Samuel Beckett: The Chaos Between Two Silences
by Manuel Vincent, February 1, 2017
Translated by Louis S. Bedrock
Samuel Beckett was born on Good Friday and died on Christmas Day according to his legend, which is further aggrandized by his shrug of the shoulders in the face of chaos.
He was very tall, very thin, and had the profile of a bird of prey: a straight, prominent nose; very blue, icy eyes; a face formed by a mere three strokes of an ax. Even today the creases seen in photographs, etched into his face and running down his cheeks to the edge of the mouth, have an interpretation inseparable from his work.
One day in Paris, when he was already an old man, I saw him exit the Cafe Deux Magot and walk to the other side of Boulevard St. Germain at the crosswalk. That's Samuel Beckett, someone told me. He was alone, wearing a fur-lined coat, and he had the air of one of those prophets of the desert who subsists on locusts and grasshoppers; he also resembled a bronze statue by the sculptor Giacometti: one of his metaphysical walkers. I watched until the man, bearing the Nobel Prize on his back, got into a Citroen 2CV and disappeared around the first corner.
Samuel Beckett was born in Foxrock, which lies to the south of Dublin, on the 13th of April in 1906, the child of a middle class Irish family. He studied at Portora Royal School and then at Trinity College where he began to acquire an interest in literature and to write poems and stories that were not unmarred by youthful pretentiousness.
—If I stay in Dublin, I'll end up as one more drunk: a poet next to a pint of beer in a pub —he said to himself one day.
That's why he traveled to Paris in 1926 with the sole intention of meeting James Joyce. He knew that the author of Ulysses liked to have an afternoon snack at the Shakespeare And Company bookstore where other struggling writers also roamed: Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, all suckled with alcohol by the American Sylvia Beach. A poet friend, Thomas McGreevy, who was also Irish, introduced him and in that moment he became part of the group.
The talent of Joyce annihilated any talent his disciples might have. When he was almost blind, he would award them gifts of neckties in exchange for reading him fragments of The Divine Comedy. Beckett developed a cautious affection with his mentor, often close to hatred, because he realized it was dangerous to spend too much time beside a genius.
There was another obstacle: Lucia, the unstable and convulsive daughter of Joyce, had fallen in love with him:
—I come here to see your father, not you —he would say to her. And that provoked a storm that eventually made him end his visits.
There's no record that Joyce ever gave his devoted Samuel a tie but he did give him this advice: Aesthetically, the fall of an angel has the same value as the fall of a leaf.
Beckett lived with Suzanne Deschevaux, seven years older than he was, whom he married in 1961. In their apartment on Boulevard Saint Jacques, there were no chairs nor paintings nor any household appliances other than its own emptiness. There, Suzanne would sew and give piano lessons to feed him; but Beckett was also a great machine for loving women.
He had many lovers. The most famous was Peggy Guggenheim, who thought him a frustrated writer, but found him attractive because of his eccentricity; he was an unpredictable fellow who could spend the entire morning in bed without doing anything. When the Jewish millionairess reproached him one day, he told her to worry about buying paintings and leave him alone.
Then one day, spots began to appear on Beckett's neck and, thinking it was cancer, he began to write as if he were wrestling desperately with death. Drag yourself through the dust, but do so fighting.
During the period of 1947 to 1949, possessed by an intense literary fever, he published the trilogy Malloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable. But fame came to him on January 5th, 1953, when his play Waiting For Godot debuted in the small Théâtre de Babylone on Boulevard Raspail. After this success, he began to flee and his flight reached its maximum incarnation when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1969. He received the news in Tangiers, and after expressing his gratitude, he said, "What a catastrophe!" and disappeared in the north of Africa.
Beckett was sure of two things: He had been born and he was going to die. Life was an absurd dance between two silences, and he was driven to tell this to someone. He knew that everything had been said and that only form gave structure to chaos. If the sun rises every day it's because it has no choice.
He played the piano; he played pool; once in a while, he would spend the afternoon with the sculptor Giacometti in some cafe in Montparnasse, silently eating fried potatoes together and exchanging monosyllabic thoughts about their work until sinking into a stone-like silence.
One day, as he went around a corner, Beckett was stabbed by a clochard whose knife missed his heart by two centimeters. When he got out of the hospital, he visited the prison of his attacker and asked him one question:
—I don't know —answered the clochard.
Ever since the play that crowned him King of the Absurd, critics have asked who is this Godot for whom everyone waits; who is coming but who never arrives. They say it is God, Beauty, or Beckett himself; he says if he knew, he would have written it.
Some believe it's a cyclist who became very famous in France because he always arrived at the finish line unpredictably. Spectators always waited to see him finish last, but sometimes he never arrived. The cyclist's name was Godeau.
Once, when Beckett was travelling in a flight from Paris to Dublin to see his mother, who was very ill, he heard the senior flight attendant say that he was speaking to the passengers in the name of Captain Godot. Beckett wanted to throw himself out of the airplane in mid-flight.
Nihilist, allegorical Christian, he would write what was in his blood, not what was in his mind; he would write between impotence and ignorance, with a dazzling, poetic humor--as meaningless as the blade of the knife that almost killed him.
"Customer: God can make the world in six days and you can't produce a pair of pants in six months."
"Tailor: But sir--look at the world and look at your pants."
If on that day in Paris when I saw him, I had had the courage to approach him, I would not have asked him about Godot, but rather about the tailor who had sewn his elegant fur-lined coat.