In fewer words, a fitting tribute
“HIS argument was with the Book of Genesis.”
Hugh Kenner’s famous summation of Samuel Beckett’s life and work gets right to the heart of things because, in part, it adheres so closely to the advice the Irish Nobel laureate used to give younger writers: “Pare it down. Pare it down.”
Even pared down -- or, perhaps, particularly because he pared it down -- Beckett’s argument never has seemed more compelling and relevant, all the more so because its eloquence lies beyond style, beyond what the author called “the stink of artifice.” There are words, but also silence; presence and absence; confrontation and evasion; clarity and obscurity.
Paradoxically, it is as much an act of faith -- if you accept Paul Tillich’s notion that faith is a condition of “ultimate concern” -- as it is a body of work. Did Beckett believe in God?
“He doesn’t exist, the bastard.”
Thursday is the 100th anniversary of Beckett’s birth and of all the notable acts of commemoration none is more welcome and likely to be more enduring than Grove Press’ wholly admirable publication of a superb five-volume collection. The publisher, along with the series editor, writer and critic Paul Auster, are scrupulous in calling the collection “selected works.” However, everything that matters -- the seven great novels, the 32 dramatic works, the poetry and short fiction -- are here in texts carefully corrected in consultation with Beckett scholars C.J. Ackerley and S.E. Gontarski. The latter also provides the introduction to the welcome -- and badly needed -- bilingual edition of “Waiting for Godot,” reminding us that it first was titled “En Attendant Godot.”
Laura Lindgren’s design has produced books that not only are handsome but also wonderfully readable -- all too rare in such collections, where type is squeezed onto the page in what seems a publisher’s grudging acquiescence to duty. By contrast, everything about this collection speaks out of a respectful -- though, thankfully, not awed -- enthusiasm. This is particularly true in the apt selection of commentators to introduce each volume: Colm Toibin and Salman Rushdie for the novels; Edward Albee for dramatic works; and a fellow Nobel laureate, South African J.M. Coetzee, for the poetry, short fiction and criticism.
There is insight without equivocation in their introductions. “You have in front of you one of the most important books of the 20th century ... ,” Albee begins. “There are other writers of this period who ‘matter,’ of course -- Borges, Nabokov, not to make a list but to name two -- but Beckett is special in that he was equally a master in more than one field of literature -- drama and novel, in his case. I would go so far as to say that he reinvented both forms.”
American readers will be less familiar with the novels than the plays, but in his introduction to Volume 2, Rushdie recalls an Indian boyhood and writes, “In my eyes Samuel Beckett has always been a novelist first and playwright later.... “
To Toibin, “Beckett was interested in consciousness as a form of comedy close to tragedy and logic as a crime, its perpetrators to be punished by offering them infinite numbers of absurd logical conclusions.”
Himself one of Ireland’s leading novelists, Toibin does a particularly deft job of physically and spiritually locating Beckett in Dublin, the city of his birth. As he points out, a short street called Clare runs along the playing fields of Trinity College. At one end is Finn’s Hotel, where James Joyce first saw Nora Barnacle and arranged the meeting at the street’s other end, on a corner of Merrion Square in front of the house where Oscar Wilde was born. Midway, in between, was No. 6 Clare St., where Beckett’s family kept the offices of its quantity surveying business. He lived, wrote and gave language lessons in the building’s upper rooms until he fled Ireland, which banned his first two books, for France on the eve of World War II.
It’s a small town, Dublin, though this week the country the World Bank calls “the most globalized society” on Earth is celebrating Beckett with the Celtic Tiger’s full-throated roar in essays, conferences, banners, T-shirts -- and what would a contemporary occasion be without them? -- and the Gate Theatre’s adaptation of the author’s “Eh Joe,” which remains the most starkly subversive television drama ever written.
The issue of Beckett’s notorious difficulty and obscurity -- or, rather, his reputation for those things -- is bound to hang over a collection like this. The commentators engage it squarely:
Albee writes that he is “always deeply puzzled when people say of Beckett, ‘Oh, he’s so difficult!’ -- or avant garde, or complex, or
Rushdie argues, “The answer to the question of difficulty is surrender. Give in to the text and it opens up, a rare if shabby flower. Stop asking for what is not there and you start to see what is....
“It is the thing that speaks. A man speaking English beautifully chooses to speak in French, which he speaks with greater difficulty, so that he is obliged to choose his words carefully, forced to give up fluency and to find the hard words that come with difficulty, and then after all that finding he puts it all back into English, a new English containing all the difficulty of the French, of the coining of thought in a second language, a new English with the power to change English for ever. This is Samuel Beckett. This is his great work. It is the thing that speaks.
Here misreading -- or partial reading -- tempts the less persevering with the futile sin of nihilism.
This, it seems, is the Beckett who murmurs that:
“There is no endgame between a man and his fate.”
Yet, elsewhere there is this from “Worstward Ho,” one of what Coetzee forthrightly calls the miraculous late works:
“Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
What these four of Beckett’s austere sentences hold in tension is the experience of a minutely -- and profoundly -- examined life. As these five magnificent volumes attest, it pulled Beckett and his work into a greatness that seems more assured with each passing year -- and into a condition we should not hesitate to call heroic.
But is such heroism really a winning argument in that lifelong dispute with our common origins and fate?
Does it matter?
And then again -- why not?