I was a literature major in college, also a French major, so I could read Samuel Beckett’s novels and plays in both French and English. His plays used a literary device called “stichomythia”, which had characters speaking short lines back and forth, so it was easy to read in French. Beckett, like Joseph Conrad or Vladimir Nabokov, wrote in another language than his mother tongue; Beckett was Irish even though he’s more associated with French literature. After all, his 1953 play En Attendant Godot –Waiting for Godot–catapulted him to French fame.
It’s interesting how certain authors chose other languages to write in. Perhaps it offers a more creative means of expression. A therapist once told me that if you have to write a letter to an important person–present or departed–you’re emotionally connected to, try doing it with your wrong hand. It will help you get to your emotions more quickly.
In any event, I saw his work performed at small theatres in LA and in Paris as well. His plays were very funny. In his play Fin de Partie–Endgame–there is one scene where two of the 4 characters discuss suicide. One of them says he’ll hang himself. The other responds by saying if you do that you’ll get an erection. For the two characters, suicide suddenly became more appealing, and had the audience roaring in laughter. This was truly Theater of the Absurd. And terribly, terribly funny.
I also loved Beckett’s 1931 essay on Marcel Proust. He was a fine critical writer as well. Beckett also functioned as James Joyce’s amanuensis during the writing of Finnegan’s Wake. Joyce, always near-sighted, by that time was almost blind. He’d write one or two words on a page and hand and hand them to or leave them for Beckett, who would then collate and otherwise organize the manuscript, which was given the provisional title “Work in Progress”.
While going to school at the Sorbonne in 1970, I was walking down Boulevard St. Germain towards Place Maubert in the Latin Quarter and saw Beckett walking right toward me. He was wearing a white turtleneck sweater, and had a Gitane papier mais cigarette stuck on his lower lip, the yellow-paper kind that blue-collar workers and farmers liked to smoke. He was tall, thin, his gaze looking straight ahead. His amazing hair was the stuff that Tom Waits could only dream of. I was speechless, saying to myself “oh my god, I’ve just seen Samuel Beckett!!!!!!!!!!!) I dared not turn around or follow him. I was in a happy state of shock. It was moment that I’ll never forget.
Here’s a youtube clip from Endgame.