´I can´t write about him´ – Writing in the Silences: Beckett, Grief and Art
It started with reading the letter Beckett wrote to his friend and poet Thomas Mc Greevy in Paris after his father died. It opened up things for me and gave me the strength to start expressing myself in new ways. It was 2010 and I was doing an M.A in Anglo-Irish Literature and Drama in U.C.D. One of the modules was ´Beckett and Contemporary Irish Drama´. My father had died earlier in the year. I was teaching English in Spain when it happened, came back in June when the academic year had finished and threw myself into the masters in September. I read every book and article recommended. I spent hours in the library and would often be there when it opened. I didn´t know what else to do. If I stopped I didn´t know what would happen. I didn´t allow myself to properly think or write about what had happened to me and my family.
Beckett was 27 when his father William Beckett died aged 61 on 26th of June 1933. Beckett wrote to McGreevy in Paris on the second of July. That act itself was comforting; the writing of the letter was an important gesture for me. Putting pen to paper was a conserving act. When I returned to Spain after the funeral I gave myself daily writing tasks. I wrote long letters and e-mails to friends and family. Communication was vital. There is, I believe, an honesty and space to letters and I sought that out. Whenever I´d been away before my father and I exchanged letters and my time in Spain was no different and we wrote to each other regularly. In reality, I wrote anything just to keep myself busy. Quotes, shopping lists, dreams, memories, plans, regrets, books I wanted to read, song and film titles, places I wanted to go, to-do lists; anything.
Beckett´s letter to McGreevy is concise and direct. It also contains more overt emotion than I´d up to that point encountered in his work.
It opens with:
“Father died last Monday afternoon after an illness lasting just under a week, and was buried the following Wednesday morning in a little cemetery on the Greystones side of Bray Head, between the mountains and the sea.”
He then goes on to briefly describe his father´s death and the practical matters that needed to be taken care of. One of his main duties was to help his mother and respond to the “endless letters on her behalf”. His own uncertain future is alluded to: “My position of course is vaguer than ever”.
In the final paragraph he mentions some memories he has of his father´s final days, “joking and swearing at the doctors”, “in bed with sweet pea all over his face” and most poignantly his father´s assertion that “when he got better he would never do a stroke of work. He would drive to the top of Howth and lie in the bracken and fart”. I could relate to all of this. In the weeks preceding his death I would speak to my father regularly on the phone. I was living in Santiago de Compostela and would constantly see the relieved and joyous faces of pilgrims who had finished El Camino de Santiago. I told him that many people who had been sick would walk the Camino when they had recovered. We planned to do this together when the treatment was finished and he was better. He too promised that he´d never go back to work.
Beckett says that his last words were “Fight fight fight” and “What a morning”. I´ve racked my brain for three years but still can´t remember our last conversation or his final words to me. In a strange way that makes me happy, there was no ´final ‘conversation over the phone, no ‘goodbye’ moment. Our last chat was I´m sure filled with trivial matters; the weather, family, news from home and work. One thing that sticks out though and that I wrote down in a journal at the time was something he said to me. We were talking about friendship and falling out with people and he said “Eamon, there is no time to make enemies”. I don´t know why I wrote it down but I did. Beckett finishes the paragraph with the beautiful sentence: “All the little things come back – memoire de l´escalier.” The French phrase refers to, according to the footnotes, “an inspired afterthought that comes to one only after leaving, that is, on the stairs”. It was and is true; all the little things do come back, at unexpected and surprising moments.
This letter was read out at the start of class by Prof. Anthony Roche and needless to say it numbed me. Beckett was 27 when his father died, I was 24. His father was also 61. I´d been in a haze, working hard, and trying to avoid the pitfalls that accompany grief. I wasn´t drinking or going out much. My girlfriend and I were living in my family home and we were all supporting one another. Beckett´s letter brought me back to my own letters and writing in the weeks and months after my father´s passing. I tried writing poems and stories about him but they all ended in failure. I was, perhaps, too close to the incident. In his signing off Beckett heartbreakingly states: “I can´t write about him, I can only walk the fields and climb the ditches after him”. In a letter to a friend afterwards I remember writing about my dad: “I am always in his shadow”. I think of that line often and try to figure out what I meant by it but writing it made me feel better. The letter floored me and gave me the most intimate reading of Beckett´s work I could hope for and I began looking at his work from the perspective of ´not writing´.
That final line has stayed with me the longest and I return to it often. The next day I went to Prof. Roche´s office and he photocopied the letter for me. We then began speaking about death and expression, how or when a writer can begin to express certain topics. When does the grief settle and the expression become clearer, more objective and less filled with raw emotion? There was and is no concrete answer. For some, that expression comes quickly and clearly, for others more slowly and for some it never comes.
The final line is telling. Beckett has just written three paragraphs “about him” before telling McGreevy he “can´t write about him”. However, we know what he means, “write about him”, in poetry, prose or drama. Beckett´s work is full of allusions, glimpses, memories that linger, small incidences that remain in the unconscious and will not go away, the little things that “come back”. In Krapp´s Last Tape Krapp speaks of a lost love and wonders “What remains of all that misery? A girl in a shabby green coat, on a railway-station platform? No?” and later on “I lay down across her with my face in her breasts and my hand on her. We lay there without moving. But under us all moved, and moved us, gently, up and down, and from side to side.” Krapp is haunted by these images and returns to them constantly. The death of Beckett´s mother in 1950 is alluded to in both Rockaby and Krapp´s Last Tape.
In Rockaby we hear v reliving old memories:
“at her window
let up the blind and sat
quiet at her window”
Later, we hear:
“in the end went down
into the old rocker
where mother rocked”
Similarly, in Krapp´s Last Tape death and blinds are again referred to:
“I was there when the blind went down, one of those dirty brown roller affairs…I happened to look up and there it was. All over and done with, at last.”
The letter to McGreevy allowed me to write about things at my own pace, if at all. There was no pressure but simultaneously a reminder that these feelings would remain and would re-emerge again and again. It was the willingness and bravery of Beckett and other writers to mine, investigate and confront these memories and emotions from different artistic perspectives that was and is the most inspiring to me.
In my shock and sadness I saw grief everywhere in art. I returned to albums and songs that dealt with loss, most notably Bob Dylan´s ´Blood on the Tracks´, Beck´s ´Sea Change´ and The Streets´ ´Never Went to Church´. I actively sought them out. Czeslaw Milosz says: “When it hurts we return to the banks of certain rivers.” Everything was re-shaped and sounded different, as if seeing or hearing things for the first time. I saw Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses not as the portentous arts graduate with literary aspirations but as a lost child whose mother had recently passed away, who is wandering the city, going from one de-energising group of men to another. A case in point being his friendship with Buck Mulligan who dismisses Stephen´s grief in the ´Telemachus´ episode: “You saw only your mother die. I see them pop off every day in the Mater and Richmond and cut up into tripes in the dissecting room. It’s a beastly thing. It simply doesn’t matter”.
Bloom has himself suffered great loss. The suicide of his father, the death of his mother and the tragic early death of his son Rudy. Throughout the day he is constantly reminded of his suffering: “Something to hand on. If little Rudy had lived. See him grow up. Hear his voice in the house”. Soon after, in ´Lestrygonians´ Bloom says of Rudy: “Can’t bring back time. Like holding water in your hand”. Bloom has the wherewithal to walk away from groups (the newspapermen in ´Aeolus´ and the drinkers in ´Lestrygonians´) and his ability to keep his own company marks him out from Stephen. It is little wonder that it is Bloom who saves Stephen during his drunken escapades and brings him home to 7 Eccles St for a cup of cocoa.
What intrigued me most was the idea of mining and confronting one´s past. There are certain incidences and memories we constantly fall back on and remember, certain people we can´t quite forget. I became intrigued by artists who not simply revisited their pasts but allowed these references to reappear in their work again and again. To some it may appear futile or even easy to go over the same ground but I see it as an act of bravery. In John Mc Gahern´s work there is a constant re-examining of his childhood in which his mother died at a young age and he was brought up by his aggressive and domineering father. We see this theme in both his short stories and novels throughout his career and again in Memoir.
As we see with Krapp´s Last Tape and Waiting for Godot, there are different versions of the self constantly at play. Our old selves die, we improve in some ways and dis-improve in other ways but the key point is that certain memories remain. There is a willingness and an acceptance on the writer´s part to return to the moments that define us as humans and tackle them again with fresh perspective amidst new experience and more objectivity. What differentiates this mining from simple repetition is that the standards are high and never frivolous. Stephen Fry, speaking about music, said: “Listening to music may inspire an extraordinary emotional response, but extraordinary emotions are not enough to make music”. Essentially, when Beckett or McGahern re-examine a moment from their past it is not simply through emotional laziness but more so a desire to view that moment again through a prism of change and new experience, from a more mature vantage point. It is not enough to simply have these experiences and write about them, a poem about a dead father is no more valid than a poem about a lamp, it depends on the execution and this is what characterizes the great from the good in my opinion, that determination to return again to the defining moments that shape us and attempt to create great art from this.
For example, knowing that there is biographical detail in the works of Beckett, Joyce or McGahern doesn´t improve the work. It has to stand alone on its own terms. Being aware that Bruce Springsteen´s ´My Father´s House´ is a personal story doesn´t make it a better song. Similarly, in Guy Clark´s ´Randall Knife´ he sings honestly and directly about his father´s passing, using the knife as a metaphor for his loss. Knowing that Clark´s father owned a Randall knife doesn’t artistically advance the song but strangely adds even more pressure on Clark to write universally. There is an impetus with the great writers to take their experiences to the next level, where it becomes useful not just for the writer but for the reader or listener too. We see this also in Patrick Kavanagh´s ´Memory of My Father´, Raymond Carver´s ´Photograph of My Father in His Twenty-Second Year´ and with Seamus Heaney´s ´Digging´ and ´Dangerous Pavements´. They are not simply diary entries but nuanced and crafted poems that work on both a subjective and objective level.
It was Beckett´s letter which gave me the mental space to express myself. It allowed me to face things at my own pace. I have written many bad poems about my father´s passing but have also written some lines that I am extremely proud of. By simply writing and examining the silence I feel I have made some progress. Where will it end? Will it end? Everyday there are reminders, “all the little things come back”. For me it´s about remaining open to the experiences and feelings, being aware that something will re-emerge that will throw you off course, get you down and open up old wounds. Grief gets quieter and becomes consumed by life and daily routine. It´s rarely as loud as it was at first but the desire to express and examine those feelings is still as valid as ever. The oft quoted Beckett phrase from his 1983 novella Westward Ho: “Ever Tried? Ever Failed? No Matter. Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better” encourages us to persevere both mentally and artistically.
People have different ways of dealing with grief but for me it is returning to the page, to the clichéd notion that art saves. I even question this at times. Does it save or merely distract us? Either way, I still see the desire to write in the silences everywhere. Dermot Bolger´s recent collection The Venice Suite was a masterly collection of poems he wrote following the sudden death of his wife Bernie in 2010. He said he didn´t remember writing them but wrote them in a daze on “multiple scraps of paper” and “barely legible lines scribbled on envelopes”. Bolger says: “Reshaping them into poems allowed me to confront that initial grieving process and try to imagine myself into the different life I now lead”.
The bravery to return to these memories inspires me. In my view, the great writers write in the spaces, tackle the silences and go to the dark places. Speaking about his life Beckett said “Nothing matters but the writing. There has been nothing else worthwhile…a stain upon the silence”. It was this silence that I wanted to explore, the ´not writing´ and emptiness that consumes us all. It´s seeing it as a part of the human condition and once that space is accepted it is like having the end of the story, the in-between is there to be filled, to be written in, walked in and loved in. There is a pervasive loss that everyone feels, that everyone will go through, a search for meaning, for stability in the world. Filling it up as best you can becomes not only a means of survival but also a duty.
Eamon has had poetry published in wordlegs and Bare Hands Poetry. He has been writing for the last few years and is currently working on a series of short stories and poems.