Samuel Beckett

Friday, April 14, 2006

Samuel Beckett

I came across this good article on Samuel Beckett earlier today that reminded me that, were he still alive, he would have turned 100 years old this past Thursday. But more importantly, it reminded me of how much I love his work
According to one character in Endgame, "Nothing is funnier than unhappiness." Let us smirk, then, at loss, destitution, deprivation, pain, suffering - always suffering - despair, fear and guilt, hopelessness, then death. That always raises a chuckle. But what of life and those bringers of life, our dear mothers? "They give birth astride a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more," is the cheery verdict delivered in Waiting for Godot.

Welcome to the mirthful world of Samuel Beckett, the much-worshipped, much-misunderstood Irish writer who, had he lived, would be 100 today. In his centenary year, the spectre of Beckett is more visible than ever, with events taking place around the world to celebrate his work - the poems, novels and, above all, the plays, which have achieved the sort of iconic status conferred only on the greatest art. "Beckettian" has become a familiar adjective; EastEnders' scriptwriters have been known to base entire plots on Beckettian schemas; his influence on art and culture, both high and low, is inescapable.

But visibility does not equate with accessibility. The fact is that for a vast number of people Beckett remains as formidably obscure as he was to his first audiences. How, then, does one begin to "get" Beckett? Why, indeed, would you bother, given his reputation for being the "poet of nothingness"? Will he depress you, drive you to drink or worse?

Depending on your constitution, perhaps he will. But there's much more to this great writer than an impossibly bleak view of the universe.
As the article says, a lot of people don't "get" Beckett - and I don't know if I do either. But I do know that I get a lot of our reading his work. In fact, I can honestly say that Beckett completely ruined fiction for me to the extent that I am now unable to read any fiction because, no matter how good it is, it is never as good as Beckett.

There are other writers that I greatly admire - such as Nabokov, Dostoevsky, Joseph Conrad, and Robert Musil - as well as dozens of individual books that I think are brilliant. But for me, nothing compares to Beckett.

And so I just want to share this one excerpt from his book "Watt," which is my personal favorite (though I would not necessarily recommend it because most people are not interested in reading ten page theoretical expositions about how a dog may or may not come to eat leftover food placed outside at the end of the night.)

Prior to that particular exposition, "Watt" comments on why his employer, "Mr. Knott," does not have a dog of his own
Mr. Knott, having once known a man who was bitten by a dog, in the leg, and having once known another man who was scratched by a cat, in the nose, and having once known a fine healthy woman who was butted by a goat, in the loins, and having once known another man who was disembowled by a bull, in the bowels, and having once frequented a canon who was kicked by a horse, in the crotch, is shy of dogs, and other four-footed friends, about the place, and of his inarticulate bipedal brothers and sister in God hardly less so, for he once knew a missionary who was trampled to death by an ostrich, in the stomach, and he once knew a priest who, on leaving with a sigh of relief the chapel where he had served mass, with his own hands, to more than a hundred persons, was shat on, from above, by a dove, in the eye.
I find that not only beautifully written, but absolutely hilarious. And if you like that, you just might like Beckett.

I'll leave you with my favorite Beckett quote, from "Malone Dies"
It is better to adopt the simplest explanation, even if it is not simple, even if it does not explain very much.
And if you have $100+ to spend, you might want to check out Beckett on Film.

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