My Friend, Samuel Beckett

By Israel Horovitz, 12/29/89

Gloucester-based playwright Israel Horovitz first met Samuel Beckett in Paris in the late '60s. Over the next two decades, they met and corresponded frequently. What follows is a remembrance of Beckett by Horovitz.
My love to you, as ever, I . . .

Mr. Beckett is dead. So, then, is Paris, too. I'm told that he died last Friday night. So, then, all of my heroes are dead, since last Friday night.

Life clung to Samuel Beckett, irritatingly, for 83 and 3/4 years.

I worry that the world will over-saint Sam and overlook the most important, most obvious truth: with his life Mr. Beckett proved that it was actually possible, even in our own inferior century, for a writer to work and to live with a great seriousness, a great caring, and a great integrity. What Samuel Beckett was was possible. Not a saint -- at times not even totally tasteful -- but ever an artist: clear-voiced, responsible, in line with the best. Beckett was, professionally, from youth, onward, an old crab. And with good cause. Around him, the quality of Life was odious, and the quality of Death an unsatisfying alternative.

Samuel Beckett's ever-flippable coin: Comedy for Tails, Tragedy for Heads.

When he told me he'd lost his teeth, I mumbled an inanity: "It could be worse."

Without pause, he struck back: "There's nothing so bad that it can't grow worse. There's no limit to how bad things can be!" And we laughed ourselves sick.

Mr. Beckett had a most subtle and unique way of flattering his friends. About Richard Ellmann's "James Joyce." "It's a marvelous work!" (said Beckett) ". . . a living biography! Everybody's in it! Absolutely everybody! He didn't miss a soul."

"I'm not in it," I offered.

And he countered, without pause. "You will be!" It is a great pity that Dick Ellman didn't live to write "The Beckett Book" as he'd have surely done.

Mr. Beckett knew his way around a dirty joke. When he first met (my wife) Gill, he ordered a double whiskey.

"I need a stiff drink. Nothing else is stiff, these days!"

In the early 1970s, I was staying in Paris, with my friend Jean-Paul Delamotte, a romancier manque. Lindon (dans la revue periodique "Minuit") had just brought out Beckett's newest texts, in French, called "Foirade," ''Foirade I," "Foirade II." As I was having a drink with Beckett later that night, I asked Jean-Paul what the word "foirade" meant, exactly.

J-P hemmed and hawwed, uncharacteristically. "Foirade is actually a bit, uh, well, disgusting."

When I reported this to Beckett, he play-acted massive outrage: ''Disgusting?! That is just ridiculous!"

The Setting: We were sitting together at La Closerie des Lilas, a restaurant that had been a sort of literary hangout in the 1930s. In the days before he underwent cataract surgery, Beckett wore eyeglasses as thick as Coke bottles. He was all Earthbound hawk, instantly recognizable, unmistakably the great good Samuel Beckett. As soon as we entered the restaurant he was recognized by all. Whenever he talked, all eaters stayed their forks and listened, intently. Beckett, very nearly blind, was oblivious to all eavesdropping.

He explained his reaction to Jean-Paul's "disgusting" by pointing out he had certainly "chosen 'foirade' carefully," and that he was currently at work "searching for the perfect English equivalent" (to his French title ''Foirade").

"Foirade: disgusting? Utter nonsense! One foirade is a lamentable failure . . . something one attempts that is destined to fail, but must be attempted, nonetheless, because it is unquestionably worth the effort . . . thus, a lamentable failure."

At this point, it seemed that every eater in the entire restaurant was leaning in toward us, paying rapt attention to Beckett's every word. And Beckett added, with the very slightest of smiles, "Of course, foirade also means 'wet fart'!"

And all around us, like the heroes of fine Keats odes, who leave the earth for extraordinary experience and return to Earth, changed, the eavesdropping diners of the Closerie des Lilas returned to their dinners . . . suddenly, abruptly, absolutely changed.

Postscript: Months later, in a New York bookshop, I came across the Grove Press edition of "Foirades." Beckett's English-language title: "Fizzles."

Matthew's head (definitely) on the table, age 9 (approximately). My son Matthew was tired. It was rapidly becoming late night. I had a drink-date with Beckett, and no baby-sitter. And so Matthew and Mr. Beckett met for the first time. Sam was about to direct "Godot" in Germany, and was telling me about a particular comic moment he was planning. Near the end of the story, Matthew, face down on the table, snorted and snored. Beckett was astonished.

"'Thank Christ I tried the joke out on you, first! I've put the kid to sleep!"

As a little girl, my daughter Rachael met Mr. Beckett two or three times. Years later, in the mid-1980s, when Rachael was first out of university, living and working in Paris, they met again, for a meal and a chat about life.

Rachael called me after their meeting and said of Sam: "He is the gentlest, kindest man I have ever met."

In my journal that night, I wrote: "Beckett is so totally generous with me. Time is his currency. In my presence, he never fails to over-spend."

Midwinter, mid-1973. I was cold, lonely and alarmingly low on cash. I was scheduled to do a poetry reading at 8 p.m., at the Centre Cultural American on the rue du Dragon . . . for $50. I was having a drink with Beckett at 7 p.m. I hadn't invited him to my reading because

1. I thought he wouldn't approve of my doing a public reading, even for much-needed money.
2. He rarely went to public gatherings. During our conversation, he seemed distracted. Out of nowhere, he said: "You're doing a reading of your poems, are you?" I was startled that he knew. And then he added, "Many friends expected?"

I'd obviously hurt his feelings by not inviting him. And so I did. He said, "No, thank you, I never go to those things!"

But then he asked me to recite one of my poems for him. Embarrassed, I told him that my being paid $50 for the reading was "definitely a fair price." He laughed but nonetheless insisted on a private recitation. (A few years later, in Hyde Park, he would insist that I run in a huge circle around him so that he could analyze my stride!) And so I recited a 4-liner, entitled ''On Boulevard Raspail":

How easily our only smile smiles.
We will never agree or disagree.
The pretty girl is perfected in her passing.
Our love lives within the space of a quietly closing door.
He listened with closed eyes. "Very nice," he said.

"Oh shit!" I said, suddenly. He opened his eyes, and I explained myself. ''I stole that from you!"

"No, no. I've never heard that in my life . . ."

"No, no, I did! Your poem 'Dieppe' . . . You end it with '. . . the space of a door that opens and shuts'"

"Oh, yes, that's true." And then, suddenly, he added: "Oh shit!"

"What's the matter?" I asked.

"I stole it from Dante me-self!"

Samuel Beckett had strict rules for living. We'd met for a drink one night, just after Gill and I were married (her first marriage, my third).

"One wife!" he scolded. "That's all a man is meant to have! Yeats only had one, Joyce only had one -- I'll only have one." Samuel Beckett had his heroes . . . and I knew that I would never be listed among them.

My most important memories of Beckett aren't memories of a superb writer, but of a superb friend. I was first attracted to Beckett because of his writing, but he quickly became for me one of those few men we painstakingly choose, against mother's will, to serve as father.

When I saw Sam last, some months ago, he'd grown as frail as old paper.

He was living in a room in an old people's home in the rue Remy-Dumonce, a few doors from his (holistic) doctor's house. I was stunned to realize that Beckett was now living like a character of his creation. To reach Beckett's room one had to pass through something called "the recreation room." Two dozen elderly French sat in a row like sparrows on a telephone wire, watching an obnoxious song-and-dance man via an outdated black-and-white television set. I broke into their shared reverie and asked where Beckett could be found. Nobody seemed to know him. I found the home's office. I was directed through a small courtyard to the rear of the block, where I saw a tiny ground-floor room with window-blinds partly drawn. Beckett was inside, dressed in a tattered old robe, working with pen and ink at a bridge table.

I stopped and stared a while, for some reason remembering Beckett's shock, 22 years before, at discovering that I didn't know Yeats' "Sailing from Byzantium." ( "An aged man is but a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick...") Before I left the table that night, Yeats' poem had passed from Mr. Beckett's memory to my memory (along with Sam's small scholarly note of caution: "I don't totally approve of that 'Soul clap its hands' part!")

Samuel Beckett's final room was seedy, small, sad: a bed, a bedside table, a bridge table and a matching chair, a television set "for sporting events." It was prisonlike, pathetic. My initial impulse was to pick him up and run, carrying him, out, away, to some time past. It's taken me nearly a year to let it go, to accept that this was his choice. We talked for a few hours. He asked the usual questions about my children, about my work, about Gill's recent marathons, did I need any money, or was I OK?

My turn. I asked about the state of his health. He understood his particular illness, explaining the mechanics of it as might a scientist. His brain wasn't getting proper circulation of blood.

But when he detailed the sensation -- how the problem was manifest in his particular body -- he was all writer: succinct and artfully clear. "I am standing in quicksand."

When I left Sam the last time, I knew that I might never see him alive again. I organized my life so that I could return to Paris, and be close by him, for six weeks, starting Jan. 15. I underestimated the quicksand by nearly a month.

Say something of the man and let it go. What Beckett said of Joyce is finally what I say of Beckett: "He never wrote about something. He always wrote something."

When I was first told you'd died, Sam, I worried for a split-second about all those amazing things you know going to death with you. But I quickly remembered how much you'd gotten down on paper . . . for them, for us. Those ''few polished gems . . . the most we can ever hope to leave behind us." You've left quite a few, old friend. For my part, it seems I must remain here in the scratching for a while longer.

Never goodbye. I'll see you later, dear Sam.  v

Back to the index

If you have comments or suggestions email me at