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Beckett remembered: 'Oh, all to end'

By Robert Taylor, Globe Staff, 12/27/89

"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."

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."

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 civilization.

"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, Beckett was."

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 our mid-century."

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.' "


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