Beckett Remembering/Remembering Beckett, ed. by James & Elizabeth Knowlson

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The Independent Culture

Pathologically shy, ill-equipped for social niceties, he wasn't good at interaction. When he played cricket for Trinity College, Dublin, his team "were a happy band, drinking and whoring and so on between matches, and I'd go off alone and sit in the church". The third volume of his great trilogy of novels was The Unnameable; to students, publishers, readers and theatrical associates, its author remained The Unknowable.

In consequence, to discover tiny details about Beckett's everyday life has always been an occasion of excitement. I remember the frisson of hearing in 1977 from the Dublin professor JCC Mays, who met him in Paris, that he smoked small cigars and had paintings in his flat by Jasper Johns and Avigdor Arikha. I was thrilled to learn, from Billie Whitelaw, that his favourite dish was liver and onions.

It was a red-letter day in 1996 when James Knowlson, founder of the Beckett Archive (now the Beckett International Foundation) at Reading University, published Damned to Fame, the authorised biography. Readers heard the voice of a suddenly knowable man, describing (simply, directly) a childhood in the wealthy Dublin suburb of Foxrock and the milieu of spoilt rich kids: servants, pet dogs, bicycling, golf, cricket flannels and tennis parties. He talked about shopping in Findlater's, his mother's home-made marmalade, his father's walks with young Sam and their visits to a Turkish bath.

Much of this material re-appears in Beckett Remembering/ Remembering Beckett, which Knowlson calls "a companion volume" to the biography. Beckett's verbatim words are interspersed with witness reports (by, among others, JM Coetzee, Edward Albee and Paul Auster) from different times. Beckett died in 1989, when he and Knowlson had reached only 1945, and his contributions cease on page 91. Part Two carries the story forward, to the years of the Trilogy, the global reception of Waiting for Godot, his dramatic experiments in London, Berlin and San Quentin; and the last 20 years, when he refined his plays into tiny ritualised movements, his prose into gestural phrases and mathematical constructions.

Several contributors attest to Beckett's warmth and kindness (which often takes the form of remembering people's names), his courtesy and modesty. When the translator Richard Seaver congratulates him on The End, Beckett says, "You don't know what you're saying, Dick. Nobody's interested in this... this rubbish."

There's a whiff of the memorial service about some dutiful plaudits. Happily, the Knowlsons are not afraid of logging less obliging judgements. As a teacher of French at TCD he was, reportedly, catastrophic. "A tall thin streak of misery," records a former student. Beckett's teaching stance was to gaze silently out of the window before delivering lapidary judgements such as: "Rimbaud harpooned his similes, Verlaine netted his," or lean his fevered brow against the mantelpiece until, on one occasion, the sleeve of his gown dropped into the grate and caught fire.

Nathalie Sarraute, who sheltered Beckett and his wife Suzanne when they were on the run from the Gestapo, remembers his strong Irish accent speaking French and his cunning disguise of a moustache "like an English civil servant". He disliked hearing about her literary pretensions and she grumbles that "the word 'grateful' didn't seem to be in his vocabulary". We hear of his Paris shopping trip with Sean O'Casey's daughter Shivaun and how "he was very shy in the Parfumerie department, where he bought her a large bottle of Jolie Madame." We catch glimpses of his social awkwardness. Francis Stuart remembers him drinking at Davy Byrne's (the Dublin pub where Leopold Bloom in Ulysses ate his lunchtime sandwich), hiding his shyness by borrowing some nail scissors and giving himself a manicure in order to seem preoccupied should anyone speak to him.

Literary insights abound. His love of lobsters, as recorded by Simone McKee, will come as a surprise to readers of More Pricks Than Kicks. The original of the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat in Malone Dies was the Bethlehem hospital in London. Beckett's obsession with the agonised, womb-imprisoned sensibility derives, we learn, from a period of psychiatric regression at London's Tavistock clinic under Wilfred Bion. He told several people his memory of being in his mother's womb, under the table at a party listening to diners chattering.

And he really did talk like a Beckett character. Ruby Cohn, author of the seminal Back to Beckett, asked him in 1964 if he had written anything new. "New?" he exploded. "What could be new? Man is born - vagitus, [meaning a cry]. Then he breathes for a few seconds before the death rattle intervenes." He then sketched out the 35-second drama of his tiny playlet Breath on a paper tablecloth (which she sweetly regrets not folding up and taking home).

These humanising glimpses are treats for the Beckett fan, but they never detract from his hieratic seriousness, the purity of his lifelong project to find a form that could express nothingness - to let "chaos and what is not ordered" into the realm of art. The Knowlsons have assembled, in this scholarly but charming book, a mosaic of epiphanies that will be a vital data-bank for the ever-burgeoning Beckett industry, while going some way to demystify, for the general reader, the great Unknowable.