Sunday, May 11, 2008

John Calder's "The Philosophy of Samuel Beckett": Book Review

John Calder, British publisher of Beckett, is ideally placed to provide his own determinedly secular reading of SB. I have my arguments about some of his stubborn persistence in removing God from Beckett to leave that Sartrian "god-shaped hole," but after all, Beckett is notoriously and delightfully difficult to pin down and resists easy categorization about the presence or absence of the deity in his fictions and dramas and other unclassifiable prose. Calder's exegesis gains added conviction from the closeness between author and publisher for so long.

Calder raises an intriguing point: Joyce and Kafka were one-trick, if very talented, ponies next to the variety of genres assayed by SB. Calder delves into what J & K lacked (in his opinion) next to their modernist (and post-modernist, given his lifespan and continuing productions) successor: in Beckett, in his life as in his literature, we find a stoic, compassionate, and above all forgiving mentor. Like sincere religious gurus in the past, his message conveys a detachment from greed, solipsism, fanaticism in the pursuit of a cause or a creed, and care for creatures and the defenseless among us. Remember his early story, with Dante's lobster? Personally, I'd reinforce SB's own charity and thoughtfulness, expressed often without fanfare, and how he humbly practiced what he printed. Calder was moved by the author's morality, too, and he writes this study to promote an understanding of SB less for the literati than for the thinkers, and doers, who need guidance in a world in which faith cannot be thrown away to abstractions rather than channeled into action, responses to assuage real human agony now.

Calder explores philosophical, ethical, and religious sources for Beckett's early writings, and compares his own musings to those of Beckett on these matters. The resulting conversation of sorts between SB and Calder invites us to consider our own responses to human suffering, as limned in Beckett's creations and as influencing Calder himself as he became friends with SB.

While I disagree with some of Calder's readings, I fully support his aims, and stress that this is an excellent study that deserves an audience and incites a reader to return to Beckett for direction as well as out into the world to act as SB would. If this sounds like Calder makes SB a guru, so be it. For many otherwise in danger of meeting the tautological fate of many of SB's tormented characters, we can learn to read Beckett as a direction out of our own self-imprisonment towards selflessness.

I've read a shelf-load of Beckettiana, and I admit that this book, overlooked and not easily found, remains among the two or three to turn to after or during encounters with the primary texts. Not recommended as an introduction or primer (if you're starting from scratch, try Hugh Kenner's Student's Guide to SB); you must get your own bearings and learn to respond on your own terms to SB first. But, for a boost and a reminder of the challenges within--and I might add against reductive--existentialism, Calder gives us a heartfelt, eloquent, and accessible study of a man he knew well and, like many of us, loved for his inspiring humanism.

(Posted to Amazon US, Christmas Eve 2004; one of my more popular reviews, I'm happy to note, and a rare five-star read.)

Photo c/o Naxos Audio Books, which has issued centennial recordings of some of Beckett's novels and plays, features this reminiscence for MP3 downloading of Calder's recollections of his "dynamic acquaintance" with Beckett over thirty years: Calder on Beckett: A Personal Memoir


harry said...

I wonder if I am an old man who wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled... that is I wonder if Beckett is still read much?

Under a juniper-tree the bones sang, scattered and shining
We are glad to be scattered, we did little good to each other,
Under a tree in the cool of day, with the blessing of sand,
Forgetting themselves and each other, united
In the quiet of the desert. This is the land which ye
Shall divide by lot. And neither division nor unity
Matters. This is the land. We have our inheritance.

Beckett, and exile, and your spiffy new blog format... puts me in the desert fathers gnostic emptiness mood. But Beckett might well scoff at Eliot, my sentimental attachment to desert monastic fantasies, but not your fine book reviews.

Fionnchú said...

Harry raises a profound comment, typically, among a few in such a brief but evocative post. What did Beckett think of Eliot? Why do we retreat mentally to arid lands? How many people read Beckett today? Are rolled trousers still a fashion faux-pas?

I'll try on two or three of the above to take them on in future posts. Thanks for the comment on the "spiffy new blog format." In a moment of insomnia last night, I tried to think of its colors in an attempt to calm myself for sleep.