Vladimir: What are we doing here, that is the question. And we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer. Yes, in this immense confusion, one thing is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come.
PARIS -- Writing about Samuel Beckett is rather like "Waiting for Godot," his most famous creation. The man is reclusive, enigmatic, seemingly out of reach of ordinary mortals. Millions of words have been written about him, but he himself remains a mystery.
After fruitless attempts to contact him, or even to persuade his friends to talk about him, you start to become mentally obsessed by this world-famous writer who has chosen to shroud his life in silence. You wonder what kind of person he is, what makes him tick, what is going on behind those piercing blue eyes familiar only from photographs. What, in the confusion of modern life, does he represent?
Tomorrow, Beckett's admirers will be celebrating his 80th birthday with seminars, theater productions, newspaper tributes and readings from his works. But the master himself will remain out of sight, fretful about all the publicity and anxious to be left in peace.
"Why does everybody have to know that I am 80?" he is said to have grumbled to one of the friends who act as a wall between him and the outside world.
Like many of his plays, novels and short stories, Beckett is a study in contradiction. Born and brought up in Ireland, he has chosen to live in France and write mostly in French. He has variously been described as a saint and a cantankerous old man, a ld,10 sw,-2 sk,2 recluse and the soul of human kindness, a writer in the great Irish tradition (by his compatriot, Edna O'Brien) and a thinker whose roots are primarily French (by the British author Anthony Burgess). His most celebrated creation, Godot, who never comes, could be God, fate, death, the future. Take your pick.
Beckettologues, as his literary camp followers are known, exasperate him -- as do people who attempt to intrude into his privacy. His life, he once said, had been "dull and without interest. The professors know more about it than I do."
Confirmed details about Beckett's private life are sparse. He lives on the Left Bank in an apartment on the Boulevard Saint-Jacques connected through the kitchen to another apartment occupied by his French wife Suzanne. The furnishings are sparse. To safeguard his privacy, Beckett had a special telephone installed several years ago that allows him to phone out but no one to phone in.
Few outsiders ever visit Beckett at home. On the rare occasion when he agrees to a meeting, it takes place in a cafe' in the neighborhood. A stickler for punctuality, he will apologize for being 40 seconds late. People who have met him report that he is perfectly congenial but shies away from answering personal questions -- not because he has anything to hide but because he feels he has nothing to say.
Although his royalties are enough to make him rich, Beckett leads an extremely modest life. When he won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1969, he gave away all the prize money. His car, which he uses when he goes to his rundown country cottage in the Marne valley east of Paris, is a 1960 Citroen Deux Chevaux, a snout-nosed tin can of a car as minimalist as his prose.
"He doesn't want palaces, he doesn't want riches, the things that normal people want," remarks his friend, the Israeli painter Avigdor Arikha. "All he wants is to tell the truth. That might be crazy in the last quarter of the 20th century but truth is timeless."
A cricket and tennis player in his youth, Beckett is said to be fascinated by the game of chess. When he opens a newspaper, he quickly turns to the sports pages. In addition to French and English, the two languages he writes in, he can read German and Italian. His favorite works include Dante, James Joyce, Schopenhauer, dictionaries and the Bible. When asked recently by O'Brien if he had any thoughts he would like to air about God, he replied: "No . . . no . . . none . . . wait -- vigorously I do -- the bastard, he doesn't exist."
For Arikha, who first met Beckett in 1954, the creator of Godot is a man who combines "absolute integrity" with "extreme vulnerability." "He doesn't like being exposed or talked about. He likes to be anonymous in order to go on doing what he is doing, which means being on the edge of being. I do not exaggerate when I say that that is what his writing is all about. He questions everything. His writing is a perpetual questioning of what is true."
Arikha refuses to provide personal anecdotes of Beckett's life, because he says that would amount to "disloyalty." A similar attitude is taken by Beckett's French editor, Jerome Lindon, who has known the author for more than three decades and recognized the value of such works as "Molloy" and "Malone Dies" when other publishers were turning them down.
"Serious work is done in silence and obscurity. For me there is nothing abnormal about Beckett. For me, the writers who are not quite normal are those who parade on television in front of microphones. If this was a normal world, all writers would be like Beckett," said Lindon.
Beckett's bleak view of humanity is generally thought to reflect at least in part his experience of Nazi occupation during World War II. Having moved to Paris in 1938, he saw the city fall to the Germans and soon became involved in the Resistance. His Resistance cell was eventually uncovered when one of its members gave information to the Gestapo under torture. The themes of interrogation and man's beastliness to man recur in Beckett's writing. In "Godot," for example, it is easy to imagine the cruel Pozzo as a Nazi.
It was not until 1952, and the first production of "Godot" on French radio, that Beckett achieved literary recognition. That same year, Lindon accepted the "Molloy" trilogy for Editions de Minuit, a publishing house that later discovered such writers as Claude Simon (who won the Nobel Prize in literature last year) and Marguerite Duras.
Lindon recalls how he read the manuscript of "Molloy" in the Paris metro, dissolving into convulsive laughter beneath the astonished gaze of his fellow passengers. He now describes the discovery of Beckett "as the most important moment in my life as an editor."
The grimness in Beckett's work is relieved by a sense of black humor that verges on the absurd. His characters would appear to have no good reason to go on living, but they do not commit suicide. The redeemer never arrives -- indeed there are grounds for supposing he does not exist -- but life nonetheless goes on.
Beckett's acceptance of the Nobel Prize in 1969 contrasted with Jean-Paul Sartre's refusal of the same award five years before. Asked why Beckett did not also refuse the prize, given his dislike of publicity, Lindon replied: "There you have the difference between him and Sartre. Samuel Beckett is well brought up. Had he done the same thing as Sartre, it would just have multiplied the media impact. Sartre refused the Nobel Prize but asked if he could have the money, while Beckett accepted the prize but didn't take the money."
In recent years, Beckett has written relatively little. In 1981, he dedicated a new play, "Catastrophe," to the imprisoned Czech dramatist Vaclav Havel. His most recent work, "What? Where?," originally appeared in English in 1983. Its French premiere will take place next week at the Theatre du Rond Point in Paris.
Beckett's most recent public gesture occurred during the French election campaign when, along with other writers, he signed a declaration in support of the controversial Socialist culture minister, Jack Lang. The statement surprised some of his friends, since he has taken great care to avoid getting involved in politics. Arikha says he suspects it was Lindon who persuaded the author to sign the declaration.
Given Beckett's penchant for secrecy, the mystery of why he broke with the habits of a lifetime is unlikely to be solved. As he noted in another context (when asked to explain one of his plays): "I feel the only line is to refuse to be involved in exegesis of any kind . . . If that's not enough for them, and it obviously isn't, it's plenty for us, and we have no elucidations to offer of mysteries that are all of their making."
When asked for help in researching this article, Arikha was blunt. "I think you ought to give it up. You can't gossip about Beckett because there is nothing to gossip about. If you really have to publish something, just quote his own work. Take Vladimir's monologue in 'Godot.' "
Vladimir: Was I sleeping, while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now? Tomorrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today? That with Estragon my friend, at this place, until the fall of night, I waited for Godot? That Pozzo passed, with his carrier, and that he spoke to us? Probably. But in all that what truth will there be? (Estragon, having struggled with his boots in vain, is dozing off again. Vladimir stares at him.) He'll know nothing. He'll tell me about the blows he receives and I'll give him a carrot. (Pause.) Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave-digger puts on the forceps. We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries. (He listens.) But habit is a great deadener. (He looks again at Estragon.) At me too someone is looking, of me too someone is saying, he is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on. (Pause) I can't go on. (Pause) What have I said?