Thursday, April 13, 2006

Beckett 100


Why did none of us remember that today marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Samuel Beckett? Doesn't that make you feel a little ashamed, as one of the surviving torch-bearers for what we laughingly call civilization, to have missed commemorating such an occasion? It does me.

Let's boil this stew down to its basest aroma. It's because of Sam Beckett that the phrase "Waiting for Godot" has entered the popular lexicon, as a way of referring to anticipating something that isn't going to happen, a hope that isn't going to be fulfilled, a prayer that won't be answered -- much like "Catch-22" refers to things that can't happen because their very possibility is inextricable from their unlikelihood. The phrase is known and understood by multitudes for whom the play itself would be well above and beyond comprehension.

On a personal note, the name Godot carries a special personal meaning for Donna and me. We spent many happy, loving years with a beautiful black-and-white longhaired cat named Godot, so named because we had to wait three months to take possession of her and because she never came when anyone called her. I read my share of Beckett in those days, when a novelist is all that I worked at being and hoped to be, and I spent much time coveting the Grove Press hardcover collected works that used to reside near the basement cash register at Cincinnati's long-gone Kidd's Bookstore, priced at a then-astronomical $100.

When was the last time I saw something as substantial as Beckett's collected works given such pride of place in a bookstore? Ouch. How far we have fallen.

I ask myself. I ask you. Which is the more tragic -- that I had to be reminded that today was the first centenery of Samuel Beckett's birth by the IMDb? Or that every link I could find relating to Beckett centenary celebrations (all in his native Ireland) led to "This Page is Unavailable" notices?

I must admit to having gained distance from Beckett myself in this video age of ours, but I cherish the impact he had on me -- as a reader, moreso than as a writer. His early works like MURPHY were novels of acute and comic Irish absurdity and caricature, but as time went on, his titles became more and more about themselves, and reflected such reductive powers of concentration as could be compared to the pressure that transforms coal, over thousands of years, into diamond.

One of my favorite of all literary epigrams comes from the closing lines of THE UNNAMEABLE, the conclusion of a trilogy-of-sorts beginning with MOLLOY and MALONE DIES; in just a few words, Beckett succeeded in summarizing a feeling about life and work that I wouldn't fully appreciate till I reached my 40s, when it became a veritable motto: "I can't go on. I'll go on." I can't think of seven other words that more richly evoke what it is like to live and work in today's world, and that's why we should be raising one to this man's memory today.

To Samuel Beckett. One of the few winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature who was actually worth a damn.

May I humbly suggest that we all adjourn with our pints to the nearest roadside curb, where we can sit and wait for the parade in Sam's name that isn't going to come?

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