The critics have a long while yet to wait for Beckett

What did the high priest of nihilism mean in his work? Exactly what he said, says John Walsh
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Has Samuel Beckett been rumbled at last? Next week's issue of the New Yorker carries clear proof, it seems, that the last great modernist of 20th century literature had no idea what his own writing was about. In two unpublished letters - to a Parisian radio producer in 1952, to a Canadian dramaturge in 1956, both of whom had requested "explanations" of his work - he frankly admits, "I do not know who Godot is. I do not even know if he exists". Furthermore, he confesses that he has not "the ghost of a notion" what his famous 1952 play Waiting for Godot might mean and says, in an egregious burst of arty fog, "I do not know in what spirit I wrote it".

This is pathetic behaviour for a modern writer. It's as if Bob Dylan were to confess to a friend he has "no idea" how many roads a man must walk down, or Salvador Dali explain that he had "not an earthly" why there is a giraffe on fire in one of his pictures. But then Beckett was never a helpful writer. When he disobligingly died in December 1989, he left no key to his major works, no character analyses or career CVs of Godot, Krapp, Hamm, Winnie or any other characters. Stubbornly refusing to publish any autobiographical or explanatory volumes, he never filled us in on the background details - the teenage years, the marital traumas - of the Mouth that babbles incomprehensible confessions in Not I...

Enough, however, with the heavy sarcasm. It is perfectly right that Beckett, the 20th century's most hermetic and most brilliant writer, should be appalled by demands that his work (or himself) should "mean" or be "about" something. The high priest of nihilism, he was trying to deal in failure, impossibility, non-being, chaos, un-ness, negativity, subjects that do not lend themselves to strident, declarative statements. He wanted to embody failure - ideally, he told a friend, his plays should perform to empty theatres.

The theatre was a kind of light relief after the intensely focused prose excursions into the nature of the self that culminated in the Trilogy (Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable). His plays were a series of tableaux, intended as simple, literal-minded dramatic statements: a chattering woman gradually enveloped in sand; a menage a trois imprisoned for eternity in three urns; a man reviewing his life by listening to tape-recordings of his younger self. But they were, he thought, self-explanatory. There is nothing that Godot "means" beyond the initial donne of two tramps talking beside a tree while waiting for a mysterious man to come and "save" them, but who never does.

Beckett wrote: "I know no more about this play than anyone who manages to read it attentively". Some insights, however, might be suggested. During the war, Beckett and his wife, Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, were active in the French Resistance. When the Nazis discovered their "cell" in Paris, the Becketts were forced to flee, and spent several months wandering the French countryside, hiding, waking early and keeping their spirits up with cross-talk, like vaudeville comedians. The play, couched between an antiphon and a Marx Brothers routine, may derive from this desperate atmosphere. "Do try," wrote Beckett to Desmond Smith, "and see the thing primarily in its simplicity, the waiting, the not knowing why, or where, or when or for what". Waiting for Godot's importance lies less in the words used than in the business of waiting - the optimistic, impatient, fruitless condition that suggests one is not whole and must fill up enormous amounts of time with pointless chat, before becoming so. The religious- minded might call it purgatory.

The final question of Godot's identity has never been resolved. Beckett never supplied an answer (had he done, it would have been "It doesn't matter"), so the critical world fell back on ingenuity: Godot is God-eau, ie water (the first principle); he is the figure of Death; he is the chimerical Marxist super-state... Then someone discovered that a French racing cyclist called Godot had taken part in the Tour de France that went through Dublin on 16 June 1904. And since that's the date of Bloomsday, the day on which the action of Joyce's Ulysses takes place, the critics started jumping about all over again...