As I’ve got older, Beckett has gone from theatre of the absurd to fly-on-the-wall documentary
Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out" column.
By the time you read this, I will have been on stage, or something like a stage, or basically a section of a room that has been cordoned off, metaphorically speaking, to allow someone to address an audience. Why do I do this? I worked out a long time ago that appearing in front of an audience not of my own selection is not my thing. It is agreeable to hold court in front of one’s own friends but the idea that there are people who have paid good money to hear one is enough to make me question the whole enterprise.
For one thing: are these people possibly nuts? I have a dim, half-repressed memory of public appearances when trying to promote my book, The Nolympics, to baffled audiences – their bafflement mainly hinging on the fact the book had not been fully written, let alone published. This has been the lesson I’ve learned above all others: wait until your book is out before plugging it. (I did later do a gig to a half-empty auditorium at King’s Place, along with some others, on an unrelated topic. I’d been told that there would be a decent pile, cunningly positioned, of my book in lieu of payment; only some organisational cock-up prevented any of them being sent. Is there anyone else out there who suspects they are living under a curse?)
My appearance at the Whitechapel Gallery, though, will not be about me but part of an evening about Samuel Beckett. I will also be interviewing the fine actress Lisa Dwan, whom the audience will have just seen performing (on film) the harrowing monologue that is Not I. (Billie Whitelaw practised for the part by counting to ten out loud between each second of the BBC clock ticking its way towards the nine o’clock news. Lisa Dwan has shaved some minutes off Whitelaw’s performance time for the play. It is quite something to behold.)
I have to do this, for not only is it nice to be asked but because it gives me the excuse to immerse myself in Beckett again. Not that I need much of an excuse anyway. But it is funny how, as one ages, aspects of the Beckettian character’s condition that, when first encountered as a schoolboy, seemed purely literary, or factitious, or rhetorical, come to seem like more or less photographic realism. This is even before we consider Krapp’s Last Tape, whose portrayal of a wasted life and Beckett’s vision of himself as someone who had, in an alternative existence, failed to use his gifts I now find too painful even to contemplate. What I mean is the basic depredations his characters suffer: their poverty, their rootlessness, their boils.
All writers who have read even the opening page of Molloy will have smiled grimly at Molloy’s predicament: “There’s this man who comes every week . . . He gives me money and takes away the pages. So many pages, so much money,” but then I come across a paragraph of Watt, servant of the enigmatic Mr Knott, moving into his new room, and am made to think, involuntarily, of the Hovel and how I felt when unpacking my belongings: “Watt’s room contained no information. It was a small, dingy, and although Watt was a man of some bodily cleanliness, fetid compartment . . . The painting, or coloured reproduction, yielded nothing further. On the contrary, as time passed, its significance diminished.”
How Beckett managed to peer across six and a half decades into my very bedchamber, I find astonishing. My room is occasionally haunted by phantom odours I cannot account for: cigarettes when I have not been smoking in it, or a decaying apple core when I have not been eating apples in it. As for the Kandinsky print I inherited and have not, in five and a half years, bothered to replace (he’s OK, I think – he was certainly good enough for Sam, who had a high opinion of his work), that, too, through no intrinsic fault of its own, has been subject to the pattern of decreasing significance. It’s just a thing on a wall now and is anyway often obscured by the row of shirts I hang up to dry from the useless shelf above it. (Useless because it is so high up I could never put anything on it I could retrieve later. Am I ever going to do anything about it? No.)
I feel that I have as much wish to be elsewhere, with as much possibility of getting there, as Vladimir and Estragon have of leaving their patch of ground. Poverty is beckoning, too: soon my very clothes will look like theirs. I ask the Whitechapel Gallery if they can pay me with cash on the night. No can do, they say. I wonder: is there another way they could pay me? In carrots? In turnips?