Category Archives: Beckett

With Joyce the difference is that Joyce was a superb manipulator of material – perhaps the greatest. He was making words do the absolute maximum of work. There isn’t a syllable that’s superfluous. The kind of work I do is one in which I’m not master of my material. The more Joyce knew the more he could. He’s tending toward omniscience and omnipotence as an artist. I’m working with impotence and ignorance. I don’t think impotence has been exploited in the past. My little exploration is that little zone of being that has always been set aside by artists as something unusable – as something by definition incomparable with art.

— Beckett, New York Times interview, 1956

Nothing to declare

Waiting for Godot frankly jettisons everything by which we recognise theatre. It arrives at the custom-house, as it were, with no luggage, no passport, and nothing to declare; yet it gets through, as might a pilgrim from Mars. It does this, I believe, by appealing to a definition of drama much more fundamental than any in the books.

Kenneth Tynan

I say to myself sometimes, You must learn to suffer better than that if you want them to weary of punishing you one day. I say to myself sometimes, You must be there better than that if you want them to let you go one day. But I feel too old, and too far, to form new habits. Good, it’ll never end, I’ll never go.

— Beckett/Jack Macgowran, Beginning to End

God first!
Are you right?
CLOV (resigned):
Off we go.
HAMM (to Nagg):
And you?
NAGG (clasping his hands, closing his eyes, in a gabble):
Our Father which art—
Silence! In silence! Where are your manners?
Off we go.
(Attitudes of prayer. Silence. Abandoning his attitude, discouraged.)
CLOV (abandoning his attitude):
What a hope! And you?
Sweet damn all!
(To Nagg.)
And you?
(Pause. Abandoning his attitude.)
Nothing doing!
The bastard!! He doesn’t exist.
Not yet.

— Beckett, Endgame

‘If these gouaches live at all, it is because they are true, they derive from life. They are born of the unknown – and not of habit, or know-how, or intention, or of some recipe.’
Echoing what I have just told him about my work:
‘There comes a time when serious work is no longer an effort. When demanding work of that kind no longer tires you.
‘You just have to give back what you have received.
‘Sometimes, you work, you do your best, but there is no reward. The thing escapes you, you can’t get inside it.
‘Too many artists play it safe and keep within the bounds of the possible.
‘Above all, never affirm.
‘It’s important to see that my paintings are ultimately stimulating. They are not at all the kind of thing that inspires despair.’

— Bram van Velde, in Juliet’s Conversations with Samuel Becket and Bran van Velde

But the material of experience is not the material of expression and I think the distress you feel, as a writer, comes from a tendency on your part to assimilate the two. The issue is roughly that raised by Proust in his campaign against naturalism and the distinction he made between the “real” of the human predicament and the artist’s “ideal real” remains certainly valid for me and indeed badly in need of revival. I understand, I think no one better, the flight from experience to expression and I understand the necessary failure of both. But it is the flight from one order or disorder to an order or disorder of a different nature and the two failures are essentially dissimilar in kind. Thus failure in life can hardly be anything but dismal at the best, whereas there is nothing more exciting for the writer, or richer in unexploited expressive possibilities, than the failure to express.

— Beckett, from a letter to a fellow writer (via here)

If I said

If I said, There’s a way out there, there’s a way out somewhere, the rest would come. What am I waiting for then, to say it? To believe it? And what does that mean, the rest? Shall I answer, try to answer, or go on as though I had asked nothing?

— Beckett, Texts for Nothing no. 9


But the rages were the worst, like a great wind suddenly rising in me, no, I can’t describe. It wasn’t the violence getting worse in any case, nothing to do with that, some days I would be feeling violent all day and never have a rage, other days quite mild for me and have four or five. No, there’s no accounting for it, there’s no accounting for anything, with a mind like the one I always had, always on the alert against itself, I’ll come back on this perhaps when I feel less weak. There was a time I tried to get relief by beating my head against something, but I gave it up. The best thing I found was to start running.

Beckett, From an Abandoned Work

Fail better

Worse still (and heading worstward) what about ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better’, surely the most misread sequence in all of Beckett? He would have been horrified to see it appropriated as a catch-all stoic maxim (e.g. ‘OK, you’re destined to fail, but never mind, keep trying, keep failing in such a way that your failures come closer to success’). Beckett would have poured scorn on this sort of chocolate-box philosophy. The intended meaning is, directly and literally, ‘fail more fully, more catastrophically. Absolutize your failure.’ Not especially Guardian-friendly, is it?

— From a comment here.


There’s something else going on – an asceticism, but in a novel form. If Beckett suffered from depression, he was able to make it an instrument better than most. Which reminds me of George Steiner’s thought that Proust and Dostoevsky were artists who used their own illnesses as great perceptive instruments. It’s in Beckett’s rejections (that we start to see in the first volume of letters), for instance going from a positive to a negative on Jane Austen, that we start to see something like depression become a true instrument.

— From a comment here