Father of Choice
In the summer of 1968, I went to Spoleto, Italy, to the Festival of Two Worlds, with some short plays of mine and some very nice young actors—Al Pacino, John Casale, Jill Clayburgh. We were all unknown kids, and I had one book of short plays published. There was a Swiss-French actress doing monologues of Beckett and Ionesco and Giroudoux at the festival, and she came up to me and asked me if I would like to meet Samuel Beckett. She said, “If you’d like to meet Samuel Beckett, he would like to meet you.” And my heart stopped. She said to go to Paris on a particular day—it was July 8—and he would meet me for one half hour at the Closerie des Lilas. She said you can ask him anything, but don’t ask him how he writes.
And I went there on the day and we sat together for four and half hours. At the end of four and a half hours, it was time to leave, and I was a young guy, and I said to him, “Do you think we could be friends?” And he said, “I think we are.” And we began a friendship that continued until his death a few years ago, and keeps going. I think we have our fathers of chance and our fathers of choice, and Samuel Beckett was my father of choice. I’m going to read a short excerpt from a remembrance that I wrote for The Boston Herald shortly after he died, and then edited with the help of George Plimpton for The Paris Review, in the spring of 1997:
Mr. Beckett is dead. So, then, is Paris, too. I’m told that he died last Friday night. So, then, all of my heroes are dead, since last Friday night.
Life clung to Samuel Beckett, irritatingly, for eighty-three and three-quarter years. When he told me he’d lost his teeth, I mumbled an inanity: “It could be worse.”
Without pause, he struck back: “There’s nothing so bad that it can’t grow worse. There’s no limit to how bad things can be!” And we laughed ourselves sick.
Mr. Beckett knew his way around a dirty joke. When he first met my wife, Gill, he ordered a double whiskey. “I need a stiff drink. Nothing else is stiff, these days!”
In the early 1970s, I was staying in Paris, with my friend Jean-Paul Delamotte, a romancier manqué. Lindon (in the magazine Minuit) had just brought out Beckett’s newest texts, in French, called Foirade, Foirade I, Foirade II. . . . I asked Jean-Paul what the word foirade meant, exactly.
Jean-Paul hemmed and hawed, uncharacteristically. “Foirade is actually a bit, uh, well, disgusting.”
When I reported this to Beckett, he playacted massive outrage: “Disgusting?! That is just ridiculous!” The setting: We were sitting together at La Closerie des Lilas, a restaurant that had been a sort of literary hangout in the 1930s. In the days before he underwent cataract surgery, Beckett wore eyeglasses as thick as Coke bottles. He was all earthbound hawk, instantly recognizable, unmistakenly the great Samuel Beckett. As soon as we entered the restaurant, he was recognized by all. Whenever he talked, all eaters stayed their forks and listened intently. Beckett, very nearly blind, was oblivious to all eavesdropping.
He explained his reaction to Jean-Paul’s “disgusting” by pointing out he had certainly “chosen foirade carefully” and that he was presently at work “searching for the perfect English equivalent” to it.
“Foirade: disgusting? Utter nonsense! Une foirade is a lamentable failure . . . something one attempts that is destined to fail, but must be attempted, nonetheless, because it is unquestionably worth the effort . . . thus, a lamentable failure.”
At this point, it seemed that every eater in the entire restaurant was leaning in toward us, paying rapt attention to Beckett’s every word. And Beckett added, with the very slightest of smiles, “Of course, foirade also means wet fart!”
And all around us, like the heroes of fine Keats odes who leave the earth for extraordinary experience and return changed, the eavesdropping diners of the Closerie des Lilas returned to their dinners . . . suddenly, abruptly, absolutely changed.
Postscript: Months later, in a New York bookshop, I came across the Grove Press edition of Foirades. Beckett’s English-language title: Fizzles.
Midwinter, mid-1973. I was cold, lonely, and alarmingly low on cash. I was scheduled to do a poetry reading at eight in the evening, at the Centre Culturel Americain on the rue du Dragon . . . for fifty dollars. I was having a drink with Beckett at seven. I hadn’t invited him to my reading because:
1) I thought he wouldn’t approve of my doing a public reading, even for much-needed money.
2) He rarely went to public gatherings.
During our conversation, he seemed distracted. Out of nowhere, he said: “You’re doing a reading of your poems, are you?” I was startled that he knew. And then he added, “Many friends expected?”
I’d obviously hurt his feelings by not inviting him. And so I did. He said, “No, thank you, I never go to those things!”
But then he asked me to recite one of my poems for him. Embarrassed, I told him that my being paid fifty dollars for the reading was definitely a fair price. He laughed but nonetheless insisted on a private recitation. (A few years later, in Hyde Park, he would insist that I run in a huge circle around him so that he could analyze my stride!) And so I recited a four-liner entitled “On Boulevard Raspail”:
How easily our only smile smiles.
We will never agree or disagree.
The pretty girl is perfected in her passing.
Our love lives within the space of a quietly closing door.
He listened with closed eyes. “Very nice,” he said.
“Oh, shit!” I said, suddenly. He opened his eyes, and I explained myself. “I stole that from you!”
“No, no. I’ve never heard that in my life . . .”
“No, no, I did! Your poem ‘Dieppe’ . . . you end it with ‘the space of a door that opens and shuts.’ ”
“Oh, yes, that’s true.” And then, suddenly, he added: “Oh, shit!”
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
“I stole it from Dante me-self!”
My most important memories of Beckett aren’t memories of a superb writer, but of a superb friend. I was first attracted to Beckett because of his writing, but he quickly became for me one of those few men we painstakingly choose, against mother’s will, to serve as father.
When I saw Sam last, some months ago, he’d grown as frail as old paper.
He was living in a room in an old people’s home in the rue Remy-Dumonce, a few doors from his (holistic) doctor’s house. I was stunned to realize that Beckett was now living like a character of his creation. To reach Beckett’s room one had to pass through something called “the recreation room.” Two dozen elderly French sat in a row like sparrows on a telephone wire, watching an obnoxious song-and-dance man via an outdated black television set. I broke into their shared reverie and asked where Beckett could be found. Nobody seemed to know him. I found the home’s office. I was directed through a small courtyard to the rear of the block, where I saw a tiny ground-floor room with window blinds partly drawn. Beckett was inside, dressed in a tattered old robe, working with pen and ink at a bridge table.
I stopped and stared a while, for some reason remembering Beckett’s shock, twenty-two years before, at discovering that I didn’t know Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium.” Before I left the table that night, Yeats’s poem had passed from Mr. Beckett’s memory to my memory, along with Sam’s small scholarly note of caution: “I don’t totally approve of that ‘Soul clap its hands’ part!”
Samuel Beckett’s final room was seedy, small, sad: a bed, a bedside table, bridge table and a matching chair, a television set “for sporting events.” It was prison-like, pathetic. My initial impulse was to pick him up and run, carrying him out, away, to some time past. It’s taken me nearly a year to let it go, to accept that this was his choice. We talked for a few hours. He asked the usual questions about my children, about my work, about Gill’s recent marathons, did I need any money, or was I okay?
My turn. I asked about the state of his health. He understood his particular illness, explaining the mechanics of it as might a scientist. His brain wasn’t getting proper circulation of blood.
But when he detailed the sensation—how the problem was manifest in his particular body—he was all writer: succinct and artfully clear. “I am standing in quicksand.”
When I left Sam the last time, I knew that I might never see him alive again. I organized my life so that I could return to Paris and be close by him for six weeks, starting in January. I underestimated the quicksand by nearly a month.
Say something of the man and let it go. What Beckett said of Joyce is finally what I say of Beckett: “He never wrote about something. He always wrote something.”
I worry that the world will over-saint Sam and overlook the most important, most obvious truth: With his life Mr. Beckett proved that it was actually possible, even in our own inferior century, for a writer to work and to live with a great seriousness, a great caring and a great integrity. What Samuel Beckett was was possible. Not a saint—at times not even totally tasteful—but ever an artist: clear-voiced, responsible, in line with the best. Beckett was, professionally, from youth onward, an old crab. And with good cause. Around him, the quality of Life was odious, and the quality of Death an unsatisfying alternative.