February 1, 2010

Reading Samuel Beckett



Samuel Beckett's trilogy––Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable––has been sitting on my shelf, unread, for a few years. The novels seemed daunting to me; I felt I had no way into the work, even though in the past I'd read the "difficult" modernist novels of Thomas Bernhard. But then, two weeks ago, I rented the filmed version of Waiting for Godot, a play I'd never seen; my innocence in regards to Beckett's work was a large hole in my cultural understanding. Godot was amazing: frustrating, involving, off-putting, nonsensical, brilliant, hilarious, serious and profound, and in the end, deeply human, with our uncertainties and silliness and meanness and need and love. With all its confusions and wordplay, it nevertheless left me feeling elevated.

So I was primed to begin reading Molloy, the first of the three novels. I'd already found a beautiful sentence––"To restore silence is the role of objects."––in the book when I randomly opened it, as I wrote in my post on my commonplace book. As I began reading I found more and more stunning writing, that made me stop, go back, reread, and read again. The book is now bristling with colorful little page markers, the color dependent on where I was reading the book at the time: pink for bed, blue for livingroom, yellow for kitchen table. Another beautiful sentence, intensely visual, making the landscape alive to feelings:
The road, hard and white, seared the tender pastures, rose and fell at the whim of hills and hollows.
As I read this book, I felt swept along by a flood of unrelenting words, while having to pay close attention to each sentence, or risk being tangled up in a messy thicket of verbiage. Attention is necessary in the reader, just as Beckett pays close attention:
My eyes caught a donkey's eyes, they fell to his little feet, their brave fastidious tread.
At last I began to think, that is to say to listen harder.

It seemed to me that all language was an excess of language.

Not one person in a hundred knows how to be silent and listen, no, nor even to conceive what such a thing means. Yet only then can you detect, beyond the fatuous clamour, the silence of which the universe is made.

The sky sinks in the morning, this fact has been insufficiently observed. It stoops, as if to get a better look. Unless it is the earth that lifts itself up, to be approved, before it sets out.



Within all this gorgeous language is the dilemma of personhood: what does it mean? can we preserve our selves intact, our bodies working? The character Moran found himself "dispossessed of self". And Molloy mused, in phrases achingly beautiful:
And that night there was no question of moon, nor any other light, but it was a night of listening, a night given to the faint soughing and sighing stirring at night in the little pleasure gardens, the shy sabbath of leaves and petals and the air that eddies there as it does not during the day, when there is more vigilance, and then something else that is not clear, being neither the air nor what it moves, perhaps the far unchanging noise the earth makes and which other noises cover, but not for long. For they do not account for that noise you hear when you really listen, when all seems hushed. And there was another noise, that of my life become the life of this garden as it rode the earth of deeps and wildernesses. Yes, there were times when I forgot not only who I was, but that I was, forgot to be.
And the story itself must be questioned, nothing is fixed, all is fluid. At the last, Moran writes his report:
Then I went back into the house and wrote, It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining.

16 comments:

  1. your top image, so somber and timely, is perfect with the quotes.
    listening.
    (and tomorrow shall we listen to the stupid ground hog?)

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  2. rappel, last night as I was thinking about this post, I realized that the second image was much too cheerful for the writing, though I was trying to show the tangle of our feelings, the difficulty of teasing out personality. I should re-shoot with dark colors, though the post is now public; this is the drawback of the immediacy of blogging.

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  3. I have changed the second image to one I feel is more appropriate to the mood of Beckett's writing.

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  4. I have never read Beckett, and reading these excerpts I realize how wrong my impressions of his work have been. Both as a gardener and someone who enjoys quietude, I find these sentences, images and ideas profoundly moving.

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  5. The images comment also refers to you photos — esp. the first one!

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  6. Linda, the beauty and simplicity of Beckett's prose was surprising to me, which doesn't mean that the work was at all easy to read, and wasn't distasteful and unpleasant in part. But, such is life, I suppose.

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  7. I saw Waiting for Godot and Endgame (Fin de Partie? is that right?) as a teenager and have never forgotten them. But I've never read Beckett, either. Now I will. Thank you. He said something about work that I love: "Try, fail. Try again; fail better." That is encouraging, somehow, and wry.

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  8. Susan, I love that quote; it's something to pin up on the studio wall.

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  9. You have pulled such wonderful quotes from Becket! He is rich, but taking him in at the right time is important. I wasn't drawn to Becket post but your beautiful turkey tracks led me here and I am so pleased to have passed your way again. More blessings to you!

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  10. Altoon -- that quote is one I pass on to my students. Now I may add what Philip Pearlstein told you about not being a humble artist.

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  11. That was beautiful. The way Beckett surprised you was very similar to how he surprised me. I would like to note one difference. I think Beckett is unfairly diminished under a "somber" label. His work certainly rings a wild symphony of emotions, and somber undertones can be heard. But I think people get hypnotized by those deeper rings and miss the overwhelmingly high-spirited humor of the thing. At least as far as the trilogy goes, I've never a downright funnier author than Beckett. I laughed so hard reading Molloy, and especially The Unnameable, that I had a hard time breathing. And the laughter was healing in some weird way. It was bawdy, delicate, precise, beautiful, self-deprecating and especially self-revealing. It exposed the nature of the trap thought sets for itself. The way thought creates a schizophrenic divide between the thinker and the thought, observer and observed, writer and written-about, which is the falseness at the heart of the self, is captured hilariously in the sentences that gymnastically trip over themselves in mental slapstick, like a literary Charlie Chaplan. I forgave myself for being so stupid when I read Beckett. It was love, it was empathy and it was insight.

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    1. Thank you so much, Jeffrey, and thank you for your beautifully written comment. I agree about the humor; I did write that Waiting for Godot was hilarious, but didn't mention it in relation to Molloy. It's been a very long time since I read Molloy, and Malone Dies; I never got to The Unnameable. I should read it this winter, so thanks for the reminder.

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    2. Thanks for thanking! Yes, I thought The Unnameable was amazing. Obviously, as you suggested, you have to be in the right psychological frame to be open to it. That frame is more Buddhist than most might expect. Or at least, it's more like meditation in a way. Because we witness the churning, writhing of fight/flight, as it seeks escape from itself, thus creating the very division in consciousness it seeks to close. There's a hint of satori in this. And for that reason Beckett also strangely reminds me of Jiddu Krishnamurti. Both of them offered no easy outlet in hope or happy endings: They simply exposed the nature of the brain's wrigglings without distraction in goals or theories or metaphysics or beliefs. Just learning.

      But also I wanted to say how beautiful your garden pictures are! My wife and I are avid gardeners and I build stone walls and fancy gates and fences. I'll share some pictures of my latest project when I am completely finished. Meanwhile, I'm enjoying your blog and photos. Thanks again.

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  12. And your paintings are beautiful. How stupid not to mention that! Beautiful.

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  13. And textiles. I was all caught up in the gardening and the Beckett stuff and forgot to mention all your artwork. It is all so very beautiful!!

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    1. Thanks for all the compliments, Jeffrey. And the further explication of The Unnameable.

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