For the past several years I have been involved with The Correspondence of Samuel Beckett Project, co-edited by Lois Overbeck and Marty Fehsenfeld. The Project's translator of Beckett's French is George Craig, a scholar living in England. Lois told George of Thor's death, and this is what he wrote to me.
We met, a few years back when I was over in Atlanta to work on the Beckett project; we even had dinner together, and, from my point of view, a very pleasant evening. And now I learn from Lois your appalling news. The words of others are hollow at a time like this: a few sounds, a few shapes against the sheer awfulness that is the death of a son. But they are all we have, we outsiders who stand on the other side of the abyss, as we look over towards you. If there is a tiny grain of comfort that they can offer, I suppose it might be that you are not altogether as alone as the loss must make you feel. People of our age usually have had their own direct experience of bereavement. I watched my mother die through a long afternoon, and, years later, my father. But these are not service medals, experiences that give my words any force. All that matters in them is the reminder of human solidarity they bring. I can't stand by [Thor's] grave, and indeed would have no place there; but I can stand where the sense of loss is, and from that place send you the certainty that others can imagine your grief, and the hope that you will both feel it to the full and, with that wholeheartedness behind you, turn again towards a world peopled not just by others, but by fellow-sufferers and sympathisers.
Something too much of this. My best wishes to you.
Commentators on Beckett often work themselves into ecstasies of Hegelian dialectic or fanciful Derridean punning and word play. It's as if they never heard or read the passage in the play for radio, "All That Fall," in which the hugely obese Maddy Rooney is attempting to climb up a steep flight of stairs, and asks for assistance from the gaunt Protestant, Miss Fitt:
Mrs. Rooney: I asked Mr. Barrell to give me his arm, just give me his arm. (Pause). He turned on his heel and strode away.
Miss Fitt: Is it my arm you want then? (Pause. Impatiently.) Is it my arm you want, Mrs. Rooney, or what is it?
Mrs. Rooney (exploding): Your arm! Any arm! A helping hand! For five seconds! Christ, what a planet!
It's as if the commentators never heard the fallen Pozzo, in the second act of Waiting for Godot, call out fifteen times the single word, "Help!"
When Beckett's letters are finally published, we shall see a different man from the one we think of as the coldly analytical chronicler of the human predicament. Here is what Beckett wrote to the director Allen Schneider, on the occasion of the death of Schneider's father:
I know your sorrow and I know for the likes of us there is no ease to be had from words or reason and that in the very assurance of sorrow's fading there is more sorrow. So I offer you only my deeply affectionate and compassionate thoughts and wish for you only that the strange thing may never fail you, whatever it is, that gives us the strength to live on and on with our wounds.
In November 1972 I met with Beckett in the coffee shop of the Hotel PLM. He was just back from Berlin, where he had been supervising the production by German TV of his newest piece, "Nacht und Träume," "Night and Dreams." Toward the end of our conversation he described it to me.
Closeup of a dreamer, who rests his arms on a table, his head on his arms. A hand descends, rests gently on the dreamer's head, withdraws. The hand reappears, bearing a cup of water, gives the water to the dreamer to drink, withdraws. The hand appears a third time, now with a cloth, gently wipes the dreamer's face and brow, disappears. The hand reappears, the dreamer joins hands with the dreamt hand, the hand withdraws and the dream fades.
Beckett leaned back in his chair, seemed to be satisfied with his narration. But then, just to make sure I understood what it was all about, he leaned forward and said, "The helping hand!"
I felt as if he had told me a joke, punched me in the ribs, and said, "Get it?"
I thought to myself, but did not say it out loud, "Yes, Sam. I get it. The helping hand."
January 23, 2008 7:10 PM