It was the end of 1980 that I first met Samuel Beckett. Knowing I was going to Paris, a friend who knew Beckett had asked me to bring him a gift. As I sat waiting in the café at the Hotel PLM that cold December morning I was in panic, wondering how I could possibly find anything to say that would interest him.
When he walked into the café, I was unprepared for the effect his physical presence had on me. I had seen photos of him but none bore any resemblance to the tall, spectral figure who was suddenly before me, arm extended in a warm greeting. Exceedingly thin, he seemed to physically embody the bare minimalism that his work had become. His ears were immense and his hair appeared to be on end in the manner of a cartoon character who has just seen a ghost. But most notable was the extreme contrast between the craggy features of his deeply lined face and his soft, luminous eyes.
His graciousness immediately put me at ease, making me feel as if I were in the company of a beloved uncle. We spoke without pause for an hour. It seemed as if nothing unimportant was said, no time wasted with anything trivial. He spoke openly and in great detail of his life, his mother’s death and the struggles in his work. His earnestness insisted on my own. I found it easy to tell him of my own parents’ death, my deepest feelings, memories, and beliefs.
To my surprise he seemed genuinely, even intensely, interested in me. When he learned I was a Buddhist, he plied me with questions about this point of view. Although he seemed to respect the technique and tradition of meditation, he said that for him, “the quickest way to self-obliteration is through writing.”
He also seemed appreciative that I was an artist (or perhaps grateful I was not a writer, or worse, someone who wanted to interview him). He wanted to know everything about my painting and over the years I knew him, always inquired about it. We spoke a great deal about art during that first meeting. He told me of his friendships with Giacometti and Bram van Velde. He loved painting and at one time had an extensive collection in his home. Then one day, he told me, he had decided to take all his paintings down. He had lent his two van Velde's to the Beaubourg and didn’t want them back. I said, “So you just wanted to live surrounded by white walls?” After an extremely long silence, he said, “Well, actually, they are gray.”
At another meeting he told me of a production for German television he had staged in which he abandoned words completely and choreographed his characters moving through different colors in and out of the light. At the PLM he drew several pictures for me on the cage napkin showing me his ideas. He confessed that he found the color green “intolerable."
We spoke of abstraction in art and he told me of two abstract painters he knew who decided to go back to realism. In one day they make the shift. “I can understand the desire to go back to something more concrete,” he said, “the need for an anchor.”
The following year, he wrote to me on a postcard of Salomon Van Ruisdael’s painting “The Halt,” which is in the National Gallery of Ireland. “Used to halt long before this when I was young (in years). Note the urinator on the right.”
Since Paris was a second home for me, I often wrote him after that to ask if we could meet. We always met at the same café and our meetings lasted almost exactly an hour. Once, during a summer visit, we took a long walk afterwards. He pointed out his apartment and told me with a wide smile and a gleam in his eye that it overlooked a prison’s exercise yard. “What’s more, there’s a lunatic asylum down the street.”
Beckett loved to walk and told me he used to take long strolls through Montparnasse in the middle of the night and by chance would often meet Giacometti who was doing the same. They would continue on together walking and talking for hours. I asked him if walking at such an hour was a way of protecting his anonymity. He laughed and told me the story of how one night just as he was—happily—feeling quite alone, he spotted a man down the street coming towards him. As the man came closer, Beckett saw that he was carrying a book. Finally, the man stood right before him, opened the book which was The Unnamable and asked him to autograph it.
One of the things I remember most about Beckett was his voice, the gentle quality of his Irish accent. His French, of course, was impeccable. When I asked him how it was that he began to write in French he replied that he did so in order to distance himself from English, which had become “too spontaneous.” He told me that by now he had become equally distant from French and English and, in fact, he never knew which language he would use when he began something new.
During one of our meetings, I spoke openly to him about some deep confusion I was struggling with. He said, “Looking for sense, are you?” I asked him if he was looking for sense and he responded, “No, I’m not looking for it anymore. I’m just interested in arranging words. My whole life is words."
Beckett often spoke of his work, the despair it caused him whether he was writing or not, the tyranny of the inexpressible. Between childhood, he said, writing was all fake, only failure. He said again and again that his own work partook of the “general fake” but he hoped that now, as an old man, “with failing memory, obscured intelligence, diminished powers of concentration and weakened volition, he could perhaps 'fail better'.” To fail better and better, he said, was the only aim.
At the time, he was working on Better Worse which was published in 1983 under the title Worstward Ho. After reading it, I wrote him a congratulatory note and he responded: “I have no doubt there is worse, but I can’t conceive it.”
During one of our meetings, he admired a small white pen, called a Sailor pen, that I was using. On returning to New York I sent him one. He wrote back: “Thanks for the charming Sailor pen. None other for me hence forward. If with it I fail to fail better worse, I only deserve to succeed.”
I once asked him how he felt when he looked at his old work. He replied: “I see so much I would change, but it’s better just to leave it as it is with all the flaws and mistakes. For example, Waiting For Godot is—as they say in French—trop de longueur. There are parts that should be shortened, pruned.” In response to another comment he made about his writing, I told him a Sufi tale about a man who was training his donkey to eat less and less, but unfortunately, just when he had gotten him used to eating nothing at all, the donkey died. From then on, he always referred to his work as “a dying donkey.”
Beckett often spoke about music, which he believed to be the purest art form. “It is never condemned to explicitness.” He had once enjoyed playing the piano but told me with a gesture I will never forget—holding his gnarled, arthritic hands above the table—“They won’t do it for me anymore.”
He had a great fondness for the work of Schubert of whom he said, “He wasn’t an old man, but he was a man at the end of his tether.” Schubert’s song cycle called “Winter Journey” was particularly close to Beckett’s heart, and once during a breakfast meeting, I asked him why. Without warning, he burst into a performance of one of the songs. Afterwards he translated it, and I understood why he felt Schubert to be a kindred spirit.
Years have gone by since Beckett’s death. When I remember him, it is often as he was during our last meeting. Wearing a black turtleneck sweater and dark gray pants, holding a cigarette in his long, nicotined-stained fingers, he stared into space, speechless. His long, seeming-never-to-end silences were frequent, and I had learned by then to wait at the brink of his void, taut and uncertain, perhaps in the same way Vladimir and Estragon were waiting for Godot. Finally he turned his eyes to mine and said he was not able to write. He could only come up with the same words again and again: “Always dream all away.”
Samelson is an artist whose work has been exhibited throughout the United States and Europe.