Remembering Beckett

Beckett Remembering/Remembering Beckett, edited by James and Elizabeth Knowlson is a compilation of reminiscences by and about Samuel Beckett.

The collection covers his entire life, from childhood through years of obscurity, to his later triumphs. It includes recollections from friends, collaborators, students, actors and actresses who performed his plays and whom he directed. There are excerpts from critical essays, mainly by scholars who knew Beckett personally.

The Beckett that emerges from this volume is self-aware, self-effacing, a precisionist, a man haunted by death. 

For self-awareness: He admitted a debt to Joyce, but recognized that he and Joyce were completely different in their methods: “He was always adding . . . you only have to look at his proofs to see that. . . . my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, subtracting rather than adding.” Despite his admiration for Joyce, he realized that he was not aiming for the “epic, heroic” grandeur that Joyce hoped to achieve (47).

Beckett wrote for sound and feeling, not to portray action or character. And that was the best way to play his plays, Peter Woodthorpe found. After a performance of Godot, he rites, “I didn’t understand the play but I know that I felt how to do it. Its poetry spoke to me and its humour. And once I got it, I never lost it. I played it by instinct and feeling” (122).

Richard Seaver recalls working through an English translation of a story that Beckett originally wrote in French. At one point in the process, Seaver told Beckett that he was more important than Camus, to which Beckett replied, “No one’s interested in this . . . this rubbish. . . . Camus, why Camus is known even on the moon!” (106).

Ruby Cohn recalls an evening conversation with Beckett in 1968, over wine in a Paris cafe. Cohn asked whether Beckett had written anything new, to which he replied: “New? What could be new? Man is born – vagitus. Then he breathes for a few second, before the death rattle intervenes” (129).

Lawrence Harvey captures how this death-haunted sensibility translated into a poetic method. Beckett aspired, he writes, to eliminate form so that being could show through: “He said that an ejaculation would perhaps be the most perfect expression of being” (133). Traditionally, art sought forms and marginalized or excluded any “aspects of being that there were no forms to fit.” Modernism offered something new, of the possibility of a formless artistic expression of being (134). Beckett didn’t think he had achieved it, but that was his aim. 

Harvey puts the problem in terms of the reconciliation of art, with its creative potency, and man, who is weak, abortive, le neant. The solution was to try to discover “a syntax of weakness,” a syntax that expressed the human condition – “une chose muette, dans en endroit dur – a mute thing in a hard place” (135).

Tom Stoppard thinks the subtractive method worked: “There’s stuff I’ve written I can’t bear to watch. They get rotten like fruit.” Beckett didn’t have this problem because there was no softness, no excess: “Beckett . . . redefined the minima of what theatre could be” (283).

No doubt. But this fascinating portrait of Beckett leaves one wondering if art can survive in a form nearly formless, almost mute.

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