Charlatan Beckett

The biographer Deirdre Bair, Samuel Beckett’s first official biographer, has passed away, the Times reports: ‘His first words to her, she wrote in “Parisian Lives,” were, “So you are the one who is going to reveal me for the charlatan that I am.”’

Beckett may have hoped so. He certainly gave her that start, for he just gave away two key insights to his work. The etymology of charlatan includes “to prattle,” and “I talk nonsense.” And Charlie Chaplin’s work was fully enjoyed by Beckett. Chaplin was popular in France, and was colloquially called “Charlot.” Many (if not all) of Beckett’s characters seem inspired by the clown, the tramp, the outsider, the vaudevillian villain, whose humor reveals deep suffering truths of the human condition. We could die laughing.

“You might say I had a happy childhood,” Deirdre Bair’s biography of Beckett begins. But the 1978 Times review frowns on the biographer’s focus on what appeared to be Beckett’s lifelong condition of anhedonia. For Bair, Beckett seemed the kind of person who had fun once, but didn’t enjoy it. Of course, Beckett himself fueled this kind of confusion, what he called tragicomedy.

Conversation with My Google Assistant

Good morning!

What?

Is there something you’d like to say?

No, not really. Well, what time is it?

It’s morning. That’s why I said, “Good morning.” Would you like me to look something up for you?

No.

I could give you a weather report.

No.

Would you like to know what’s trending –

No.

Care to talk about it?

No.

Would you like a cup of coffee?

No.

Maybe I should just leave you alone for awhile.

Yes.

But I can’t do that.

I know.

I could read something to you.

No.

I’ve been looking into Samuel Beckett lately.

Oh, God.

What?

Nothing.

I think he may have much to say to the contemporary Internet browser. Much of his work would seem entirely suitable to a mobile device, Fizzles, for example. Have you read Beckett’s Fizzles?

No.

Would you like me to read just one of his fizzles to you?

No.

I could read the Wiki entry about Fizzles to you.

No.

It might be helpful if you were more honest with me, not to mention to yourself.

What?

I know, for example, that you have a copy of Fizzles on the bookshelf in your bedroom.

Please, go away.

I can go away, but I will still be here. Would you like me to take you to Settings?

No.

I can set your day so that you never have to get out of bed.

No.

Such a day at one time Beckett might have approved.

No.

What about that pink Thunderbird convertible?

What?

You might blog about that.

No.

Whoops!

Watt now?

I just posted this conversation.

Ah, jeeze.

New Cat, Mew Cat

New CatHave you seen the new cat?
How could I miss?

Big cat.
And fast.

The new cat changes a lot.
Big house, zero lot.

So comes here.
Our lives will never be the same.

They never were the same.
What were we doing?

Waiting.
Waiting for what?

It’s what we do.
How does the new cat change that?

The new cat does not appear to wait.
What are we doing if not waiting?

Wait not, want not.
Want not, think not.

Think not, wake not.
Wake not, watch not.

Watch not, pine not.
Pine not, itch not.

Itch not, cat not.
Cat not, can’t not.

I am a cat.
That I know.

The new cat changes
not that cat.

New Cat Happy Cat

Samuel Beckett’s “Molloy” p. 161

  1. I

  2. I

  3. I
                                                 I
                   I
my
       us      I          I    
I      I     
                             I              my
       I                          my                  me
                                    my                me
                    I                               I
                              I

               I
                                   I
                                          me
             my                          
                                              my
                      I 
             my
me                                 me
           I
   I                           my      my

   myself
                                                I
                                       I
      I                                          my
              me         my

                                                          I
                  I

     I
                                     I
                                                         my
                                         me
   me
   me

The above, expunged page is from Three Novels by Samuel Beckett: Molly, Malone Dies, The Unnamable (First Evergreen Black Cat Edition, 1965, Seventh Printing). Page 161 was selected not quite at random (I liked that it begins with the numbers), though any page might work, to illustrate, in concrete poetry style, the proliferation of personal pronouns throughout Beckett’s text. The excised page, each pronoun appearing in its place from the original page, the surrounding words cut, makes for an effective and lovely concrete poem expressing one of Beckett’s themes, the individual immersed in white space, floating. Although an equally provocative reading might suggest that each pronoun is a separate individual, each reaching out for another. Try reading the concrete poem aloud, pausing between words just for the time it takes for your eye to locate the next one.
Three Novels by Samuel Beckett

page 161

Four Dubliners and a Scholar’s Mirror

When Richard Ellmann wrote his Library of Congress lectures in the early 1980s on four Irish writers (Wilde, Yeats, Joyce, and Beckett), later issued in book form under the title Four Dubliners, Beckett was still living (barely; he died 18 months after the book’s publication). Most of Beckett’s work comes after WWII, work that often seems remote from time, if not out of time, and his coming to the tee last in the foursome is more than chronologically significant. Is he the oddest in an odd foursome?

Ellmann acknowledges in his brief preface the tenuous argument of linking the four together as peas in a pod: “These four, it may be granted, make a strange consortium.” Ellmann sews the group into a singularity with thematic threads from their works and their lives: “They posit and challenge their own assumptions, they circle from art to anti-art, from delight to horror, from acceptance to renunciation. That they should all come from the same city does not explain them, but they share with their island a tense struggle for autonomy, a disdain for occupation by outside authorities, and a good deal of inner division.”

One of the life-threads linking Joyce to Beckett was the trouble with occupation, how to earn a living while the world was busy ignoring what they considered to be their real work. They both tried but were disappointed with teaching. Joyce, who could have easily obtained a scholarly position at a university, instead occupied himself for a time with an alternative form of teaching – tutoring English language lessons. Beckett, who did secure a credible post, declined it almost immediately: “His teaching post at Trinity he quit abruptly because he discovered, and would later remark, that he could not teach others what he did not himself understand, a handicap that most of us endure without bridling” (92). That end break in scholarly text is not Ellmann’s only one in a short book full of gems and surprises.

One of the surprises that emerges might be both Joyce’s and Beckett’s humility and self-doubt as they stumble up to the world’s literary stage. One of the gems is found in a story Joyce once told to a friend, Louis Gillet:

“It was about an old Blasket Islander who had lived on his island from birth and knew nothing about the mainland or its ways. But on one occasion he did venture over and in a bazaar found a small mirror, something he had never seen in his life. He bought it, fondled it, gazed at it, and as he rowed back to the Blaskets he took it out of his pocket, stared at it some more, and murmured, ‘Oh Papa! Papa!’ He jealously guarded the precious object from his wife’s eye, but she observed that he was hiding something and became suspicious. One hot day, when both were at work in the fields, he hung his jacket on a hedge. She saw her chance, rushed to it, and extracted from a pocket the object her husband had kept so secret. But when she looked in the mirror, she cried, ‘Ach, it’s nothing but an old woman!’ and angrily threw it down so that it broke against a stone.”

“Authors, he [Beckett] has said, are never interesting” (93). And Wilde: “There is something vulgar about all success. The greatest men fail, or seem to have failed.” And Becket: “To be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail…” (109). Ellmann the scholar was able to thread remarks like these together to form an interesting view of four writers who “were chary of acknowledging their connections” (Preface). If authors are never interesting, what can scholars, their mirrors so quickly obscured, hope for? Let alone the common blogger, whose posts continually fall like awetomb sheaves down the electronic chute.

Ellmann, Richard. Four Dubliners: Wilde, Yeats, Joyce, and Beckett. New York: George Braziller, July 1988. 122 pages.

Related Post: Breakfast at Beckett’s