Beckett's Reading matter

April 12, 1996

The Nobel Laureate, who would have been 90 tomorrow, had a rapport with a Reading University professor that resulted in the largest archive of his work in Europe, Tony Tysome reports. If there was one man for whom actions could never speak louder than words, it was Samuel Beckett. Yet it was often the gestures of the writer, rather than his words, that spoke volumes about the man.

Beckett, who would have been 90 tomorrow, had a reputation that did not always match his actions. Those closest to him frequently witnessed warmth, humour, generosity and humility - not the kind of qualities expected by a general public who saw his darker, starker side reflected in the most celebrated of his works, Waiting for Godot.

One extended act of generosity for which scholars of literature and drama in this country will be forever grateful, if a little puzzled, was his decision to donate dozens of original manuscripts, typescripts and published examples of his work to the archives of the library at Reading University. These gifts, along with numerous other books and material gathered together over decades by academics and archivists, have made Reading the centre for one of the world's most comprehensive and valuable Beckett collections, rivalled only by the University of Texas at Austin, which houses the best accumulation of his earlier works.

The Reading collection is largely the result of a special relationship grew up between Beckett and an academic who has become his only fully-authorised biographer. James Knowlson, professor of French at Reading and founder-advisor to the Beckett International Foundation, had admired the writer's work since studying it while reading for a degree in French at Reading in the mid-1950s. It was 1969, the year Beckett won the Nobel Prize for Literature, when Knowlson returned to the university to teach French, after cutting his teeth as an academic at Glasgow University. He quickly decided to organise an exhibition on the life and writings of the new Nobel Laureate. This attracted the attention of Beckett himself, who made it known through a friend that he wanted to meet Knowlson. Their first meeting in Paris proved to be the beginning of a stream of donations and gifts from Beckett.

No one, not even Knowlson, knows exactly why Beckett chose Reading as the focus of his generosity. He had no special connection with the town or the university, and even declined the offer of an honorary degree in the mid-1970s. It is possible this was an example of his "quirky" sense of humour. In a souvenir programme of events celebrating Beckett's 80th birthday, Knowlson wrote: "I think it amuses him mildly that a small British campus with which he had no close links except those forged over the past 15 years should possess the largest collection of Beckett manuscript material in Europe."

Was it the same sense of mischief which famously led Beckett to tell the biographer, Deirdre Bair, he would "neither help nor hinder" her efforts to write about him, and to insist she did not take notes during her meetings with him?

John Pilling, professor of English and European literature at Reading and co-director of the Beckett foundation, found himself under similar restrictions when he first met Beckett only months before the announcement of the Nobel Prize.

"He agreed to meet me on the basis that he would not say anything at all about his work. In fact, he could not help but talk about his work, but he never undertook to be his own best interpreter," he said.

Knowlson believes Beckett's elusiveness and general reluctance to give interviews stemmed from a feeling that his work should be allowed to speak for itself.

"He would not explain it because he did not feel he was any more qualified to do so than anyone else," he said.

Luckily, the Reading archives provide the Beckett scholar with more than adequate compensation for the absence of views from the writer himself. They contain a treasure trove of material, which in many cases allows a work to be traced from ideas jotted down in an original notepad through to the manuscript, typescript and published version.

One of the most prized articles is a small, dumpy, hardback notebook, across the front of which is written Whoroscope, the name of Beckett's first-published poem. The poem itself is not inside, but instead there are numerous notes, thoughts and passages of writing, giving a priceless insight into the artistic and cultural vision behind Beckett's work. Quotes from English, French and Italian literature, history, science, philosophy and even passages of music show that Beckett took the Modernist approach of spanning disciplines to the extreme.

Knowlson believes his own research in compiling his Beckett biography, now in its final stages of production, has uncovered further important evidence of this trait. He discovered that the writer was heavily influenced by the imagery of fine art, particularly 17th-century Dutch painting. The shadowy nature of a work like Ohio Impromptu, for instance, reflected the dark tones of many a Rembrandt. Also in the margin of the manuscript of Waiting for Godot Beckett wrote the initials "K.D.F", a direct reference to the painting by Kasper David Friedrich, Two Men Observing the Moon. Knowlson thinks Beckett had almost a photographic memory for paintings, and drew on this throughout his working life.

"It seems to me that the whole focus of his interest is in this artistic continuum which goes right back to the beginnings of painting. He held all these images in his head and when he came to create his own theatre imagery he drew on them for inspiration," he said.

Another fresh revelation arising from Knowlson's investigations is that Beckett, the man of letters, was also the man of political action when human rights were at stake. The biography digs deeper into the circumstances under which Beckett joined the French resistance during the second world war, and observes how, later in life, he refused to have his plays shown in South Africa to audiences segregated between black and white.

But the enduring quality that seems to have supported Beckett throughout the toughest times was a clear view of what was important in life and his sense of humour.

"It was very difficult to be with him for any period without smiling or laughing, because he was a very witty and ironic man," Knowlson says.

Pilling recalls how these qualities helped to set him at ease during his first encounters with the writer, but how these pleasantries sometimes seemed a distraction from Beckett's preferred steady state - deep in thought and in silence.

"He always did his best to put you at ease. But you always got the feeling he would not have minded if you had sat there in silence. That would probably have been his idea of heaven," he said.

James Knowlson's Beckett biography, Damned to Fame, published by Bloomsbury, should be available in the autumn.

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