Talk to me about Samuel Beckett

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I just started reading a collection of the three novels Molloy, Mallone Dies, and The Unnameable. But I realized that I know little to nothing about Beckett or what he's trying to do in his writing. So talk to me about Samuel Beckett.

St. Nicholas Ridiculous (Nick A.), Tuesday, 22 June 2004 15:08 (sixteen years ago) link

I may become a pariah for saying this, but I think Beckett belongs to that class of writers - along with Gertrude Stein - who will give you, as a reader, extraordinarily little pleasure or understanding, and yet whom you will, out of intellectual deference, have to pretend to like (or at least to be interested by). This isn't to presume anything about you, St. Nicholas - you may well come to understand and adore Beckett in ways that I've never approached. But I've always suspected that there's more than a little Emperor's New Clothes going on with peoples' feelings about him.

David Elinsky (David Elinsky), Tuesday, 22 June 2004 16:17 (sixteen years ago) link

is there an acronym for 'off the money'?

cozen (Cozen), Tuesday, 22 June 2004 16:20 (sixteen years ago) link

1. Beckett helped out Mr. James Joyce as his amenuensis. Apparently Joyce's daughter had a crush on him.
2. Those novels you're reading were originally written in French, and translated back into English by the author.
3. Try to figure out who A, B, and C are, and if Molloy's Malone and/or the Unnameable.
4. Sometimes you might get the impression that what he's trying to do in his writing is undermine the idea that people can be reasonable, the implication of which, is to be funny, instead--Enjoy!

otto, Tuesday, 22 June 2004 18:37 (sixteen years ago) link

Elinsky, I used to feel that way till my baby sister forced me to start on his short stories... let me say, they seem to fit but one mood, so if you never catch him on the right day, well, you're going to keep on scratching your head.

Ann Sterzinger (Ann Sterzinger), Tuesday, 22 June 2004 20:42 (sixteen years ago) link

a writer i really need to go back and read more.

tom west (thomp), Tuesday, 22 June 2004 21:49 (sixteen years ago) link

'The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.'

What that doesn't convey is just how funny a musical notation of chirping frogs in 'Watt' is, or how lyrical some of the short stories are, or how refreshingly strange the plays are...

If, like me, you prefer to take your literature in through the ears than through the eyes, this is the link for you:

Momus (Momus), Tuesday, 22 June 2004 23:39 (sixteen years ago) link

I'm not sure what David means by "understanding". I certainly have gotten a lot of pleasure from him -- Molloy contains a section which is my "canonical favorite page or so of writing of all time" and his short fiction is fantastic. I didn't care as much for Malone Dies and couldn't get into The Unnameable at all, though.

Casuistry (Chris P), Wednesday, 23 June 2004 05:05 (sixteen years ago) link

I love Beckett. I think you should just read the books, without thinking to much about interpretation. Beckett will give you lots of hints along the way. Just read the books and enjoy.
I´ve read all three books, but I think a prefere The Unnameable. I found it to be the funniest and the most easy to understand.

I think the reason why Beckett seems so difficult is, that he tries to put everything in every book. He wants every book to contain every aspect of life. Therefore he often needs to use untraditional methods.

Jens Drejer (Jens Drejer), Wednesday, 23 June 2004 10:28 (sixteen years ago) link

Estrogen may raise risk of dementia
...the researchers found estrogen users faced a 38 percent increased risk of developing dementia or forgetfulness, and those results were statistically significant.

In Waiting for Godot, Estrogen has no memory beyond what is immediately said to him, and relies on Vladimir to remember for him.


Fred (Fred), Wednesday, 23 June 2004 12:07 (sixteen years ago) link

Well, it's "Estragon".

Casuistry (Chris P), Wednesday, 23 June 2004 14:49 (sixteen years ago) link

i thought the main characters were Estrogen and Testosterone?

jed_ (jed), Wednesday, 23 June 2004 16:54 (sixteen years ago) link

To me, these books are difficult but extremely rewarding, and extremely funny. And I agree that your best frame of mind for approaching them is not to try to understand them but to enjoy them. There's deeply black humor in there, which doesn't work on everyone. And I don't mean to reduce the books to one level; there's more there than laughs, but I think it's impossible to get anything out of these books without first finding them funny.

Paul Feldman (Paul Feldman), Wednesday, 23 June 2004 17:20 (sixteen years ago) link

Estragon Schmestrogon.
Damn it.

Fred (Fred), Wednesday, 23 June 2004 17:50 (sixteen years ago) link

'Remembering Samuel Beckett'


Words and Music

Beckett held the idea of the "professional" poet in abhorrence. To him it was virtually a contradiction in terms. Craft, structure, rhythm, linguistic energy were assumed prerequisites, but poetry was a calling, not a profession, not something you could decide to do at a certain moment. He meant what Keats meant, whose work he knew so well, when he wrote that "if poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all." He certainly did not mean that poets should not earn money-he himself had taught for a while (was miserable during that time), had translated prolifically, written essays and reviews-but that the poem itself should not be academic or intentional, that the library shelves must not crush the furze. Beckett was a poet down to his teguments, ligaments, cells; standing or sitting, poetry's presence in his presence was as pervasive as oxygen.

His way of reciting poetry was at the polar opposite of the French school of declamation. In reciting, Sam would sing, or croon, reading Apollinaire's refrain "voie lactee," from La chanson du mal aime, in the same line intervals as a blackbird's song. When I continued to read aloud other lines from the same poem, he corrected the way I read by singing-crooning them.1 This goes against his very own insistence on keeping color out of his actors' voices, asking them to keep it flat-"too much color, Billie [to the actress Billie Whitelaw], too much color," meaning to leave off acting, and instead to transmit the structure of the sentence, the pace and musicality of the words themselves, the power of what was being said or left unsaid, made to function like pauses in music. Even the syllables of the names of the characters were counted: in Godot the ratio is 3: 2-Estragon, Pozzo, Vladimir, Lucky-and in Endgame all four characters have names of one syllable adding up to "Hammer" and "Nail:" Hamm (hammer) and Clov (clou, the French for nail); Nagg and Nell, Nagel (nail in German). In that play, too, the monologue appears between two other movements, like an adagio in music.

By far the most memorable instance, in A.'s memory, of hearing Sam's work "straight from the oven," occurred on 20 December 1956. This was one of the greatest spiritual, aesthetic discoveries in A.'s life, which he never tired of describing, and which can never tire because the words always have the same effect that art has on the body, the sudden chill and increased pulse that Keats and Housman and Nabokov tried to describe. In August of that year, while A. was visiting Sam in Ussy, Sam had first shown him an as-yet-untitled version of what was to become Fin de partie [Endgame]. Then, in December, when Sam brought a suitcase full of books to A.'s studio in Villa d'Alesia-- the Cassirer edition of Kant's works in eleven volumes-he sat down on the huge gray couch and said, "I've added a monologue," without specifying "la petite piece," but meaning that part of the almost-finished Fin de partie.

A. asked, "If you know it by heart, can I hear it?" And Sam began to recite what is surely one of the great monologues in twentieth-century drama: "On m'a dit l'amitie, c'est fa, l'amitie . . . " When he continued, "Je me dis . . . going from major to minor, A. burst into tears; in Beckett's English translation it is just as wrenching, just as musical: "They said to me, That's friendship, yes, yes, no question, you've found it. They said to me, Here's the place, stop, raise your head and look at all that beauty. That order! They said to me, Come now, you're not a brute beast, think upon these things and you'll see how all becomes clear. And simple! They said to me, What skilled attention they get, all these dying of their wounds." And then, the sudden, stunning inversion in counterpoint: "I say to myself-sometimes, Clov, you must learn to suffer better than that if you want them to weary of punishing you-one day. I say to myself-- sometimes, Clov, you must be there better than that if you want them to let you go-one day. . ." He referred again to the play later, one evening, saying he'd call the play Fin de partie-Endgame-which prompted A. to ask if it was a continuation of Mr. Endon's unfinished chess game in Murphy, and Sam said he hadn't thought of that but yes, it was.

Sam's way of reading aloud, reciting, set the bar very high for his actors. They all ended up imbued with the music of his texts. Nor is it any wonder that so many composers were attracted to his work: Mihalovici, Dutilleux, Berio, Heinz Holliger, Philip Glass, Morton Feldman, John Beckett...2

Alberto Giacometti came ringing the bell at 10 Villa d'Alesia one day in 1957 (A. had no phone), to tell him that Stravinsky, whom Alberto was drawing, would like to meet Sam. Having promised not to give out Sam's phone number, A. transmitted the message and Sam and Suzanne met Stravinsky the same evening. Sam told us later, in 1962, about Stravinsky's remark to him that as a composer he'd been struck by how Beckett wrote silences in Godot.

He unsurprisingly knew many musicians, like the pianists Monique Haas, Andor Foldes, and, some years later, Eugene Istomin, to whom we introduced him. And the violinist Alexander (or Sasha) Schneider, of the Schneider String Quartet, was a friend through Suzanne, whom Schneider had met in Paris in the 193os and on whom, people said (it may have been Sasha himself), he had once had a crush (he told us she'd been "a beautiful blonde"). He had known her as a pianist. Though she didn't give recitals, she and Sam played together often, until he got Dupuytren's contracture.3

Billie Whitelaw, Beckett's favorite "instrument"-for that's how he wrote for her, and that's how she responded-tells an anecdote in her book Who He that bears retelling, as any playwright concerned with pacing would agree. She recalls getting a request from Beckett to "make those three dots two dots." Billie knew exactly what he meant. Sam also insisted on the whiteness of the tone. But the neutrality, the flatness and whiteness of the voice set against the words, did what flint does rubbed against steel: they set off a blaze.

He recited other lines as though they were tone-poems, Debussy with a brogue, so to speak; or rather, like a Lied, which in fact, in later life, was the musical form to which he always returned: Schumann, Brahms, and Schubert, especially Schubert Lieder.


cozen (Cozen), Wednesday, 23 June 2004 17:54 (sixteen years ago) link

He never wrote a poem until he was living in Paris and saw an advertisement for a poetry contest. Wrote a poem for it ("Whoreoscope", forgive any spelling error). You guessed it -- he won.

His plays are remarkable -- "Endgame" is my favorite, though I saw "Godot" at SF-ACT and it's remarkable, too.

Mrs. Brian Johnson, Monday, 28 June 2004 21:42 (sixteen years ago) link

four months pass...
For Those About to Rock (well, those whose 'work' allows them such pleasures): Channel 4 are showing 'Beckett on Film' in the mornings. Presumably these are the old BBC recordings of the short plays, but I don't know. I tried to tape it yesterday, but left the video switched on instead of off. This morning we are promised 'Act Without Words 1' and 'Come and Go' at 11.35. Tomorrow they split them up, like 'Coronation Street' when it's Champions League week!

PJ Miller (PJ Miller), Thursday, 25 November 2004 09:04 (sixteen years ago) link

Those plays are great. They weren't made for the BBC, but I think for Film Four, by an Irish production company, Tyrone Productions. They are directed by many fine heavyweights of the indie film world and star many fine heavyweights of the indie film and theatre world. I saw them in the cinema when they first came out and was very impressed. All should see them.

accentmonkey (accentmonkey), Thursday, 25 November 2004 10:44 (sixteen years ago) link

Oh good. I thought it would be the Billie Whitelaw ones from the 60s, which I keep hoping will ome out on DVD, oh BFI.

Puddin'Head Miller (PJ Miller), Thursday, 25 November 2004 10:48 (sixteen years ago) link

Act Without Words 1 (which contained a word) was directed by Karel Reisz. I think this is a big deal, but I can't remember why. I couldn't really get into Beckett at 11.30 in the morning. I feel a bit mean saying I prefer the BBC ones, it's a minor miracle that this stuff is on television at all, but I do prefer the BBC ones. I can't help it, I remember them as one of the best things ever on television. It was late at nigth and it was miserable.

Puddin'Head Miller (PJ Miller), Thursday, 25 November 2004 12:26 (sixteen years ago) link

yeah Krapps Last Tape first thing in the morning can out a real zing in your step for the rest of the day.

jed_ (jed), Thursday, 25 November 2004 14:54 (sixteen years ago) link

haha! ouch.

cºzen (Cozen), Thursday, 25 November 2004 16:01 (sixteen years ago) link

my friends and I fondly call that one Krapps Last Krap.

That is precious time I'm never getting back. argh.

Joelle Burdette (sparkle j), Thursday, 2 December 2004 01:40 (sixteen years ago) link

It's as if you didn't even get the joke.

Casuistry (Chris P), Thursday, 2 December 2004 03:00 (sixteen years ago) link

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