Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Banville on Beckett's early letters

One good author reviews another. John Banville, in May 20th's "The New Republic" scans the first volume, compiled after long legal wrangling and editorial angst, of Beckett's letters, 1929-40: "The Word-Stormer".

Beckett may have been a recluse, but as any reader of the excellent Anthony Cronin biography of his friend, "Beckett: the Last Modernist," or even the authorized and for my tastes tamer James Knowlson "Damned to Fame," the writer was a good companion at the dinner table, able to guzzle and prattle, and capable of astonishingly generous acts to those in need whom he barely knew. Unlike Joyce, full of egotism and resentment, Beckett ironically by popular stereotypes appears the warmer and kinder figure, the Irish writer we'd prefer for company at the Parisian café.
In 1937, when he was doing editorial work on the Wake, he wrote to McGreevy: 'Joyce paid me 250 fr. for about 15 hrs. work on his proofs. That is needless to say only for your ear. He then supplemented it with an old overcoat and 5 ties! I did not refuse. It is so much simpler to be hurt than to hurt.' There could be no better illustration of the dissimilarity between the two men than this little incident.
(Yet as "Patrick M." has already documented in his response on the TNR page, Cronin does document other cases of helpfulness by Joyce to his one-time secretary and factotum.) And, Banville summarizes the affair with Lucia Joyce, soon to be a mental patient, and he notes that even after their break-up, relations continued with her parents. "Yet after Beckett was stabbed in a Paris street by a pimp on Twelfth Night in 1938--a very Beckettian incident, fraught with gruesome comedy--Joyce was "incredibly good" to the wounded man, paying for a private hospital room and supplying him with a reading lamp, while Nora Joyce cooked him a custard pudding. No one needed mothering more than Sam Beckett."

This next anecdote may change your mental image of the chronicler of Hamm and Clov, or it may confirm it: "There is a record of him sitting in a Left Bank bar one night and suddenly emptying a full glass of beer over his own head, though admittedly this might seem evidence less of bibulous high spirits than of mental stress."

He treated his mother badly, as sons often do; he also loved her. After his father died (last words: "Fight, fight, fight. What a morning."), Beckett-- funded by mom-- went through two years of Kleinian psychotherapy. "Too much can be made of the episode, but it is impossible not to see the marks of it in Beckett's subsequent work, so much of which is cast in the form of a monologue in which a speaker, often lying on his back in dimness or dark, gabbles in a kind of delirium of doubt and self-seeking to a faceless auditor." This also reminds me of the Irish bardic precedent, a poetic champion-to-be, composing likewise in an enclosed cell, memorizing druidic lore in intricate meter.

Beckett penned fifteen thousand letters, and while the editors were limited by his estate to include only those relevant to his "work," they have plenty to contend with, for the erudition and complexity of his correspondence, as it is! While Banville cites little of the letters themselves, having instead labored to set the scene and retell Beckett's story instead, he finally includes a crucial passage that would ensure that the follower would in his own more minimal manner match the master:
Joyce's example as a dedicated artist and maker of "the new," in Ezra Pound's formulation, was immensely important for Beckett--but he had his own road to follow, a narrow way that diverged sharply from the broad Joycean thoroughfare. The single most significant letter in this volume is the one written, in German, in the summer of 1937, from Dublin, to the publisher and translator Axel Kaun, in which Beckett sets out in stark terms his negative aesthetic.
After Beckett praises Beethoven's Seventh: "for pages on end we cannot perceive it as other than a dizzying path of sounds connecting unfathomable chasms of silence," he goes on to consider if literature will keep on the same unrewarding road abandoned by art and music.
It is indeed getting more and more difficult, even pointless, for me to write in formal English. And more and more my language appears to me like a veil which one has to tear apart in order to get to those things (or the nothingness) lying behind it. Grammar and style! To me they seem to have become as irrelevant as a Biedermeier bathing suit or the imperturbability of a gentleman. A mask. It is to be hoped the time will come, thank God, in some circles it already has, when language is best used where it is most efficiently abused. Since we cannot dismiss it all at once, at least we do not want to leave anything undone that may contribute to its disrepute. To drill one hole after another into it until that which lurks behind, be it something or nothing, starts seeping through--I cannot imagine a higher goal for today's writer.
Banville quotes Cyril Cusack's reaction to "Godot" as a Protestant whine; Beckett agreed instantly. The reviewer elaborates on such a world-view.
One does not doubt Beckett's artistic probity--probity was what he said he admired most in Joyce--but the ferocity of his aesthetic gives one pause. Like all artists, Beckett sought impersonality but suffused his work with the squid ink of his own desires, fears, and prejudices. He professed to have veered from the "old, foul road" down which language must drag itself, but is it not possible that what he was turning from was precisely his love of language, a luxury that his ascetic soul felt obliged to spurn?
A postscript from the article I wrote about yesterday in this blog on Colm Tóibín. It ends with his appropriate remark for today's entry. The author finished a lecture at Princeton to undergrads; Tóibín had kept them attentive for fifty minutes straight about Beckett and his interpreter, the great actor Jack MacGowran.
"The opposite of being English was being Irish,” Toibin said. “The Irish tradition came from the lead actors’ playing the parts of tramps or powerless people and still holding the stage. There was not the English tradition of doing Hamlet the prince at a certain age, then ending up as Lear. These actors came from nowhere, there was no nobility about their characters. The only power they had was over the word.”
Perhaps that's our sum total of control as we age. To use words or hold back. To seek the company of the crowd, or the seclusion of the soul. And, to know, like Beckett and his characters, that we must mix the two to stay sane.

As I get older, I return both to Beckett and Joyce. So much of what I otherwise read seems a dim echo, a faint mimicry, of their maximal and minimal styles. I enjoy them both, and learn from them. I even admit, in my research lately skimming vast stretches of Yeats for an elusive citation nobody bothers to firmly attribute to him, a dawning realization of that Irishman's own vision. Even two hours yesterday at the Huntington Library to shuffle shelves for procured nothing!

(I eventually found it by googling a keyword search that eerily brought me back to a blog post of of mine from last summer! That gave me a lead for the data via Google Book Search, although its compiler erred in dating the attribution. A different mistake than committed by the renowned Irish lit scholar. He too erred-- in fudging his footnotes to cover up insufficient attribution and misleading documentation that misquoted and misled via footnotes away from, not towards, the same citation. He was lionized once by me until he blew me off at a conference panel he was chairing and where I was delivering one year. I know I am a nobody in academia, but I'd flown six thousand miles for a weekend on my own expense; he could have given me the courtesy of a follow-up question or a kind nod of encouragement. He then two years later watched me without offering to help when I spilled soup all over my suit in the cafeteria before another talk I was to give two years hence-- cursed UCD for both venues; it's his employer, of course!)

Impatient as I am with gyres and rosy crucians and Golden Dawns, Yeats' (Yeat's, Yeats's) rapturous prose and gnomic verse reveals his impact. Without his own restless if credulous intellect over his long life amidst disparate, rebellious, and non-Christian creeds, Joyce and Beckett may not have been able to continue the esoteric legacy of the Revival even as they mocked its vaporous or violent enthusiasms. Without Yeats and his cronies, would Joyce and Beckett, in exile if not at home, have generated the audience and ultimately sympathetic hearing they did?

Photo: A fitting image on a lonely country road, near Beckett's pied-de-terre in later years, at Ussy-sur-Marne. "Rue Samuel Beckett." Bilingual pun for an epitaph?

1 comment:

Tony Bailie said...

I have Cronin's and Knowlson's respective biographies of Beckett sitting side by side on my bookshelf - Cronin's read, the other with a turned-down page-corner mark at 54 never really started. Not sure why. Cronin absorbed me as does Beckett himself. Another of his biographers was Deirdre Bair, who also took on Jung as a subject after gaining his confidence. I can't work out the, relative, popular appeal of Beckett. How dare other people like him. There is a small, constant pile of books beside my study chair, and among them is a collection of Beckett 'shorts' which to my mind contains his best work - even more so than the stage plays and even the 'trilogy' It includes one of my favourite poems - translated from French:

'I Would like my love to die/
and the rain to be raining on the graveyard/
and on me walking the streets/
mourning her who thought she loved me'

There is an entire novel in those four lines.