Academic journal article The Southern Review

Samuel Beckett: Going on in Style

Academic journal article The Southern Review

Samuel Beckett: Going on in Style

Article excerpt


    I remember them well, these last few days, they have left me more
   than the thirty thousand odd that went before.
              --SAMUEL BECKETT, Malone Dies

I was in the middle of reading Malone Dies, the second novel in Samuel Beckett's so-called trilogy, when I got a phone call from my aunt. I had a nice desk in the Long Room Hub, the new home of the Humanities Research Institute at Trinity College Dublin. The desk smelled of new wood, or materials that cover stone and approximate the appearance and smell of new wood. I was on the fourth and top- most floor, pretty high for Ireland. The floor-to-ceiling window by my desk looked over the neoclassical buildings that open onto Front Square, the western and oldest part of Trinity's campus; the octagonal 1937 Reading Room, a WWI memorial; the iconic Campanile (the 1853 bell tower no Trinity student walks under because of a widely believed superstition that doing so will cause you to fail your exams); and the famous Old Library, dating from the eighteenth century, with its ever-present queue of tourists waiting to see the Book of Kells. The Long Room Hub's modern design is considered something of a coup for the university, having won a national architecture award. From a distance, the building looks like a giant, thin tower of Legos speckled with huge windows that are so clean I am occasionally afraid to lean against them in case there really is nothing there. There are similarly large, though markedly less clean windows on the flat roof (birds have no respect for architectural innovation). My desk is directly underneath one of these flat skylights. Sometimes seagulls rest there. One pecked at the glass, staring straight at me, or rather looking with that slightly askew stare a bird has when he's really trying to measure you up. He pecked at the place my head was for a few minutes and then flew off, disgusted, no doubt, that I was not the delicious morsel my sad, fishlike face had promised me to be. I ignored the first call, suspecting bad news, and the second, and the third, knowing the well-trod excuse that my phone was on silent (as research-space etiquette demanded) would absolve me of any blame. I would say that I had been busy reading Beckett.

Below this research floor there is an open floor called the Ideas Space. It was here, having finally decided to acknowledge the several missed calls on my phone, that I rang my aunt back and heard the news. Metastatic breast cancer, several lesions on the brain, some quite large. My mom was a nurse, an eye specialist; she worked in the outpatient ear, nose, and throat department, testing patients' visual fields. Mom had gone from working that morning to sitting in the Oncology Day Ward just down the hall with IV steroids pumping into her arm.

So I was reading Malone Dies, or perhaps The Unnamable. In the middle if not approaching the latter stages of an intense Beckett binge--reading my way through his entire works, the letters, biographies. And then suddenly I was on the 123 bus out to Saint James's Hospital, sitting with my mom, surrounded by men and women in various cycles of chemotherapy.

The Oncology Day Ward is a surprisingly nondreadful place. Patients sit in massive recliners and receive their treatment in a manner that is so respectful and com- fort focused it verges on loving. The whole place is filled with a light and warmth that comes not just from the ample windows and radiators but seems to seep like an aura from the pores of the staff. A pretty picture, which puts other hospital departments, with their rickety plastic chairs and petroleum jelly-colored walls, to shame; albeit one that is occasionally punctured by the insistent beep of an empty infusion bag or blocked IV line, or the deep trundle of a lead-lined trolley pushed by a nurse in a lead-lined apron transporting chemo from patient to patient.

Sitting here beside my mom with a backpack full of Beckett books, I instinctively know this is not a place to take out Malone Dies, a novel that begins:

    I shall soon be quite dead at last in spite of all. … 
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