Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Not Reading Beckett

I first read Samuel Beckett during my A-levels when, alongside "Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are Dead" and "Hamlet", we studied "Waiting for Godot." I enjoyed it then, though couldn't quite agree with the university friend who, a couple of years later, felt that it was a masterpiece of comedy. (Everything was a masterpiece with him, or not worth bothering with - a portent of meeting Beckett fans ever since...) Most of the texts I studied at school have remained with me as my literary touchstones - "Othello", "Wuthering Heights", the Metaphysical Poets, "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" - but not Godot. Though not adverse to reading great plays, the writer who writes mainly for stage doesn't, outside of Shakespeare, offer me what I want from literature, even if their use of dramatic narrative, and particularly spoken conversation can be highly persuasive.

I don't recall anyone going on then - this was 25 years ago - of Beckett's genius. I was actually surprised to find he'd written novels and poetry, as well as the plays - as these, if not out of print back then, were certainly never mentioned as literary highlights. Yet in the years since, and particularly since the millennium I can't help but notice that Beckett is the go-to guy for a certain literary intellectual. Is it the Joyce connection? The austere seriousness of the work? (With that comic genius thrown in - as if to say, yes, he's bleak, but he's funny bleak). Or is it something else? A certain literary snobbishness about the last high modernist?

I'll  be honest, Beckett interests me, but I'm in no great hurry to read his collected works. He's very quotable of course, and I guess there's a particularly Beckettian landscape that appeals to a certain type of (almost always male) reader. But like "Monty Python", Radiohead's "OK Computer" or the poetry of J.H. Prynne, just been hammered constantly with the certainty of his genius, is not going to get me rushing to Beckett. The little I've read about him, he seems quite a wry, humorous, private character - yet Beckett's fan club is very offputting to the non-acolyte. He seems to appeal to academics, first and foremost, and particularly those academics in other disciplines. He's the imaginative writer that psychologists can admit to liking. Back to Godot, though, and as revolutionary a work as it no doubt was, I feel now that it is - like the stories of Raymond Carver or Pound's Cantos - of it's time, rather than for all time.

Beckett, of course, was still alive when I was studying him, and it seems a particularly late 20th century condition that writers - rather than seeing a dip in reputation after their death, as used to happen - see a revival, as the literary afterlife (letters, biographies, unfinished works, new editions) gears up for frenetic activity.

I hope to get to Beckett at some point - but I stress he isn't a priority - I get the sense that perhaps his world view and his literary style are of little personal or literary interest to me. (The same feeling I had on finally reading Sebald last year). I feel there's an expectation that I should have read him, and, just as importantly, to rate him highly. Yet not all literary models are universal, particularly ones who are so uniquely "themselves" as Beckett clearly was. Recalling Godot, it seems pretty straightforward to me, for all its orginality, as a drama of the post-war European diaspora - distinctly of its place and time. Beckett's genius was to find a suitable form with which to write about this bleak prospect.


Rhys Tranter said...

If you're ever tempted in future, First Love and Other Shorts is well worth a look. The situations lean toward the everyday and the absurd, and there are some great turns of phrase that might crack a smile.

As for Beckett's place in your priorities, I think that your decision to wait has a nice irony about it. Perhaps never getting around to reading his work would be the most Beckettian gesture of all.

Thanks for your post,

All the best,


Adrian said...

I'd honestly not thought of that! But, of course, not reading Beckett makes me his perfect reader! Made me laugh.

And thanks for the recommendation.

Jim Murdoch said...

I first saw Waiting for Godot thirty-two years ago, c/o The Open University. I got up at something like 5am to see. I was nineteen at the time and it blew me away. So much so that the next day I insisted on my wife and flatmate getting up to watch the thing. They were not so impressed. I immediately went out and bought his Collected Shorter Plays, read them and didn’t get them. Over the years I dipped my toe back in. Now I own everything he’s written and I have DVDs of all his plays and CDs of all his radio plays. All the articles in Wikipedia on his plays were posted by me bar Endgame. It took me six weeks to research and complete the one on Waiting for Godot. So, I’ve become a fan but not a fanatic.

The big problem with Beckett, for me at least, is that he works so much better once I know what he’s on about. Then I can sit back and enjoy the play. Which is a big back to front but that just been my experience. I’ll always have a special place in my heart for Waiting for Godot because it was my first contact with him but I think in all honesty I prefer Krapp’s Last Tape. So you may be right about him appealing more to academics. Which I think would make him a little sad. We become obsessed over the subtext and miss what’s in our face.

Personally I’m less fond of his early work where he’s clearly in thrall to Joyce. He’s far better when he found his own voice. Later, when he started to lose that voice (or give it up), again I struggle but I enjoy the struggle. There are writers who should be read and there are writers who should be studied and I’m finding my list of the latter is growing albeit slowly.

Your assessment of him is spot on. That’s what he was. And not the least bit pretentious. He was clever, very clever and gifted with an excellent memory right up until later life, and that makes him a bit intimidating on paper but he was apparently a really nice bloke in the flesh.

If I can disagree with Rhys personally I would try and see more of his plays first. There are plenty available online in various states. I said he was shy but there are a couple of rare clips of him talking on my blog if you’re interested, here and here.

Adrian Slatcher said...

Really interesting comments, Jim - and great to have some recommendations - part of the reason why I wrote the post, I guess.