Monday, March 16, 2009

St. Patrick’s Day Part One: Please Love Beckett As Much As I Do!

When I was a sophomore in college, I had some kind of weird job that involved reading biographies of writers and summarizing them. This job was given to me by a professor who came to be known as Mr. Rochester, and whose real name I can no longer remember. Nor do I remember why Megan and I called him Mr. Rochester, except possibly because he had a kind of nefariously harmless quality, which is an odd combination for an English professor. He had an empty bottle (maybe two) of absinthe in his office, and frequently seemed to not really know what was going on, which is why despite repeated attempts to ascertain what precisely the point of my job was, I never succeeded, and spent a year getting paid for being of zero use to the college. It was the best job I ever had. I now have an amazing number of inside jokes with myself concerning Samuel Beckett and W. H. Auden (oh, wait til I do my Auden post! It’s going to be great!)

I bring up Beckett because it is St. Patrick’s Day, and therefore a good time to talk about your favorite dead Irish writers. Mine is Beckett by default, because I saw Waiting for Godot before I read Araby. Sucks to your asthmar, Joyce! Too slow!

Beckett, should you not recall, was "an Irish writer, dramatist and poet. Beckett's work offers a bleak outlook on human culture and both formally and philosophically became increasingly minimalist."

Samuel Beckett, bleak minimalist.

But Wikipedia is so... pedantic. I would have said he was a moody genius with a dark sense of humor and rather engaging hair. He is the one who said the following more or less famous things:
• “Where I am, I don’t know, I'll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” (The Unnamable)
• “We are all born mad. Some remain so.” (Waiting for Godot)
• “Here form is content, content is form.” (about Finnegans Wake)
• “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” (Worstward Ho)
• “If by Godot I had meant God I would have said God, and not Godot.” (about Waiting for Godot)

For your edification I have here included the highlights of my notes on Beckett’s life. This is a brief overview, and I warn you, it is mostly not funny:

Beckett was born on either April 13, May 13, or June 14, 1906. It is not clear, nor is it clear why it isn't clearer.

His father was all right, but his mother “was a severe and aloof insomniac who removed the carpets in the house so that she could walk at night in bare feet” which you cannot deny is creepy. She was a plague on poor Beckett until she died.

On Beckett’s Relationship with James Joyce: “Beckett’s relationship with Joyce ran into problems when Joyce’s daughter, Lucia, decided that she wanted to marry Beckett. Beckett’s interest in her was limited to his fascination with watching her go insane, which she did.” He later corresponded with her and helped to pay for her treatment.

Beckett’s Relationship with the Yeatses: Beckett was friends with Jack Yeats, the painter, and knew his brother, too. “To be noted: Beckett did not like W.B. Yeats personally, although he did apparently enjoy ‘Sailing to Byzantium’.” I myself find Yeats to be kind of batty, but I like that poem, too.

Beckett’s Relationship with Ireland: Beckett spent most of his adult life in France; several of his works were originally written in French. When in Ireland (where his mother lived) he was typically reduced to this: he took to his bed “permanently, lying rigidly in the fetal position facing the wall. He lowered the blinds and spent his days in darkness with the blankets pulled over his head. Nothing and no one could get him to move.” This is the part I remember most vividly, and also where I learned the word “psychosomatic,” which is a very good and useful word!

Beckett’s Street Smarts: In 1938 or so, Beckett was randomly stabbed in the street. The French government forced him to press charges, and the assailant was sent to prison for two months. Beckett said of this, “There is no more popular prisoner in the Santé. His mail is enormous. His poules shower gifts upon him. Next time he stabs someone they will promote him to the Legion of Honor. My presence in Paris has not been altogether fruitless.” Curiously, I remember this as one of the most cheerful parts of his life story. Beckett enjoyed the attention, and Joyce paid for a private hospital room.

Beckett and the French Resistance: “Here is a dramatic story about Suzanne [Beckett’s main squeeze, for lack of a better term] saving Gloria, their resistance group: Suzanne was to deliver information to a pair of sisters, but when she arrived at their apartment, they were surrounded by German soldiers. Suzanne told them she had come to tell the sisters that her husband had set their cat’s broken leg. The soldiers wanted to see the cat. Fortunately, Beckett and Suzanne did have a cat with a broken leg at their apartment, but they also had evidence of their resistance activities—most conspicuously the camera that Beckett sometimes left lying around. However, when she got there, not only was the camera gone, but on the table was a well-used copy of Mein Kampf, which Beckett had been making notes from. The soldiers were satisfied.” Also, Beckett once hid in a tree while soldiers patrolled the street below him. He received the Croix de Guerre for his resistance efforts and didn’t tell anyone.

Fun Fact about Waiting for Godot: “Incidentally, ‘Crritic!’ was one of Beckett’s favorite curses, and he liked it better than the French Ultimate Insult, ‘architecte,’ that was included in the original.” If you have not seen or read Waiting for Godot, you should take the next opportunity to do so, as it is remarkable. Oh look! Here is a link! You can read it now! Go ahead, I'll wait.

About his Novels: In 1950, a publisher named Lindon agreed to publish Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable. After visiting him in London, Beckett returned to France upset because, in the words of the biographer, “Lindon was such a nice young man that he (Beckett) was sorry to be the instrument of his bankruptcy.”

Beckett and the Nobel Prize: “On October 23, 1969 Suzanne answered the phone and was told that Beckett had been awarded the 1969 Nobel Prize for Literature. She turned to him and said, ‘Quel catastrophe!’” Beckett declined to attend the festivities, and sent Lindon instead. The Irish ambassador was irritated.

Beckett’s Death: In 1986, Beckett was diagnosed with emphysema. A friend wrote, “He understood his particular illness, explaining the mechanics of it as might a scientist. His brain wasn’t getting proper circulation of blood. But when he detailed the sensation—how the problem was manifest in his particular body—he was all writer: succinct and artfully clear. ‘I am standing in quicksand.’” He died in 1989.

And that concludes Part One of my St. Patrick’s Day post. Cheer up, Part Two will be happier.

(Since I can’t really tell from my notes what is a direct quote and what isn’t, here is the biography I read: Bair, Deirdre. Samuel Beckett. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.)

(I didn’t think I would ever need a citation at the end of a blog post.)

(Thank you for reading this far.)

1 comment:

Ivan said...

This is very educational... today I will tell people that Samuel Beckett had "rather engaging hair".