How It Was: A Memoir of Samuel Beckett by Anne Atik
This is the ideal book for Beckett fans to browse and discover telling little details about the enigmatic author (though not tittle-tattle).
Anne Atik came to know Beckett in the late 50s through her husband, the artist Avigdor Arikha. That’s a telling little detail in itself. Beckett was deeply interested in art and his circle of friends included as many painters as writers. On their nights drinking on the Boulevard Montparnasse, the trio would discuss painting and try to avoid Giacometti, a mutual friend, because he repeated the same anecdote once too often. Beckett’s visual memory was striking, we’re told that ‘he remembered paintings of Old Masters … their composition and colour, the impact each one had had.’ He tells his friends how Caravaggio’s The Beheading of St John the Baptist, seen whilst he was on holiday in Malta, led to the staging of Not I.
But it is poetry that seems to have sustained the friendship. Despite the amount of alcohol consumed, Arikha and Beckett could recite reems of verse, generally in the original: Yeats (usually The Tower), Shakespeare, Goethe, Hölderlin, the Psalms (‘the greatest poems in the world’), Dante and many others. When the drinking was over and Beckett visited the couple’s flat of an evening, they’d listen to music and discuss writers. They’d swap books. A page of Beckett’s copy of Le Rime di Messer Francesco Petrarca is reprinted to show the first owner’s annotation. Descriptions of his recitations indicate how much the poetry meant to him:
Sam did not dissect, define, analyse, deconstruct or elaborate on why he found a poem great. […] His impressions or reactions came through his body, […] he’d raise a hand or look at you intensely; or lift or lower his head when repeating the lines.
How It Was consists mainly of notes made after these special evenings with relections such as the one above. Anne Atik daren’t have made notes in his presence. (It wasn’t that Beckett was irascible, she says, just that she respected him too much. Sometimes, however, there was nothing to note. He’d sit for hours without saying a word – ‘sinking into his private world with its demons, or so we imagined’). There are occasional expansions revealing the Atik’s perception, obviously improved by contact with such a man as Beckett. The large format of the book allows us to study numerous, fascinating, beautifully reproduced letters and manuscripts by Beckett, as well as sketches by Arikha. Beckett’s other life, the one upon which the couple didn’t intrude, appears only in reprints of postcards sent from abroad when he’s working on the production of a play, or, for example, from Tangiers escaping attention. The limited perspective allows us to enjoy Beckett’s company as he reads and talks about books, just like everyone else, or just as we would like to. There are wonderful details on every page. Apparently Beckett thought Kafka’s prose Hochdeutsch when his subject ‘called for a more disjointed style’. He didn’t like Rilke very much. He didn’t like Pound because he had been rude to him as a young writer. He thought Saul Bellow’s Herzog was ‘excellent’ and loved Walter Jackson Bate’s biography of Samuel Johnson so much that begged to be allowed to keep Atik’s copy. More than once we’re told he thought King Lear couldn’t be staged and that he almost wrote a play based on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 71. He couldn’t get on with Bach or Jane Austen. It goes on.
Atik speculates persuasively that the certainties underpinning the world’s of Bach and Austen contribute to Beckett’s distaste. The work for them was too easy. Finding the form was all important. It shouldn’t be a given. From December 1977:
All writing is a sin against speechlessness. Trying to find a form for that silence. Only a few, Yeats, Goethe, those who lived for a long time, could go on to do it, but they had recourse to known forms and fictions. So one finds oneself going back to vielles competénces [know-how, as opposed to the creative act] – how to escape that. [sic] One can never get over the fact, never rid oneself of the old dream of giving a form to speechlessness.
Later he concludes (without concluding):
The logical thing to do would be to look out of the window at the void. Mallarmé was near to it in the livre blanc. But one can’t get over one’s dream.
A daydream many of us share would be to have had a friend like Samuel Beckett, someone inhabited by, as Anne Atik says, ‘the divine afflatus’. The journal form of How It Was is perhaps the best way of moving closer to that dream.