“I lay inert on the bed and it took three women to put on my trousers. They didn’t seem to take much interest in my private parts, which to tell the truth were nothing to write home about, I didn’t take much interest in them myself. But they might have passed some remark.” What is so wonderful in this is the deranged punctilio with which this old man is being dismissed from the Mercy Hospital. The greatness in the writing is partly of course the suspicion: “They didn’t seem to take much interest in my private . . .” I’m not saying they didn’t take any, and so on. “I didn’t take much interest in them myself.”
The key thing, though, is the cliché. Beckett uses clichés on the principle that no writer can afford to disdain clichés: Clichés are everywhere in everyday language, and you can’t afford to cut yourself off from them. The original did not have “they were nothing to write home about.” In what circumstances do you write home about your private parts? Even Sylvia Plath in her letters home was far too busy writing about other things to do that. And the original French simply has “qui n’avaient rien de particulier”: “about which there was nothing special.” It’s when he translates his French into English, or rather into Irish, that you get this wonderful “write home about” bit. And when you look at Beckett’s translation, you find that it went like this: “They did not seem to take much interest in my private parts. I didn’t take much interest in them myself anymore, but I felt they might have said something.” Now that’s got this poignancy of “anymore.” It needs this deranged formality of the Irish language: “but they might have passed some remark.” That’s the dignity of it. The French was very beautiful: “Elles auraient pu dire un petit quelque chose.” Now, is that what they were going to say when they looked at it? “Un petit quelque chose?” With the comedy of course that chose is feminine in French, but quelque chose is masculine.
“The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.” You’ll remember this is how he begins his first novel, Murphy; it’s called a novel because it is new, and this one you might as well close immediately, except that nobody had ever called it “the nothing new” before.
“She began to undress. When at their wit’s end they undress, no doubt the wisest course. She took off everything, with a slowness fit to inflame an elephant, except her stockings, calculated presumably to bring my concupiscence to the boil. It was then I noticed the squint. Fortunately she was not the first naked woman to have crossed my path, so I could stay, I knew she would not explode. I asked to see the other room which I had not yet seen.” Now again it’s the dementia that controls it. “The first naked woman to have crossed my path.” With that bit about “slowness fit to inflame an elephant,” it sounds as if he’s on some strange sexual safari. And the French, which Beckett is translating so beautifully into Irish here, is simply, “It wasn’t the first time I had seen a naked woman.” Now this “crossed my path” crosses his mind as he’s translating from his stepmother tongue into his original English. You get these phrases of course a lot in obituaries. There was a Times obituary which said about somebody that he was a perfectly good man, but “woe to those who crossed his path.” You thought that it was going to say, “but woe to those who crossed him,” but apparently you didn’t have to cross this guy at all—all you had to do was cross his path and you got woe. No doubt the man writing the obituary did not mean to say this, but as A.E. Housman once said, “The pen is mightier than the wrist.”
“Personally I have no bone to pick with graveyards, I take the air there willingly, perhaps more willingly than elsewhere, when take the air I must. The smell of corpses, distinctly perceptible under those of grass and humus mingled, I do not find unpleasant.” The original French would go into English as “Personally, I have nothing against graveyards.” But he translates, “Personally, I have no bone to pick with graveyards.” Then he moves into a wonderful play on the word “must”: “when take the air I must.” And the verb decays into a noun before your very nose: “The air I must. The smell of corpses . . .”
“Camier gave a scream of pain. For the Constable, holding fast his arm with one hand the size of two, with the other had dealt him a violent smack. His interest was awakening. It was not every night a diversion of this quality broke the monotony of his beat. The profession had its silver lining, he had always said so. He unsheathed his truncheon. Come on with you now, he said, and no nonsense. With the hand that held the truncheon, he drew a whistle from his pocket, for he was no less dexterous than powerful. But he had reckoned without Mercier (who can blame him?) and to his undoing, for Mercier raised his right foot (who could have believed it?) and launched it clumsily but with force among the testicles (to call a spade a spade) of the adversary (impossible to miss them).”
Who can blame him? Who could have foreseen it to call a spade a spade? Impossible to miss them. If those are not scrotal tropes, I’d like to know what they are. “To call a spade a spade,” because if you get kicked hard enough there, you will be spayed. “Speak up, said Mercier, I’m not deaf.” Now hang on a minute. “Speak up, I’m a bit deaf,” or “You don’t have to shout, I’m not deaf.” But “Speak up, said Mercier, I’m not deaf” implies that as soon as people think you’re hard of hearing, they deliberately lower their voices, as of course they do. The extraordinary richness of this seems to me the unremitting source of life in Beckett’s composition, the puns that he makes on composition and decomposition, and the great deep, dark, beautiful joke that he made in honor of James Joyce, the single sentence: “I welcome this occasion to bow once again, before I go, deep down, before his heroic work, heroic being.”