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Laughter in the dark

Samuel Beckett is seen by some as the laureate of despair, an enigmatic hermit who produced dour, difficult work. Edna O'Brien, who knew him, marks the centenary of his birth in April by setting the record straight.

Saturday March 11, 2006
The Guardian

Samuel Beckett
Samuel Beckett... exuded 'the subtle magnetism of the truly reserved'. Photograph: Reg Lancaster/Getty
Sam The Man is the subject of endless myth, disquisition, hearsay, reverence, mystification and bloated anecdote. It would not be unreasonable to suppose that he is now known on the moon, a region he once ruefully regarded as being the preserve of Albert Camus. Many people met Beckett and inevitably drank with him. It is true that he drank quite a lot and is almost certainly truer that he needed to drink, both to vivify a spirit that had "little talent for happiness" and to lessen the barrage of fellow imbibers. All his works are littered with non-stop talkers, the quaquaquas. It seems somewhat precipitate to broach drink concerning such an exigent man, but that triptych of Irish geniuses, Joyce, Beckett and Flann O'Brien, were well-known habitués of the taverns, putting their sojourns to sedulous good use.

Ireland, "the ruinstrewn land between road and ditch", was always both matrix and medium for Beckett's work. His lamentations, his rhythms, his vituperations and his curses all seem to me to be thoroughly Irish. What he found inimical about his native land was the bigotry and the stranglehold of the Catholic hierarchy and in turn he was deemed by them "a blasphemer". In a brief and radiant "homage" to the painter Jack Yeats, Beckett said the artist who stakes his life has no brother and comes from nowhere. Statements, however, are never the whole story. In a book compiled for his 80th birthday by Eoin O'Brien, we read of and see the "dear back roads", the ditches, the daisies, the sheep, the lambs, the afterbirths as he had observed them on the mountain walks he had taken with his father, the silver-voiced hammer of the stonecutters heard in the distance. The wild, primal landscape that Synge wrote of, with a singular raptness, was also Beckett's universe and he acknowledged a lifelong debt to Synge, a kindred spirit. The other and more convoluted debt was to James Joyce, the man he vowed (in vain) he would get over.

Much is made of his relationship with Joyce and he is credited or discredited with being Joyce's secretary, something he smarted under and which seems unlikely, considering his dilatory, vagabond ways at that time in Paris, aged 22, when he first met Joyce. He was one of the 12 marshals (or apostles) summoned by Joyce, who stood behind them and directed their words, to rebut the attacks that Rebecca West, Wyndham Lewis, Sean O'Faolain and others had levelled at "Work In Progress", which had appeared in the magazine "transition". The essays, scholarly, fistic and obfuscating, were ordained to further Joyce's determination to keep the professors guessing and the critics busy for 300 years.

Beckett obliged Joyce in many ways, helped with translating Anna Livia into French, but as Joyce's wife Nora Barnacle said, if God almighty came down from heaven, her husband would have a job for him. When Beckett, after a brief contretemps with a pimp, was stabbed in the early hours of January 1938, the knife just missing his heart, Joyce promptly visited him in hospital. The encounter has been described by Nino Frank, who had escorted the almost-blind Joyce, as that of two Irishmen marinating in their respective silences. The pimp had the gratifying name of Monsieur Prudent and humour always trailed both authors. Joyce, who detested interruption, wrote that his apartment had become like "the American stock exchange", what with sympathisers telephoning to inquire as to the condition of the stabbed man.

Joyce's influence on him, as on many another, was inescapable and submitting an early work, Sedendo et Quiescendo, to his admiring editor, Charles Prentice, at Chatto & Windus, he admitted that "it stinks of Joyce", vowing to overcome that influence. It is true that much of his early work mirrors Joyce's ribaldry, profanity, circumlocutions and pythagorean disputation. In an interview with Israel Shenker in the New York Times years later, Beckett said Joyce wrote from "omniscience", "omnipotence", in short godliness, whereas he wrote from ignorance and impotence. Working as he did from the realm of "uncertainties", he claimed to have "nothing to express with or from or towards, except the obligation to express", but if it was nothing at all, there would not be the vast trove of work. It is the near-nothing, just like the near-madness, that is the dynamic and impetus for great art. Fragment. Expletives. Minutiae. Legendless men resembling biblical figures, bewailing their own passage up Golgotha with plenty of jesting, ameliorating their woes by telling themselves (and us) little stories. What had been clever and labyrinthine was discarded, in order to go deeper, to the more terrifying zones of existence and in that he seems to me to be akin to Kafka, an author of whom he expressed some reservations.

With regard to women, he was more searing than Joyce. No epiphanies, no litanies or paeans to her opal eyes. Crones, hags, rejects in dustbins caterwauling, full of sexual hungers, given to incessant chatter, such as Mrs Rooney in All That Fall and Winnie in Happy Days, repetitive, dippy and yet riveting with their droll, often sagacious nuggets on life. When Mrs Rooney declares that it is suicide to be at home, but raving dissolution to be abroad, she is surely affirming her author's sentiments.

If Yeats sought the unattainable muse and Joyce the carnal muse, Beckett plumped for the anti-muse.

Much to the consternation of his watchful mother, Beckett, at the age of 22, fell in love with his first cousin Peggy Sinclair and a poem rife with longing conveys the youthful dreamings of being "fused in the white heat of her sad finite essence". When the white heat became fleshier, instigated mainly by Peggy's ardour and her passionate flow of letters, he had second thoughts and, true to his lifelong pattern, he took flight. Peggy Sinclair is partly the prototype for Smeraldina-Rima in his early work Dream of Fair to Middling Women. The body of our heroine is definitely all wrong, perched above this porpoise prism is the loveliest little pale firm cameo of a face that the hero, Belacqua (in deference to one of Dante's unrepenting sinners) ever clapped his blazing blue eyes on. Her unearthly radiance encourages him to moor in the calm curds of her bosom, to discover, on closer acquaintance, that she is a good looker only from the girdle up and though his soul was heaved from its hinges, his mind remained rigorously critical. She is another of the quaquaquas always insisting that she is right and he is wrong and so forth, ad infinitum.

In First Love, which he did not allow to be published until 30 years after it was written, he shows himself at his most naked and scatological. The narrator, a vagrant, has nowhere to go, having, after the death of his father, been evicted from his room. He sits on a bench and there is pursued by Lulu, with whom he manages some kind of grotesque congress. Before long, Lulu becomes Anna, one woman, as it were, a mere continuation of another and all a permutation of the first woman. Lulu-Anna succeeds in bringing him home, even though he is a man who prefers to sleep in the straw. His requirements, though meagre, are tyrannical and his behaviour cavalier. He insists on a room separated from her by a kitchen, asks for a chamber pot and has to settle for a saucepan, which is "not a true saucepan", and hilariously has a yen for a hyacinth in a pot. Anna wends her way through the kitchen to his room and upon wakening and seeing her naked, he shudders to think of her exertions. But at least his love is waning and that is all that matters. The day she announces her pregnancy and lifts the blind to proudly show her rotundity, he has already absconded in his mind, back to the mountain, hearing the curlews and somewhere the distant silver of the stonecutter's hammers. He does not leave at once, being of a slothful tendency. But at the first cry of the woman in labour and then the cry of the infant, he gets out of bed, gets coat, greatcoat and hat, laces the boots, is gone. Yet, as he tells us, both cries do not cease, for "memories are killing". So were his anxiety attacks, a heart he feared close to bursting "that put fear of death into him at night".

Many writers (Joyce and Hemingway most vociferously) dread and decry psychoanalysis, believing that the ransack of the unconscious will dislodge the genius. Beckett was not of that opinion. He decided it was essential for various reasons, his isolatedness, his despairing narcissism and his icy disparagement of others. He underwent psychotherapy in the Tavistock Clinic in London for two years, putting his all into it to the exclusion of everything else. He read Freud, Jung, Otto Rank and Adler, immersing himself in their various creeds, attended lectures given by Jung, and liked his therapist Dr Bion well enough to socialise with him. He got from it something of what he needed and discarded what was superfluous.

Dr Bion, a taciturn man whose method was pleasing to Beckett, can hardly have been divulging the secret of the Holy Grail when he said that the key to his patient's crises was mother. May Beckett was a strong-willed, formidable woman, with a fiery temper, whose effect on him was lasting. She loved him, as he put it in a letter to her, with a "savage loving" and he met it with rebellion, wavering all his life between pity and exasperation, attendance and flight. She read the Bible to him and his brother Frank, every day, insisted they attend worship with her on Sundays in the local Protestant church, driving them in her trap, which was harnessed to a donkey, and inculcating in them the necessity of belief. It was unavailing in the case of Samuel, who fell foul of the English lord chamberlain in 1958, by referring to God as "the bastard!! He doesn't exist" (Endgame), and in "Lessness", the narrator resolves to "curse God again as in the blessed days".

Writing, not unlike Bassanio's sadness, springs from nowhere and is often as mysterious to the author as to the reader. Beckett, like his hero Krapp, had a revelation, though in Krapp's case it is called a vision, a vision above the pier in Dun Laoghaire, foam flying, the wind gauge spinning and Krapp's acknowledgment that his most unshatterable association is with the dark. Beckett often spoke of darkness and what made him tremble before the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich and Jack Yeats was illumination wrested from darkness and the void. His own revelation, as he told Richard Ellman, occurred in his mother's house in the summer of 1945. What it was remains undisclosed, except for his saying that he had put aside his erstwhile folly and resolved to write about the things he felt. The consequence was a prodigious spate of writing in less than three years - the novellas, "Molloy", "Malone Dies", "The Unnamable"; and Waiting for Godot, all in French. To commence in another language was radical and especially so for an author who had such a mastery of the mother tongue. French, he said, allowed for less style. It perhaps also allowed for the lessening of the influence of Joyce, Mother Ireland and the conflicts arising from the family cauldron.

A mother features again and again in his work, vilified, castigated, pilloried, transmogrified and yet mourned. JD O'Hara's essay in The Beckett Studies Reader makes the point that it was not the personal mother Molloy sought, but the mother within, "as variant of his anima". But fictional mother has for progenitor actual mother, as Joyce knew and both authors had to concede via their fictions that she is unkillable.

Molloy comes to his mother's house to say his goodbyes, to "finish dying", which we presume to mean, to be dead at last. However, he is a long way from dead, what with the rigour and vigour of his invective. Mother is first called Mag, the "g" being added, as he put it, to abolish the syllable "Ma" and then spit on it. Elsewhere she is given the questionable appellation of Countess Caca. Molloy finds her jabbering away and communicates by knocking on her skull to signify a yes, a no or I don't know. He has not come for money, since he knows anyhow where the money is hidden, he comes, young whelp that he is, to inflict a little dose of persecution. He believes that among the many misfortunes she visited upon him, the worst was her having to give birth to him, "having spoilt the only endurable period of his brief history". He has come as whelp, embryo and excoriating poet. But Beckett is Beckett and one depiction of mother, father or mountainside is never the whole story.

It was a gloriously creative period at the end of the war, yet the material conditions were appalling. He and his companion Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil were acutely short of money, lived frugally and supported only by a small allowance from his family, which did not convert advan-tageously into francs. Immersed in that labyrinth of words, with his typewriter, his four Bibles, his beloved Dante and an assortment of dictionaries to hand, Suzanne meanwhile busy at the sewing machine, patching and mending their clothing and earning small amounts from dressmaking and piano lessons, being too proud to accept charity from anyone. She was by several accounts an acerbic woman, resembling his mother in certain ways, also fiercely and resolutely loyal. She believed in him.

When the trilogy was complete she was the one who hawked it around to various publishers, more often than not succeeding only in getting as far as the concierge, while he sat in a café, twiddling his fingers. Deliverance came in the person of Jérôme Lindon, a 21-year-old editor with the publisher Vercors, who describes the thraldom of reading "Molloy" on the Metro and being unable to repress his laughter.

Just as for Carlyle, Beckett was prone to remorse and after her death told his biographer James Knowlson that he owed everything to Suzanne. But he was a complex man and a fugitive husband; he liked to drink with his male friends while she was stoutly disapproving, as she would disapprove of his love affairs, which Knowlson reports as being conducted "with exquisite discretion". No such exquisiteness infuses his scalding short play, called Play, in which the two women and the man, trapped in their respective hells, pelt out their grievances, the husband in blistering aside saying: "Adulterers, take warning, never admit."

Beckett's most shattering work is Endgame. Once again we are invited to the master/slave banquet, Hamm chair-bound and blind, Clov unable to keep still, their skewering relationship, yet the impossibility of disentanglement, torment and the futility of torment all compressed into 90 electrifying minutes. Seeming stasis and crucifixion and what Hugh Kenner has called "a drama into which we cannot but project so many awful significances". It was written in 1956, in French, in his retreat in Ussy, in the "Marne mud" and though Waiting for Godot had been a notable success, Endgame was refused by several theatrical managers. It is comforting to know that Beckett fulminated against all who thwarted and rejected him. Eventually a production was mounted in France and given a brief outing at the Royal Court in London, an event so lacklustre that he said it was like "playing to mahogany or teak". Translating it into English was both a burden and an irritant, believing as he did that it was not decantable and that much of its sharpness and its rhythms were lost. The hostilities voiced by the English critics were robust. It was thought to be despairing, pathological, peevish, neurotic, a heap of words with no drama and its author a masochist intoxicated with his own nothingness. Harold Hobson's was the lone voice of admiration. Beckett saw that the work at least "had the power to claw" and many years later, in The Western Canon, Harold Bloom pronounced it to be "the last stand against literature" in the 20th century.

The Magee monologue, later called Krapp's Last Tape, was the first thing Beckett wrote in English, after an absence of many years. He wrote it for the actor Patrick Magee, whose "cracked voice" delighted him so as he listened in a studio in Paris to tapes of his poetry, read by Magee, from the BBC. He called it a sentimental work but with a nice little twist and elsewhere conceded that he was "like a hen with her chick", seeing it produced. The experience in the theatre was for him "the best", Magee realising it in all his tonalities, the work pitilessly (which is to say perfectly) directed by Donald McWhinnie at the Royal Court. It is a memory play, the old angers in full flow softened by a wash of tenderness, Krapp sitting on a bench in Dublin, recalling many a thing, the remarkable eyes of a woman he loved, their drifting in among the flags in near-capitulating happiness (another run-in with the lord chamberlain), waiting for the roller blind to be drawn, signalling his mother's death. In his wait he has been throwing a black rubber ball to a dog and as the blind comes down, the enormity of the loss yet to be lived is made incarnate.

His concentration was exceptional. Even in his last months in Tiers Temp Nursing Home, as the poet Anne Atik tells in her memoir How It Was, he recited with passion from the Bible, St Luke's Gospel, St Augustine, Heine, Holderlin and Yeats's later poems which responded so deeply to the gravity within himself - "dark cold mantles the land". He could also, after a gap of more than 50 years, recall Joyce's telephone number. He loved painting and he loved music. He would study a painting inch by inch, going back to a gallery to re-see what had enthralled him, whether it was the Pièta at the National Gallery in Dublin or Friedrich's tempestuous canvasses that mirrored Malone's turbulence in "Malone Dies". A bare tree, a moon and two figures that he had seen at an exhibition of Friedrich's in Berlin served as the first glimmer for the writing of Waiting for Godot, a work he claimed to have embarked upon to get back his sanity and away from "the awful prose" he had been writing.

The works of Beckett I read most frequently are his radio play Embers and "The Unnamable". In Embers, Henry, whose father drowned himself, is haunted by sounds, the sound of the waves and the sound of hooves on a hard road. He is also going mad. He talks to himself to stave off the madness, has a prattling visit from the ghost of his wife Ada, bringing memories of their insufferable child, Addie. He tells himself a story, as so many of Beckett's characters are wont to do. The story is of two men, Bolton and Holloway. Holloway, at Bolton's pleading, journeys through a snowbound world to Bolton's house, the encounter proving to be bleak, two old men in great trouble staring at the embers in the black grate.

Much is made of Beckett's despairingness, his Cartesian soul nailed to its Cartesian cross, yet he is not a depressing writer, not depressing in the way Henri de Montherlant or Thomas Bernhard can be, because, as with Shakespeare, his darkest words are shot through with beauty and astonishment, his impassioned keenings the best witness that there is to the human plaint, his disgusts brimful with exhilaration. He was a maniac who managed with consummate skill to convert that mania into lasting poetry.

In "The Unnamable", the narrator recalls his life, his terrors and his shames, as he is about to be consigned to darkness and to silence, yet the last pages are a torrent of words, iteration and reiteration, convulsive and yet weirdly lucid, culminating in that spellbound scream purged of rage and the paradoxical affirmation - "You can't go on, I can't go on, I will go on."

Fame, as Rilke has said, is the quintessence of all the mistakes that gather around a name. Joyce was thought to swim in the Seine each morning and to write exclusively about mattresses, while Beckett, on the flyleaf of his early novel Murphy, was credited with having been a male nurse in a lunatic asylum. He eschewed fame, rarely talked of his work, even saying that once the ink was dry, he lost interest in it. Yet he was not the hermit according to the prevailing myth. He was cordial, patrician, generous and with the subtle magnetism of the truly reserved. I met him several times in London and Paris and once there was a little surprise diversion. I was with my sons, Carlo and Sasha, whom ever afterwards in postcards, he referred to as "stalwarts". Carlo, having procured a book on palm reading, was determined to try out his fledgling skills. The hand offered was not the correct one for prognosis, but the other hand, as I saw, was covered in a rash and Carlo had to make do. He saw a serious break in the sitter's love life, to which Beckett countered with "only the once". Then, a gleaming smile at being told he had "a very thin artistic line".

Our last meeting was in the Pullman Hotel in Paris in 1989, a crowded venue in which he, tall and gaunt, seemed like a carved figure from some bygone civilisation, aloof from the frenzied surroundings. He asked if I agreed that the air in his arrondissement was very clean and very fresh. I couldn't in all honesty concur. The talk got around to the hereafter. I said I had a fine gravesite on an isolated island in the Shannon. After a short pause, it became clear that his remains were not bound for the cold mantled land. He told me how Donald McWhinnie had telephoned him from his deathbed, hoping for a word of wisdom.

"What did you tell him?"

"Not much," was the hapless reply.

He was a man of considerable tenderness and it is not surprising that McWhinnie would turn to him in that hour. His two exemplary biographers, Anthony Cronin and Knowlson, attest to his aptitude for friendship, both recalling his picking a few wood violets from behind his house in Ussy to send with hand and heart to an early sweetheart, Ethna McCarty, who was dying and who, "swathed in vivid scarlet and flamingo", had been a lifelong inspiration for his poetry. He held friends and loves in deep affection, but his work was paramount.

"Words were my only love and not many," he once wrote. Many indeed and meteoric.

· Edna O'Brien's new novel, The Light of Evening, will be published by Weidenfeld in September. A Beckett centenary festival takes place at the Gate Theatre, Dublin and the Barbican, London, from March 21-May 6. John Minihan's photographic exhibition, Beckett, opens at the Leinster Gallery, Dublin, on April 1 and will later move to New York, London, Paris and Tokyo.

Useful links
Beckett centenary festival, Ireland
The Barbican's Beckett centenary festival


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