'First I was imprisoned by others. Later I left them. Then I was a prisoner of myself. That was worse. Later I left myself. [He leaves. Silence]’
These words are from the protagonist of 'Eleutheria’ (1940), the first complete play by Samuel Beckett. With the silence that follows they can be seen as a kind of summary of the literary life of the author, a paradigm to which he felt himself increasingly drawn, impelled.
Seventeen years after his death, Paris vibrates with performances, exhibitions and conferences, words and deeds to honour the memory of the author of ‘Endgame’, (1955-1957) in which a blind cripple, paralysed in the centre of the room, cries out accusingly:
‘Have you not finished? Will you never finish? (With sudden fury) Will this never finish? … What are they talking about? … What can there still be to talk about?’
Words such as these have been resonating around the theatres of the French capital since September, as part of the Paris Beckett Festival. For the first time, the entirety of Beckett’s work is being presented together and simultaneously, as the centrepiece of this celebration, along with public lectures, musical adaptations, exhibitions, round-tables and discussions and the screening of his audiovisual works. Thus Paris, Beckett’s home from 1937 onwards, pays homage to a man who found refuge from the world he fled within the environs of the ancient city.
An Irishman translated
Irish by birth, with a command of Italian, Spanish, and German, Samuel Beckett (April 13 1906 – September 22 1989), was above all a cosmopolitan writer. Escaping the chokingly oppressive atmosphere of his native Dublin, he spent time living in Paris and London before setting off on a journey through Germany. There he wrote:
‘It’s true, and I knew this before I set out, that I began this journey in order to leave, not to arrive.’
Beckett’s sense of his own exile wouldn’t come to an end until he finally settled in Paris in 1937, after having been professor at Trinity College Dublin until the end of the 1920s. This should come as no surprise, given that the French capital was a meeting place for artists and writers throughout the twentieth century. Picasso, Brancusi, Ionesco, Joyce and Beckett himself are just a few of those who found their path to universal recognition lay in the streets of Paris, the European city above all others which allowed and encouraged a spirit of vanguardism not obstructively linked to politics. Beckett was referring to the central importance of Paris to Paris itself when he spoke of the Van Velde brothers:
‘The painting of de Abraham and Gerardus van Velde is little known in Paris, that’s to say, little known.'
Paris, artists’ milieu
It was here then, that Beckett, who had faced considerable problems when editing his first novels, would come to recognition as the author, in French, of ‘En Attendant Godot’ (later re-versioned, rather than translated, by himself as 'Waiting for Godot'.
For one thing, Paris provided the cosmopolitan air of a city in touch with literature; for another, the discipline of writing in another language allowed him to escape both the elaborated, erudite lyricism and the literary and cultural heritage that he had inherited from the likes of James Joyce. By writing in French, then, he was searching for a styleless manner of expression, and in doing so achieved the appreciation that until then had evaded him.
From that moment, he wrote without distinction in both English and French, ‘translating’ his own works between the two languages. As a manifestation of this, there is no better example than the production of ‘La dernière bande’ and Krapp's Last Tape (French and English versions of the same work), which was one of the first performances in the current festival at the Theatre Athénée de París. Cutting back and forth between stage and video, actor Henry Pillsbury gives the two versions in two languages in parallel.
Ripping up the labels
Much had been said and written about Beckett: in the post-war years he was labelled an Absurdist; he was the metaphysicist who would bring to life the essence of language; he was the great technician, the minimalist concerned only with form - all this despite his own insistence that no attempt should be made to ‘interpret’ him. Thus, for example, he wrote to director Alain Schneider:
‘My work is a matter of fundamental sounds (no joke intended) made as fully as possible, and I accept responsibility for nothing else. If people want to have headaches among the overtones, let them. And provide their own aspirin.’
Even so, the label most often pinned to him is that of writer of the absurd. Alain Badiou, who will take part in the Paris conferences, reinforces Beckett’s own words:
‘It’s taken me years to get rid of the stereotypical idea of Beckett and take him purely at his word.’ The current discussions will no doubt assist in taking a fresh look at such ideas.
In this manner, then, Paris commemorates the work of an author whose driving impulse throughout his life was to show – through words – the very pointlessness of words; the continual paradox of one who through writing wanted to express the fact that:
'...there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express'.
Since the spring, festivals in commemoration of Beckett have taken place all over the world. If you haven’t caught one yet, the Paris Beckett Festival continues until June.
(Photo homepage: Bulunt Yusuf, Flickr)