#4 – Waiting for Beckett
Books Borrowed from my Ex-Husband #4
Penguin Mini Modern Classic
by Samuel Beckett
[dropcap]S[/dropcap]ince the first time I read Beckett I’ve waited, because while I didn’t understand how Beckett accomplished the power of his distinctive voice, I understood its impact. I first came across him in high school. I remember the details, it being winter, me in a sweater, the classroom smelling like photocopies, pencil shavings, and Mr. Corbin’s frustrated coffee breath. I liked Beckett but I didn’t know why back then.
I get it now. It was so aggressively absurd that it appealed to my contrary nature.
I was excited to read the Beckett Mini. I hadn’t read the work it contained, and I wanted to see if at this point in my writing life, on a first pass , if I could figure out what made Beckett tick. That’s why I read, because I want to be a better writer. And so in explaining how it is for me to read Beckett, I don’t want to dwell in his technique, but rather in the experience of Beckett, because that is where the heart of the work is, for me.
Reading Beckett is like coming up on an effigy of yourself, hanging from a tree politely, at least it appears to be polite, so you go closer, and closer, and maybe it is a nice enough effigy, maybe it is wearing pretty clothes, and you get closer, and closer, and you like that on your effigy sits a jaunty hat, and you are charmed by your effigy, so while you are repelled, because it is obviously a hanged effigy, this is a great effigy, and before you know it you are on top of the thing and then you realize that under the clothes the whole thing is rotten as a real corpse and teems with maggots. You’d like to turn your head, but now it is too late. So you laugh nervously.
In The Expelled, both stories are very much like the experience l just detailed. Particularly “First Love.” Observe the hanged effigy: “I associate, rightly or wrongly, my marriage with the death of my father, in time.” And hey, that’s kind of interesting, even if the use of commas is already unnerving. But interesting.
So step up closer. Listen to this character, a really pathetic sort, describe his fascination with cemeteries with this fainting Victorian hysteria, evidenced by the commas. Oh, the commas. A closer look at the effigy gives the gem: “It was December, I had never felt so cold, the eel soup lay heavy on my stomach, I was afraid I’d die, I turned to vomit, I envied them.” Meaning the dead and buried. Engaging and repulsive at once, so step closer.
This is a love story, Beckett promised, so listen to the narrator’s increasing interest with Lulu. It is ridiculous but then, at another angle it is appealing so look again, such an interesting question: “Would I have been tracing her name in old cowshit if my love had been pure and disinterested?”
In a quirky turn the narrator ends up living with the woman, whose name he changes from Lulu to Anna because he’s bored with the name Lulu. They somehow end up at her flat, and she begins undressing and wants to consummate this relationship. So funny, the story momentarily ceases to appear effigy-like, as the narrator finds the whole sexuality of the situation distasteful. There is a quintessentially Beckett-voiced paragraph about the pleasure of access to a chamber pot, and because she hasn’t a chamber pot he goes to bed clutching a stew pot. Next comes a paragraph of such cunning wit you almost forget it is a hanged effigy you are looking at: “I woke the next morning, quite worn out, my clothes in disorder, the blanket likewise, and Anna beside me, naked naturally. One shudders to think of her exertions. I still had the stewpan in my grasp. It had not served. I looked at my member. If only it could have spoken! Enough about that. It was my night of love.”
Wow. Now Beckett has me. I’m inching into the effigy, closer and closer and closer.
Anna is pregnant, and a whore it seems, but the baby is likely his if you can trust the narrator, and when woken by Anna’s cries he slinks away to abandon her, and he walks away, listening to her. The cries follow him into the street, then continue to follow him. “I began playing with the cries, a little in the same way as I had played with the song, on, back, on, back, if that may be called playing. As long as I kept walking I didn’t hear them, because of the footsteps. But as soon as I halted again I heard them again, a little fainter each time, admittedly, but what does it matter, faint or loud, cry is cry, all that matters is that it should cease. For years I thought they would cease. Now I don’t think so any more. I could have done with other loves perhaps. But there it is, either you love or you don’t.”
Either you love or you don’t. And that is the thrust of it for me. Implausibly, Beckett made me think of love, abandonment, pain that lasts for years, the human freaking condition – the maggots under the effigy’s skin. It’s disconcertingly good work, even if it is a challenge to get there.
In reading the thoughts of other’s on why Beckett is so damn effective at what he does, I came upon this observation by Conor McPherson: “[Beckett] will continue to echo through time because he managed to articulate a feeling as opposed to an idea. And that feeling is the unique human predicament of being alive and conscious.” And that’s what the story did exactly. It isn’t even about anything, not quite about nothing either, but man, at the end, there is this moment when I am suddenly aware of the sum total of personal heartbreak, and I barely can figure out how.
I read this less as a wide-eyed child now, like my first taste of Beckett in high school, in my navy wool sweater. I remember that back then, the little mind of mine opened wider for having read Waiting for Godot. I didn’t understand how he did it then, and would like to think that I do now, but I am not sure. I think I know how Beckett’s words are a punch to the gut, and why. I want to continue the same great tradition of gut punches in my own fiction. How does a writer accomplish that? It’s a matter of voice, and so I guess I’m still waiting for Beckett. Ah!