King Lear (IV.1)
During a long sad cold train ride yesterday I had the opportunity to read once again  Anne Atik’s How It Was, her 2001 memoir of Samuel Beckett. Atik, the wife of Avigdor Arikha, one of Beckett’s closest friends, provides an intimate portrait of the writer from the late 1950s through his death in 1989. It is, largely, a collection of Beckett’s table talk, though this erudite writer’s distrust of erudition is clear — his admiration for Yeats’ late poems, Leopardi, Kant, Schopenhauer, Swift, Sam Johnson, and Dante; his preference for the music of Webern, Schubert, and Haydn’s late string quartets over Mahler, Bach, and Wagner; his concern with the ways in which poetry should be read aloud. How It Was also chronicles, however, a few of Beckett’s personal traits, such as his clear, uncondescending pleasure to be in the presence of children of all ages; his wit; his occasional dark silences. The volume is lovingly illustrated with reproductions of holograph letters from Beckett and several of Arikha’s drawings. A good holiday present, I think, for Beckett enthusiasts.
On the second leg of the journey I re-read Company, Beckett’s 50-page “novel” of 1980 and available in Nohow On. And once again I was moved by the mastery of Beckett’s late work; this, along with Ill Seen Ill Said and Worstward Ho, constitute Beckett’s final major prose texts. The simple chronicle of a man lying on his back in the dark, listening to a series of fables that his imagination creates (“lie” and its various permutations are among the most frequently repeated words in the text), is a profoundly expressive exploration of solitude in the waning hours of existence; lacking the cruelty of How It Is or even Beckett’s final stage play, What Where, these three pieces constitute a slow putting-away of an artist’s tools. The implicit comparison with Shakespeare’s The Tempest is deliberate; Ruby Cohn says that “a new gentleness suffuses Company, not unlike Shakespeare’s late romances after the tragedies”  — a gentleness also reflected in the writer’s own behavior, as Atik’s book testifies. I am looking forward to revisiting the other two works in the volume, and leave you this Friday with the conclusion of Company:
You now on your back in the dark shall not rise to your arse again to clasp your legs in your arms and bow down your head till it can bow down no further. But with face upturned for good labour in vain at your fable. Till finally you hear how words are coming to an end. With every inane word a little nearer to the last. And how the fable too. The fable of one with you in the dark. The fable of one fabling of one with you in the dark. And how better in the end labour lost and silence. And you as you always were.
- I am at that point in my life, I think, when I am more drawn to revisit those books and artworks that have meant so much to me in the past, for they continue to remain new with each new encounter; this preferred to so many so-called “new” things which to my understanding seem old and inadequate. [↩]
- Ruby Cohn, A Beckett Canon. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 2001, p. 354. [↩]