I made my resolution the moment the Grove Centenary Edition of the complete works of Samuel Beckett landed on my desk, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the birth of the man whom Paul Auster, editor of the series, calls "one of the great literary artists of our time."
My resolution was this: I would read the complete works of Beckett, and then I would write about them. It was a handsome set, with etched and semi-matte hardboards and black moiré endpapers -- serious books for serious readers.
The fatal setback to this plan occurred 13 pages into Volume 1, in the novel Murphy, a book I have actually read and was looking forward to revisiting (at the very least for its persistent jokes about flatulence). But I came to a crumple at:
They said little. Sometimes Murphy would begin to make a point, sometimes he may have even finished making one, it was hard to say. For example, early one morning he said: 'The hireling fleeth because he is an hireling.' Was that a point?
I did some quick calculations about the thicket of Beckett that lay before me. For a man who loathed the act of writing, who was, as Martin Amis has described him, "the headmaster of the Writing as Agony school," whose output was often a word or two a day (once, famously, the single word "never"), Beckett produced a lot of words: seven novels; 32 dramatic works; 30 poems; 54 stories, texts and novellas; and three pieces of criticism -- roughly 850,000 words, most of which ultimately hark back to the dire and often irritating claim that words are useless. These useless words had now been gathered in the great Grove gob.
I assumed I could read 300 words a minute -- not slow when you're reading, say, How It Is, a 109-page verbal hemorrhage that employs neither grammar nor sentences; or when you're trying to keep track of who's who in What Where, a play in which the characters names are Bam, Bem, Bim and Bom.
Reading Beckett was one thing. Becoming a character in an unwritten Beckett drama was another. Suddenly, I had a revelation. A slender plinth of hope appeared hopelessly on the pale horizon, as Beckett might have said.
I would not read all of Beckett over the course of many months.
Instead, I would inhale his collected works in a single day.
I realize it sounds cheesy: skimming Sam, versus the enduring effort of battling through, word for word. But having done it, I can tell you this: It doesn't make any difference. I imagined Beckett would approve.
The problem with reading Samuel Beckett, as Salman Rushdie points out in his introduction to Volume 2 of the new Grove edition, is that the experience can actually be physically painful. (Irish writer Colm Toibin launches Volume 1, while Edward Albee and J. M. Coetzee -- like Beckett, a winner of the Nobel Prize -- present Volumes 3 and 4, respectively.)
"These are difficult books" Rushdie admits. "A headache after reading would not, or not in all cases, be an inappropriate response, though it should be added in fairness that there are headaches that feel worthwhile."
Rushdie ought to know: His volume contains Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable, which even Beckett fans call The Unreadable. They're considered Beckett's masterpieces, but reading them is still like taking a hollow-point slug to the brain. Together with Beckett's earlier, more accessible novels Murphy, Watt and Mercier and Camier, the novels are experiments in monologue. Each book represents a different consciousness, but each book is more stripped down than the last. Watt is even funny in a typically Irish way:
Did you see the accoutrement? said Mrs. Nixon. What has he on his head?
His hat, said Mr. Nixon.
But by the time he gets to The Unnamable, Beckett is content to simply slam your head repeatedly into the thick planks of linguistic hopelessness, proving again and again how meaningless meaning can be.
What's interesting about this progressive regression is that Beckett became the century's poster boy for literary and existential despair largely by circumstance.
He was born, Toibin points out in his first-rate introduction, at the tail end of a long line of eminent Protestant writers (Yeats, Shaw and John Millington Synge, to name a few) just as the influence of Protestants was waning in Ireland. As if being a religious outsider wasn't enough of a challenge, Beckett was also born under the vast living shadow of the two greatest writers Ireland had ever produced: Oscar Wilde and James Joyce, both of whom spent time in the neighbourhood of Dublin's Clare Street, where Beckett lived. (Beckett even worked as Joyce's secretary for a time.)Page 2 ----------------------------------------------
By 1935, marginalized and intimidated, deep in analysis, and living in London, Beckett was making agonizingly slow progress on his first novel, Murphy. One night, he attended a lecture by Carl Jung. Jung mentioned a patient "who had never fully been born."
The idea struck a chord with Beckett, and spurred him to finish Murphy. Suddenly he had a way of understanding his own halting progress as a writer. In the meantime he was called as a witness in a prominent local libel suit, and accused in court of writing filth, after which his family asked him to leave Dublin permanently, for Paris. Now he was an exile to boot.
By the time he returned to Dublin after the war to visit his mother, Beckett was primed for the brainwave that handed him his lifelong theme. "I realized that Joyce has gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, [being] in control of one's material," he later told James Knowlson, one of his biographers. "He was always adding to it; you have only to look at his proofs to see that. I realized that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than adding."
It was only then, Beckett said, that "I began to write the things I feel."
He also wrote in French. The English language was too articulate -- "you couldn't help writing poetry in it" -- whereas French had a "weakening effect." Language was now Beckett's enemy: "To bore one hole after another in it, until what lurks behind it -- be it something or nothing -- begins to seep through: I cannot imagine a higher goal for a writer today."
This is why reading Beckett, as funny and brilliant and insightful as he often is, is always exhausting: He fundamentally disagrees with what you're doing, and wants to make you stop. Again and again he lures us into a game he then reveals to be pointless and stupid. After a while it gets on your nerves. Enough, Sam, you want to say: If you despise words that much, you could have gone into human resources.
But of course he couldn't have, because human beings very rarely do anything new. "The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new," is how Murphy begins. Like Watt, its successor, the book is full of diagrams, musical charts and other systems the characters try to impose on the randomness of human life -- menus, second-by-second deconstructions of the act of shaving, the recorded moves of a chess game -- which of course instantly reveal how artificial and absurd they are, and how hopeless. And it isn't just their habits, but his characters themselves.
Mr. Nolan looked at Mr. Case, Mr. Case at Mr. Nolan, Mr. Gorman at Mr. Case, Mr. Gorman at Mr. Nolan, Mr. Nolan at Mr. Gorman . . .
He goes on like that for the rest of the paragraph.
In his next book, Mercier and Camier -- a novel with a name like a business, and clearly the template for what later becomes Waiting for Godot -- Beckett has figured out how to turn his new theories into human partnerships.
I feel the damp creeping up my crack, said Camier.
So long as none creeps down, said Mercier.
I fear for my cyst, said Camier.
What you lack, said Mercier, is any sense of perspective.
I don't see the connexion, said Camier.
Just so, said Mercier, you never see the connexion.
What's even more remarkable, though, is that Beckett kept writing at all. Murphy was rejected by his publisher because More Pricks Than Kicks, a previous book, sold exactly two copies. When Murphy didn't sell either, his French publisher passed on Mercier and Camier.
What does Beckett do? Does he give up writing, like any normal depressive? No. He starts all over again, beginning his most famous, and famously obscure, threesome of novels: Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable.
They aren't even novels, really. They're a set of ideas put to human motion, each time more starkly. They are as relentless and uncompromising as anything ever written, as seamless and unapologetic as a lying philanderer -- "a creature constituted of a voice attached," Coetzee writes, "for reasons unknown, to some kind of body enclosed in a space more or less reminiscent of Dante's Hell . . . condemned for a certain length of time to speak, to try to make sense of things."Page 3 ----------------------------------------------
Reading Beckett here at his densest is like lifting stones, one by one. I kept having to get up and go out to my car and sit in the rain and listen to Led Zeppelin to rest. I'm not kidding. At 121 pages, The Unnamable doesn't even have paragraphs. It's a slab of a book, a headstone masquerading as a novel. Regular paragraphs would be pandering, a suggestion that there is a plan, some order, even a pause in the relentlessness of experience.
But more than a gravestone, The Unnamable is the grave itself. "Where now?" it begins. "Who now? When now? Unquestioning. I, say I." And that's just the first five sentences.
"Open anywhere and begin reading," advises general editor Auster, a self-confessed Beckett case. "It is an experience unequalled anywhere in the universe of words." That, at least, is true, though it's small consolation for someone caught in The Unnamable's twisted roots and branches.
They have told me, explained to me, described to me, what it all is, what it looks like, what it's all for, one after the other, thousands of times, in thousands of connexions, until I must have begun to look as if I understood. Who could ever think, to hear me, that I've never seen anything, never heard anything but their voices?
And God help you if you lose your place. Brave men have never returned from lesser mistakes.
And yet, and yet, as Rushdie says: All you have to do is submit, and the words take you away. It's the paradox of Beckett, maybe even his flaw, that the writing of the man who said writing is meaningless (and then set out to make it so) should be so compelling and so often beautiful. "You must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on," are the last words of The Unnamable, but it might as well be the motto of everyone who tries to read it.
It's the details that do it: a bike, boots, a bubble of a girl, "the celebrated whiff of almonds," the minutiae of a minute's inner space, the process of processing a process like eating and digesting and eating and digesting again and again, not to mention (again) the constant breaking of wind, Beckett's beloved symbol of haplessness and death. He has an unerring ear and nose for the universal, for what is in everyone.
Reading the Grove edition, randomly or otherwise, your mind slips into the shape of the words on the page, into the river of the sound alone, and then finds a meaning for them -- rather than the other way around, which is what less principled brands of writing do, always telling the reader where to go, what to think and feel. Beckett is never so bossy. He even avoids quotation marks, the way some people are quiet at a dinner party: He doesn't want to intrude. But he can't avoid his instinct for the heart, no matter how hard he tries to turn us all into ideas.
I skirted the graveyard. It was night. Midnight perhaps. The lane is steep, I labour. A little wind was chasing the clouds over a faint sky. It is a great thing to own a plot in perpetuity, a very great thing indeed. If only that were the only perpetuity.
His plays are a surer bet. Waiting for Godot, the masterpiece everyone studies in high school, is the centrepiece here, written and then performed in the early 1950s. But Godot is No Sex Please, We're British next to the boggling dramas Beckett went on to write. In Endgame, his very next play, Beckett prevents his characters -- Nagg and Nell and Hamm and Clov, Saxonish louts -- from moving, period. They spend the play half-buried in garbage cans.
Nell: Can you see me?
Nell: So much the better, so much the better.
Nagg: Don't say that.
Our sight has failed.
[Pause. They turn away from each other.]
Nagg: Can you hear me?
Nell: Yes. And you?
Our hearing hasn't failed.
Nell: Our what?
Nagg: Our hearing.
They're in dustbins because they lost their legs in a cycling accident. (Beckett was an avid cyclist.) By the time he gets around to Happy Days in 1960, the main character, Winnie, is buried up to her waist directly in the ground. By Act 2 she's up to her neck. But Winnie is still an unrelenting optimist, a fool obsessed with her appearance who begins every day saying "Another heavenly day," a statement that works on so many levels it could be used as an elevator. "Mustn't complain. What is that line? Oh fleeting joys -- Oh something lasting woe."Page 4 -----------------------------------------
The older Beckett gets, the more honed and pared and efficient and streamlined the plays become (unlike his prose, which became mechanical). Act Without Words is a play about a mime who tries logically but unsuccessfully to reach a carafe of wine. Rough for Theatre I is about A, a blind man with a violin, interacting with B, a man who pushes his wheelchair with a stick. (Names are meaningless identities in Beckett's world.) A trips over a sack of nuts in the road. (What else?) "A little sack, full of nuts, in the middle of the road."
B: Yes, all right, but why don't you let yourself die?
A I have thought of it.
B: [irritated] But you don't do it!
A: I'm not unhappy enough . . .
B: But you must be every day a little more so.
A: [violently] I am not unhappy enough!
B: If you ask me we are made for each other.
The plays become more and more esoteric, more symbolic, simpler and more elemental. In one play the characters are three heads in urns that speak only when a spotlight turns on them. In Film, Beckett's only screenplay, starring Buster Keaton, the only sound uttered is "Sssh!" Another play is about a single breath. Still another, Not I, has only one speaking part: a gigantic mouth. The only action is actors raising and dropping their arms, mute and aimless.
The more I read of the collected works of Samuel Beckett, the more I realized that everything he wrote asked the same question: Is this necessary? Is this the essential thing? So much turned out not to be, in Beckett's work: words, talk, love, theory, writing, thinking, religion, habit, games, even much of life itself. The collected works of a writer -- an idea full of inflated importance -- would have been at the top of his list of things to go. Everything he wrote was an attempt to reduce what he had written before.
Did I say I read these plays while it rained? I wasn't sure which felt more final -- Beckett's words, reduced to their radioactive cores, or the rain slashing down my windshield. He cared about finality, about saying the one thing that would render all other utterance extraneous -- "a hopeless quest," as Coetzee wisely points out. We know that, even if Beckett couldn't let himself believe it. I suspect that's why we forgive him.
Beckett on screen
Can't make your way through a Beckett text? Try to catch him on film.
Beckett on Film, a series co-produced by RTE, Channel 4 and the Irish Film Board, ambitiously set out to capture all 19 of Beckett's plays. Highlights include John Gielgud and Harold Pinter in Catastrophe, Michael Gambon and David Thewlis in Endgame, Atom Egoyan directing John Hurt in Krapp's Last Tape, Neil Jordan directing Julianne Moore in Not I, Jeremy Irons in Ohio Impromptu and Anthony Minghella directing Alan Rickman and Kristin Scott Thomas in Play. The entire series can be purchased on-line. The making of the series was also shot in the 2003 documentary Check the Gate: Putting Beckett on Film.
Of all Beckett's stage works, Waiting for Godot is by far the best-known and most-shot. Versions include: the 2001 Hungarian film Varja Vlagyimir, a 1991 British version starring Brian Blessed, and a 1961 black-and-white made-for-TV version with Burgess Meredith as Vladimir and Zero Mostel as Estragon.
How would Beckett stage the plays himself? At least two filmed versions of works he directed exist: Waiting for Godot (1988) and Endgame (1992).
Beckett didn't write just for the stage; he also penned screenplays, including the TV works Eh, Joe? (1966), Ghost Trio, . . . but the clouds . . . (1977), Quadrat 1 +2 (1982) and the German work Nacht und Traume (1983).