Magazine article The Spectator

Well Seen, Well Said, Ill Done

Magazine article The Spectator

Well Seen, Well Said, Ill Done

Article excerpt

HOW IT WAS: A MEMOIR OF SAMUEL BECKETT

by Anne Atik

Faber, 30, pp. 129, ISBN 05 71209106 eminiscences of Beckett, like photographs of him, are many and telling. Anne Atik's memoir is a happy addition to the genre. It stands the tact test: how to express a justified) sense of immense privilege while sounding or even being modest withal. Her being the wife of the artist Avigdor Arikha, many of whose portraits of Beckett illuminate the book, is a help with the modesty matter, since what she reports is not so much her friendship with Beckett as theirs. He was very good to them, with them.

True, by now such an evocation of him lacks surprise. `No one mentioned in these pages, nor anyone who had anything to do with Sam, even for five minutes, could fail to be struck by his sheer goodness.' The time, though, has long passed for anyone's being struck by this. `Anecdotes about his goodness border on hagiography': agreed. Not that it should be further agreed that `his being a Protestant saved him from being a saint', since there are plenty of Protestant saints.

Charles Juliet, in his Meeting Beckett, has an exchange: We discuss religion, and I ask whether he has been able to free himself from its influence. SB: Perhaps in my external behaviour, but as for the rest... His uttered ellipsis.

The good things about the memoir are many. There are the intriguing documents reproduced, letters, photos, manuscripts, typescripts, including one that has the title of 'Ceiling' changed to `Somehow again'. There are his feelings for paintings, such as a crucial positioning of the arms in Footfalls. There are his enthusiasms. Some of them are well known: Dante, Milton, Johnson, Keats's concept of `negative capability', chess, billiards, alcohol. Some are not: John Gay's epitaph, Laforgue. And there are his lacks of enthusiasm: Bach, Blake, Rilke, Virginia Woolf .... There are good turns of phrase that don't make the mistake of trying to sound like him: of King Lear: `He expressed his feelings about it mostly by conveying that one couldn't.' And unsentimental poignancies: his reciting Tennyson more than once in his last days. And one of the best things is the memoir's substantial and substantiated gratitude to James Knowlson for his life of Beckett.

Sometimes Beckett can be heard clarifying his chosen words. Ill Seen Ill Said: `Ill and Mal both in English and French are adjective and noun.' This memoir, How It Was, is well seen, well said.

What it is not is well edited. Your reviewer realises that he is not writing this for the Journal of Beckett Studies, but still. …

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