Not Touched By The World

My unique relation with my work – and it is a tenuous one – is the making relation. I am with it a little in the dark and fumbling of making, as long as that lasts, then no more. I have no light to throw on it myself and it seems a stranger in the light that others throw.

This quote, that opens the first volume of Beckett’s letters (1929-1940), brings to mind an incident James Knowlson covers in his superb biography Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett. (Read Knowlson’s book if you have any interest in Beckett. It is nectar.)

Adorno met Beckett on several occasions. Despite Beckett’s insistence to Adorno that the character “Hamm” in Endgame contained no allusion to Hamlet, Adorno’s subsequent essay Trying to understand Endgame further developed Adorno’s Hamlet theory. This undoubtedly triggered a reference Beckett made a few years later when questioned about Endgame: “Endgame will be just play. Nothing Less. Don’t worry about enigmas and solutions. For these we have well-equipped universities, churches, cafés du commerce and so on”.

Adorno, incidentally, at the time preceding his death, was working on a series of marginalia to the novel Unnamable, which he considered Beckett’s masterpiece. The motto of Adorno’s marginalia was, “The path of the novel: reduction if the reduced”.

Beckett continues to preoccupy me into the late summer, and, most likely, autumn season. I read Anne Atik’s How it Was: A Memoir of Samuel Beckett, a deeply personal, moving memoir of what Beckett meant to Atik and her family as a close family friend.

Last night I reread this Quarterly Conversation interview about the publication of Beckett’s letters. It is excellent on several levels but especially for this summation by artist and art historian Avigdor Arikha about why Beckett meant so much to him:

When I asked Avigdor Arikha, on one of the last times I met him shortly before his death, if he could tell me why it was that Beckett had mattered so much to him—he had told me he missed him more and more every day—he explained to me that he was the one person he had ever met—in such a full and dramatic life—who in some part of him “n’était pas touché par le monde” (was not touched by the world). By “the world” he intended, as he went on to explain, all that is low and dirty and nasty. Every time I sit at my desk to work on the letters, or almost every time, I feel I am experiencing the truth of what Avigdor told me that day.

Even as a reader of Beckett I recognise this quality as what draws me not only to his prose but to the man, his life, letters and library. Kafka matters in precisely the same way.

8 thoughts on “Not Touched By The World

  1. Thanks for sharing these thoughts. I have not yet read Beckett as thoroughly as I’ve read Kafka, but I, too, feel a similar pull toward him as I do toward Kafka. Maybe I will spend the winter with Beckett. This autumn I plan on devoting to Bernhard.

    What are your preferences on timing regarding your reading of biographies, memoirs, letters, etc.? I know some people are reluctant to approach that material until they have read all or most of an author’s published literary works (I’m thinking of writers of fiction, drama, and poetry here). However, I find with certain authors it can help facilitate further reading of the primary texts. For example, with Bernhard I found that reading his memoir early on has greatly enhanced my continued reading of his fiction.

    • Of the 25-30 writers I consider my old chestnuts, my preference is to read the major primary texts first, only then to turn to biography if a decent one exists. Memoirs, diaries or autobiography I treat as fiction and primary material. After biography I look for letters and a small, carefully chosen selection of secondary criticism. The secondary material in turn informs my rereading of those primary texts.

      I must devote some time to Bernhard beyond the brilliant Old Masters.

  2. Thank you Anthony, I really enjoy these posts on Beckett!

    “I have no light to throw on it myself and it seems a stranger in the light that others throw.”

    One could maybe say that reading Beckett is about production, and not about reducing the texts into understandable wholes. Strangeness is a central quality: the work will not settle or come to rest, it continues to be an enigma even after reading and re-reading. (I guess this is also true regarding Kafka).

    • Without being Beckett, there is no way you’d understand more than a part of what is going on in his texts, and there is a part that he probably didn’t understand either. Kafka too. I never get the reader that’s obsessed with finding meaning in everything. You don’t find it in life so why in fiction.

  3. Glad to have stumbled upon this post/blog and the suggestions you’ve provided. It is only in the last year that I’ve ‘discovered’ Beckett. I fell in love with his plays (Godot – Endgame – Happy Days). I’ve also read a few of his short non-fiction pieces, but his novels remain to be tackled. Will certainly place the biography you’ve mentioned on my Greads shelf. ~ a

    • Hi Angela, thank for commenting. You are in for a treat if you haven’t read what has become known as the trilogy of Beckett’s novels: Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamble. Knowlson’s biography is riveting, not a dull page.

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