It is one of literature’s most exquisite ironies that Samuel Beckett was the most sought after, photographed and pestered author of the 20th century. I remember mooching around Paris when I was 18, working out where he lived from Deirdre Bair’s biography, staring through the plate glass of the front door of his apartment block, seeing with a shock of confirmation the word “BECKETT” on his letter box, and wondering whether I should hang around and say hello when he left, or entered. In the end I intuited his most likely reaction – a kind of pained decency – and fled before inflicting myself on him.
But his work spoke to people in ways others’ didn’t; it reached into, and addressed, an intimate part of the self. There was something heroic about it; no wonder people wanted to touch his hem. In years to come, I would hear of, and meet, many people who had done what I did, but without fleeing, and were treated with courtesy and patience by the man. André Bernold was one of them, and, in 1979 he somehow – the details are somewhat vague – instigated a friendship that lasted until Beckett’s death in 1989.
Beckett being who he was, this is no conventional memoir. First published in France in 1992, it has taken this long to find an Anglophone publisher, and it has to be said that you can see why: for Bernold was taught by Derrida and Deleuze, and it shows. It is not, for the most part, an easy read. There were times during this book when I felt deep pity for Max McGuinness, the translator (who also supplies an excellent preface); a couple of times, I felt a little pang on Beckett’s behalf, too. “Beckett was interested in permanent states that change abruptly, as if he had been able to stretch out there, immobile, and change with them. That, I think, is why he loved music, theatre.” Ah, so that’s why. Glad to have that one cleared up.
There are also stretches when, qua memoir, that is, a description of someone’s quotidian speech and habits, this book is almost comically inadequate. However, you can imagine that time spent in a cafe with Beckett was always going to involve a lot of silences. Bernold’s first proper meeting with Beckett is described thus: “This was the first interview; it lasts exactly one hour in near total silence. I don’t remember a single word. We sat opposite each other, royally mute. I believe I remember that we were hunched forward a bit, so as to examine the deep breathing of this silence.” That won me over to the book pretty quickly, and there are enough moments like that, as well as insights into the nature of Beckett’s work (not to mention transcriptions of the words that Beckett did deign to utter in their subsequent encounters), to make this book useful. They lead you to forgive the times Bernold’s prose brings you to an uncomprehending halt. “Krapp’s Last Tape dramatises an incurable memory” is, I think, actually pretty good, Bernold getting the Beckettian note just right with that “incurable”. And I am very glad to have read this: “According to Milton, I reminded him, angels do not laugh, they only smile. ‘So what,’ he replied while laughing, ‘they are laughing behind our backs.’”
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