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A Beckett Reader

Posted 01-23-2014 at 10:13 AM by Steve Bucknell
Updated 01-23-2014 at 11:42 AM by Steve Bucknell
I put Beckett’s “Dieppe” among the prayer-poems that Janice called for on the New Year’s Eve ‘Musing on Mastery’ thread. I’m pleased with how it sits small in white space amid all the other eloquent supplications:

again the last ebb
the dead shingle
the turning then the steps
towards the lighted town

I think no more of it, pleased to add a mark of brevity and stillness at the threshold of the New Year. I remember a stray word of Becketts' : “calmative”; yes, it acts as a calmative and helps me to turn and take my next steps.

On New Year’s Day I start to wonder if what I posted was accurate. The ‘Dieppe’ I had was from memory. When I check the internet a version there reads ‘toward the lighted town’. I look in my Samuel Beckett Reader and it contains the version I am familiar with: ‘towards the lighted town’.

Which is correct? After a furious search I finally dig out my copy of Selected Poems 1930-1989(2009) from under three volumes of the Collected Works of Sir Thomas Browne. The translation is the one I remember, but the original French verse which is given doesn’t seem to match:

encore le dernier reflux
le galet mort
le demi-tour puis les pas
vers la vielles lumières

I consult a copy of Fulcrum (No.6.Samuel Beckett as Poet) which includes an essay by S.E.Gontarski on “Samuel Beckett’s “Imbedded” Poetry”:

"But Watt contains what appears to be self-plagiary as well. Arsene’s speech, where “all sound his (or is) echo”, also contains a more direct echo of Beckett’s poetry, the 1937 poem “Dieppe”, here more fully realised in its context: “your dead walk beside you on the dark shingle the turning for the last time again to the lights of the little town”. This passage, also in the German Romantic tradition of early Beckett, is after Friedrich Hölderlin’s elegiac Der Spaziergang ( a walk or stroll, usually edifying, like that of a flaneur).Beckett published “Dieppe” separately after the war in Les Temps Modernes II.14(Nov.1946) and in The Irish Times (9 June 1945) and later allowed its collection and translation in the tri-lingual Gedichte (Poetry) 1959. Beckett’s English rendering follows the French poem as the shingle is now “dead” and “lights of the town” becomes “lights of old”:

Again the last ebb
The dead shingle
The turning then the steps
Towards the lights of old "

So this was Beckett’s own translation in 1959, yet I have the variant version in my 1967 Beckett Reader and my 2009 Selected Poems. I’m pleasantly addled and my mind drifts back to Woolworths on a run-down High Street in Mexborough. Here I sometimes discovered interesting books in the remainder bins. I found a coffee-table volume of “Kafka’s Prague” which I had for years. Where did those sumptuous dark photographs go? It was there I dug out “ A Samuel Beckett Reader”, an N.E.L..Signet Modern Classics edition. 1967. Edited by John Calder. I’d heard of Beckett as author of Waiting for Godot, but I didn’t know any of his prose or poetry. The book’s original price was eight shillings and sixpence, but these bin discards always cost next-to-nothing. There were half a dozen more “Beckett Readers” buried deep in the piles of ghost-written celebrity tomes.

The Reader had a powerful effect on me, from the shark-like photo of Beckett on its back-cover, to my stunned study of every word it held. Beckett still walks with me when all other writers slip my mind. This was the beginning.

A few years later, reminiscing about his schooldays, my pal Ian wrote :”Steve Bucknell knew more about Samuel Beckett than any schoolboy really should”. Exactly.

Ian was Estragon and I was Vladimir when we read aloud “Waiting for Godot” as Sixth Formers under the guidance of Mr.Brown. Mr. Brown looked like a tall, ginger Nietzsche; he was was our tall, ginger Teacher. He prompted us to read far beyond the confines of the “A-Level” syllabus . I remember him setting us a passage of lyrical prose beginning: “All over Alabama the lamps are out. Every leaf drenches the touch. The roads lie there with nothing to use them.” Then he would ask us who we thought might have written those words. I said Faulkner, Ian said Joyce; both good answers. I still love to read James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. My schooldays were spent reading Wittgenstein, Doctor Strange comics, playing football, replaying Monty Python sketches, writing poems and thinking about girls.

In class I hoped that my understated, witty take on Vladimir would impress Ruth, who sat four desks across and three desks back from me. Beckett’s “Cascando” neatly summed up my feelings for Ruth:

I and all the others that will love you
if they love you

unless they love you

Each evening I walked on Chapel Street, along Cross Street and up to Ruth’s house. It stood, stone-built, among trees and shadows on the corner. I always hoped to see her walking through the door so that I could say something at last. That walk was necessary. Now, when I go back to Wath, I pass her house and feel the same.

I remember one day after school walking with Ian, going past Ruth’s house on our way to the library. He looked up to Ruth’s misted-over windows and chuckled: “ Ah, it looks like Ruth’s steaming again!” I think of Ian and Beckett and Ruth, and of my own laughter then.

Beckett always seemed capable redeeming something. I wrote the first poem I believed was a poem, soaked in reading Beckett. It included the image:

He sits in that decaying house
in a kind of mental Venice
of broken bridges.

The poem, called “Bitter Regalia” was published a few years later, but when it appeared I saw it had been printed as “in a kind of metal Venice of broken bridges”. What on earth does that mean? After a while I raised a tattered flag of surrender and laughed.

Which brings me back to “Dieppe”.

Which version is the true one, the one that Beckett wanted ? Both? The turning “ towards the lighted town” seems a poem of disillusioned romantic youth; the turning “ towards the lights of old” a poem of age and remembrance. Looking forward to the New Year I still want to walk” towards the lighted town”, though I can see “the lights of old” are here.

I replace the English “Dieppe” with the French “Dieppe” on the Musing thread and begin to work on my own translation.
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  1. Unread
    [quote]Besides my son rarely spoke to me unless I spoke to him. And when I did so he answered but lamely and as it were with reluctance. And yet with his little friends, when he thought I was out of the way, he was incredibly voluble. That my presence had the effect of dampening this disposition was far from displeasing me. Not one person in a hundred knows how to be silent and listen, no, nor even to conceive what such a thing means. Yet only then can you detect, beyond the fatuous clamour, the silence of which the universe is made.[/quote]

    The above is from one of my notepad files, where I horde bits of prose and poetry. I have mountains of things I've stockpiled away. I think that was from "Molloy", which had a strong influence on me.

    I started one of my poems with the lines:

    [I]I have never taken to sucking stones, no
    but if I were to suck stones I would keep
    one in the pocket & one in the mouth[/I]

    Thanks to this blog I've just brought up my Beckett on Kindle for PC and will continue with "Malone Dies". I remember when I started Molloy I took it as a narrative from senility or Alzheimers, but then I was lost in the woods and not knowing what the hell was happening but enjoying myself anyway.
    Posted 02-13-2014 at 05:04 AM by William A. Baurle William A. Baurle is offline
  2. Unread
    Steve Bucknell's Avatar

    As the spirit moves

    Thanks Bill,

    I like that silence and go looking for it sometimes. I'm feeling pulled back to Quaker Meeting these days. Might even go to a 'Play and Prayer' weekend at Woodbrooke Quaker study centre. I don't belive in God but I do believe in Beckett.

    Watch out for that wild nomadic 'horde' of bits. It'll overrun you!

    Ruth died of breast cancer some years ago now, adding to the silence, but I can still see her there.
    Posted 02-14-2014 at 03:04 PM by Steve Bucknell Steve Bucknell is offline

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