Laughter in the Dark
I had the good fortune to meet Beckett a few times in Paris—several one-on-one conversations with him that lasted hours—and to have corresponded with him over the years. There’s just one story I want to tell because it made such a deep impression on me and it taught me so much about what it means to be a writer. It took place during our first meeting in the early ’70s, when I was about twenty-five years old. And at some point during the conversation, Beckett told me that he had just finished translating Mercier et Camier, which was his first French novel; it had been written about twenty-five years earlier.
I had read the book in French and liked it very much, and I said, “A wonderful book.” I was just a kid, after all. I couldn’t suppress my enthusiasm.
Beckett shook his head and said, “Oh no, no, not very good. In fact, I’ve cut out about 25 percent of the original. The English version’s going to be a lot shorter than the French.”
And I said (remember how young I was), “Why would you do such a thing? It’s a wonderful book. You shouldn’t have taken a word out.”
He shook his head and he said, “No, no, not very good, not very good.”
We went on to talk about other things, and then, out of the blue, ten or fifteen minutes later, apropos of nothing, he leaned forward across the table and he said to me, very earnestly, “You really liked it, huh? You really thought it was good?”
This was Samuel Beckett, remember. And not even he had any idea of what his work was worth. Good or bad, meaningful or not, no writer ever knows, not even the best ones. And I suppose especially not the best ones.
Here is a passage from Watt which was written in English in the ’40s during a very dark time, mostly during the war. I think the better part of the book was composed while Beckett was in the south of France, having run away from the Germans (he had been in the Resistance in Paris), and was working as an agricultural laborer. He said he wrote this book to keep himself from going insane.
One day they were all four in the garden, Mr. Knott, Watt, Arthur, and Mr. Graves. It was a beautiful summer’s day. Mr. Knott was moving slowly about, disappearing now behind a bush, emerging now from behind another. Watt was sitting on a mound. Arthur was standing on the lawn, talking to Mr. Graves. Mr. Graves was leaning on a fork. But the great mass of the empty house was hard by. A bound, and they were all in safety.
Do not despair, Mr. Graves. Someday the clouds will roll away, and the sun, so long obnubilated, burst forth, for you, Mr. Graves, at last.
Not a kick in me, Mr. Arter, said Mr. Graves.
Oh Mr. Graves, said Arthur, do not say that.
When I says a kick, said Mr. Graves, I means a —. He made a gesture with his fork.
Have you tried Bando, Mr. Graves, said Arthur. A capsule, before and after meals, in a little warm milk, and again at night, before turning in. I had tried everything, and was thoroughly disgusted, when a friend spoke to me of Bando. Her husband was never without it, you understand. Try it, she said, and come back in five or six years. I tried it, Mr. Graves, and it changed my whole outlook on life. From being a moody, listless, constipated man, covered with squames, shunned by my fellows, my breath fetid and my appetite depraved (for years I had eaten nothing but high fat rashers), I became, after four years of Bando, vivacious, restless, a popular nudist, regular in my daily health, almost a father and a lover of boiled potatoes. Bando. Spelt as pronounced.