I’ve known several who knew Beckett, or at least met him – Guy Davenport, Hugh Kenner, John Montague – and none left memorable accounts of their encounters. Awe renders even the most fluent inarticulate. It also reminds us of the primacy of the work, not the man. We read him because, at least on occasion, his words inspire awe. The man, for the reader, is superfluous, however much we wish we knew him.
“He too is somewhat melancholy. `I hate nine-tenths of everything I’ve written,’ he tells me. He has none of Madame Incognita’s theatrical pessimism. He is personal but not egotistic. She was comical, farcical; he is humorous and affecting. `I’m ashamed of my life,’ he says quietly. `The world’s so full of misery. And what have I done? Words.’”
A familiar lament, and a ridiculous one. The writer’s only obligation is to write well. He is not a do-gooder and owes the world nothing but an artful arrangement of words. Do-gooders tend not to write well. Sometimes real shits write like angels. When Polonius asks Hamlet what he is reading, the prince replies, “Words, words, words.”
“Despite a surge of fellow feeling, I think of Hamlet’s `And like a whore unpack my heart with words.’ But of course that unpacking is just one thing you do with words, and the creator of Godot, Lucky, Pozzo, Hamm, Malone, Murphy, Winnie, and Watt has not only unpacked his own but millions of hearts.”
In his introduction to All What Jazz, Philip Larkin doesn’t mention Beckett by name, but one suspects he would have ranked him among the artists who leave readers “mystified or outraged.” And yet the finest critic of both writers, Christopher Ricks, enjoys and respects Beckett and Larkin. Both are included in The Oxford Book of English Verse he edited in 1999.
“The words of the constant story maker keep coming: despite the misery out there, the—what?—energy within gets to the page, and the septuagenarian inventor of the Beckett world continues making it.”
In art, one is not compelled to choose sides, one poet or novelist at the expense of another. Beckett and Larkin are not mutually exclusive tastes. One feels no pressure to be consistent. Aesthetic love is promiscuous without being unfaithful. One loves Swift and Henry James, Italo Svevo and Barbara Pym. Rigorous consistency in matters of art suggests provinciality and poverty of imagination.
[The quoted passages are taken from the title essay in Richard Stern’s The Invention of the Real (University of Georgia Press, 1982).]