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The Joys of Cycling with Beckett
In 1998, the most famous of all cycling races, the Tour de France, started in Dublin and stayed in Ireland for three days before continuing through France and, as always, finishing in Paris. This means that that year's Tour took a course that was similar to Nobel Prize winner Samuel Beckett's course of life: Beckett, who was born in Dublin in 1906, lived most of his life in France and died in Paris in 1989. Moreover, in his earlier years Beckett was a keen cyclist, and bicycles figure prominently in his works. One of the key phrases of the novel Mercier and Camier states: "The bicycle is a great good. But it can turn nasty, if ill employed."
Mercier and Camier are trying to leave a city that can be identified as Dublin. After a while, they succeed in getting into the mountains, where they part company; at the end, they are both in the city again. Samuel Beckett was born in Foxrock, one of Dublin's suburbs at the foot at the Wicklow Mountains. This means that for him, both the city center and the mountains were easily accessible on bike. Twenty years ago, before I knew any of Beckett's works, I myself toured Ireland on a bicycle, and on the first day of my tour I crossed the Wicklow Mountains via the old military road, a description of which I later found in Beckett's Mercier and Camier:
"A road still carriageable climbs over the high moorland. It cuts across vast turfbogs, a thousand feet above sea-level, two thousand if you prefer. It leads to nothing any more. . . None ever pass this way but beauty-spot hogs and fanatical trampers. Under its heather mask the quag allures, with an allurement not all mortals can resist. Then it swallows them up or the mist comes down."
This landscape, Beckett's favourite landscape in all of Ireland, surfaces frequently in his writings, and even in his last years Beckett, when closing his eyes, was transported here: "the old haunts were never more present — I walk those backroads with closed eyes." Walking the mountains was a habit young Beckett adopted from his father, but as an adolescent he preferred using a motorcycle, as Deirdre Bair, his first biographer, reports: "In helmet and goggles, he flew over the narrow roads and ditches, stony-faced and grim, impervious to the dangers that lay around every curve in the landscape." There lay not only dangers, however, but also chances for success: in March 1925, Beckett on his 2.75 h.p. A.J.S. took part in a motorcycling race through the Wicklow Mountains.
When his father Bill bought an automobile, Beckett again changed his vehicle but was less successful. "Several times," Bair explains, "he lost the use of the car for legal infractions and several times Bill simply forbade him to drive it, which reduced him to the motorcycle when he had one in running condition or, most humiliating of all, to an ordinary bicycle." This humiliation, needless to say, could have easily put an end to the high esteem in which Beckett held the bicycle, were it not for Beckett's own first Tour de France.
Just like I did half a century later, Beckett discovered and explored his land of heart's desire on a cycling tour. In June 1926, he went to France and for a few weeks pedalled through the Loire valley. Right at the beginning he got aquainted with a young American named Charles C. Clarke and when Clarke returned to Europe the following year, he joined Beckett for some time in Foxrock, from where both friends made several cycling trips into Co. Wicklow. From this time on, the bicycle had regained its place in Beckett's heart and subsequently found its way into the world of his literary works.
Beckett's oeuvre is well known to be marked by bleakness and despair. If a bicycle comes into play, however, there is always a light of hope, joy and even love in these texts. Indeed, Beckett develops a mode of eroticism that is closely linked to the bicycle. In one of the stories of the early volume More Pricks than Kicks, the main character Belacqua Shuah on his walk through the Fingal district to the north of Dublin is accompanied by a girl named Winnie. She is trying to seduce Belacqua but her game is lost after the young man, "who could on no account resist a bicycle," has spotted a bike hidden by its owner in the grass. Belacqua seizes the first opportunity to get rid of Winnie and instead steal the desired vehicle: "It was a fine light machine, with red tyres and wooden rims. . . The machine was a treat to ride, on his right hand the sea was foaming among the rocks, the sands ahead were another yellow again, beyond them in the distance the cottages of Rush were bright white. Belacqua's sadness fell from him like a shift. He carried the bicycle into the field and laid it down on the grass."
For Belacqua, it seems, the bicycle is a dearer love companion than a girl, and the same is true of a later one of Beckett's heroes, the narrator of the novel Molloy, who affectionately remembers his bicycle and its horn and says: "What a rest to speak of bicycles and horns. Unfortunately it is not of them I have to speak, but of her who brought me into the world." Molloy, an old tramp who can scarcely move, is unable to love his mother but his love for the truely Beckettian vehicle can never be shattered: "Dear bicycle, I shall not call you bike, you were green, like so many of your generation. I don't know why. It is a pleasure to meet it again. To describe it at length would be a pleasure."
Beckett's despairing characters time and again derive pleasure from their bicycles. Moran, the second hero of Molloy, muses on the question of what vehicle to use and calls this "the fatal pleasure principle." After having acquired a bike, he states that he "would gladly write four thousand words" about it. When he and his son succeed in mounting the bike, Moran gets really enthusiastic: "Happily it was downhill. Happily I had mended my hat, or the wind would have blown it away. Happily the weather was fine and I no longer alone. Happily, happily." This incident of happiness is quite a rare moment in Beckett's work, and it would never have existed without the bike.
Dealing with his bike and horn is "a real pleasure, almost a vice," says Molloy, but unfortunately bicycles disappear from Beckett's work after this. Malone, Molloy's successor in the trilogy of Beckett's novels, muses that he would have liked to talk about his bicycle bell, one of his last possessions, but is unable to do so any more. In Beckett's work, the bicycle has to vanish because Beckett's characters lose any capability to move.
A bike means joy, pleasure and hope — but only as long as Beckett's characters are able to ride it. There are a few instances where bicycles are used dysfunctionally. Mercier and Camier for some time own a bike but never ride on it; after they lose it, their friendship disintegrates. In the novel Watt, there is a man carrying his bike up and down the stairs in a railway station, instead of being carried by it. At the end of the same novel, another bike is transported by train and owned by a person named Miss Walker. All this, of course, means that the bicycle's main function is perverted and therefore the joys of cycling are beyond reach.
Another kind of cycling connection can be reported for Beckett's most famous play, Waiting for Godot. No bicycle appears in this play, but Hugh Kenner in his essay "The Cartesian Centaur" reports that Beckett once, when asked about the meaning of Godot, mentioned "a veteran racing cyclist, bald, a 'stayer,' recurrent placeman in town-to-town and national championships, Christian name elusive, surname Godeau, pronounced, of course, no differently from Godot." Waiting for Godot surely is not about cycling races, but maybe the play has something to do with what can be called the bicycle principle.
The main point in Waiting for Godot, as well as in most of Beckett's works, is that nothing seems to change and something is repeated more or less eternally. These are exercises in repetition and variation — and the same can be said of the motions of the bicycle: its rider is moved through the landscape but does not move in relation to the vehicle. The bicycle's chain and wheels are continuously moving forward but never escape their cyclic nature and always return to where their motion starts. The bicycle for Beckett seems to have been an infinity machine. Cycling enthusiasts know that of all moving animals and machines, the bicycle has been scientifically proven to be the most efficient. Mankind never came closer to the old dream of a perpetuum mobile than with this fascinating two-wheel machine. Weather and terrain permitting, a bicycle and its rider can stay in motion for hours on end without exhausting all energies.
Interestingly enough, the mathematical symbol of infinity, the figure 8 turned on its side, looks more or less like a stylized bicycle. Both the bicycle and the infinity symbol comprise of a pair of cycles (or wheels). Beckett aficionados know all too well that the infinity symbol was as dear to Beckett as was the bicycle, and so it seems that both are interconnected. Flann O'Brien's novel The Third Policeman is not the only Irish work of literature where a bicycle is used as a means for transforming an action into eternity by way of constant repetition.
In 1981 Samuel Beckett wrote a short prose piece entitled "The Way" which he never consented to publish. In this text, Beckett twice describes a pathway running up and down a hill, a footpath in the shape of the figure 8: "The way wound up from foot to top and thence on down another way." The first part of this text bears the figure 8 as its title; the second and final part's title is the infinity symbol. There is no bicycle in this text, but the shape of the infinite way up and down a barren hill is the shape of Beckett's favourite vehicle. Beckett has finally managed to translate the bicycle principle into landscape itself, into his favourite landscape of Irish hills through which he steers a never-ending course "in unending ending or beginning light."
This may sound a little bit too abstract, but the reader may forgive me if I close on a personal note. Beckett's never-ending way through the hills of counties Dublin and Wicklow is exactly the course which I took up when I started my cycling tour around Ireland more than twenty years ago. I'm still cycling. For me, Ireland is the ideal terrain for pedalling, and reading Beckett has deepened my understanding of what this means. May the heroes of the Irish Tour de France come back, too!
Friedhelm Rathjen is a German writer, lit-crit and private scholar. He has edited a volume of essays, In Principle, Beckett is Joyce, and his seven books in German include Samuel Beckett und seine Fahrräder, from which this article has been condensed.