I was having a chat with a Frenchman the other day. Seated in his cáfe in Pikku Huopalahti, I was trying to think about what I would write for this article, when all of a sudden he asked me if I were an Englishman?
I was reminded of Samuel Beckett’s answer to the same question some years ago, “Au contraire” he had replied to the journalist who had put it. So I stole it. Then we got to mulling over the subject of Beckett and his plays and his Irishness or Frenchness.
“Doesn’t Beckett ‘ave a reputation of being high-brow, academic and terribly depressing and maybe even a bit boring?” my bon homie host persisted. “Au contraire!”, I protested, “ it just so happens that I have been doing some study on the subject, and he maybe many things but boring is not one of them. “Non”, said my bon ami. “Wee”, said I.
Although an extremely shy man, he led a life of adventure in both a literal and a literary sense. He was loyal to his friends and generous to many, always maintaining a sense of humour even if somewhat wry and hugely ironical betimes.
Did you know he was born on Good Friday / Pitkä Perjantai? “Non” came the reply from my astounded host. “Wee”, said I, 100 years ago Good Friday 13 th April. 1906. “
Non Good Friday? It’s a depressing day in Ireland, I told him, as all the pubs are closed and many of them are shut as well..“ “And on Friday the 13 th too? sure he couldn’t ‘ave luck”.
A few bites out of my delicious freshly baked doughnut and I looked out of the window at the icy expanse of the bay and two wild swans came in to land upon their “clamorous wings”.
I was reminded of W.B. Yeats the poet. Did you know he met Yeats on one occasion and was astonished when Yeats quoted from memory part of his (Beckett’s) first publication the poem “Whorescope”. It was about Renè Descartes, you know the philosopher who said “Cognito ergo bum”. Anyhow I digress.
Beckett was Irish but a lot of people, who didn’t know better, thought he was French. Almost half what he wrote was in the French language and he mostly lived there from the late 20s onwards. “Non? ‘alf what he wrote was in France?”. “Wee” quote moi. “And the other ‘alf ..?” There was a pause here.
“Lets talk about the war” . I said. “La Gare?”. Wee, ce la gere. When our friends the Germans goose-stepped into France in 1939 Beckett was on holidays in Ireland visiting his mum.
On his return at first he didn’t get involved in the resistance (being an artist and an alien) but when he saw what they were doing in their humiliation of the Jewish people many his close friends and the arrests and killings and so fourth he said: “I couldn’t just stand there with my arms folded.” So he joined the resistance.
(My host at this point unfolded his arms) All over the country people collected information; on the backs of cigarette packs, stamps, scraps of paper and they came to Beckett. (“‘is flat must ‘ave been like a rubbish tip!”)
He translated and correlated the intelligence and typed it on A4 to be photographed on microfilm and smuggled out to England. There were about 80 in the network and they were betrayed (by a catholic priest for money, if you please)
“Non ce ne pas possible?” “Wee”, and the Gestapo got about 60 of them. Beckett and his partner Susanne escaped just ahead of a raid on their flat and went on the run or the “trot” as he said.
One safe house he stayed in belonged to a well known lady French writer, she didn’t like Beckett. Said he had no manners, he used to make his way past the breakfast table late every morn, from his sleeping place, with the chamber-pot in hand.
“Mon Diu, on the trot?” Wee wee. He eventually made it to a little village in southern France where he spent the rest of the war posing as a French farm labourer. Towards the end of the war he joined the resistance again, not telling about his earlier resistance and helping to drive the Germans out as the Allies advanced. “On the trot?” Wee. “’ce la Guerre.”
Later as the war ended he was involved in the Irish volunteer ambulance service and worked excedingly hard in setting up a hospital. Beckett’s friend Dr. Dartley was reading “The lives of the saints” one a day and by night the ambulance was parked outside a brothel.
Beckett scaled down his contribution as his contract came to an end saying he couldn’t stand all the promiscuity. His time in the resistance and with the red cross brought out his “I’ll go on..” spirit and his humour and determination helped many not to give up and to preserve their some human dignity in spite of all.
Later he was awarded the Croixe de Guerre and the Mèdaille de le Reconnaissance, but kept quiet about it. Even his old resistance friends were unaware of this 50 years later according to James Knowneson his biographer.
Indeed he had a long and full life. “ ‘ow long?” Oh about er, 704 pages.
There was a long pause here, followed by short pause and then by an even shorter one.
“You want to buy another coffee?” No mercy. “‘ere, ‘ave some anyway.. this Monsuire Beckett and his writing, why is he so full of darkness and despair?”
Well I think that he wanted to find his own way or path in the world of literature. Richard Ellmann tells that Beckett was drawn towards Oscar Wilde, who also ‘ended up’ in Paris.
“Oh I did not know ‘e was…” We are talking about his writing. But Beckett was drawn more to the downfall of Wilde- the Wilde of De Profundis or the Ballad of Reading Gaol, the dark side. Also he was drawn to Yeats, but the older Yeats as Ellmann states in his book of essays “Four Dubliners”.
My eyes wandered past the proprietor’s aproned frame and refocused on the bay without. The two swans were now among the stones on the bank and a muffled up old lady was tossing bread to them across the melting snow. Nicely put that.
I thought of Joyce and Beckett walking silently together on the banks of the Seine, all those years ago, exiles in Paris.
I sighed and continued. And of course he was in the shadow of the master James Joyce, whom he met in Paris, befriended and for whom he acted as a kind of secretary.
He also translated part of Finnigan’s Wake along with his close friend Alfred Peron who was killed by the Gestapo. He had to find his own way and this he did when he accepted a revelation of sorts, that he experienced at his mother’s deathbed.
The vision is alluded to in his play Krapp’s Last Tape, but here it is set on Dun Laoghaire pier in a gothic romantic storm and fragmented as old Krapp stops and rewinds his tape listening to a recording of his memories, a “retrospect” of 30 years back…
“You want to buy another coffee?” No mercy. “Then go on.” I’ll go on.
This so called revelation dealt with, from what I can tell, the direction his writing would take. Beckett would deal with the individual when he has been stripped of all - sans health, sans wealth, sans youth, sans God, sans everything.
That is when we see what the real man is made of and the reality of life. His characters are often blind, deaf, immobile living in dustbins or buried up to the neck in sand at or near death.
Even the mind is disintegrating sometimes. His subjects are stripped of pretences, pomposity, all comforts gone and in ruins just like the devastated old Europe after the war.
Joyce created order in the world by rearranging the words to seek the truth. Yeats sought beyond this life to find the truth. For Sam, doubt is the human condition, not certainty and words are inadequate. So “cut ‘em out!” as Krapp says. The difference between Beckett and Joyce became night and day.
A picture is worth a thousand words, I’ve heard it said, so for Beckett the poetic theatre was the place to be, or not to be? He was ready for it, but was it ready for him?
“Ce la Vie” said my companion with the blue apron. Wee, said I, life is about struggle, as the bishop said to the actress. The closer one comes to death the nearer we are to appreciating life.. He struggled with his plays and his writing and when they were ready, he had to struggle with the censors. His plays Waiting for Godot, Endgame and Krapp’s Last Tape all had their battles.
The censor in England was the court appointed Lord Chamberlain. Beckett often referred to him as the “Lord Chamberpot.” One of the arguments was over the line “he doesn’t exist. The bastard” – in reference to God and a character’s unanswered cry for help.
The Lord ‘Chamberpot’ objected to bastard. Beckett finally relented saying “‘Swine’ and that’s my final word.” Beckett pondered when the Lord Chamberpot accepted ‘swine’, as to whether the almighty, if he exists, would prefer to be called a swine or a bastard. Personally Beckett would prefer the latter and suspected so too would the diety.
His favourite actors were very often comics. He made his only film O with Buster Keaton. He was friend and almost a fan of Irish actor Jack Mc Gowran, who performed in many Beckett plays and an award winning one-man-show based on Beckett’s works.
Krapp’s Last Tape (the Magee monologue) was written for Patrick Magee an Irish actor whose voice he loved. In Endgame, in Godot and in many other works duologues often remind me of Laurel and Hardy routines. Even Krapp trips over a banana skin at the opening of the play and has clownish features.
All his life Samul Beckett struggled against injustice. When the French goose-stepped around Algiers and arrested many who protested in France, Beckett supported his friends as much as he could.
Then there was a McCarthy like blacklisting of artists who had signed the Manifeste des 121. They were marked men. Even his actor friends Roger Blin and Jean Martin lost their jobs at the theatre. Martin had it so bad he had to come to Helsinki for work. “ This is amazing!”
“I must arise and go now” I said and thanked Andre for the coffee and the chat. “But I ‘ardly said a word.” he replied. “non?!” said I, “but you listened.”
Andre looked at me and said, “You really should write that article...” Yes I would like to, but then again I probably won’t…Ah well... I’ll go on.
P.S. I was sitting in my local bar in my hometown in Ireland over Easter. The Irish TV was showing all the Beckett stuff they could find for the prodigal son’s birthday celebration.
That night they were showing Jack Mc Gowran’s one-man Beckett-show in Black and white from the late 60s. A portly gentleman came in the door and drew up to the bar where a few of the lads were sipping pints of Guinness. He looked up at the flat screen over the bar and said loudly in a friendly manner:
“Man - Ah yes (Pause) I love a bit of Beckett with me pint. (pause) What is it?
Man - Ah yes indeed. Krapp’s Last Tape I do believe.
Lad 1 - That’s what I believe it is.. Krapp!
Lad 2 - Glad to hear it was his last, I couldn’t bear another one, even in colour. Man - It’s on above in the Gate Theatre, you know.
Lad 1- What? Man - Krapp.
Lad 2- Is it in black and white?
Lad 1 – Sure there’s nothing but Krapp up in the Gate Theatre these days.
Man - Any sign of the Barman with me pint?
Lad 1 – You mean, Godot..” And why did Beckett leave Ireland…?