Beckett Remembering/Remembering Beckett: A Centenary Celebration
by James Knowlson and Elizabeth Knowlson
Now and then again
A review by Justin Beplate
Towards the end of his life, Samuel Beckett, confronting the prospect of a major
creative impasse, wrote to the theatre director George Tabori about the abiding
illusion that had sustained him throughout his long career: "While still
'young' I began to seek consolation in the thought that then if ever, i.e. now,
the true words at last, from the mind in ruins. To this illusion I continue to
cling". With typical economy, Beckett's statement brings home some of the
major themes of his post-war writing, his dream of stripping away the accoutrements
of language, culture and personality -- the "accidentals" of our existence
-- to see what remains. Yet beyond the strikingly Beckettian image of "the
mind in ruins", the statement is also sounding out the farrago of times and
tenses that make up our minds on matters of remembrance -- here, the way in which
the future "then" of a young man anticipating how it will be shifts
to the "now" of an old man remembering how it was. Finding the right
form for expressing the tangled relations between memory, self and language was
something that preoccupied Beckett throughout his writing life. It was brilliantly
staged in Krapp's
Last Tape, where a "wearish old man" listens to recordings of his
voice as a younger man (recordings made with an eye to the future), but it recurs
all the way through his dramatic and prose writings, from the obsessive record-keeping
of Malone in Malone
Dies to the autobiographical memories sketched out in late prose pieces such
It has become something of a critical commonplace to suggest that memory is
another name for invention in Beckett's work, a way of creating self-consoling
stories to accompany us in the dark. In Company,
for example, an unnamed person listens in darkness to a voice recounting the
old scenes - "your" life, he is told; yet interspersed with these
moving memory fragments (recounted in the second person) is the corrosive commentary
of a third, who instils doubt in the listener by suggesting that perhaps the
remembering voice is not speaking of "you" but of another. The "grand
deceiver" of Descartes' Meditations
assumes the diminished role of deviser -- a "Devised deviser devising it
all for company", perhaps. As readers, we find ourselves caught up in much
the same dilemma as the listener in the story -- put bluntly, are these recollections
real or contrived?
What complicates the matter even further (or does so once we know this) is
that the central memories recounted in Company are closely based on events in
Beckett's own life. James Knowlson, pondering this issue in his biography of
to Fame (1996), warns against naive readings of such scenes as referring
directly to the life, and suggests that in the context of Beckett's transformation
of his raw material, "memory emerges here as very much like invention".
And yet, as Knowlson himself is the first to acknowledge, Beckett's much-touted
scepticism regarding the veracity of memory does not sit easily with his desire
to set the record straight on what he saw as the errors and misconceptions of
earlier biographical accounts -- Deirdre Bair's pioneering if "unauthorized"
One striking example of this relates to the "revelation" Beckett
experienced during a brief return to Ireland after the Second World War, an
experience which seems to have signalled a profound shift in his aesthetic concerns
and saw his emergence as a major writer. While Bair's biography (and several
other accounts) presents this experience as a mirror image of Krapp's turbulent
"vision" at the end of the jetty in Krapp's Last Tape, Beckett
for his part was keen to dispel the myth. "Krapp's vision was on the pier
at Dun Laoghaire; mine was in my mother's room", he told Knowlson; "Make
that clear once and for all."
Such tensions point up a fascinating feature of Beckett's biographies: the
way in which they play out, albeit in a different register, the same vexed issues
of remembering and inventing that we find at the heart of his fiction. If we
read the biographies because we want the facts about Beckett's life, and not
inventions, then we accept Knowlson's account of the revelation over Bair's
because we have it, after all, on Beckett's authority. Yet Beckett does not
always have the final say on such matters, a point brought home by the various
contradictions of Beckett's own memory of events where the facts show otherwise.
If, for example, Beckett got it wrong about the length of time he spent in psychoanalysis
in the 1930s (in fact almost two years, although he recalled it being about
six months), could he also have got it wrong on the exact circumstances of his
The difference is that there is simply no way of independently confirming or
rejecting the latter: as sole witness to the event, Beckett has the last word.
But that does nothing to reject the deeper point, the very point around which
so many of his fictional creations endlessly revolve: that if we can never corroborate
those matters of memory proper to ourselves, nor can we entirely dispel the
thought that we may, for reasons more or less obscure, bear false witness to
such memories. The less obscure reasons may, of course, be no more than simple
forgetfulness, and the kind of agency implied by "memory is invention"
seems misplaced in this context.
But when in Krapp's Last Tape we watch old Krapp listening to a recording
of his younger (thirty-nine-year-old) self peevishly recalling how it was with
a former lover -- "Well out of that, Jesus yes! Hopeless business"
-- we suspect that he has always been telling himself stories, stories made
up for him alone, for no other reason than to avoid the suffering of real heartfelt
Beckett Remembering / Remembering Beckett, published to commemorate
the centenary of Beckett's birth in April 1906, is presented in the preface
as a companion volume to Knowlson's biography. As the title suggests, it is
split between reminiscences by Beckett himself, given in a series of interviews
with Knowlson while researching Damned to Fame, and recollections by
some of those who knew him personally or have been influenced by his work. The
aim of the first half is to publish much fuller versions of interviews quoted
only partially in the biography, giving Beckett free rein on topics ranging
from his family and his friendship with James Joyce in the Paris of the 1930s,
to his work with a Resistance cell during the Nazi occupation of France.
If this seems promising, the reality is somewhat disappointing. The problem
is not that such memories are without interest, but that anything of interest
has already been so well covered in Damned to Fame, a work of formidable
scope and exhaustive scholarship. Knowlson's suggestion that presenting the
interviews in their viva voce form "adds new elements to what is already
known" is not convincing; and trawling through the first half, "Beckett
Remembering", the sense is that of recycled material padded out with reminiscences
of Beckett's mother making marmalade, the names of the family dogs (Bumble,
Badger, Wolf and Mac), tennis parties at Cooldrinagh (the family home outside
Dublin), rugby at Portora Royal School, cricket at Trinity College Dublin, golf
The contributions in the second part, "Remembering Beckett", are
of more interest, particularly those that move beyond the "from then on
I saw Beckett often on my visits to Paris" mode and shed some light on
Beckett's working methods and his attitude towards his writing. Although there
seems to have been a widespread conviction that Beckett did not like talking
about his work -- a view that resulted in often comical trepidation among the
academic and artistic pilgrims who made their way to Paris to meet the great
man -- this is not entirely true; as Knowlson and others make clear, Beckett
was generally happy to talk about his work but not to "explicate"
it. And it is striking how often here it falls to the technicians, actors and
translators to ask the direct questions, often with rewarding results.
The Australian writer and actor Lawrence Held recalls having asked Beckett,
during a rehearsal in West Berlin, what Endgame
was about. After a moment's pained look, Beckett recovered and, referring to
a chess tournament under way at the time, responded, "Well, it's like the
last game between Karpov and Korchnoi. After the third move both knew that neither
could win, but they kept on playing". And in one of the more revealing
contributions to the volume, Duncan Scott, a lighting engineer at London's Royal
Court Theatre, recounts how animated Beckett became when asked about his novel
Watt and whether he had ever made himself laugh while writing it during the
war years -- "with that hair-sticking-on-end look, and ultra-penetrating
gaze, (he) confessed that sometimes he had".
Those hostile to some of the more far-fetched theories of Beckett's commentators
sometimes summon the final line from Watt -- "No symbols where none intended"
as both Beckettian motto and caution to critics. This attitude stems in part
from Beckett's own well-known chariness concerning the "herrdoktoring"
of zealous academics (and Raymond Federman recalls Beckett's hesitating approval
of a 1971 revival of En Attendant Godot: "I only wish they would
stop making me say more than I want to say"). And yet the glimmering landscapes
of Beckett's fiction remain charged with symbolic import; far from eliminating
symbolic readings, the Watt formula merely prompts the further question: how
do we know which are the "intended" symbols? Stan Gontarski in Beckett
Remembering recounts how, after sending an annotated copy of Endgame
to the playwright for review and approval, he received a corrected proof in
which Beckett had "mark(ed) the more elaborate explanations in my footnotes
with a huge 'X', which symbol he had established early to mean 'not intended'".
There is of course a wonderfully inverted symmetry about this, but it also underscores
the commonly remarked irony that while all Beckett's post-war work revolved
around ideas of authorial impotence and not-knowing, he had pretty firm ideas
of his own about his underlying intentions.
This is an issue of more than merely academic interest, for the control and
interpretation of Beckett's work have in recent years been the subject of some
highly publicized legal wrangles involving the Beckett Estate, under the trusteeship
of Beckett's nephew, Edward Beckett, and various theatre companies around the
world. Following one such dispute in 2003, the Australian director Neil Armfield,
who fell foul of the Estate over the inclusion of music in his Company B production
of Waiting for
Godot, publicly denounced its "dead controlling hand" and suggested
that its inflexible and prescriptive approach marked it out as "the enemy
of art". In truth, the Estate is a soft target for such broadsides; one
wonders whether Armfield would have levelled the same charge at the playwright,
had he been alive to protect his own work. For it is certain that Beckett himself
would not have sanctioned any tinkering with his script, and in this sense the
estate is merely continuing Beckett's own practice of strict control. Still,
the question of how much creative space is left for directors and actors in
a Beckett play remains a live one. Gontarski's conclusion on this point is that
the unresolved tension between Beckett's proclamation of authorial impotence
and his practice of authorial control "creates an ideological and aesthetic
vacuum, which many a director and actor are all too willing to fill", but
what separates Beckettian performances from others is precisely the condition
that this space not be filled.
Perhaps the most illuminating contributions in Beckett Remembering, though
they are in fact extracts from previously published work, are those of the writer
Patrick Bowles, who worked with Beckett on the translation of Molloy,
and the American academic Lawrence E. Harvey, who met Beckett regularly in the
early 1960s while researching his book Samuel Beckett: Poet and critic. In their
wide ranging conversations, both Bowles and Harvey show the extent to which
Beckett was happy to theorize on the subject of art, including the highly developed
and coherent philosophical underpinnings of his own work. Sometimes, in true
Beckettian fashion, they seem to be talking at cross- purposes: when Bowles
suggests philosophy consists in the historical development of ideas, Beckett
counters that "what counts is the spirit", adding that this was not
something to be viewed historically. In a later meeting, he makes clear his
rejection of the idea that art can render the world from on high, or project
what he sees as the real mess of experience as a formally intelligible whole.
In conversations with Harvey the crucial antinomy becomes that of "being"
and "form", with Beckett insisting that a true expression of being
in this world would entail the elimination of form (form considered as order).
The task thus becomes one of breaking up the formal order of language, which
makes up our thoughts and memories in its own image, to see what remains. As
Beckett put it in a letter to Axel Kaun in 1937, "And more and more my
own language appears to me like a veil that must be torn apart in order to get
at the things (or the Nothingness) behind it.... To bore one hole after another
in it, until what lurks behind it be it something or nothing -- begins to seep
through; I cannot imagine a higher goal for a writer today".
It would be easy enough to dismiss such talk as just so much abstruse philosophizing
-- a language "abstracted to death", to adapt Beckett's own phrase.
Transformed by the unforgettable prose of his post-war writing, however, such
abstractions become another matter altogether. "It's of me now I must speak",
declares the narrator of The Unnamable, "even if I have to do it
with their language.... But who, they? Is it really worth while inquiring? With
my cogged means? No, but that's no reason not to. On their own ground, with
their own arms, I'll scatter them, and their miscreated puppets. Perhaps I'll
find traces of myself by the same occasion.
The Cartesian contours of the terrain are unmistakable, and in many ways reading
The Unnamable is like retracing the progress of Descartes' Meditations,
in which the philosopher supposes "that everything I see is spurious .
. . that my memory tells me lies, and that none of the things that it reports
ever happened. I have no senses. Body, shape, extension, movement and place
are chimeras. So what remains true?". Descartes found his answer, emerging
from the "inextricable darkness" through the natural light of reason.
But if the trend of much Beckett criticism sees him, like any self-respecting
postmodernist, taking leave of Descartes before the last hurdle, surely this
great question "what remains true?" remains at the heart of his creative
enterprise. As radical as his transformation of the post-war cultural landscape
was, he never abandoned the attempt to address those questions central to the
Enlightenment tradition: Who am I? How can I know? What follows?
What Beckett did finally abandon in the post-war years was a peculiarly Joycean
faith in the power of language to express the world. The young Beckett had allowed
himself to be carried away by words, not only in early critical works such as
his essay on Joyce's "Work in Progress" (Finnegans
Wake) or Proust, but also in the overwrought prose of pre-war novels such
as Dream of
Fair to Middling Women or Murphy.
All this was to change in the aftermath of the Second World War. As Beckett
put it to Knowlson in an interview shortly before his death:
I realized that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing
more, in control of one's material. He was always adding to it; you only have
to look at his proofs to see that. I realised that my own way was in impoverishment,
in lack of knowledge and in taking away, subtracting rather than adding.
His decision to start writing in French in 1946 was the most obvious manifestation
of this changed outlook, and it marked the beginning of his most creative period.
French was for Beckett a language "sans style"; that is, as an acquired
language it allowed him to escape what he disparaged as the "Anglo-Irish
exuberance and automatisms" of his earlier writing in English.
Knowlson suggests that Beckett's decision to write in French may have been
one way of escaping the influence of Joyce. If so, it was also perhaps a comment
by the mature Beckett on the failings of Joyce's final "novel", a
work in which language becomes detached from the local landscapes of individual
memory and linguistic tradition and seeks to encompass the "chaosmos of
alle". Beckett Remembering adds nothing to what we already knew about Beckett's
relationship to Joyce, except perhaps Beckett's (previously unpublished) comment
to Duncan Scott that "Joyce was a greedy writer" - throwaway remark,
but consonant with the sense of a mature Beckett revisiting Joyce's achievement
with a somewhat colder eye, finding in its catholic synthesis of human cultures
and its dream of a language above all others the last, towering illusion of
In the end Joyce's importance for Beckett was primarily ethical; as he once
put it to Martin Esslin, it was Joyce's "seriousness and dedication to
his art (that) influenced me". On the evidence of Beckett Remembering
/ Remembering Beckett, this is above all the sort of influence Beckett also
exerted on the many artists who came within his orbit. The actor and director
Alan Mandell's anecdote is representative in this regard: having asked Beckett
why he found it increasingly painful to start up writing again, he was told
"Because it gets harder and harder to write a line that's honest".
"His response", Mandell recalls, "had such an impact on me that
I found myself unable to write to him for almost a year, questioning the honesty
of the words I put on paper." If such confessions raise a smile, they are
also typical of the extraordinary respect Beckett inspired, and continues to
inspire, as an ethical ideal. For anyone with creative aspirations, he remains
the measure of what it means to stake one's life on art.
Justin Beplate teaches English at the Universite Nancy 2.