Thoughts of Beckett at news of his death. The unforgettable Hardy title has been knocking. ‘Thoughts of Phena at News of Her Death’. It had previously come to mind at news of another death, Philip Larkin’s, because of his once pinpointing essentially the birth of his own art: the moment when he stopped condescending to Hardy’s. ‘As regards his verse I shared Lytton Strachey’s verdict that “the gloom is not even relieved by a little elegance of diction.” This opinion did not last long; if I were asked to date its disappearance, I should guess it was the morning I first read “Thoughts of Phena at News of Her Death”.’
‘And age, and then the only end of age’: how recent seems Larkin’s end, though four years have gone. In my mid-fifties, everything proves to have happened three times longer ago than I first think (a death, a book, a trial), whereas only yesterday it was but twice as long ago.
Thoughts of Beckett. What scenes spread around his last days?
The word had been abroad, a day or two before he died, that he was soon to. A phone-call from a London newspaper broke to me the likelihood, and asked if I would write something. Against his dying. I said no, because I was bespoken, more than bespoken in that I had already set down my say. A couple of years ago the Sunday Times had asked me to write, not an obituary, but a tribute, to await the day. I remember that it was a discomposing experience, writing it, and new to me, this speaking of someone as if he or she were already dead. I haven’t ever written a pickled obituary for the Times proper; haven’t been asked to. It must require a flexile touch, the plaiting of prospect and retrospect, the unnamable’s familiarity.
‘Emotion anticipated in tranquillity’. So it was that Geoffrey Madan distilled his obituary-on-phial. ‘In the words of an obituary notice, intended for the Times but never sent: “A genius for friendship with all and sundry, infectious enthusiasm, selfless devotion to progressive causes, a deep and touching love of animals and of natural beauty” – he would not have claimed for himself any of these so frequent attributes of the lately dead.’ These anonymous lapidations always have a Beckett-like vigor mortis. I have long collected them, as apt for Beckett’s key-cold charity. When not insinuatingly denigratory (‘He never married’), the obituaries are informed by a co-operative subconscious, and therefore are rich in the happy infelicities which the Irish employ so adroitly. Verging on the Bull. Philip Larkin had an eye for these; it was he who sent in to the New Statesman, for monumental mockery (‘This England’), the obituary which said plummily: ‘Any sketch of David Glass’s work would be incomplete without reference to his amour propre, the history of his subject.’ Over in America, I miss the Times obituaries more than anything else from the English public prints. The USA has no counterpart. The New York Times reduces its necrology to a final spasm of public relations, if not by the very deceased, then by what Beckett called the ‘nearest if not dearest’.
‘I am always glad when one of those fellows dies, for then I know I have the whole of him on my shelf’ (Lord Melbourne, speaking of Crabbe).
Beckett and I go back a long way. Not, though, in one another’s company. Did I meet him? (Until just now, it was ‘have you ever met him?’ Students have a way of asking.) Twice. Briefly. Not to be forgotten, not to be memorialised either. ‘I live in another world where life and death are memorised.’ The reminiscences of Beckett already flourish apace. Best not to join this cortège industry.
In the Rue de Seine in Paris there was an English bookshop, ‘The English Bookshop’ rather. Long gone. Given over now to anthropological art-work. A student, on holiday in Paris in 1954, I flushed out Watt, carmine, published the year before in the Collection Merlin of the Olympia Press, the friendly-neighbourhood softish-porn people. A numbered edition of 1,125 copies. I stood there reading the first two pages, I fretted and winced and smiled (I still think them among Beckett’s best), and I bought Number 885 for 25 shillings. Also En attendant Godot, published in October 1952 but not performed till January 1953. I had heard of Beckett, though not much. He had been sighted and cited by Anthony Hartley – in the Spectator, I suppose; Hartley had a great nose and a fine ear for things French, and he let the British in on his finds – I can’t think that there is anyone around today who does this work so well.
Waiting for Godot, as the world knows, opened at the Arts Theatre on 3 August 1955. I attended it with impatient young up-and-coming Anthony Howard; he soon came to cease attending to the play, though I can’t now remember whether his exasperation moved him to quit, physically. Theatregoers went, during the performance. But then theatregoers are not the only people who go to theatres, and they too much know what they like and want what they know.
Isis, the undergraduate magazine at Oxford, ran a short small series, ‘Dust-Jacket’. Beckett, dust to dust, felt appropriate. The series was mostly bent upon, oh, such as Nigel Balchin. Beckett seemed to me more acutely Mine Own Executioner. So I wrote about him in Isis, 16 November 1955. Thirty-four years ago. It is disconcerting to think that he was then appreciably younger than I now am.
Re-reading my youthful cocky piece, I am neither proud nor ashamed of it, or perhaps am equally both. I am glad (slightly different) to have written back then about the novels, Watt and Molloy, neither yet published in England (1963 and 1960 respectively). 1955 was eazrly days, except for Beckett himself, though he was inured to neglect. My testimony was embarrassingly brash, even then, and yet I am not sorry to have said simply that Beckett is very difficult to understand but that his isn’t a small voice. I think, too, that I quoted some very good bits. On love-making:
What I do know for certain is that I never sought to repeat the experience, having, I suppose, the intuition that it had been unique and perfect, of its kind, achieved and inimitable, and that it behoved me to preserve its memory, pure of all pastiche, in my heart, even if it meant my resorting from time to time to the alleged joys of so-called self-abuse.
And on Godsmiths:
And I would never do my bees the wrong I had done my God, to whom I had been taught to ascribe my angers, fears, desires, and even my body.
True, in reverting to 1955 I am remembering me, but that doesn’t mean I am not remembering Beckett too. Less a diary than a snatch of partial annals.
In 1968 I was mildly thrilled to receive a letter of inquiry from the Nobel Committee of the Swedish Academy. I did not then know that so many such letters get sent out as to make them little more than the thinking man’s junk-mail. Though I had no need of weighing whom to nominate, I took pains with how best to do so. My letter of twenty years ago ended in the same terms in which I still wished to praise him in the week of his death: for ‘the dignity and integrity of his career, both in artistic terms (his work has never swerved from the aims, at once high and profound, which it set itself in “Dante ... Bruno. Vico. . Joyce”, 1929), and in personal terms: with single-minded dedication and dignity, and without either bitterness or elation, he has lived through forty years of neglect and through twenty years of recognition, manifestly his own man and manifestly, too, a man of supreme loyalty to his art.’ About the only change which I had to make to this, in December 1989 as against December 1968, was to match the forty years of neglect with, now, forty years of recognition. In 1969, Beckett won the Nobel Prize. Thanks to me and whose army. He owed it to me? No, I owed it to him.
Over the years I wrote to him from time to time, and he wrote back. This is a less mis-leading way of putting it than speaking as if we enjoyed a correspondence. I was the one who enjoyed it, and who enjoined it by making an inquiry, never interpretative and almost always textual. Is ‘then’ a misprint for ‘than’? Which wording would he wish to stand by, that of the English or of the US edition? And he would answer the inquiry, on one of those crisp cards with his name, severely elegant, alone at the head. These unmassive missives moved me. From 1972 to 1989.
Often they were deliciously lugubrious. Of the English wording versus the American one in Company: 1. ‘Yet a certain activity of mind however slight is a necessary complement of company.’ 2. ‘Yet a certain activity of mind however slight is a necessary adjunct of company.’ Beckett: ‘I don’t know which I dislike more.’
Best was his admission that the cardiac arithmetic in Company goes wrong. Ever since people registered that Beckett doesn’t tell us what the seventh scarf at the beginning of Murphy is up to, the critics have been devoted to his numeracy, and in particular to its anomalies. Such anomalies are found more fun if they are believed to be intentional, especially by critics who don’t believe in intentionality: an arithmetical anomaly in Beckett is held to intimate to us, surprise, surprise, that Deconstruction rules. I prefer to take Beckett’s word for his words, and to see therefore in the heartbeat-count in Company not a calculated miscalculation but a slip of the calculator. The young man awaits his beloved, his heart beating (as when did it not?).
You assume a certain heart rate and reckon how many thumps a day. A week. A month. A year. And assuming a certain lifetime a lifetime. Till the last thump. But for the moment with hardly more than seventy American billion behind you you sit in the little summerhouse working out the volume. Seven cubic yards approximately. This strikes you for some reason as improbable and you set about your sum anew.
The precisian’s attention – ‘seventy American billion’ – has its comedy. But the calculation? As is clear from his card in January 1981, this struck Beckett for some reason as improbable and he set about his sum anew.
‘Seventy American billion’. Colossal miscalculation. Read ‘seventy million’: 70 (heart rate) × 60 × 24 × 365 × 20 (his age then) – 735,840,000, unless I have it wrong again and without allowance for leap years.
Well, he both did and did not have it wrong again. 735,840,000 is right, is it not? But it is not ‘seventy million’. I pointed this out. He replied. ‘Yes of course 700 M. Odd,’ he wrote, evenly.
‘He was a man of the greatest reticence, but with nothing to conceal; a man of intensely “private life”, but wholly transparent’ – T.S. Eliot on Spinoza and, incidentally, on himself. Beckett, I suppose, was such another. He was, though, a writer of the greatest reticence but with everything to reveal. Heartfelt. To the last. Not to the last trump (in which he blessedly did not believe), but to the last thump.