believed that God was so far away that there was no reason why he should be aware of our existence at all, and we should therefore conduct ourselves with appropriate humility. The first words of Waiting for Godot come from Geulincx, “Nothing to be done”.

It is our situation in life that nothing can change its destiny: we are born, we live and we die. What that life is like in terms of length, quality and happiness is a matter of luck, but if we think about all the time before we are born and after we die, we quickly realise that human life is of very short duration, a message which comes up over and over in Beckett’s work. His shortest play Breath is thirty seconds long, ten for a baby’s cry while the light grows stronger, ten for a breath to be taken in and ten for it to be exhaled while the light fades ending with a death rattle. Pozzo in Godot says: “We are born astride of a grave” and in one poem Beckett refers to life being as long as a door “that opens and shuts”.

Beckett stayed in Paris after the war, had many friends there and would see them when he could, but he would shut himself away for long periods to write, often producing long manuscripts which he would then pare down to short ones, often only a few pages, containing the most essential part of his thinking, which might be a story or an incident or a situation, written for stage, screen or radio broadcast, or for the printed page as fiction, but always with a human situation described with breath-taking originality. During his social encounters he would mix with anyone who was natural and unpretentious. Anecdotes abound about him. He went to get his Irish passport renewed, fell into conversation at the Consulate with a tourist who had been mugged and was hungry, gave him all the money in his pocket, then could not pay for his passport or the bus fare to get home. On one occasion he was stopped by two Irish labourers who were lost in Paris, befriended them, took them out to dinner, then to a night-club and back to their hotel. Only when they were back in Dublin were they told that this man Sam Beckett who had done them so well was a well-known writer.

I thought I knew Beckett, both professionally and personally as a friend, as well as anyone, but was amazed how often I would meet others who knew him that he had never mentioned to me. He compartmentalised his life, tending to meet people in bars or cafes where he would always turn up punctually and leave at exactly the moment he had decided to. Both his brain and his eyes were like lasers: you could not tell him the whitest of white lies; he would detect instantly that something was wrong. He was brilliant at intellectual games such as chess and would always win quickly at bar games played with matches or coins because his mind would instantly divine the secret behind them. And his interest in sport continued: he had no television set in Paris, but meals had to be delayed, when he stayed with me in London, if Wimbledon or a cricket match was on the box.

One reason that so many different personalities seemed to inhabit Samuel Beckett’s body is that he moved in so many different circles. Another is that the wide range of his interests and readings gave him the ability to converse on equal terms with painters and musicians, academics of many specialities including science and medicine, historians, critics, biographers, sportsmen and, of course, other writers. I have seen him with artists ranging from Alberto Giacometti, Joan Mitchell, Sol Steinberg, Avigdor Arikha and, naturally, Henri Hayden; with many composers, some of whom were close friends, usually because on nocturnal wanderings around Paris’s late-night bistros and drinking places we ran into groups of them, people I had never known he knew. He would fall easily into whatever subject they were discussing and seemed to know everything they knew. When I was alone with him we discussed the state of the world, what other writers were doing – he did not like to talk about his own work and we seldom did except professionally, how a text should be presented and what book cover to design for instance – and the ideas of the philosophers we knew. It is as a philosopher as much as a literary figure that I think of him and my book, The Philosophy of Samuel Beckett, mainly examines the ideas that abound throughout his work to present him as such. These ideas touch the life of every one of us, and it is the personal relevance that his fans find in his work that accounts for his influence and popularity. If he makes us look at the dark rather than the light side of life, it is because we all have to realise, willingly or not, that it predominates. None of us can escape death, few of us will avoid illness, family, financial or personal disasters, but if we realise that such things happen to everyone, sooner or later, there is some comfort in it. It also encourages us to help rather than to run, or to be grateful at being helped.

Paradoxically we have to understand ourselves to really understand others and this requires a personal humility to realise how unimportant each one of us is in a big and unfriendly world, but at the same time to acquire the dignity, and the courage that goes with it, to face the worst that can happen to us and not crumble when things go wrong. The more we realise how fragile is a human life, the more likely are we to be good citizens, kind to others and in control of our own lives. If Beckett is a philosopher, he is a moral one, looking into the blackness and finding whatever light might be there at the end of the tunnel. Once one discovers Beckett he is part of your thinking for life.

For the last three years I have been involved with a theatre company that has decided to perform only Beckett and to bring his work to the public in the most effective ways possible. As I write, the Godot Company is about to return to Edinburgh for the second year running with three short plays. The company itself consists of a cooperative of thirteen actors, all highly experienced, who need no director, but work together to bring the plays to audiences in accordance with the author’s very precise stage directions. Not only the plays, but also the other texts, many of which are monologues that can be delivered directly to audiences, or else excerpted to bring the essential message to those open to what he has to say.

That message is an important one, especially today when we are confronted with so much false information, official lying and spin. What Beckett can help anyone to do is to face truth, first by discovering what the truth is, then by learning to live with it and then by changing our thinking about the world in order to make it a little better. Loyalty and trust are not the qualities that are advocated by a consumer society based on a rat-race where getting ahead of your neighbour is more important than helping him, and the media constantly encourages you to ignore whatever is uncomfortable to think about, and also to put yourself, your well-bring, comfort and pleasures ahead of any concern for the world in general, and those less fortunate than yourself in particular.

Waiting for Godot brought in enough money to enable Beckett to buy himself a Paris flat and a small house in the country where he did much of his work. Other than simple everyday needs, his expenditure on himself stopped there. His French publisher was often in financial difficulties and Beckett not only forewent royalties but used revenue from performances to get him out of trouble. He did the same for no-one knows how many others. Anyone in need went to Beckett and he would borrow to lend money that was never returned. When he won the Nobel Prize in 1969 and a large sum of money came to him, he told me that he did not feel he deserved it and could I give him a list of needy writers he could help. By the time he received my list it was all gone. Others had come to him, often asking for as large a sum as they dared. When he died there was nothing in the bank, money was owed in tax and his heirs had to wait for it to be paid before they received any benefit.

The amazing thing about the way audiences and readers respond to Beckett is that his work has an uncanny way of getting through the world of spin and propaganda. We are constantly told to trust those in power, to be ready consumers, to ignore anything unpleasant, and that optimism is right and necessary. Those who decry Beckett say that he is a charlatan whose pessimism is boringly outdated and that his work cannot be understood. The contrary is true. Audiences, as I have seen at first hand all over Britain, as I travelled with the Godot Company, have thrilled to a writer who seems to read their inner thoughts and say what they think but often do not want to talk about. He gives audiences the ability to face reality by understanding it, stressing that we all have the courage and the dignity to admit there are many things we fear with good reason, and that by sharing our fears and insecurities with others we can not only help them, but ourselves as well. Good companionship and the ability we all have to be kind and helpful instead of surly and selfish, are the key to Beckett’s ethical approach to life. It contains the best part of the Christian message, but has just as much in common with other religions, especially the philosophical Eastern ones.

There is another common anxiety that Beckett convincingly knocks down, the need to be an achiever, a success. In much of his work Beckett shows us those who consider themselves better than others, who vaunt their success and use it to humiliate or enjoy dominance over others. But we all come to the same end, as he stresses, and he who has the farthest to fall falls hardest. We can gloat for a moment when he shows us a bully brought down by circumstances or old age, but then pity begins to rise and we watch the bully as he struggles to end with dignity and courage. One of Beckett’s most quoted phrases has to do with art: that every good artist must believe that he is really a failure. He says “To be an artist is to fail as no other dare fail, that failure is his world.” But we all fail, because the world itself in any objective sense, and the life on it, is a failure. In one of his late short works, Ill Seen Ill Said, he depicts the God of Genesis, who regrets having made the world, and tries to reverse time to wipe out that creation.

Beckett says that there can be no blame in failure. To quote him again: “Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better!”

Perhaps a word should be said about Beck-ett’s humour. It can be seen as a black. But he is one of the funniest of writers, especially when he writes about our obsessions, as in the novel Watt, where many human activities are mocked with great comic seriousness, showing how far we can go to follow an action that may be totally useless. And there is satirical humour, too, that makes us realise how much “what fools these mortals be!”

Lately, the Godot Company performed three quintessential Beckett plays, including the tragic-comic Play where the members of a love triangle look back over their relationship from a shadowy after world. It is one of Beckett’s most poignant but funny plays. The actors and I also presented Beckett’s Outbursts which combine angry comments at the mess we have made of the planet, not just for ourselves but for other species as well (Beckett loved animals and had great compassion for them), with much humour about our obsessive natures. As the actors like to remind audiences, it is not only permitted to laugh, but they are very unhappy if you don’t.

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