By Philip Koh
This double review first appeared in Sunday Star, Aug 1998.
Damned To Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett (1906-1989)
By James Knowlson
Samuel Beckett – The Last Modernist
By Anthony Cronin
Samuel Beckett is a master of 20th Century literature. He straddles world literature casting his influence beyond his Anglo-Irish, French, German writings and translations. His work on criticism, fiction and theatre, in the words of S.E. Gontarski, is delightfully, “textually androgynous”. His drama pieces became an iconic witness to his generation. Its poetry in image and words continue to haunt us.
In the mid-70s the University Malaya had an active theatre scene. Waiting for Godot at the Experimental Theatre summed up, for some of us, a decade of spent passion. We muddled through student activism. The Left with its rhetoric on social justice triggered the backlash from the Right calling for order. We struggled to regain a lost centre in our spiritual identities. Price’s (an expatriate at the English department) production of Waiting for Godot depicted Estragon and Vladimir as two vagrant vaudeville clowns. It was a metaphysical allegory of those times.
What can be learnt from a biography? Surely we would be better off attending to the works? Should it matter that behind a particular piece there is an analogue in life? The fear of being subject to the scrutiny of a biography has driven many writers to terror. Tennyson, Henry James, Nabokov were keenly opposed to “being ripped opened like a pig”. Kipling considered it a form of “Higher Cannibalism” (a reference to higher critics). Michael Holroyd’s question as to how far a biographer is prepared to go to get his material illustrates a “constant struggle between the concealed self and the revealed self, the public self and the private.” There is the Auden’s witticism that, “Biography is better than Geography, Geography is about maps, Biography is about chaps.” About this chap, Samuel Beckett much has been unearthed since Deirdre Bair’s pioneering work in 1976. Knowlson’s work is a model of attentiveness and balanced judgement. Whilst Deirdre was neither “hindered nor help”; Knowlson appeared to be far more fortunate in securing Beckett’s more active co-operation. Beckett gave five months of interviews. His friends and relatives also provided invaluable information and enriched the archival trove on Beckett. Knowlson’s encyclopaedic work can scarcely be rivalled in this respect. In fact that becomes almost a fault — we are bogged down with miniscule details and listings of events. The footnotes are exactingly precise. Cronin is better in capturing the intellectual and cultural milieu of Beckett’s Parisian pubs and theatre.
Whilst topography of Beckett’s country is that of the Dublin countryside and the post war Europe in its universal truths, it maps for us our homeless mind. Beckett’s life is a chronicle of a writer wholly dedicated to his calling. The integrity of Beckett in approaching his vocation received confirmation from these recent biographies. Beckett as Resistance fighter. Beckett in a frenzy of writing during the period of 1946-53. And Beckett in his latter years comes through as a man who lived in touch with the depths and yet having an eye of compassion with the less fortunate. For example, when a stranger commented on his coat Beckett promptly gave it away, without even emptying his pockets. He married Suzanne Descheveux (“one to whom he owed everything”), his selfless companion of over quarter of a century when she was sixty-one and he a bachelor in his mid fifties. This is to ensure that in the eventuality of his predeceasing her she will be entitled to full testamentary rights under French law. Undoubtedly, his periodic extra marital affairs with women that came into his life would have caused pain to Suzanne but ultimately Beckett did the right and honourable thing.
One of the chief gains in reading a biography is that it drives us to visit the writer’s works. Encountering Beckett’s earlier fiction and negotiating his later works constitute a shock of discovery. The trilogy of Molloy, Malone Dies and the Unnamable contains some of the finest prose of our times. Its rhythmic cadences, the art that conceals and yet reveals and its moments of epiphany confirms his stature. In Molloy’s monologues and musings is found the Beckettian charter: “For to know nothing is nothing, not to want to know anything likewise, but to be beyond knowing anything, to know you are beyond knowing anything, that is when peace enters in, to the soul of the incurious seeker.” For Jacques Moran, the protagonist in pursuit of Molloy, a statement which sums up Beckett’s later works is: “it seemed to me that all language was an excess of language.” In shedding the excess of language Beckett pares us down into the heart of silence. The minimalism of words and the austere images of a blind master alone in a room, aged parents peering from their dustbins, an old man bent over a tape recorder, the woman sinking deeper into an earth mound and dead faces protruding over funeral urns on stage converges to audience and reader into the “the zero of language” (M.E. Esslin). Beckett has great love for learning and philological and etymological excursions. In Molloy he used the term Kris to describe a dagger. Where he culls this allusion to a Malay weaponry is not known. The biblical lamentations of Job, Jeremiah and the world weary writer of Ecclesiastes, the Dantesque imagination, Rimbaud and Racine find their echoes in his work. In that sense Beckett is “the Last Modernist”. Post-modern literature spins off in its own orbit of rootlessness whilst Beckett’s demands that the reader is at least familiar with the canon.
From the perspective of history of ideas Beckett’s work may be construed as a rebellion against Cartesianism. In an early poetic work jocularly named Whoroscope Beckett deconstructs Descartes. Beckett’s allusions to philosophical and psycho analytical works does not however constitute crude borrowings but display deeply embedded references that can be ferreted out only by the strong reader. The pity that his brief encounter of Spinoza was in vain as he struggled to find a good translation. Beckett could only write when given a copy of French translation with facing Latin text, “which I have had time only for enough to give me a glimpse of Spinoza as a solution and a salvation (impossible in English translation).”
Knowlson points out that in Chapter six of Murphy there is a travestied version of the fifth part of Spinoza: “Amor intellectualis quo Murphy se ipum amat” (the intellectual love which Murphy loves himself) in which Beckett has substituted the name of Murphy for that of God. If Beckett had taken a Spinozistic turn in his intellectual pilgrimage the results could have been interesting. Murphy represents post-Christian Europe with his mind a closed system, “a large hollow sphere, hermetically closed to the universe without.” Beckett’s strategy in his fiction is to bring to awareness the “burden of subjectivity” (Sontag) of our modern consciousness.
In the Beckettian world there is the primordial struggle to orient our estrangement through language. The epistemological crises depicted in Beckett’s anti-heroes are decrepits in a twilight world suffering from the tyranny of impersonal authority and time’s decay.
Beckett however maintains a sense of humour and bizarre comedy. The speaking skull also laughs.
Hugh Kenner puts it, “The Comedy he has made his province brings something new to the resources of literature. It is prior action and more fundamental that language; the process of the brain struggling with ideas… precisely… the process that has landed western civilisation in its present fix.” This fix is no longer that of the West alone but also societies that has come under the pale of modernity. The luminosity of Beckett’s writings however shines through and survives any facile characterisation. In these recent biographies, Beckett as a person comes through in all its paradoxes. The intensely private man permits a public persona in realising his dramatic pieces. The patron of the impotent was a keen athlete and cricketer. The solitary incurious seeker is a gracious, if reticent companion. His generosity finds confirmation in many gestures of kindness and loyalty. Humble yet proud. Beckett was aware of his own strengths and his own personal horrors. He broke off a liaison as he did not desire to inflict his horrors on the person. When awarded the Nobel, he did not reject it as a concession to his publishers and friends who believed in his achievements.
Above all, his voice grants peculiar dignity to the discarded, the crippled, of men or woman driven to their lowest ebb and in Richard Ellman’s words “past pose or pretense, past claim of meaningful existence. (Beckett) seems to say that only there and then… amid God’s paucity, not his plenty, can a core of the human condition be approached… ” Beckett’s productivity (some 29 volumes in Grove Press) is testimony “that within the detritus of western civilisation, in the gloaming of the twentieth century, amid the remains of our culture, art remains worthy of human effort and attention” (S.E. Gontarski).
In The Unnamable justly famed closure, Beckett gave his voice to all of us, “… you must go on, I can’t go on, you must go on, I’ll go on, you must say words, as long as there are any, until they find me, until they say me, strange pain, strange sin, you must go on, perhaps it’s done already, perhaps they carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”
Samuel Beckett’s Endgame is running at KLPac – Pentas 2 from Wed 2 – Sun 6 Aug 2006. Presented by KLPac; directed by Gavin Yap; starring U-En Ng, Alvin Wong, Sharifah Amani and Kelvin Wong.
Philip Koh is a lawyer.
First Published: 02.08.2006 on Kakiseni