I went to a festival dedicated to Samuel Beckett. Here’s what I didn’t learn.
A man sits in a room in Northern Ireland. He sits on a moulded plastic chair, staring across at a low wooden stage where a discussion is taking place. It’s a room filled with people, but the man is alone in his ignorance. Oh, he did a little reading in advance. Don’t think he didn’t try. But the people around him are here because they’re fluent in a common language of ideas, a philosophical vocabulary surrounding the work of a single man, and I’m here because I know next to nothing about him.
I only hear the words, not what they mean.
And of course this discussion is for them, the true fans, at least at first. It ranges back and forth over a timeline I haven’t yet committed to memory, referencing key events I’m ignorant of, and touches on literary jargon I’ll have to look up later on Wikipedia, except, by then it’ll be way too late.
I try to write everything down.
French Resistance. Series of extraordinary decisions. Transformative. The Siege In The Room. German diaries. (Unpublished.) (Published next year.) “Germany must fight soon or burst.” Fascination for footwear…
Think about your favourite novelist or playwright. Cast your mind back, fling it all the way to the beginning of your obsession. Where did it start? It started, of course, with their work. You read something, you watched it or heard it or overheard it, and some phrase or line got under your skin and spoke some truth to you in the way only good stories do. And then? Then you were smitten.
At some point later, when your hunger for their work had abated to a manageable, navigable thing, you got interested in them as people. Where did they live? What influenced them? What were they like?
Sat here in this room at Southwest College in Enniskillen, listening to renowned experts talk about the man’s life, I’m approaching Samuel Beckett all wrong. This isn’t what he, a fiercely private man, would have wanted as an introduction to his work. Anyway, writers are nowhere near as interesting as their work. That’s the point: they lock themselves in rooms and sacrifice many hours of their lives to grim, sweaty routine so their work can have a chance to go places in time and space that they never could. That’s the deal they make. They render themselves dull so their work can fly. Right?
French Resistance. Series of extraordinary decisions. Transformative.
Novelist Jo Baker‘s next book is going to be about Beckett, and she’s turned herself into an expert on a very specific time in his life – the war years, 1939-45. Talking with her is Mark Dixon, Director of the International Beckett Foundation and Co-Director of the Beckett Digital Manuscript Project (and more besides). They are fluent in Beckett-speak – but they’re also professional communicators, and gradually I start to pick things up.
In the years before the Second World War, Samuel Beckett spent a lot of time in Germany. Six diaries have survived from that time (and form the backbone of Nixon’s 2011 analysis on the subject). The effect this tour of Nazi Germany had on him became clear in 1941, when he joined the French Resistance. His job? Transcribing important information into the most succinct form possible, so it was as portable and therefore as safe as possible, without losing any of its meaning. Of course we have a word for this: editing. The war made Beckett a supremely competent, fanatically driven editor of his own words, resulting in his most celebrated writing style – and that’s what Jo Baker is investigating for her next novel.
I’m hooked. But, still ignorant. Who can I turn to for answers?
Beckett’s most famous portrait stares out at me from a shop window on Enniskillen’s high street.
When looking at portraits of famous people, it’s always tempting to wonder what they’re thinking. In this case, we can be pretty sure. In 1981, Jane Bown of The Observer was despatched to provide photographs for an interview with Beckett. She agreed to meet him at rehearsals of his production of ‘Happy Days,’ starring Billie Whitelaw – but as she waited, Bown received a note: “I’m terribly sorry, I made a mistake – I can’t stay and have my picture taken.” She immediately leapt to her feet and went out back, laying in wait behind the stage door, and when Beckett passed through she grabbed his arm and insisted he pose for at least a couple of shots, there before the darkness of a passageway behind the Royal Court with the light falling onto his extraordinary face.
So in the most famous portrait of Samuel Beckett, with its quiet, wonderfully jumbled expression of sadness and frustration, repressed anger in every craggy line warring with the compassion in his eyes – well, we can be fairly certain he’s actually thinking, “Oh for God’s sake, just get this over with, I’ve got somewhere to be.”
Sometimes portraits are no help at all.
It’s a damp weekend in Enniskillen. On the way in from Belfast, my taxi driver told me with what sounded like poorly-disguised glee that the weather had been glorious this past week, really, he’d never seen the like, but that was all over now and the weather forecast was Stay Indoors, You Fools.
“Northern Ireland is so green!” I enthuse on Instagram. It’s a riot of colossal trees, as if they’re amassing to attack Isengard. You’ve never seen so much chlorophyll in one place.
But there’s a reason it’s so green, and it falls from the sky from 150 to 250 days of the year, depending on which corner of the country you’re in. It rained on me at TBEX Dublin last year; it rains on me now. Thanks to enjoying a largely maritime climate (due to the North Atlantic Current), Ireland has hot summers and mild winters – but you’d better have the right attitude when it comes to rain, ie. “That’s why they invented rainproof jackets, isn’t it? Now come on, stop moaning, we’ve got important stuff to see.”
I’m in Enniskillen because that’s where the Happy Days Festival is, celebrating the life and work of Samuel Beckett. Why it’s being held here is less obvious: Beckett spent most of his time elsewhere, and prior to the festival’s first appearance in 2012 the town’s main claim to Beckett fame was that he went to school there. On the face of it, Dublin has more of a case – but that city’s undisputed literary hero is Joyce, a writer Beckett sought to creatively distance himself from:
“I realized that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, [being] in control of one’s material. He was always adding to it; you only have to look at his proofs to see that. I realized that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than in adding.”
– Samuel Beckett
Then you look at the location. Enniskillen is the largest town in the county of Fermanagh, a landscape of rolling hills, misty waterways and (of course) drifting rain. The town itself is on an island connecting the vast lakes of Upper and Lower Lough Erne, from which the resort I’m staying at (pictured above) gets its name – more on that another time. It’s a soft, shifting landscape and you need a map to see how it all knits together. From ground level, there’s something dreamlike about the way its stark, rugged architecture (reminiscent of Orkney) is surrounded by pale, watery colours and usually bathed in diffused light. It’s an odd contrast. It makes your mind go to strange places.
It’s also the hometown of actor Adrian Dunbar:
“The saying goes that, “Half the year Lough Erne is in Fermanagh and for the other half Fermanagh is in Lough Erne.” Fermanagh people love these words as they explain exactly the relationship we have with water, sweet water, deep water. We are the boys and girls of the lough.”
– Adrian Dunbar, The Observer
I see his production of Beckett’s Catastrophe in an abandoned chapel in the countryside above Enniskillen. A few days later I spot him in the festival’s press office and we chat about the play for a few minutes. The reason he chose that play in particular? Because of what it lacked.
“It’s nice to show it on its own, to get the full power of it.”
In a way, Beckett’s work fits Enniskillen’s setting perfectly. His words are like the best of its architecture: pared down, unyielding, no-nonsense, not a word/not a brick wasted. But his themes? They’re designed to lack, until you wrestle with them. They shift and flow and defy easy pigeonholing. You don’t go into a Beckett play to hear a story – you go to discover one, and it’ll be subtly different from everyone else’s. His characters are given the barest of contexts – an unfurnished room, a pile of earth, a couple of bins filled with ash. He works with allegory and surrealism. Sometimes he dispenses with movement altogether, making his stories appear to lack a plot. His characters have to be squeezed by the story before they’ll speak; sometimes they’re silent. Sometimes you watch a Beckett play and at the time you’re watching, as it’s entering your brain through your eyes and ears, you have no idea what’s going on.
And you’re not supposed to. Not right now. That’s what later is for.
I work in a landscape of unrelenting obviousness, called the Internet. The task of most online writing is to impart meaning as deeply as possible in the shortest time available. It’s said that this is because modern attention spans are short and we’re too easily distracted to think the same thought twice. So-called “good writing” becomes relentlessly self-evident. My Point Is This. This Is My Point. What Is My Point? That’s Right: It’s This.
The standard assumption is now this: it’s impractical and unfashionable to write in a way that requires deciphering. We’re addicted to obviousness. The problem is, “obvious” is also a pejorative term, meaning “predictable and lacking in subtlety” (just as “obscure” and “ambiguous” and other antonyms have lost their artistic credibility and have come Things To Be Avoided At All Costs).
I’m a fan of the work of fantasy novelist Gene Wolfe. The first time I read his Nebula Award winning Book Of The New Sun, at least half of it escaped me. He doesn’t hold your hand. He rarely explains. He just gets on with the story and lets you work it out for yourself. Neil Gaiman considers him one of the finest living writers of American fiction, an author of “glittering, dangerous stories” that are out to hijack your comfortable expectations.
They certainly hijacked mine. I’ve now learned that a requirement of reading Gene Wolfe is that there will be points in the story where you have no clue – really, no clue – what on earth just happened and what it meant, but you’ll have half an idea by the end, and it’ll all click into place when you reread the whole thing. You unlock his stories. They’re not just presented to you on a floodlit platter. You have to work to get in.
And when you do that, you’re investing something of yourself into that story, and what you find inside is more of a collaboration. You open the box and you find it’s you in there.
I’ve made the mistake of thinking I’ll get at the “truth” about Beckett directly – to sum him and his work up, in an obvious way. As I learn the facts – what he did, what he wrote, where and when and how – my initial feeling of ignorance doesn’t go away, because that’s not what the Happy Days festival is trying to do. It’s not 2 weeks of “Beckett For Beginners,” because that would be explaining, directly, to your face, what it all means – a very un-Beckett thing to do.
Instead, this festival weaves a spell on you.
It uses the landscape and the buildings. It uses the rain, and what the rain does to the light. It uses an varied array of artforms, including dance, sculpture, photography, music and (of course) theatre. When it’s at its best, what you attend is not exactly what you expected. It doesn’t hit you over the head with anything, it doesn’t explain or spell it out in a patronising, My-Point-Is-This way.
It involves a dizzying number of writers, actors and other creative people (this year including Klaus Maria Brandauer, John Simpson, Antony Gormley, Germaine Greer and Adrian Dunbar), all with their own idea of what Beckett is really getting at, and all willing to stand up and argue their case.
You don’t turn up to learn, in the passive, rote sense – you turn up to discover, in your own way, the work of a man who wanted to push and prod people until they thought for themselves about the most important things, and who loved leaving gaps in his work for his audience to fill, because he knew the power in that.
A man sits in front of a laptop. Thanks to a festival in honour of a writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969, he has an entirely new set of thoughts whirling around the back of his mind, knocking things over and generally causing a fuss. They’re important thoughts, about life and his place in it – but they’re not the type you can get at directly (which is maybe why they’re so important). He’s happy to keep them scattered until patterns emerge and revelation hits, as it always does if you give it enough time…
It may have been raining – but he’s so glad he went.
“Adrian Dunbar on Samuel Beckett: ‘We are the boys of the lough.‘ – Adrian Dunbar, The Guardian.
“Enniskillen’s Samuel Beckett festivals draws international stars for happy days by the lakes.” – Maev Kennedy, The Guardian.
“Samuel Beckett – it’s a journey worth making to the Happy Days festival.” – Boyd Tonkin, The Independent.
Disclosure: I attended the Happy Days Festival in Enniskillen as part of the #MustLoveFestivals project, which you can read more about here. Particular thanks to Tourism Ireland, Discover Northern Ireland and Lough Erne Resort for making my stay such a wonderful one.