samuel beckett: the gift of words
by raymond federman


Those who knew Sam, as his friends called him -- and I was privileged to be one of them -- knew that in the last few months he was ill, and alone, by choice, in that barren room of the nursing home where he spent his last days.  A collective sadness was circulating among his friends.  There was little to say or do.  In conversation, in letters, one simply said Sam is sick, that's all.  Finally, when the news of his death came no one was surprised, but the sadness lingers.  Yes, there is sadness now and a deep sense of loss.  Sam is no longer in Paris, no longer writing another text for us.  There will be no more books by Samuel Beckett.


But even though Samuel Beckett has now changed tense, as a friend wrote to me upon learning of his death, what remains is that immense oeuvre he has left behind.  For this we are all deeply indebted to him.  Personally, however, what Beckett left with me is the remembrance of a few phrases spoken or written each time we met or wrote to each other.  Yes, each time I would leave him holding on to a few precious words he had given me like a fragile gift.


Soon after we first met, more than thirty years ago, I told Beckett that I too wanted to devote my life to writing fiction and poetry, and he said to me: Raymond, whatever you write never compromise, and if you plan to write for money or for fame, do something else.  I have cherished these words, and hope that I not betrayed them.


Years later, sitting in Sam's study in Paris, he showed me a text he had just written.  I read it while he sat there in silence, the kind of silence only Beckett could make comfortable.  It was a short text, only a few pages, as all his later texts were -- short but precise, without any superfluity of words -- and I commented on it, saying how beautiful, how powerful, how moving it was.  It was called Company.  Sam replied (in French, we always spoke French together): Oui, c'est pas mal, mais ce n'est pas a encore.  After all these years (Sam was in his seventies then), after the millions and millions of words he had scribbled, in English, in French, he was still not satisfied.  It's not it yet.  I felt so humble that day as I wondered if he would ever be satisfied.


Another time in Paris, again in his apartment on Boulevard St. Jacques.  He had just finished the translation of Comment c'est into English.  I read a dozen pages of How It Is while we both smoked cigarettes -- Gitanes in those days -- and then I marveled at the music of his words, at the unusual syntax he had achieved in English, at the dislocation of the language, but Sam shook his head: No, Raymond [he had a particular way of pronouncing my name, his voice dragging with affection on the first syllable], I failed again.  The English language resisted me.


In 1971, Sam took my wife and I to the dress rehearsal of the revival of En attendant Godot, exactly twenty years after the original production in Paris.  Roger Blin was again the director, and except for the actor who played Lucky [he had another commitment], the same actors who had created the roles of Gogo, Didi, and Pozzo were there too, but of course all of them now twenty years older.  I thought it was an interesting performance.  Blin had deliberately slowed down the movement of the actors and the delivery of their lines which made for a kind play in slow-motion, but as a result the symbolism became too obvious.  Later, in a restaurant with the cast, Roger Blin and Sam, I asked him what he thought of this new production.  It's good, it's good.  Unusual, Sam said.  Then he hesitated a moment and added, quickly and softly:  I only wish they would stop making me say more than I want to say.


On the occasion of his 70th birthday, I tried to convince Sam in a letter to come and visit us in Buffalo, incognito, and even offered to take him to see Niagara Falls (only twenty minutes by car from my house).  Beckett once told me, half-jokingly, that he had almost won a literary prize which was an all expenses payed trip to Niagara Falls.  He wrote back:   Cher Raymond, merde, j'en ai marre de toujours dire non, mais ces jours-ci je ne suis pas sortable ...  (This was written at the time when Sam was about to undergo cataract surgery, and he was wearing thick glasses as he groped his way).  The letter went on with a sentence which for me contains Beckett's endless and relentless struggle with words:   Et puis tant à faire encore et si peu de quoi.


One day, George Plimpton, the editor of The Paris Review in New York, approached me to do an interview with Beckett for the series "Writers at Work."  He offered to send me to Paris. I told Plimpton that Beckett never gave interviews, and besides I would not want to impose on him with such a request.  But the next day I wrote to Sam saying that even though I knew he would say no, I could not resist asking him since The Paris Review would pay all my expenses for one week in Paris, this way we could have a couple of good expensive meals with excellent wine  at his favorite restaurant, and pretend to do an interview.  Sam's answer was only one line: Dear Raymond, sorry, I have no views to inter.

In 1974, I published a novel in Paris entitled Amer Eldorado.  The book carried this dedication: Pour Sam ...  When Beckett received the copy I sent him he wrote back:   Si la dédicace est bien pour celui à qui je pense il te remercie de tout coeur.   All of Beckett is contained in that sentence -- his generosity, his humility, his humor.  Of course, he knew that the book was dedicated to him, but the next time I saw him he suggested that perhaps the dedication was for Uncle Sam, or else for my beautiful dog whose name was Samuel Beckett.  Sam knew that.


The last time I saw Beckett, four or five months before he changed tense, we were having coffee together at the PLM café across the street from his apartment  building.  He had already moved to Le Tiers Temps (a hotel and medical retirement home not far from where he lived) but when he felt well he would go out for a walk or to check his mail.   I was sitting by the window when I saw him walk across the street.  He looked frail, and seem to limp slightly.  He held my hand a long time as he greeted me.  We sat in silence for a while.  Then he asked about Erica (my wife), about Simone (my daughter) who had met him when she was twenty. About my stepson Steve the photographer.  I asked him if he was writing  anything.  He answered that he was trying to translate Worstward Ho into French, but that he was stuck.  I don't seem to be able to translate the title, he said.  Why don't you skip the title and go on with the text? I suggested.  Sam smile, the kind of smile that showed both hesitation and affection.  That would be cheating, he replied.


We finished our coffee, and then as I was walking with him to the nursing hom, he suddenly stopped, placed his hand on my shoulder and asked: Do you remember that poem by Mallarmé, Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourdhui ...  I nodded.  And then, right there in the middle of the street, Sam recited the entire poem to me.  I didn't say anything, but it became clear at last, as I had suspected all along, that each day he faced the sheet of paper Beckett endure the same white agonie Mallarmé reveals in that poem:


  Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd'hui
  Va-t-il nous déchirer avec un coup d'aile ivre
  Ce lac dur oublié que hante sous le givre
  Le transparent glacier des vols qui n'ont pas fui!


  Un cygne d'autrefois se souvient que c'est lui
  Magnifique mais qui sans espoir se délivre
  Pour n'avoir pas chanté la région où vivre
  Quand du stérile hiver a resplendi l'ennui.


  Tout son col secouera cette blanche agonie
  Par l'espace infligée à l'oiseau qui le nie,
  Mais non l'horreur du sol où le plumage est pris.


  Fantôme qu'à ce lieu son pur éclat assigne,
  Il s'immobilise au songe froid de mépris
  Que vêt parmi l'exil inutile le Cygne.


I shall never forget Sam standing there in the middle of the street reciting these lines to me, and pausing imperceptibly on the white agonie.  The greatest gift I have ever received.   And then as we parted he said:   Parfois tu sais, Raymond, c'est pire de ne pas écrire que t'écrire.  


We embraced.  And I watched the door close behind him.  My nose was running.  My eyes were running too.  I wiped my face with the sleeve of my coat.  I didn't have a handkerchief.


                                                                                 - Berlin, 1989




© Raymond Federman


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