This kill-your-darling section from Wrestliana is about Samuel Beckett, my love of and ambivalence towards him. Happy birthday, Sam.
So, I’m at my desk, who am I fighting right now? Who am I losing to?
Sentence by sentence, it’s Woolf, Bellow, Lawrence, Mandelstam. But in figuring myself as a writer? Samuel Beckett (1906-1989), author of Waiting for Godot, Endgame, Malone Dies, The Unnameable, and most of all the Beckett of the three texts contained in Nohow On.
Yet not only for what Beckett wrote but for his late modernist disgusts. His unwillingness to participate in the publicly trivial (and, for him, the publicly trivial includes the Nobel Prize for Literature). His ongoing refusal of things I feel I too should refuse. Plus, he was gorgeous to look at – thin, suede-suave. Not bald. Writerly.
Day to day, in returning to what I do, I’m far more contra-Beckett than I am contra-David Mitchell, contra-Hilary Mantel. He seems an ethic as well as a writer. More than those particular two are, or any other contemporary writers.
As a literary father, Beckett is an ironic choice. He was all about the fail. His entire mature output is a response to not-being James Joyce (Beckett’s father). Beckett was in the room as parts of Finnegans Wake were constructed; Beckett took dictation – from Joyce’s mouth to Beckett’s pen to immortality. How crushing was that? Beckett knew the importance of Ulysses, and knew he could not rewrite it. So he left the English ring, he fled, to France, to French. If father-Joyce was writing a character who was everything/everyman, son-Beckett would write a series of characters who were nothing/no-man. If Joyce was word-rich and word-weird, Beckett would reduce his means to a schoolmaster’s vocabulary. After Joyce, no choice. But the strength of Beckett’s reaction makes him an immensely powerful figure. I would like to say ‘in himself’, but this isn’t the case. He is only ever secondary, and he knew it. (Why do we like him more than Joyce? Perhaps because we’re an age more at home with the secondary. Schubert, not Beethoven.)
But I recognise that Beckett’s world, the moral grisaille of 1945-1955, the imminence of Auschwitz, is not mine. I wasn’t born in proximity to that burden. Others have interposed themselves – Warhol, The Beatles.
Beckett was pre-pop. He didn’t have to engage with pop culture, because he was formed in another era. Beckett’s version of the ‘catchy’ was silent films, Chaplin and Keaton, entirely un-avant garde.
Beckett never had to worry about whether or not he should (in screenwriting terms) Save the Cat. Beckett never, on the page, tried to make himself, or his characters, likeable – to win over the reader. They either came to him or they didn’t. If they came, it was for literary reasons. Because literature exists and because he was a recent instance. To that extent, even in his despair, he trusted in the culture.
Norman Mailer wrote a book Advertisements for Myself. I wrote a book called Adventures in Capitalism. In a way, it was an advertisement for myself. It was a catchy book, and it caught on. I’m glad I wrote it and wish I hadn’t. I wish it were more austere. I wish it were the next thing Beckett would have written, after Stirrings Still, his last. But that would be entirely bogus: he reached where he reached by virtue of his prior collapses. It’s almost impossible to understand Stirrings Still without having read earlier Beckett texts. He created his own lineage of stranded protagonists – immobilized in soul even as they flee the physical confines of his attic rooms. Stirrings Still, the title, puns on Beckett’s own unproductiveness – look, there’s life in the old god yet. Yet if that yet, that still, becomes a verb, to still, then the title flips round to being yet another finale, a finishing end. Almost every one of Beckett’s words, from First Love onwards, was a last word. By 1983, it had for a long time been – literally – beyond a joke. I can’t go on was always closely followed by I’ll go on.
This, though, is taking Beckett very straight. There’s another side of me, perhaps the snidey side, that thinks he wasn’t averse to what we would now call branding. The Beckett brand was created and guarded by Beckett himself. A couple of years ago in Cork, I had my photograph taken by John Minihan.
He took the famous image of Beckett in a Paris café.
I asked John – in a roundabout way –whether Beckett was vain of his image; indirectly, John said he was. The famous image came after they had been sitting in that café, which Beckett had chosen, at a table he’d decided was best, for a couple of hours. The light, fittingly for Beckett’s brand of dying light against raging, was dying. To the extent he could, Beckett took his own portrait, through John Minihan. He could have chosen not to.
After the global success of Waiting for Godot, Beckett was financially secure; the Nobel Prize made him rich. Like Thomas Pynchon and J.D.Salinger and Elena Ferrante and (until recently) Harper Lee, Beckett could afford to distain publicity. He could make a virtue out of saying No because he didn’t face the necessity of saying Yes. He didn’t have to be witty and charming and sufficiently banal not to appear superior at literary festivals, in the hopes of selling a couple more copies of Texts for Nothing. He didn’t have to pretend to collaborate with members of the public on projects designed to make Literature more accessible. He didn’t have to be liked. He didn’t have to teach.
Instead, he could concentrate on augmenting the quality of his verbal suffering. With greater and greater concision, he could agonize. His publishers accommodated this. So the texts were shorter and shorter; font sizes grew, making each line an epitaph; expanding white space brought an aura to his black words. All editions became boutique. This always has the effect of making aphorisms of statements. (Look what they did to David Foster Wallace’s Commencement Speech at Kenyon College when they – Little, Brown and Company – turned it into This is Water. Suddenly, instead of some meant-to-be-spoken observations, we have the Dao of Dave.)
It reminds me of Sarojini Naidu’s quip, ‘It costs a great deal of money to keep Gandhiji living in poverty.’
And yet, and still, Beckett convinces me beyond the Beckett brand. He wins through. I read him and am again overcome.
This is John Minihan’s photograph of me. No comparison.