Beckett remembered: 'Oh, all to end'
By Robert Taylor, Globe Staff, 12/27/89
Kenner, Mellon professor of humanities at Johns
Hopkins University, met Beckett 32 years ago in France. "I saw Sam
in August and we had plans to meet this summer. He was very up, very
sprightly. I always found him cheerful and upbeat, never a figure of
depression. He considered himself an authority on restaurants. Once
he said to me, 'I know where to get the best oysters in Paris.' It
was in a restaurant patronized by Sugar Ray Robinson -- that's the
kind of endorsement that impressed Sam as it would have impressed
Joyce. So we piled into Sam's old Citroen that looked like a
collection of garbage cans tied together, and typically, coming out
of the parking lot, Sam took a wrong turn and there we were lurching
down the sidewalk with people scurrying left and right."
"Sam is the end of 20th-century modernism," said Hugh Kenner of
his old friend Samuel Beckett yesterday. "He's the last inheritor of
Joyce and Pound, and right down to the end was working in that
increasingly narrow corridor."
The effervescent historical Beckett recalled by Hugh Kenner did
not reflect the persona of the artist, however. In fact, Kenner
yesterday was reading the brief novella "Stirrings Still," written
by Beckett in his 83d year. "It's a meditation on his own death, and
it has exactly 1906 words -- he was born in 1906 -- and the final
words are, 'Oh, all to end.' "
This aspect of Beckett was also discussed by novelist, poet and
critic John Updike.
"He's the quintessential modern artist, post-Joyce, and to my
mind he took the despairing streak in modernism to its ultimate
conclusion. With how much Irish music, bucolic music, nothingness is
evoked! Beckett is one of the people who taught me to write. The
fewer words express a reality there, and reality surely flavored his
view. We all live in a Beckett world, don't we? The butt end of a
"His father was a surveyor who assessed a number of buildings,
but I don't care for the enumerative things, the measurements. For
all Beckett's virtues, he's not in the very top rank; you enjoy
reading Beckett, but not rereading him. Unlike Calvino, he excludes
too much. Of course, if anyone was ever fortified for his own death,
The realism in Beckett, said Kenner, is too often scanted. "Sam
was a typical Irish university bum until the war changed him when he
joined the French Resistance. He is, incidentally, the only Nobel
laureate listed in Wisden's -- the Bible of cricket -- because he
played for Trinity in the 1920s. But 'Godot' is a play about the
Resistance; the characters have code names, are regularly beaten by
the Gestapo, and continually await their assignments. It's worth
remembering the same methods were used by the Fenians in the 1850s:
the notion that if you didn't know very much, not many people can
betray you. If you are compelled to talk, you can't satisfy them --
that's strictly Resistance. Sam belonged to a cell; a member talked;
and one night as he and his wife were arriving home, they were
warned the police were in their apartment. Instead, they went to the
railway station and the south of France.
"He was scarred by the Resistance. When you place three actors in
jars and the spotlight rests on one after another until the spot
gets bored, you are depicting a Gestapo interrogation. It's
ultrarealism. He was fascinated by things getting shorter and
shorter. His play 'Come and Go' has 121 spoken words and lasts five
minutes. I asked him how he expected it to get performed -- a New
York audience won't put up with a five-minute production. 'As an
afterpiece,' he told me. His work requires first-rate playing;
amateurs can't do it. The freedom he denied the actor -- Winnie in
'Happy Days' reaches a point where all she has left is a facial
expression -- is in fact a great challenge. The tradition of that
technique, where to be able to do it counts most, is a kind of
discipline. In 1964, I saw the Norwegian premiere of a Beckett play
which ends with the stage direction, 'Repeat play exactly.' A week
later I saw Sam in Paris. 'Did they do it again?' he asked. 'No,' I
said. 'I thought not,' he said gloomily. But to perform Beckett
correctly means observing the details to the letter."
George Plimpton, the editor and founder of the Paris Review, said
that Beckett was one of the few people who eluded that magazine's
celebrated author-interview series. "He was enormously polite about
it, though we never
succeeded in interviewing him. I used to see
him working at cafe tables with his translator. Since he wrote in
French, he needed the translator for the English version. I always
wanted to meet Beckett, but I never could muster up enough courage
to approach his table."
Composer Ned Rorem, a long-time former resident of Paris, said
yesterday when he heard the news of Beckett's death:
"He was a master in the lineage of the 19th-century greats, and
his subject matter, like Dostoyevsky's or Kierkegaard's, was
despair. But, unlike them, his identifying property was economy --
leanness to the vanishing point. He made of human loneliness a
subject of high camp, yet despite his virtues, he created no
enjoyable characters or any real catharsis. His ultimate value will
lie not so much in his own works, but in his influence. Without him
there would be no Pinter or Albee, no Ionesco or Orton.
"His work lent itself well to music: the minimalism with words,
sentences, paragraphs, allowed for refurbishing by composers. Many
of his plays have been made into operas with more or less success.
When I first saw it in 1953 in Paris, 'Waiting for Godot' seemed
arty and dated. Ten years later, when I listened to it, not for
content but for sonority, the echoes and rise and fall of language
seemed pure music, and I revised my opinion.
"I never met him, but he seems to have been a decent and humorous
type. Madeleine Renault told me that when she toured in his
monologue 'Happy Days' Beckett would phone or telegraph her several
times a week, wherever she was in the world, to wish her well.
"He was one of those rare ones, along with Conrad, Nabokov and
Dinesen, who wrote exclusively in a language not their own. Beckett,
an Irishman, gave to French a tonality absolutely new. When the
tonality was translated back into English, English ironically took
on a clipped, Gallic resonance of brevity and wit, a resonance which
is a 'Beckett' sound and by extension the sound of all theater in
Looking back on three decades of friendship, Hugh Kenner defined
the basis of that sound. "Joyce used to say that he could justify
every syllable, but Beckett would reply, 'That isn't the only way to
write.' He would put it another way: 'Trust the darkness.'