Samuel Beckett’s Unloved First Love Made New

I knew a young girl name of Liz

Who was fortunate, very, of phiz.

When she first moved to Paris

She was not all embarrassed

        But kept her nose clean out of other folks’ biz.

There were exceptions of course.

Early on in her Paris life, which continues to this day, Elizabeth lucked into a job at the International Herald Tribune. Although a mere slip of a girl not even nearing thirty yet, she had her native New Englandese, French, Italian, and Russian, and much of what she did for the Trib took place in a warren of back offices, where she pulled international wire copy off the feed and translated passages into or back out of English. In what she described to me as one of the backmost offices among back offices, an old solitary fellow worked at his desk in the near-dark, his work arcane, coded, nearly kabbalistic in its obscurity, the depth of the depth of what in a newspaper’s guts grinds and grinds again but may never rise to the daylight of the public page.

It was also known that the guy was a regular drinking buddy of Samuel Beckett’s.

He did not socialize or chat much in the office. But Liz was mad for Samuel Beckett—as one is—who had not only written the last word on the futility of all human endeavor but had done it as “the laugh sensation of two continents,” and done his best to let resound on his pages the almost audible crack of our clownish, irremediable, individual dooms. Yet when reading him one felt strangely bucked-up, happy, and knew, for reasons embedded in the ironic kindnesses encoded in his syntax, the elaborate politesse and tact with which he delivers to humanity the last possible and fatal riposte, and then another and, yes, another: “With the yesses and noes . . .  they will come back to me as I go along, and now, like a bird, to shit on them all without exception.” One knew unmistakably why, when people met him, they knew Mr. Beckett to be, in one glance, as many of them said, “the kindest man in the world.”

For once, the Nobel Prize committee, coming up with the necessary sentimental epithet to round things off, delivered a phrase that Beckett would have thrust away from himself, as he did the Prize, but which, nonetheless, said a true, essential thing: that his writing was “a miserere for all mankind.” And although he must have hated to have those words stuck onto him, he must also have known, however much despite himself, that people had long taken this eternal seeker of the Nothing in the heart of the Something, for some kind of saint.

Liz started bringing the guy in the back-back office cups of coffee, pleasant words, her unforgettable smile, and perhaps a particularly fine patisserie from around the way—not in order to perhaps actually meet St. Beckett, which would have been presumptuous, forward, vulgar, but just for the guy maybe to confide to her what, actually, in the tones of friendship, the man was like.

Her campaign took months before Liz reached a redoubt from which she felt she could safely ask the question: “What’s he really like?”

Beckett’s longtime drinking pal unbent himself from the cone of his working lamplight, looked up at the pretty young and still-eager person, bless her, squinted, and pronounced the words: “Big thirst, small bladder.”

                                                            *

This little incident came irresistibly to mind when I watched, two and three-quarter times, Joanne Akalaitis’s recent online dramatization for the Theatre for a New Audience of Samuel Beckett’s old short story First Love, in the author’s own translation from the original French Premier Amour; one of the first fictions he wrote in his second language, in 1946; one of the prose works through which he groped his way toward the masterpieces ahead: the trilogy of Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable, and a little, unremembered play entitled Waiting for Godot.

He began to write in French shortly after the War, which he spent actively with the Résistance, then concealed in the countryside from the Nazis who were interested in finding him and his wife, Suzanne. Writing in French, as he said, “to write without style,” which, to be impolite about it, in large part meant getting out from under the example and influence of James Joyce, who had, as the reigning resident elder Irish genius in Paris, been an inescapable exemplar, mentor, and exploitative overlord, who among other things tried to marry young Beckett off to his probably schizophrenic daughter; but also to escape from his own virtuoso facility, his own too-facile mastery of the Irish-English music that was his idiom, since he was not seeking like Joyce to overpour the world with a sea of words but to withdraw from it, thin his thought and language down to a sliver of a blade, a no’s knife to pierce through the contingent, noisy clattering nothingnesses of illusion and distraction that was the given human world, to the greater, lesser, final and essential Nothing, if one could call it that, or it could be, in reciprocal complementarity and twinship, the Plenitude or Infinity of unnamable unknowable cloud from which all Createdness emerges and which yet has never left it. An art of negation, of having nothing to say, without the means of saying it; of penetrating to an unreachable essence of the constitutionally ungraspable; as unkillable as the illusion of one’s own self which, incapable of saying “I” while yet incapable of saying anything else; of extinguishing forever from itself the stain of being Anything. ‘Where now? Who now? When now? Unquestioning. I, say I. Unbelieving. Questions, hypotheses, call them that. Keep going, going on, call that going, call that on.”

Talk about a Via Negativa!

Is this knowing non-exister searching for his own I, or for the I, or eye, of God, whether to poke a reproving, revengeful stick in it or to evanesce himself in Redeeming Light? At this level of inquiry is there a difference? Either Nothing exists, or Everything does, Absolutely, or, dismayingly, it’s Yes to both, which might as well be No. That’s the situation, and Beckett’s not afraid to leave it at that.

Talk about a Negative Theology! No unbeliever ever paid so painstaking a respect to the possibility he struggled so hard to take serio-comically and clowno-hopelessly. Or, if you absolutely must, talk about how the Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao.

I think that Beckett would have griped significantly at any attempt to recruit him into any sort of mysticism, so I’ll lay off. [Aside from the works themselves, the key text for understanding the nature and intensity of Beckett’s quest is the second volume of his Letters, beginning in the immediate Postwar, then tracking his slow advance, via First Love and other attempts, to his best-known masterpieces. It’s the first part of the volume. After that it’s mostly about the business of managing his failure of success.]

Talk is cheap, talk all you like, Beckett early set himself against all interpretation, shunned the constricting coils of regularization and adjustment and, this side Alighieri, the systematic dreariness of allegory. He’s got nothing to say and he will say it, because he is not fated to do otherwise than to return the postwar image of the world to itself without remission. Sure, the official good guys won, but the entire horrific spectacle told us comment c’est, the old denunciation, how it is. “There’s love for you, eh Joe?”

Still, isn’t Godot God with Pierrot’s clownish suffix, and the play an allegory anyway? Are we living in a world voided of meaning—by the War? by just being here and breathing? and is our only choice between the ironic mutual kindness of Vladimir and Estragon and the insane rage and cruelty of the fool Pozzo and his captivity of the leashed, inane, and visionary artist who is Lucky in name only? If you combine the names Didi and Gogo, do they not audibly add up  to Godot? Is Samuel Beckett trying to tell us something?

No, he says again. It’s just this poverty of words, on just this poor stage, or page. Nothing to be done, for as long as it takes. Whether the stage is set in the everwas or neverwas, no matter. This comedy of disgust, compassionate, yes compassionate, not disgust, revulsion perhaps, no not revulsion either, neither is it compassionate, nor comic, nor poor neither, there is no sufficing descriptor so shut yer gob, to hang a name on it’s an error, the thing’s unnamable, and a crime of taste to diminish it into cheaper sense and even that’s too much said. It’s always a mistake to speak to people, as it says, right there, in First Love.

                                                            *

Beckett didn’t like First Love much, and only consented to its publication in 1970, and took up its translation from the French because when they give you the Nobel Prize and you can hardly force yourself, these days, to make any kind of mark on paper at all, you’ve got to give them something.

The Vimeo version ran an hour and eighteen minutes. Typically for Beckett done well, it was all negation and you came away with a grin smackered across your face, looking stupid and feeling oddly, illogically elated. The setting was reconfigured to fit our lockdown world, and if Beckett were alive today he likely would have continued his established practice—it was Akalaitis who notoriously provoked his wrath by setting his play Endgame in a subway station—that is to say forbidding any production that altered or reset what he had written. Or sometimes not. He authorized his friend Jack MacGowran’s one-man show of selections from the texts, gave his favorite actress Billie Whitelaw what license she liked; and Whitelaw’s remarkable successor Lisa Dwan has continued and expanded that freedom in a manner that the Master would certainly approve. And there are others. Lelia Goldoni, here in New York, for one, performing some late Dramaticules. Lots of one-man or one-woman shows. Crikey, even I was talked into performing Lessness twice, first for a festschrift for Beckett’s American publisher Barney Rosset, the second beneath the cavernous red-brick Brooklyn underlanding of the Brooklyn Bridge, accompanied by Vernon Reid and a seven-piece band way on the other side of the darkness; though it was my same-night flamboyancing of E.A. Poe’s Telltale Heart—another piece that has to be performed—that got put on NPR.

I’m not even an actor, but the first time I tried out Lessness at home a week before the gig, I discovered within one sentence that this particularly spare late textlet a few pages long could not just be read aloud; because there was nothing normal about it, one had to inhabit the text and act it. I couldn’t do it in my own voice, with its dull American consonants, those dees that sound like duhs, those tees that sound like dees, and then those flat uninflected monotonal American vowels. I knew that if I tried to Irish it—and even Whitelaw didn’t do that—I’d sound like a bad Barry Fitzgerald impression, or Father Flotsky in Lenny Bruce’s immortal routine Father Flotsky’s Triumph. “Killing a mother and her four children doesn’t make a man bad, Dutch. There’s the good road and the bad road . . .”

“Yada-yada Fadda. Yada-yada-yada !”

I must not go there. Fortunately I’d gone to see a Night with Billie Whitelaw Doing Beckett at the 92nd St. Y about a year before, and I tried out my best impersonation of that, biting off the syllables and hissing hoarsely with my tensioned breath; and it would do, given the capacity I had and the incapacity I excelled in. I mean I got away with it up to a point, though it dragged on long enough for Vernon’s band to start trying to find an ending, early.

                                                            *

So how did it work out with Bill Camp and Joanne Akalaitis?

Let’s start with Camp. Bill Camp’s a character-actor’s character-actor, who can so completely disappear into supporting roles, and make himself so invisible personally, that you can love him up any number of times before you remember his name or even his face, though it looks kind of familiar—I’m not talking to actors here, you understand—and then perhaps remember that he was, oh, that dumpy under-stooge in Deadwood, and somebody else elsewhere, gosh, look, it might be the same guy, whatsisname, who was best of all in The Night of . . . as a weary cop, beautifully written for him by Richard Price, a cop who unshoulders his immensity of weariness to most unshowily do the right thing—now we remember his name, at last. Okay, so as the unnamed demi-personage of First Love, in the opening passages about loving the smell of graveyards, especially when a grave is fresh and you can smell the new inhabitant, and he can always detect his buried father’s smell, it’s wonderful to be there, he favors graveyards over the public park: Camp goes at it with such enthusiasm and avidity, grinning all jolly, his eyes abulge, that it comes off more like Edgar Allen Poe, and Vincent Price performing it, no less, than anything by Beckett. Camp makes no attempt to English up his consonants, so that some niceties of language and rhythm slip away, and he thrusts his beardy, podgy face into the camera at you with all-American enthusiasm with a twist, so that that you may begin to think the man is mad, I tell you, mad!

Me, I think he hits the true groove about twenty-five minutes in, when he gets into the Love stuff by crooning about the nature of an erection a woman can feel looking at her from a quarter-mile off, while he performs a shadow-puppet gag with his shadow-finger on the wall behind him, and now you see and hear that he’s on a roll with this role; that his unmannerly American eagerness, uncrimped by self-shrivelling Anglo-Irish agenbites of audible inwit, this happifying voice just comin’ atcha, what could be wrong with that, it seems to say: I ain’t got no pudeur and what’s pudeur mean in English anyway? No shame, neither. Not here, not now. This is it and all of it, wraps off.

When he gets all the way into the love stuff, meeting up with a prostitute named Lulu on a bench in the wild, his profession of love is to write her name, Lulu—although later he starts calling her Anne instead—with his finger on a wad of wet cowshit, then tasting his finger, we begin to realize that Beckett is making a first run at Molloy encountering his rancid, poisoning paramour Lousse, or was it Ruth, or Edith—“We met in a rubbish dump, unlike any other, and yet they are all alike, rubbish dumps. I was limply poking about in the garbage, saying probably, for at that age I must still have been capable of general ideas. This is life. She had no time to lose, I had nothing to lose, I would have made love with a goat, to know what love is.”—and things getting more scabrous still, in Malone Dies, when Hairy Mac meets Sucky Moll; and it is true that, read in isolation at my age today, these passages do begin to seem more than a little filthily juvenile, with their slits and holes and lethal glues; where was I; the prose, if not the matter, is more refined than the comparative muck of First Love but not as deeply nasty, where Bill Camp has hit full stride and makes not just a meal but a feast of it, smiling and virtually drooling with bizarre, undiminishable delight.

As the telling goes on, the sentences starts to break down, become a run of phrases and fragments, spoken out between heavy breaths as Camp maunders about the apartment and does one bit of stage-Nothing and then another; the word-magic begins breaking free of constraint, and now it’s as if you’re listening to something of Shakespeare’s, not just that hint of iambics but its unsparing, intimate closeness to the flesh and heat and light and dark of life and death and breath, now performed upon a broken instrument in a dismembered tongue that somehow holds up anyway; so that you, I mean I, I mean an almost no one, even if just for the moment, who speaks as I did at one-and-twenty, says “Samuel Beckett is the greatest writer of the twentieth century,” meaning, at least, that for the time being he was great enough even in a fair and middling work when well performed, to obliterate from recollection Proust, Joyce, and whomever else you please, Musil, Pynchon, Lowry, Wodehouse, Herriman, Maltese, the list can go anywhere you like, but watch out for flying bricks and sudden falls.

One more paradoxical strangeness: I’m clear that Camp did not fall prey to the character-actor’s temptation, when he gets a starring role in something first-rate at last, to pull out the Hambone and the Hamlet and the Orson and the Giel-and-Ollie, and make such a meal of it that it might as well be the bubbling pot of eye-of-newt and sailor’s thumb the Wyrd Sisters make such a mess of Macbeth with (the character, the character, not the play, which I will only call the play the Scottish Play!) No, Bill Camp does not do that, and because he doesn’t, he gets the whole thing through to you true, the bizarre and inappropriate jollity with which he began now having found its, ahem, Objective Correlative, so that the show does not just go on but the game’s afoot, and that foot kicking you in the arse with such a happy rhythm that you LOL and start dancing to it. The Joy of Beckett, he’s serving it up, complete.

Must say, however, that at that point I lost focus and concentration to the extent that I thrilled to the rhythm but couldn’t quite catch the words anymore. It was scabrous and funny, there were better and better bits of stage business—fingers, reflections, dollhouse furniture, that odd handchopping gesture repeated—and then, as it ended, the tones of mournful lyricism lithe in, from this monster of selfishness—the character, the character—looking up at the stars with his father, then without his father, and last, since Beckett can bring forth any sort of verbo-musical sleight of soul he chooses, ends, elegiac, piano, with something in the manner of a sigh; then the last hilarious factual: “But there it is, either you love or you don’t.”

                                                            *

Akalaitis has staged all this, very smartly for our time and smartly, period, in a shabby though not too-too shabby apartment with some props and lighting and some construction stuff and thinglets here and there; she’s had Camp wear a mini-headlamp with an elastic band that he puts on and off and plays with, switches the house lights on and off too; it’s all New York City lockdown done to a T.

I enjoyed the show a lot.

But to return to Liz in Paris and the solid, possibly important fact of “big thirst, small bladder”: in some interview somewhere, someone asked Vladimir Nabokov if he had read anything not by himself of which he actually approved, which didn’t happen very often, you know. Waiting for Godot, Nabokov said, was a mediocre extension of the rubbishy stuff Mäeterlinck used to theatricalize with, and Beckett’s French was schoolboy stuff, but he had read Molloy in its English rendering—and it is a truth universally acknowledged that when M. Beckett retranslated his French stuff back into English he brought a wealth of supremely un-schoolboyish life and color and epithet and vigorous vinegar with him, without stepping into the puddle of Mr. Joyce, making said stuff a large measure better, livelier and less abstract than the V.O. (as one says au cinéma)and Nabokov found Molloy to be quite good. Then he added, and I wish I had the exact quote but I don’t so I’ll fake it: “I had the curious impression of bladder pressure.”

Punchline: rimshot. That genius—whom I do not appreciate as whole-heartedly, or for that matter as full-bladderedly as I do my own first post-teenage love (I mean apart from Susan Mensch) Mr. Samuel B—what to say, it’s uncanny how well the Russian fella knows how to read a book. As for our Script Girl:

I still know that lady named Liz

Whose smile is still full of fizz,

But her story of Beckett

    My memory does wreckit

         And I hope she won’t give me the biz.

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