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Living With Samuel Beckett:

An Anti Essay

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LIVING WITH SAMUEL BECKETT:

 

AN ANTI ESSAY

 

PART 1: SHORT FICTION AND PLAYS

 

MAY 2015

 

 

 

1. Introduction

 

 

Last night I dreamed that I was in a park, sitting on a bench, alone, with friends? A dog came into view, running, very fast. This dog was a strong lean hound with a long mouth. He had run across the field towards me. Normally when a dog, or a hound, runs like this, it has nothing to do with you; perhaps they are playing, chasing a fellow dog…regardless, the dog is not a concern. But this dog was a concern, for within no time at all, he was stood millimetres behind me, his long mouth quivering with anger: the hound is desperately restraining itself from tearing my face off. I sit calm, and very scared, knowing that the faintest movement, the slightest indication of fear – all this ends. I’m scared, not sure how this will pan out, in combative fear. The dog grows disinterested, but he is still there, the dream ends.

 

Just quickly, a few details; I know personal details aren’t required with essays but I just want to make sure you know that it is me writing this: I am a twenty two year old artist (people are heading for the exits already) living in the deprived, multi cultural neighbourhood in Berlin. Exactly why I have decided to spend the evening writing about Samuel Beckett is beyond me. I have much more important things to do, like cook and clean (by now I am being dragged quite forcefully out of the examination hall). The dream I just referenced was a dream like any other, and also has nothing to do with Samuel Beckett, the focus of this piece. Why did I include it so self-centredly then? Initially I didn’t know, I just felt like it (the teacher has just punched me in the face): I wrote the title ‘Living With Samuel Beckett’ and then for some reason felt the only natural thing to do was to describe last night’s dream. But on second thoughts, I in fact do know why I used the dream, and perhaps knew all along: I thought it would give this essay a sense of urgency and an element of fear and risk often not found in essay writing, and although I haven’t written this essay yet, I can safely say it has worked. The essay as psychological thriller? Maybe – not quite what I mean, but that would be an interesting concept too. The matter of the dog again? You are the dog, naturally, all waiting, teeth clenched, ready to bite my head off at any moment should I slip up – I haven’t done this, writing an essay, in some time…I’m already upsetting some of you…so be it! Let’s save this subject for next time and go and talk to Samuel Beckett, he lives in the same apartment block as me.

 

 

2. France

 

 

I first met Samuel Beckett last summer in the south of France. I was walking through the vibrant streets of Bordeaux, literally dying for a coffee, (I know, I know, but I love coffee) but which café? Sometimes I’m very indecisive. It’s no so easy to find the right café; there are various factors to take into account (the style of the café, its location, the prices on the menu, the type of people sitting in the café itself). Nevertheless I found one, with the appropriately bohemian courtyard and sat outside reading Samuel Beckett as humid sticky rain poured down on to my table’s umbrella.

Before I start referring to my notes and begin what could be regarded as a thesis – I want this to be a bit like Robert Hughes writings on artists, but already I can see that that opportunity is fading– I first of all would like to include my initial thoughts and pre-conceived perceptions about Beckett – I would call him Sam, but all the Sams I’ve known in my life have been very disagreeable and so the name naturally brings back unpleasant memories.

 

We had studied Beckett at school, when we were very young, no more than sixteen, seventeen years old.  He was naturally much older than us back then, in his forties, the European playwright (not the demented old man we enjoy these days).

Waiting For Godot comes first, followed by the fact that it was written in French, then its associations with the Theatre Of The Absurd, Harold Pinter, Pinter’s plays, and then Beckett’s left behind – in to time at all we’re talking about J.B. Priestly, harking back to the soft literature days of Steinbeck, and that most avant garde of writers is safely ignored for the next few years.

I’m not sure what happens to you for the next three of four years – I’m sure like me you made mistakes and whatnot – no matter! One evening you find yourself at a small house party. The people there are very ironic, hedonistic, and intelligent – why you feel out of place there is beyond me – and in a room, adjacent to the bathroom where a few people are taking drugs quite ridiculously (hats, mirrors, in jokes – that can be fun, but we’re in the other room remember), a young man, an actor of some sort, has a book in his hands. Your first reaction is to be cautious: as with wherever you go, you are somewhat protective of literature, for, unbeknownst to everyone else, you are the only person who knows about it, or so you think. After a brief exchange over poetry (this is live but with dull blades), the young actor says: this is Beckett, he’s all your need. Beckett’s all you need. He then proceeds to read an esoteric, self-consciously iconoclastic passage about one of Beckett’s protagonists’ mother. Three novels, a trilogy. No Joyce, no poetry – Beckett’s all you need.

So, however you may feel about the manner in which this new Beckett was recommended to you, the wheel has been put in motion, and you now have no choice but to seek him out. First the novellas; later on maybe the plays, and then the novels themselves (when there’s time, and there rarely is time for big novels unless you have a huge psychological point to prove, which happens, on average, only a couple of times a year).

 

Anyway, I’m getting distracted. Essentially, with Beckett, there is, like with other famous and celebrated artists, a myth and pre-conceived conception to navigate before you’ve even opened one of his books. He carries the reputation that, despite how preposterous it sounds, you could perhaps legitimately say he’s all you need (there are only half a dozen or so writers from our last century that this could apply to, and none as of yet that we know of from the current one). And indeed, I had no idea what to expect from Beckett, and, though this is not really what I should be saying, I was almost indifferent to what I would find. Obviously the man interested me greatly, but I’d been out the night before and was feeling tired. There was also a situation with the person I was staying with that was stressing me out (a ‘friend of a friend’ who was no longer the friend of my friend), and I was contemplating just going home, checking flight times and prices. This frustrated me, for I had worked a long time to enjoy this break. Anyway, in that moment, on that afternoon, I ultimately just wanted to sit underneath that rain soaked umbrella, in the south of France, and have a moment of calm, possibly even get back to enjoying what was supposed to be a holiday (but in fact, was actually a farce – I won’t go into what happened, that can be saved for another day, but essentially it involved a death ride on a scooter, the driver and I having polished off a bottle of red wine before with dinner, something I immediately regretted as I sat precariously behind him driving 80mph,  my huge guitar flight case in between us, a fierce wind throwing us across a never ending bridge and making everything just too damned fast, the promise of a fantastic francais bar scene now redundant, and of which upon arrival was actually revealed to be a foam party where young teenagers danced happily to Europop music…  I am no beatnik though – I’ll happily prove how unhip I can be by telling you how only a few days later I fainted from sunstroke on the kitchen floor in the middle of the night after burning my knees to smitherines in only 24C French weather). Yet now, when briefly reminiscing about my holiday (perhaps doing so in the middle of an essay is not quite the right time), I have to say, that I look back upon those farcical moments with complete fondness, and would have actually been disappointed if they hadn’t of happened.

Back under the umbrella, my initial reaction to Beckett was one of merely guarded amusement, not ‘so what’, but I wanted it to be more ‘awe inspiring’ – a naïve pretense, but this is my natural expectation when deciding to invest time and energy with a writer. With the novella First Love, I got a covertly hilarious piece of trivial memoir seemingly not even about Beckett, drenched in boredom and absurdity, a quite unpleasant combination: you don’t know how your supposed to react – this is no modernist crusader of literature, nor one of those Russians plunging fearlessly to the depths – in fact, what even is it? It’s about time I tried to explain what Beckett is about, and what I think his intentions are. So lets pack our bags, head to the airport – alright, enough with the allusion to France. It was fun while it lasted. It wasn’t? Well, I admit that essays should have nothing to do with holidays, especially references to foam parties, but it was something I decided to try. Anyway, I’m now going to react with you to First Love, written by Mr Beckett in the late 1940’s, and see what we find.

 

 

 

3. First Love

 

 

 

‘The mistake one makes is to speak to people.”

 

“You speak to people about stretching out and they immediately see a body at full length.”

 

“That’s what you get for opening your mouth”.

 

“I hesitated to leave. The leaves were falling already”.

 

What is First Love? First and foremost, it has nothing to do with ‘first love’ (only retrospectively and with an understanding of Beckett can you see the ‘love’), and you’ll be hard-pressed to find any trace of sentiment. People in Beckett’s world are passive individuals amongst a collective; brutally frugal and flippant in their capacity to offer any metaphysical interpretation to their relationship with society.

There are passages of loneliness by a river, befriending (in Beckett’s world, insulting) a lady on a park bench and quite monotonously receiving a hand job; living in a derelict house in a state of utter bewilderment, musings on pots and pans…Yet, despite these uncompromising protagonists and settings, Beckett follows the task that all important writers desired to undertake, the presentation and interpretation of language, and the reaction an audience will have by consequence. His uniqueness though, in comparison for example to the writers of his previous generation, is his attitude to his time: when he began his series of great works of the 40’s and 50’s, the state of literature was hardly set up to enable him to carry out his ambitious ideas regarding literature and theatre – perhaps many thought that literature had run out of objectives, and maybe didn’t even need any. What we do know is that he’s living in a post- Joyce and Proust world of literature in which all potential challenges, subversions and innovations of prose have been exhausted – some would be disheartened with what that generation left behind, yet Beckett, after an admitted period of recovery (for whatever reason, Murphy didn’t work, yet I shall read it soon for myself to find out if this is actually the case) decides to take a look around: the Second World War has just come to a nullifying close; Beckett, disorientated and somewhat of a refugee (just recently he had participated in the Resistance) rummages amongst the dust bins and pointless fields of the countryside and sees what he can find; bemused with his results, he says to himself, ‘yeah alright, why not.’ Essentially, his tool is one that the modernists forgot about and the one his contemporaries could not stomach – nothingness and everything that entails.

 

However, I should stress that this is by no means a literary act of falling in love; we are not swooning over Beckett yet, and at this point we’re not sure we even will; the styling is all well and good, but we’ve seen a lot of these tricks performed more impressively by Joyce (see the ‘leaves’ quote above and then compare with Joyce’s own unparalleled epiphanies), whilst writers like Hemingway already went sparse and challenged our perceptions of prose’s surface; we’ve seen the fragmented wastelands and experienced their uncontrollable controlled poetry, (and yet, if we think about it today, the formal discoveries impressed us so much that writers have since decided to only continue these long formal explorations, to the point of esotericism, and thus forget about the other half of poetry – reaction, whilst others have somewhat cowardly stopped exploring all together) we were woken up again by Eliot and his associates, who had originally wanted to unabashedly create the most innovative and challenging poetry of all times, our response at both their successes and failures was to be, at first, frightened  and the put off by the somewhat insatiable and even dangerous appetite for intellectual consumption as intellectual fulfilment, a natural mirror for the extreme political climate of the time. Regardless, we’ve already been ‘shocked by the new’, to the point that the ‘new’ bores us. And on closer inspection, even First Love’s indifferent narrator brings back memories of the past, of days when literature had to pass as literature (and so, by consequence, formal innovation was subtler and arguably more impressive). This indifferent narrator, is he not a distant relative to the one of Notes From Underground? Yes? No: probably not – Dostoyevsky’s one put on a spectacle for us; in the same amount of time he managed to bewilder and convince – he even prophesised man’s condition for the next two centuries! Beckett’s narrator informs us about benches and stew pans. Quite clearly, he has a lot of shadows to both impress and to lighten, his stylistic break from Joyce (he only occasionally still used some of the former’s lyrical flourishes, but by First Love he had decidedly moved on from his former mentor) quite forcefully leaving Beckett in no man’s land in twentieth century modern literature.

 

So we’re following Beckett into this strange, as yet, unclaimed space, but at all times, we’re quietly hissing the ever-nagging question: are you presenting us anything new Mr Beckett? Some of the writers mentioned above cast iconoclastic shadows so immoveable that even now they are interpreted as universally accepted, omnipotent tyrannical benchmarks in literature, yet quite evidently, Beckett has decided to take his own stance on the matter, and this intrigues us, no matter what our reaction is to the content itself.  In other words, it is Beckett’s attitude in First Love, despite him well and truly boring us throughout, that enables him to get away with literary murder.

 

As we get beyond the content, we suddenly start falling into literary traps, tricks, surprises – Beckett performs, rather than writes; we were asleep for First Love’s opening exchanges, waiting for something to happen, only to realise that nothing will happen, and has been happening since the first word. For, arguably the key characteristic of Beckett’s writing is that it, or not a lot, appears to be live. One gets the impression that Beckett hasn’t decided on anything yet – he’ll take his chances with nothing and see where that goes, but he is by no means making it up as he goes along – don’t forget, he was Joyce’s aide and, despite writing in French, the Rimbaudian notion of blurting out incendiary poetry and literature was rightly forbidden – this can only happen accidentally or by Rimbaud himself – to counter me with Joyce’s famous concluding Molly soliloquy is not fair game – that is arguably the most self-consciously literary section of arguably the most self-conscious literary book  ever written.

 

Our first affinity with Beckett though is his attitude towards ‘sincerity’, one of the many plagues of our time. The act of sincerity is something of a bad smell to Beckett – this may be a cause for concern for some of you; we’re sick of nothing meaning nothing (nothing meant everything to Beckett, something completely different) and consequently look for conciliation in flooding everything with nothing; Beckett, quite rightfully has no time for the extremist attitudes to sincerity and insincerity – and some of you may be shouting now and standing on tables, attributing Beckett with the blame for our post-modern scrap heap (no specific names are required as evidence you say, just whole generations, attitudes and movements themselves!), yet by the time you have calmed down and decided to rationally assess the debate (and good luck to you with finding the right answer), in the mean time Beckett is in the other room (the room you were actually all looking for) and has already shown his face, removed his mask – he’s even said ‘hello’ to his audience not bashfully and not arrogantly.  Interested, you sit back down. When was this exactly, this cheeky ‘hello’, a concept that probably would have made the earnest writers of the 20’s furious with self-righteousness and by consequence, piques our interest. Oh, we don’t know…(now flicking through the pages) at some point he… during the text…one reads…watches the performance of a Protagonist… continuous Soliloquoy in Prose…Nothing happening – Beckett was just there! - The whole time! There are no protagonists! It’s all Beckett, you see, and this very manner of performance, while not universally beloved, accepted, certified or agreed upon, at least fundamentally makes our pretentions about pretention obsolete and irrelevant.

The more conservative amongst us, while quite rightfully mindful of formal innovation must check our hyper-sensitivity; if a writer decides to exit the frame of his creations existence, it should not be regarded as a crime; (admittedly it can be a risky business, and is only ever executed excellently or disastrously), for concerning our new sacred texts, that is, the work of the ‘modernists’ in the first half of the twentieth century, while beloved and believed for a reason, , these texts never strayed too far formally in external terms – the main concern was interpretation of language itself, and so the majority of ‘progress’ was internal and inside the text of the text (I admittedly generalise when I speak of writers as diverse as Joyce and Kafka, but so be it) – yet Beckett blurs this distinction: in some of the characters we will meet later, the likes of Molloy, Malone – are these not all little Becketts? Is he not present at all times? I implore you to read one of his great plays of this discussed period and see if there is a key distinction between characters; in other words, could you tell me who was who if I removed their names? Yet now I am confused: this stark, dense dialogue, rigid with the writer’s own personality – can we not attribute this to Beckett’s predecessor, Ibsen, or, dare we say it, even Shakespeare? Didn’t we all agree that there distance from their art was what made it so awe inspiring, ‘real’ creations alien from the creator itself – one end of a simple scale, the personal and the impersonal; the psyche and the imagination, of what we weigh literature derived of genius with? These are dangerous paths to go down; today, I don’t have the equipment nor the courage to go any further, yet we’ve all read Hamlet for example, and have been somewhat submerged, even bogged down in the philosophical articulation of most of the protagonists present (Beckett himself was often charged with giving all his characters Phd’s, to which he essentially replied, well maybe they do).

Hamlet admittedly is Hamlet, as is Estragon, Estragon – yet is not Horatio Hamlet too? Is not Vladimir, Estragon? Perhaps not! But upon reading please don’t tell me that you, like myself, sometimes forget who’s who; we follow our guide, be it Beckett or Shakespeare, guides that, while understandably have no time to slow things down (the pace is almost too intense for us from word go), do occasionally take a breather and sneak a greeting. For example, who says this: is it Beckett or Shakespeare, under the guise of their creation?

 

‘I see a multidude in transports of joy’.

 

This one is actually from Beckett (or rather, Hamm, from Endgame), not Shakespeare, an utterance made by a protagonist mischievously peering through a telescope at Beckett’s own audience sat in the theatre; thus, Beckett, while innovating, is also recycling a trick Shakespeare probably himself recycled five hundred years ago (for what, other than creating an effective awareness, is the reason for Shakespeare staging plays within plays throughout Hamlet?). This admittedly is an act of confusion, the artist’s warfare against interpretation, literary ambiguity at it’s most hostile, an unexplainable comedy that only the writer find funny amidst his composed tragedy or document. Unsurprisingly, suspicions arise – Beckett, now the secret traditionalist, albeit with new tools, with a sincere objective of life performance, like Ibsen and Shakespeare before him? Regardless, I personally find this facet in Beckett’s performance exciting and a positive; at least he has the decency, despite his grey existential surroundings, to somewhat jovially acknowledge us personally, and if this is ultimately for an audience, both in the theatrical and philosophical-literary sense, then surely there is some fundamental point to prove, a ‘philosophical’ foundation, despite the practically bare and forsaken appearance of the writing and stance.

Yet let’s not get ahead of ourselves; we still have to listen (and laugh) at protagonists (portrayed by Beckett as idiots, who evidently are far from stupid) saying things like “Better than nothing! Is it possible?” But I agree with you - we are not just experiencing comedy, and an irredeemable nihilistic outlook is never too far that leaves me feeling uncomfortable as well; the hello’s are fine and in fact, often very amusing Mr Beckett, but sometimes we need to know where we stand. But we know it’s not all just a joke, that the nothingness means something, or Beckett wouldn’t be going to all this trouble. There’s a space before that nilhistic abyss, and this is Beckett’s ground; a ground in which he confuses the dynamics of ambiguity and realism, sadness and irony; its all funny and serious at the same time – in a word, absurdity. What we are dealing with here is not literature, but anti-literature, something threatening to all previous notions of literature, the only thing Beckett could do, due to both circumstance and his own artistic originality.

However, to go back to First Love as an example, its still a book, not a coded experiment, and there is plenty to savour; you can jot down some of the fine sequences of phrases, as I already have above, and laugh out loud at the stories barbaric comedy, but you can by no means enjoy the novella – this is forbidden, for why would you, when Beckett himself has deliberately made everything grey, with nothing but unpredictability as colour to contrast the swathes of monotony – oh how boring actually is the weirdness of normal people! These people, on a grey stage, getting by and ‘being human’ despite their glaringly obvious (and times, down right disturbing) habits, imperfections, thoughts, feelings. What happened to ‘the beautiful and the sublime?’ Even with Beckett’s mentor, Joyce, there were at least fleeting soul piercing moments of epithany, illumination, light, YES! Now, all this has been forgotten; and Beckett, unexpectedly and somewhat outrageously flaunting his leftovers, asks us all, do we find these people, ourselves, beautiful, ugly, or just absurd – or none of these?

 

So, Beckett’s plays are boring, and how Beckett himself loves this, and after a while, (after we’ve met Molloy, Malone and their fellow cohorts)don’t we too. So the protagonists are senile, mentally ill, decrepid, disgusting, tragic – what of it! What will happen next? We don’t know, Beckett will think of something – or in fact, probably Nothing, this Nothing somehow always managing to surprise us. Thus, because he is always performing, maintaining a balancing act, he is contrary to the belief of impersonality, practiced by the ever earnest modernists, Eliot, Woolf et all (one of the more amusing moments in Enoch Brater’s gushy Ten Ways Of Thinking About Samuel Beckett is the relevation that, with regards to T.S. Eliot, Beckett could only think of ‘toilet’ backwards.) This is what’s refreshing: a sense of humour, not just that forever used all encompassing irony in literature, but stupidity as well, stupidy as pantomime! Relieved by nothing other than its continual ridiculousness. Thus, we’ve come full circle: the style is so strong and committed that we forget about the writer – for a moment, we’re alone with people like Molloy, and – Beckett, no doubt arrives and we start again, in the middle of nothing.

 

But don’t turn on Beckett for your feelings of uncomfortability; for, even you yourselves will agree that he is not even being confrontational; he is not a satirist, simply mocking his creations, he leaves that for you, and when you feel uneasy about that, then – this I where we run out of notes, argument, as with every great artist, concept, belief, there is a necessary and unavoidable limit to what we can articulate. Obviously we need to read more. Maybe this will help, or it will probably make things worse, harder. But we know already that what makes the whole process of reading Beckett so bewildering is that the writer has a great empathetic stance to his trivial, absurd (the list goes on as Beckett writes or performs them) characters - yet, make no mistake – he still views them as pathetic – this is something of a rule for him, almost a consolation. But where does that leave us as readers? The trilogy of novels is next, and requires a lot of time and patience, and even if combined, they are half the length of Ulysses, they make the latter arguably appear to be a much more ‘straightforward’ literary experience.