Banville on Beckett, triple-shot

The Elegant Variation excerpts John Banville’s thoughts on the influence of painting on Samuel Beckett’s work.

Here, as in everything, Beckett was exhaustive. Knowlson suggests that his ability to discern even the most subtle affinities between paintings from different hands and periods indicates that he had a photographic memory….

He loved in particular Poussin and the Dutch masters of the Golden Age, and of course Caspar David Friedrich, whose little painting Two Men Contemplating the Moon was one of the inspirations for Waiting for Godot. However, at times Beckett the artistic iconoclast and innovator displayed a violent impatience with the assurance and poise of painters for whom he had a high regard. In 1934, after looking at the Cézannes in the Tate collection he wrote to his friend Thomas MacGreevy, later to become director of the National Gallery in Dublin: “What a relief the Mont Ste Victoire after all the anthropomorphised landscape – van Goyen, Avercamp, the Ruisdaels, Hobbema, even Claude. . . “, against whose work Cézanne’s is “alive the way a lap or a fist is alive”.

In the weekend’s Guardian, Banville reviews Beckett Remembering, Remembering Beckett, a collection of old interviews with, and recollections and photos of, the great writer.

Along with the many wonderful photographs scattered through the book, the transcriptions of … detailed interviews, most of them concerning his childhood and early manhood, are the best things in Beckett Remembering. They are, for the most part, unBeckettian in their simplicity and directness; this might be any old man recalling the dear, dead days of long ago: “I used to play the tin whistle by the way at the Ecole Normale, a rusty old tin whistle. I had a tin whistle and I used to tweetle on it, and in Dublin, too.” Now, there is a thing not many people knew.

Of less value are the brief testimonies from the likes of JM Coetzee, Anthony Minghella — “I was the worst kind of Beckett anorak” — and Paul Auster. Even the thoughts of those who might have been expected to illuminate some of the more shadowed corners of Beckettania, such as Tom Stoppard or Edward Albee, verge on the trite — the subject of Samuel Beckett seems to rob the most eloquent of all but the basic words. As usual, the technicians are the ones to trust, and some of the most fascinating pages here are those in which collaborators such as the theatre director Walter Asmus and the actor Jean Martin – Lucky in the first production of Godot — describe what it was like to work with a writer as scrupulously demanding as Beckett.

And in 1996, he contribued an essay on The Painful Comedy of Samuel Beckett (reproduced here) to the New York Review of Books. Banville reads tonight at the 92nd Street Y.


You might want to subscribe to my free Substack newsletter, Ancestor Trouble, if the name makes intuitive sense to you.