18 March 2009

He Was A Shy Man With Blue Eyes Who Didn't Like To Talk About His Work

Beckett Remembering, Remembering Beckett, edited by James and Elizabeth Knowlson: Samuel Beckett was regarded as one of the great literary eggheads of the 20th century, and I suppose his reputation is deserved, though the work he is most famous for, the drama Waiting For Godot, is as subtle as Oily To Bed, Oily To Rise.

Over-rated as a dramatist, there is an undeniable greatness to his fiction, particularly the trilogy Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable. But there is also an undeniable dullness in much of Beckett’s writing. It’s a curious kind of dullness, though. It’s not quite boring enough to get you to close the book, it’s just irritating enough, with just enough of a dash of morbid humor to keep you turning the page. Beckett was the great chronicler of the modern navel gazer, the man with too much time on his hands, who, instead of living, thought about living (what the intellectuals call *existence*) and fretted endlessly about death.

He had keen insight into the kind of stupid, artificial lives most of us live. . .he was the sheeple’s great tragicomedian.

Here’s a typical example of Beckett-prose:

In reading Beckett Remembering, Remembering Beckett, a collection of interviews with Becket and people who knew Beckett, we discover the wellspring of Beckett’s curious literary dullness: it is Becket himself. We have 313 pages of remembrances by and about Beckett, and aside from the fact he grew from a deathly dull schoolteacher to James Joyce’s errand boy and then to the Big Man of the Theater of the Absurd (and taking his plays so ultra-seriously, he believed nobody could stage them correctly, thus he ended up directing them himself--in a prick-like fashion), all we learn about the Great Man of Letters is the following:

He was a tall, thin, quiet, shy man with blue eyes who didn’t like to talk about his work.

Sam and Frank never uttered a word to any girl. They were both totally bound up, shy. Nobody—it was awful. (p. 18)

Although withdrawn and sometimes moody, he was a most attractive character. His eyes, behind his spectacles, were piercing blue and he often sat quietly assessing in a thoughtful, and even critical, way what was going on around him and the material that was being presented to him. (p. 21)

Sam Beckett was somewhat different from any of the boys that I had been associated with. He was not particularly odd—but he gave the impression of being a solitary, withdrawn person. (p. 23).

Beckett returned to Dublin in the autumn of 1930 take up the post of assistant to Professor Rudmose-Brown in Trinity College, teaching French to undergraduates. . .but Beckett was almost pathologically shy and detested the self-exposure that was involved in lecturing. (p. 33).

Beckett was not sociable. He was brusque and he always gave the me the impression of great purity of character. And when I saw him when were, after all, in our late seventies and early eighties, I found he hadn’t changed. He was the same, the eyes, the blue eyes. (p. 42-43).

I think Sam Beckett was there only for one term, perhaps two. He gave one the impression of being a tall thin streak of misery. (p. 53).

Sam Beckett was not a good lecturer—in fact even the most earnest and serious students found him boring. My first memory of him is of a tall, guant, bespectacled, blue-eyed, pock-marked man gazing out of the window into New Square. (p.53).

My very hazy recollection of Beckett is of a very quiet, possibly almost shy young man, perhaps even not altogether completely happy in his role of teacher. (p. 54).

I found him reserved but not cold. (p. 91).

You see he was extremely shy and very, very discreet. He has never been talkative and he didn’t explain very much. In fact, if you asked him to explain something, he used to say that he didn’t know what explanations he had to give. (p. 117).

We heard that Sam Beckett was in London to see the show. After the show he came round to the dressing room. And there was for me this very frightening man; his appearance was extraordinary. It gave me a frisson: the recession of the eyes, and the lightness of them, a piercing blue. (p. 123).

He was shy, and I was intimidated. (p. 128).

You know, we were both very shy. (p. 156).

If I said: “What do you think the character is thinking here, Sam? Why is she reacting?” His answer: “Tis of no consequence.” (p. 163).

Beckett: “Don’t ask me for any meaning in the thing; it just is what it is.” (p. 188).

What I hadn’t realized during the course of rehearsals was Beckett’s intense dislike of discussing his work. (p. 205).

Both of us were rather shy, I think. (p. 230).

As he spoke and listened, Beckett’s light-blue eyes glowed with a subtle variety of expressions. (p. 263).

His eyes are the brightest blue with what I would swear are black crosses in the middle of them. (p. 268).

As to Waiting For Godot, he’s not bored with it, but he's almost certainly tired of it or at least tired of answering questions about it. (p. 268).

The other day I noticed Beckett along one of the footpaths in the Luxembourg Gardens, reading a newspaper in a way that reminded me of one of his characters. He looked rather unwell. I didn’t dare approach him. What would I say? I like him so much but it’s better that we not speak. He is so discreet! Conversation is a form of play-acting that requires a certain lack of restraint. It’s a game Beckett wasn’t made for. Everything about him bespeaks a silent monologue. (p. 285).

What he cannot tolerate are questions like: do you think this or that work is destined to last? That this one or that one deserves its reputation? Of X and Y, which one will survive, which is the greater? All evaluations of this sort tax his patience and depress him. “What’s the point of all that?” he said to me after a particularly unpleasant evening, when the discussion at dinner had resembled a grotesque version of the Last Judgment. (p. 286).

He is as straight and unassuming as an ash plant and the blue eyes have the particular gaze of an eagle in that they convey both hurt and fury. His searching disposition unwittingly cautions you not to talk cant, not to humiliate him or yourself with intemperate drivel, in fact not to talk at all unless you have something of import to say. (p. 286).

Mr. Beckett was painfully shy. (p. 286).

One day George Plimpton, the editor of The Paris Review in New York, approached me to do an interview with Beckett for the series ‘Writers at Work.’ He offered to send me to Paris. I told Plimpton that Beckett never gave interviews, and besides I would not want to impose on him with such a request. But the next day I wrote to Sam saying that even though I knew he would say no, I could not resist asking him since The Paris Review would pay all my expenses for one week in Paris, this way we could have a couple good expensive meals with excellent wine at his favourite restaurant, and pretend to do an interview. Sam’s answer was only one line: “Dear Raymond, Sorry, I have no views to inter.” (p. 302-303).

There you have it, 313 pages of remembrances of Beckett.

All work and no play makes Samuel a dull boy, ineed.

It is safe to say Beckett’s personal life will never overshadow his writing.

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