The Swiss tennis champion Stan Wawrinka has the words “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better” tattooed in blue ink on the inside of his left forearm. The lachrymose ending of Israel Horovitz’s recent movie My Old Lady has Kevin Kline paying his respects at a tombstone on which are engraved the words “If you do not love me I shall not be loved.” The first of these quotations is from Samuel Beckett’s late prose piece Worstward Ho, the second from his 1936 poem “Cascando.”
In their original contexts, they do not work quite so well as motivational mottoes or sentimental consolations. “Fail better” (which I recently saw on a recruitment advertisement for a financial services company) is followed a few lines later by a reminder that, for Beckett, the phrase is an exhortation, not to keep trying until you succeed but to keep failing until you fail completely: “Fail again. Better again. Or better worse. Fail worse again. Still worse again. Till sick for good. Throw up for good.” This doesn’t quite work on an athlete’s arm. As for “If you do not love me I shall not be loved,” it is quickly followed by another bout of verbal nausea:
the churn of stale words in the heart again
love love love thud of the old plunger
pestling the unalterable
whey of words
We are unlikely to see that on a Valentine’s Day greeting card anytime soon.
Beckett loved tennis and his sense of humor might have been gratified by the joke that contemporary culture is playing on him, making his enactments of futility themselves futile by reading them as cheerleaders’ chants. And he would have recognized the ironies involved in this transformation of wretchedness into celebration, for he faced them in his own lifetime, not least in the years after the utterly unexpected success of Waiting for Godot in the mid-1950s, which brought him money and fame. Success was not what Beckett had bargained for: his compact with the Muses stipulated that he must embrace, as his biographer James Knowlson summarizes, “poverty, failure, exile, and loss.” Instead of failing better, he was now succeeding worse.
The feeling of abandonment from which he had written (between 1947 and 1950)Godot, Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable—the knowledge that no one greatly cared what he wrote or why—was now impossible. In 1948, he could write, with typically self-wounding humor, to his agent George Reavey in London that “I am now retyping, for rejection by the publishers, Malone Meurt.” In a revealing homage to his Paris publisher Jérôme Lindon, appended to a letter of June 1962, Beckett reveals that he was, indeed, on the cusp of abandoning writing altogether before Lindon accepted his great novel Molloy for publication in 1950: “It would have taken only this last little no thank you for me finally to see that that was it.”
By 1957, when the third volume of Cambridge’s wonderful edition of his letters begins, Beckett is famous and “these bastards of journalists” and “those bastards of critics” (as he calls them in a letter to Alan Schneider) are working over his case. Beckett was acutely conscious that however much he would “refuse to be involved in exegesis of any kind,” he already had by then a public image. He agonized about becoming, as it were, Beckettian and longed for those days of utter hopelessness and utter freedom. As he wrote to his American publisher Barney Rosset in November 1958:
I feel I’m getting more and more entangled in professionalism and self-exploitation and that it would be really better to stop altogether than to go on with that. What I need is to get back into the state of mind of 1945 when it was write or perish. But I suppose no chance of that.
Three days later he returned to the same theme:
The only chance for me now as a writer is to go into retreat and put a stop to all this fucking élan acquis [momentum] and get back down to the bottom of all the hills again, grimmer hills…[than] in 45 of cherished memory and far less than then to climb with, i.e. nice proportions. It’s not going to be easy, but it’s definitely the only last worth trying to pant as far as I’m concerned. So if all goes well no new work for a long time now, if ever.
He repeated this image of getting “back to nothing again and the bottom of all the hills again like before Molloy or else call it a day” to his radio producer (and subsequently his lover) Barbara Bray a few days later. Later again he writes to Bray, in a beautiful summary of his aesthetic, about trying and failing “to find the rhythm and syntax of extreme weakness, penury perhaps I should say.”
These protestations, admittedly, cannot be taken quite at face value. The joke on his own hopes of failing better in the letters to Rosset—if all goes well, he will write nothing—is by no means new.
Long before Beckett feared entanglement in the nets of fame and “self-exploitation,” he could always find other reasons both to be disgusted with his writing and to believe that the worse it got the better it would be in the end. In 1933, when still obscure, he wrote to his friend Thomas MacGreevy: “I find it more and more difficult to write and I think I write worse and worse in consequence. But I have still hopes of its all coming in a gush like a bloody flux.”
By the time we find him in his post-Godot agonies Beckett was, moreover, very good at being Beckettian, at playing on, and playing up to, the image he has created. The great delight of this new volume of letters, indeed, is in the hilarity of Beckett’s acting out for his correspondents a version of himself close to the misfortunate characters that populate his work. When an admirer sends him two dozen monogrammed handkerchiefs, he becomes Hamm in Endgame, who refers to his handkerchief as an “old stancher”: “I have received two dozen old stanchers; I shall have to start crying again.” He gives Rosset a wonderfully deadpan account of standing on a street corner in London after a lunch with Charles Monteith and Peter du Sautoy of Faber and Faber. While they praisedKrapp’s Last Tape as “frightfully funny,”
I was calculating with anguish the chances of my bladder’s holding out to the only public lavatory known to me in the West End, viz. in the Piccadilly Underground (it did almost).
The “almost” is as delicious in its comic catastrophe as anything in Godot. So is his description to Bray of mundane futility: “I go out to look for something to do in the garden. Yesterday I mowed the grass which did not need to be mown. Perhaps to day with rain threatening I shall water it.” And there is his similar image of himself, written to Jacoba van Velde, as a Sisyphus with a garden spade: “I would like to spend two months in the country digging holes, filling up each one as I go with the earth from the next one.”
He plays up his own bodily afflictions: “I was always a great one for cysts.” He delights in the deadliness of his physician (“You wouldn’t get through one day of his prescription,” he mock-boasts to Bray) and hopes those same afflictions might kill him off: “Perhaps in this way I shall succeed in dying before an operation becomes necessary.” He comes up with a doubly miserable topographical coinage to describe his mood, combining the flatness of the polders—low-lying land—with the becalmed doldrums and claiming to be in “the poldrums.” He imagines a character for his next work: “Says nothing, just howls from time to time.” He pretends to be so fed up with writing that he finds himself “wishing I had complied with my father’s wishes and gone into Guinness’s Brewery.”
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