Anakana Schofield – Author of Martin John and Malarky

BECKETT REMEMBERING, REMEMBERING BECKETT — Edited by James and Elizabeth Knowlson

BECKETT REMEMBERING, REMEMBERING BECKETT – Uncollected interviews with Samuel Beckett & Memories of Those Who Knew Him Edited by James and Elizabeth Knowlson.

(Bloomsbury/Raincoast 313 pages), Published in Vancouver Sun (July 2006)

Review by Anakana Schofield.

For Samuel Beckett enthusiasts, unable to hop across the water to Dublin for the Beckett centenary celebrations, the arrival this month of Beckett Remembering, Remembering Beckett – Uncollected interviews with Samuel Beckett & Memories of Those Who Knew Him will be a fresh delight

The most immediate thing we learn about the Nobel Prize winning Irish writer, who lived much of his adult life in Paris, eventually choosing to write in French, was that he was a very decent bloke. In friendship, he was loyalty personified, genuinely concerned more for others than himself — he even inquired after the health of people’s children.  He endured a tense relationship with his mother, with being a teacher and on occasion with life itself, but all this tension was neatly diluted by a sharp sense of humour and a unique talent that provided us with some of this century’s most significant plays (Waiting for Godot, Happy Days, Krapp’s Last Tape) and literature.

The Knowlsons set out in this collection, which is solely comprised ofrecollections and essays written by those who knew or worked withBeckett, to “depict the evolution of Beckett as a personality, to look athim from the point of view of people who had very different relationswith him”.  They achieve this with an entirety that James Knowlson  previously displayed in his acclaimed and definitive Beckett biography “Damned to Fame.”

Knowlson, a passionate Beckett scholar for twenty years and author of 10 books on Beckett, had unparalleled access to Beckett and a plethora of material during the writing of his book. His wife Elizabeth actually quit her teaching post to assist her husband with the biography. Together they have now thoughtfully re-excavated surplus material that was passed over for inclusion in the biography. One can see why Beckett trusted James Knowlson so much and remarked to friends that he knew his work better than anyone else.

“We wanted to depict someone in the round, as it were.” Knowlson told me by email last week from England. “I think many misconceptions of him abound. The dedicated, loyal, generous friend was something that needed to be stressed.”

In the course of the book, which is divided into different periods of Beckett’s life, we hear either in essay or interview form from people as diverse as actors, directors, visual artists, translators, writers, and playwrights. Beckett himself discusses his relationship to James Joyce and his family. (“his seriousness and dedication to his art influenced me”)

What surely must have been a coup in piecing this collection together is the discovery of a surviving set of lecture notes from Beckett’s disastrous spell as a lecturer at Trinity College, Dublin. Beckett actively loathed the job. Various students weigh in on whether he was any good. The jury is mixed. As one less than impressed student put it:  “The only thing which roused us from our somnolent lethargy was when he set himself on fire by letting the sleeve of his gown drop into the open fire when he was leaning his fevered brow on the marble fireplace.”

We begin to see the complete circle from his influences to his lasting influence in the contributions of J M Coetzee, Paul Auster and Anthony Minghella. Curiously fascinating are the memories of Beckett’s translators Richard Seaver and Patrick Bowles, where it’s clear Beckett had an ease and respect for those who enhanced his work. Far from being some intransigent pessimist, he was remarkably receptive to their suggestions, pointing out to Bowles that “not having spoken or worked in English for seventeen years he felt out of touch with the language.”

Beckett had a particular vision for the performance of his work and he required a rigorous adherence to the rhythm and direction laid down in his texts.

Envisioning the play visually was very important to Beckett and he was in this sense as much a visual artist as a ‘word man’, witness the number of video and installation artists who admit a big debt to Beckett.”Knowlson attests.

Beckett’s lifelong resistance to explaining his work caused some consternation for actors who were looking to him for insight. Yet despite the huge toll it took on him to be involved in various productions of his plays, he continued to do it, according to Knowlson because “he was such a perfectionist and it allowed him to accommodate the staging to his vision, to ensure that there had been at least one (and often as with ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’ many) production which conformed to his very special vision.”

Seventeen years after his death Samuel Beckett’s relevancy continues to deepen and the significance of his contribution resonates.