Il n’y a pas de Beckett
- Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett by James Knowlson
Bloomsbury, 872 pp, £25.00, September 1996, ISBN 0 7475 2719 9
- Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist by Anthony Cronin
HarperCollins, 645 pp, £25.00, October 1996, ISBN 0 246 13769 X
- The Theatrical Notebooks of Samuel Beckett. Vol I: Waiting for Godot edited by Dougald McMillan and James Knowlson
Faber, 472 pp, £75.00, March 1994, ISBN 0 571 14543 4
- The Theatrical Notebooks of Samuel Beckett. Vol II: Endgame edited by S.E. Gontarski
Faber, 276 pp, £50.00, November 1992, ISBN 0 571 14544 2
- The Theatrical Notebooks of Samuel Beckett. Vol III: Krapp’s Last Tape edited by James Knowlson
Faber, 286 pp, £50.00, May 1992, ISBN 0 571 14563 9
- Eleutheria by Samuel Beckett, translated by Barbara Wright
Faber, 170 pp, £6.99, September 1996, ISBN 0 571 17826 X
‘You’re on earth, there’s no cure for that,’ says Hamm to Clov in Endgame. This is sometimes taken as a summary of what is alleged to be the distinctively bleak Beckettian world-view, but for it even to be a starter in this role, one would have to figure out what it means. For, as the philosopher Stanley Cavell observed, the meaning(s) will vary according to the stress-pattern the actor’s voice imposes on its principal terms; if, for example, on ‘cure’, this of itself would not preclude other worthwhile possibilities for our terrestial condition, and if on ‘that’, there could be an implicit invitation to countenance other-worldly aspirations. Similar considerations of a less starkly ultimate kind might arise in connection with the subtitle of James Knowlson’s new biography: ‘The Life of Samuel Beckett’. (The main title looks suspiciously like a publisher’s wheeze, a low-grade spin on Beckett’s desperate formula for the modern artist as doomed to fail or, more tantalisingly, as driven by a ‘fidelity to failure’ and the mind-bending imperative of Worstward Ho: ‘Fail. Fail again. Fail better.’) In the subtitle, is the stress to fall on noun or definite article? If the former (implying an account of the life-story of Samuel Beckett), there is already a problem. How might such an account proceed in relation to its subject given the peculiar inflection of ‘autobiographical’ discourse provided by the subject himself (in his description of How It Is)?
A ‘man’ is lying panting in the mud and dark and murmuring his ‘life’ as he hears it obscurely uttered by a voice inside him. This utterance is described throughout the work as the fragmentary recollection of an extraneous voice once heard ‘quaqua on all sides’ ... The work is in three parts ... It is in the third part that occurs the so-called voice ‘quaqua’, its interiorisation and murmuring forth when the panting stops. That is to say the ‘I’ is from he outset in the third part and the first and second, though stated as heard in the present, already over.
Knowlson, who quotes this passage from a letter to Donald Mc Whinnie, draws no lesson from it, other than the somewhat limp, and question-begging, suggestion that the world of How It Is is ‘related sometimes closely but rarely unambiguously to Beckett’s own life’. Certainly all possibility of a lesson evaporates if our prosodic attention fixes on the definite article in Knowlson’s title (‘The Life’). For if the stress falls here, then ‘life’ refers rather to the book before us, as an instance of the genre of literary biography, and the definite article carries an implication of the comprehensive. Knowlson quite properly reminds us in his Preface that Beckett endorsed the undertaking as the ‘sole authorised biography’ (with the previous biography, by Deirdre Bair, he had been studiedly non-committal) and that he aided Knowlson in major ways, giving interviews and access to unpublished material such as diaries and letters.
In that sense Knowlson’s biography can legitimately claim to be the Life, an ambition reflected, though less happily, in the sheer length of the book, which conforms to a more general trend in contemporary literary biographies; carrying them around resembles nothing so much as Lucky’s portering of the sand-filled suitcases in Waiting for Godot. Lévi-Strauss argued that history-writing was impossible given the indefinite divisibility of time and hence the arbitrariness of the temporal units adopted by the historian. This thought is unlikely to be much of an impediment to the practising historian, but it sometimes seems as if the biographer has sought to take it into account, not, however, as disincentive but as spur to the production of more and more pages on everything under the sun.
Take, for example, Knowlson on the topic of Beckett under the sun (on vacation in Sardinia with his partner, Suzanne, in 1967): ‘The weather was unfailingly kind. The hotel was quiet and peaceful and their rooms had fine views overlooking the sea. The beach was beautiful, part fine sand, part tiny pebbles. Even the local white wine was surprisingly drinkable.’ If Knowlson’s story is going to follow Beckett on his hols, why stop here? Why was the plonk ‘surprisingly’ drinkable? Is this a comment on Sardinian wines in general or just those of that particular year? What about the reds? And where the weather is concerned, why leave it at ‘unfailingly kind’? Why not deconstruct this into the crazy pastiche of a metereological report that we find on the opening pages of Musil’s The Man without Qualities (analogous perhaps with Beckett’s rewriting of the verb ‘to walk’ in the insanely analytical description of Watt’s mode of locomotion)? If the threshold of relevance is already so low as to include Beckett on the beach, why pin the threshold to the conventions of the tourist office brochure?
There are Beckettian as well as Lévi-Straussian reasons for entertaining this question about limits, where things begin and end, or whether they can begin and end. Strolling with Beckett on the sand might call to mind his abiding preoccupation with the grains of Zeno’s paradox: on the principle of indefinite divisibility, when does the heap of grains cease to be a heap? (In Endgame, Hamm muses on this conundrum.) The taste for arcane philosophical puzzles is not merely a tic: it connects with a central issue of Beckett’s writing, indeed of modern writing in general. Beginnings and endings are problematic categories for Modernism. A la recherche describes a circle; Finnegans Wake loops round from its final ‘the’ to its initial ‘riverrun’; Les Faux-Monnayeurs begins by constantly deferring a beginning; Joseph and His Brothers propels its beginning into the perspective of an infinite regression. But it is perhaps above all in Beckett’s work that the security of these categories is blown apart, and this must have consequences for the project of a literary biography.
Both Knowlson and Cronin follow biographical custom in shaping their narratives between a birth and a death, but both also point out that, in Beckett’s terms, ‘life’ begins before birth. Beckett claimed to have (largely disagreeable) memories of the pre-natal (according to Peggy Guggenheim, he ‘retained a terrible memory of life in his mother’s womb’). References to the pre-natal condition abound in his work (between them Knowlson and Cronin list Murphy, All that Fall, Company, the poem ‘Sanies 1’). Yet, however unpleasant life in the womb, it is as nothing compared with the catastrophe of birth. This is a view Beckett shares with Job, Sophocles, Schopenhauer (whose remarks on the ‘crime of having been born’ are reproduced almost verbatim in Beckett’s early essay on Proust) and Nietzsche (in the fable at the beginning of the Birth of Tragedy, according to which the ‘best’ is ‘never to have been born’; the second best to die quickly). Beckett gives a novel twist to this venerable tradition by extending the curse from birth to conception (in Murphy, Neary curses first the day he was born, then, ‘in a bold flashback’, the night he was conceived). There is also Molloy’s bracing observation, to the effect that the ante-natal period was ‘the only endurable, just endurable, period of my enormous history’. In their trawls through the literary after-life of Beckett’s ruminations on the pre-natal, both Cronin and Knowlson omit Molloy’s resumé of his ‘life’ from their lists, perhaps for the reason that, taken seriously in relation to Beckett, it would not leave much of a story to tell.
Beyond the journey of Beckettian memory to life in the amniotic fluid, there is another reason why the standard biographical shapings clash with the logic of Beckett’s writing. In the radio play All that Fall, Mr Tyler cheerfully inquires of Mrs Rooney: ‘Are you going in my direction?’ – to which Mrs Rooney replies: ‘we all are.’ It is a typical piece of Beckett banter. Just as he explodes our everyday speech-compacts by literalising dead metaphors, so he deepens our routine conversational exchanges by disorientating them. In this question about direction, Mrs Rooney’s reply switches the direction in which the exchange would normally go. Go? ‘Go’ is a favourite Beckett word, but it is particularly favoured when joined with the preposition ‘on’. Going on in Beckett is generally viewed as the sign of a determined stoicism, but in the rhythms of the writing, going on is basically going round in circles, movement without telos or terminus. ‘Let’s go,’ says Vladimir at the end of Waiting for Godot, but the final words of the play are the stage direction: They do not move. It is not an ending at all, and if in Beckett’s world things cannot satisfactorily end, this is in part because they can never really begin; the prospect of an ending recedes in direct proportion to the deferral of a commencement. Thus, the extraordinary first page of The Unnameable attempts to launch a narrative, but as a series of false starts and botched departures, each inaugural move queried and cancelled by a metatextual reflection on its inadequacy, going on as going nowhere, a case of the tale chasing its own tail, until at the ‘end’ of the novel we arrive at that mockery of a finale, the breathless seven-page sentence finishing on the unfinished and the unfinishable (‘you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on’).
Biography is so constituted as to be quite unable to deal with this infernal logic. Within the frame of a birth and a death, Knowlson and Cronin take us chronologically through the stages of the life: the childhood in Ireland, the years in London, the move to Paris, the involvement in the Resistance, the work for the Irish Red Cross at the end of the war, the partnership with Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, the struggle to become a writer, and, of course, the attainment of ‘fame’. Cronin writes with considerable charm, though he also has a taste for blarney and cannot resist the irritating familiarity of ‘Sam’. Knowlson’s style is on the whole self-effacing, soberly and relentlessly factual and, in the information stakes, altogether more substantial, given the sources at his disposal.
There is much that is new here: for example, on the subject of Beckett’s psychotherapy with Wilfred Bion at the Tavistock, although, as Knowlson acknowledges, the unavailability of both Bion’s notes and Beckett’s personal diaries for the period of the therapy leaves the story radically incomplete (this doesn’t deter Cronin from psychobabble of his own, mainly in connection with Beckett and his mother). Beckett was serious about his therapy and seems to have benefited from it. On the other hand, while he immersed himself in the psychoanalytical literature, his reactions were not without a touch of sceptical irreverence (Ernest Jones becomes ‘Erogenous Jones’); and a whole tradition of thought about the cogito and the unconscious, from Descartes to Lacan, was later summarised and parodied in the wonderful exchange between the two anti-heroes of the novel Mercier and Camier: ‘Do you feel like singing? /Not to my knowledge.’ Whatever Beckett got from his therapy, it did not translate as respect for the institutions of psychiatry: what Murphy finds most endearing in the Magdalen Mental Mercy-seat (run by the appropriately named Dr Killiekrankie) is ‘the absolute impassiveness of the higher schizoids in the face of the most pitiless therapeutic bombardment’. And where the crucial relation between the unconscious and writing is at issue, how do we manage the maddeningly opaque coda to Watt: ‘no symbols where none intended’? Does this mean that there are no symbols or that there are (or may be) symbols only where unintended?
Given the active complicity of biography (as of psychoanalysis) in the tendency to regard sexual disclosure as the sine qua non of candour (perhaps what Knowlson obscurely hints at when in the Preface he says that his book is not ‘sanitised’), there is, inevitably, some talk of Beckett’s extra-marital amours, notably with Pamela Mitchell and Barbara Bray. It is admirably free of the gossipy and the titillating, although Knowlson’s sureness of touch deserts him on the topic of the young Beckett and prostitutes, his prose veering wildly between the disingenuously coy and the frankly sexist. Above all, there is the novelty value of the unpublished diaries Beckett kept during his stay in Germany in 1936-7. We get a sense of Beckett wandering, ghost-like, through an increasingly Nazified landscape and, closer to his artistic preoccupations, a detailed account of his visits to galleries and museums. Beckett’s profound interest in painting is one of the big themes in Knowlson. We learn a great deal about his visual passions, for the 17th-century Dutch painters, for Caspar David Friedrich (Two Men Contemplating the Moon was part of the inspiration for Waiting for Godot) and, supremely, Cézanne (a late self-portrait attracted the quintessentially Beckettian description ‘overwhelmingly sad. A blind broken old man’).
Cronin, on the other hand, has a far stronger imaginative grasp of the relation of biography to history. Where Knowlson merely narrates Beckett’s experiences working for the Red Cross in the rubble of St Lô, Cronin gives us a vivid idea of what those experiences must have meant. He is also far sharper, once we strip out the blarney, on the Irish context, making the decisive point, for instance, that Beckett’s family and social background (the Dublin middle-class Protestant business community) should not be absorbed willy-nilly into the catch-all category of ‘Anglo-Irish’. Historically, the Anglo-Irish were landed gentry, with their eyes turned to England. Urban Protestant business was more a class splinter with interests and allegiances of its own; it unquestioningly supported the Union, but was far less obsessed with England as a cultural model. Cronin here makes a start on something we badly need – an examination of Beckett’s Irishness that is free of Irishry.
Whatever additions to our knowledge of the ‘life’ these two books furnish, none of this matters very much if we forget the essential: that they are biographies of a writer. Knowlson assures us that his prime concern with the material of Beckett’s life is its ‘relevance to his work’. The problem is that the criteria of relevance are almost exclusively determined by and from the material itself. In fact, on the two biographers’ way with the ‘relations’ between the life and the fictional writing, the less said the better. What for the most part we have, especially in Knowlson (less so in Cronin, who prefers to concentrate on the journalistic critical reception of the works, itself a somewhat anaemic corpus), is an extended game of source-hunting, initially mind-numbing and, after eight hundred pages, positively lethal.
Literary biography is committed to the view that the productions of its subject can be partly ‘explained’ by biographical means. Knowlson understands literature too well not to enter the caveat about easy reductionism, but as a biographer, he simply cannot follow through on what the caveat entails; the rules of the genre prohibit it, and accordingly he goes round in the eminently non-Beckettian circle of reading the work off from the life and the life off from the work. The game is not worth the candle; there is nothing in any way remarkable about its resuits, apart perhaps from their often flagrantly self-contradictory character: for example, Knowlson reminds us that Murphy is the kind of novel in which ‘precise topographical details do not ground the characters in an apposite world,’ but this does not stop him from taking us through Beckett’s London of the Thirties as a source-map of Murphy’s London that reads like an A to Z.
If Knowlson has little to offer in respect of the works (especially the prose works), he is first class on Beckett at work. Against the image of the hermit (he could be extremely shy and attached great importance to solitude), Knowlson shows us a social Beckett, dealing with publishers, editors, producers, actors, mime artists, composers and, dispiritingly yet hilariously, censors. He came up against the British censors over the text of Endgame. The Lord Chamberlain (‘Lord Chamberpot’, as he fondly referred to him) objected to the word ‘bastard’ in the line about God (‘the bastard, he doesn’t exist’) After protracted but fruitless negotiations, an exasperated Beckett finally offered a concession (‘swine’ for ‘bastard’), which was promptly accepted, though why the notion of God as a filthy pig seemed more decorous than a God of doubtful parentage was, as Beckett put it, something of a ‘nicety’. Even more puzzling was the objection to the words ‘let me in,’ as part of the punt scene with the girl in Krapp’s Last Tape; Beckett pointed out that the disposition of bodies in the punt was such that, to read the words as a request for sexual intercourse, the censor had to overlook the fact that Krapp’s penis would be at a 180 degree angle to the relevant object of desire.
Knowlson narrates all this with gusto, and it is in the world of the theatre that he is clearly most at home – a fact reflected in his masterminding the remarkable enterprise of publishing Beckett’s theatre notebooks. They are a labour of love and, if largely a matter for specialists, also compulsive reading for Beckett addicts (assuming they can afford them). Here Beckett at work becomes Beckett in the workshop, the ‘social’ Beckett in the sense that really matters, of the artist fully involved in the social process of composition. The volumes to have appeared so far cover his productions of Krapp’s Last Tape at the Schiller Theater, Berlin in 1969, Endgame at the Schiller Theater, 1967 and the Riverside Studios, London in 1980, and Waiting for Godot at the Schiller Theater in 1975. All three notebooks consist of Beckett’s directorial thoughts and instructions, although in the cases of Godot and Endgame, the editors also include what they call a ‘revised text’, based on annotations and changes made in his acting copies of the plays. ‘Revised text’ is a bit of a misnomer. Some of the changes are genuinely arresting, but taken as a whole, they do not add up to much (Knowlson himself concedes the point, making his claim that the revised text of Godot is a ‘new version’ look somewhat eccentric). With the Schiller productions, we are also given some insight into what Beckett’s text looks like in German. For Endgame, Beckett substituted ‘Fest’ for ‘Spass’ in order to capture more exactly the original allusion to The Tempest in the line ‘our revels now are ended,’ and ‘poodle’ for ‘Pomeranian’ in respect of Hamm’s toy dog, ‘in homage to Schopenhauer who favoured the breed’. In Godot, there is the delightful syntactical coincidence of the German ‘Komm wir gehen’ for ‘Let’s go,’ confirming that in Beckett coming and going are, like Vladimir and Estragon, inseparable.
In fact most of the textual changes (especially to Godot) concerned the stage directions rather than the dialogue. These must then be read in relation to the notebooks. The detail of the latter is exceptionally rich, the record of a mind unswervingly focused on the business to hand. Underlying the detail, however, is a discernible will to reduction and simplification. For the production of Krapp’s Last Tape Beckett insisted on cutting ‘everything that interfered with the sudden shift from immobility to movement or that slows this down’ and for the Berlin Endgame he explained to the cast that ‘we have to retrench everything further, it’s got to become simple, just a few small precise motions.’ Broadly, this entailed removing what was now held to be extraneous; a lot of the slapstick and circus routines go (Clov’s antics with the ladder, Pozzo’s ringmaster cracking of the whip), as well as the clownish elements of costume and make-up (Clov’s red face, Krapp’s purple nose).
The purpose of the eliminations was to focus attention on the plays as abstract configurations of the visual and the rhythmic. They defined the plays formally as a relation between the static and the mobile which, within Beckett’s minimalist spaces, demanded a minutely calculated and meticulously punctuated system of gestures, sounds, movements and pauses, down to the exact timing and duration of a grunt. This could literally involve punctuation. The actress Siân Phillips described rehearsals for the television production of Eh Joe as working to the rhythm of a metronome: ‘It was explained to me that every punctuation mark had a precise value and I began metronoming my way through the text ... gradually remembering that a full stop is not a colon is not a hyphen is not an exclamation mark is not a semicolon.’ It made her ill. Even Billie Whitelaw, the actress who formed an almost symbiotic working relationship with Beckett, nearly withdrew from the production of Happy Days, after the trauma of doing Not I, telling the Director of the Royal Court that she ‘could no longer endure the strain of Sam’s obsession with the pronunciation, tone and emphasis of each syllable of every word’. ‘Just a few small precise motions’ rather understates the intensity of Beckett’s directorial regime. He knew exactly what he wanted and it was a very great deal. While he was endlessly patient with his actors, he could also drive them to distraction, and even close to breakdown.
Knowlson thinks of this commitment in terms of Artaud’s demand for a ‘poésie de théâtre’ in place of a purely literary ‘poésie au théôtre’, a mobilisation of all the physical resources of theatrical space. This is surely a mistake. Beckett’s way with the medium differs from Artaud’s in at least two fundamental respects. It does not entail a downgrading of the text (in Artaud pursued with theoretical purity, but in other hands often a pretext for promoting the 20th-century cult of the director). Secondly, Artaud’s notion of total theatre is essentially a variant of the 19th-century idea of the total work of art, according to which the different elements function collaboratively and harmoniously. Beckett’s practice is more like Brecht’ s, emphasising an alienating dissonance, and especially the disjunctive relation between action and dialogue. These, for instance, were his instructions for the acting of Endgame: ‘Never let your changes of position and voice come together. First comes (a) the altered bodily stance; after it, following a slight pause, comes (b) the corresponding utterance.’ The precisely calibrated scenario is paradoxically designed to generate an effect of non-synchronicity, as if the finished performance were to be bathed in the slightly clumsy atmosphere of a continuous rehearsal. Beckett’s characters are sometimes lazily identified with tramps. They more closely resemble labourers – actor-workers labouring in the theatre and never getting it quite right. Hamm really does ham it up – forgets or spoils lines, overworks jokes, lacks timing and above all can never bring the damned business to an end. In this way, Beckett plays on the theatre-goer’s most basic fear, the fear of bad acting, which will expose what the illusions of the seamless performance are meant to conceal and thus renege on the contract between theatre and spectator.
Perhaps the most striking feature of the production notebooks is Beckett’s handling of technology. Much remains to be done on his exploitation of audio-visual technologies, notably in connection with the work for television and video and his use of the camera as itself a kind of ‘character’ – object as well as instrument of investigation. There is also the place of photography in Beckett’s literary and dramatic thinking. Knowlson sees the late text Still as inspired by painting, but misses the obvious allusion in the title to a photograph (Gontarski, on the other hand, makes a passing reference to the frozen postures in Endgame as reminiscent of still photographs). Until further volumes appear, however, the principal example remains the tape-recorder in Krapp’s Last Tape. Its use turns on a preoccupation with a finely balanced oscillation between listening and non-listening (in the Schiller notebook Beckett wrote that the play is ‘divided fairly equally’ between the two).
The interesting relation here is between technology and the tradition of dramatic soliloquy (in the biography Knowlson tells us that the question of soliloquy was Beckett’s major preoccupation in his re-readings of Racine in 1956). Krapp is the supreme recluse, locked in a private world of memory. Soliloquy is the only resource available to him as a character, but it is soliloquy in an oddly constructed and contextualised dramatic mode, that of listening to himself monologuing on tape. This brings into the open the paradoxical nature of soliloquy: it naturalises itself psychologically as solitary speech, the mark of an outpouring of fully present subjectivity, but its theatrical reality is minimally social by virtue of being a form of address. Beckett works this contradiction between make-believe and reality through the literally divided nature of Krapp’s monologue, as the discourse of a man communing with himself as if he were another; the relation with the tape-recorder enacts on stage the thought of The Unnameable: ‘I am in words, made of words, the words of others.’
A long with these retrospects on Beckett in performance comes another, this time in the form of a new translation of Eleutheria (translation of, and self-translation by, Beckett is a vast topic in its own right). He was deeply reluctant to allow the publication of this first play (it is in fact not quite the first, being preceded by an abandoned attempt to write a play about the life of Dr Johnson); when there was some discussion of a Pléiade edition of the collected works, he expressly withheld Eleutheria. It is not hard to see why. It is an exercise in experimental drama that doesn’t come off, largely because it is so programmatically ‘experimental’: a dual action unfolds simultaneously on a stage divided into two non-communicating rooms, a Spectator notionally issues from the audience to address the actor-characters (‘Pardon this intrusion’) and so on. There are now two proposed ways of ‘saving’ it: first, by the extraction of the many good one-liners in the text; secondly, by seeing it as ‘anticipatory’ of what was to come – which is to disregard the force of happenstance in creative invention (Beckett’s scheme for the use of the swaying lamp in the Théâtre d’Orsay production of Krapp’s Last Tape derived from an accidental collision with the lights in rehearsal).
Anticipatory thinking is also meat and drink to literary biography, casting not only the life but also the work on the model of a ‘plot’. An early work, Knowlson tells us time and time again, contains the seeds of later ones, thus fleshing out a whole developmental fable of the literary career. The structure of this fable is teleological. The main property of teleological thinking is that the end is inscribed in the beginning. And so we return to our (impossible) Beckettian point of departure, which has it that no ending is possible because there has not yet been a beginning. T.S. Eliot wrapped a religious message around the proposition, ‘In my beginning is my end.’ In Endgame, Hamm half-quotes Eliot (‘the end is in the beginning’), but then adds derisively: ‘and yet you go on.’ Continuation is not the same as development: it is merely something happening.
Biography, however, must have its preordained end. And thus, with Knowlson and Cronin, we proceed to Beckett’s dying days, in the nursing home, and the final text (Stirrings Still) with its ambiguous last words on last things (‘Oh all to end’). Knowlson covers these days in an austerely matter-of-fact manner, for which we should be grateful, given the large amounts of gush produced at the time of Beckett’s death. Cronin, alas, strains implausibly in his last sentence for the upbeat note with the claim that Beckett’s work is ‘in some sense a celebration of existence’. The unspecified qualification of course provides the obvious question: in what sense? How would it cope with Voice’s closing line in Rockaby: ‘Fuck life’? For Cronin it seems vaguely, very vaguely, to have something to do with religion and a text by Eric Griffiths which Cronin, understandably, misattributes to Christopher Ricks in Beckett’s Dying Words. Griffiths’s edifying send-off was impressive even by the standards of the ghastlier forms of obituary-speak: ‘Catholics pray for the dead that they be granted refrigerii sedem, quiet-is beatitudinem, et lumines claritatem – “a place of cool refreshment, the blessing of calm, and radiant light”. I do not know (yet) what these words exactly mean, but these words are what I wish for Samuel Beckett.’ Jolly considerate of him to offer this upmarket version of RIP, especially when we recall Beckett’s remark to the journalist, Peter Lennon: ‘I have never had a single untroubled moment in my life.’ In an act of misprision that one would normally characterise as incredible, Ricks graces Griffiths’s envoi with the comment that it displays a ‘respectful poignancy’ (perhaps confusing Beckett’s famously strong weakness for oxymoron with its meaningless varieties). If it is a question of wishing words for the defunct Beckett, a better choice might be the last words of his father, as he lay dying a few hours after suffering a massive heart attack: ‘Fight, fight, fight. What a morning!’
Since Knowlson’s final sentences take us into Montparnasse cemetery where Beckett’s ashes are buried, perhaps I could add a quirky footnote, closer in spirit to the droll saga which accompanies the fate of Murphy’s mortal remains. Shortly after the burial, on a fog-bound afternoon, I went to the cemetery with a friend to pay respects. All attempts to find the grave in the fog proved futile and, on making inquiries of a cemetery attendant, we also drew a blank; he’d never heard of a Beckett. But when we mumbled something about a ‘grand é crivain’, the attendant (sort of) sprang to life with the information that there was a record of the ‘important people’. Turning to a grubby sheet of paper covered with names scrawled in pencil, he ran his eye down the list, intoning the roll-call of the great (Beauvoir, Sartre etc) as if they were members of the village football team and then, in a voice so low-key that even Clov would have been proud of it, declared: ‘Il n’y a pas de Beckett.’
‘The subject doesn’t matter, there is none,’ says the narrator of The Unnameable, punning in ways that would make the subject of this sentence a matter of speculation, were it not that the sentence itself decrees the pointlessness of such efforts. The absence of the subject ‘Beckett’ is the calvary of his biographer, third-personing an always elusive first-person, a first as illusory origin and ground of a subjectivity: ‘Use of the second person marks the voice. That of the third that cantankerous other. Could he speak to and of whom the voice speaks there would be a first. But he cannot. He shall not. You cannot. You shall not’ (Company). Beckett’s world is spectral, peopled (if that is the right word) by ghosts. Ghosts, however, can return to haunt us, sometimes in unexpectedly felicitous ways. Knowlson’s definitionally flawed project is in part redeemed when, out of the blue, he tells us that in 1969, 17 years after the first performance of Waiting for Godot, Beckett received a postcard from a M. Georges Godot. M. Godot apologised for having kept him waiting. Beckett replied thanking him for having ‘revealed himself so promptly’.