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Samuel Beckett

Terrified of your love

by Sean O’Toole / 22.04.2010

Samuel Beckett, 1976. Copyright: Jane Bown

Funny how a love poem can make you think about the failure of blogging. In his poem ‘Cascando’, Samuel Beckett, the man JM Coetzee devoted his PhD thesis to in 1969, talks of “the churn of stale words in the heart”. If love is only capable of producing a mere “whey of words”, what hope is there in the province of bloggers where the standard pose is irony and enraged indifference? A thought.

Born last week 104 years ago, on 13 April 1906, it is weird to think that Samuel Becket might just have ended up in South Africa had he been a little more enthusiastic. In 1937, on the advice of a mentor, the future Nobel Laureate considered applying for a lectureship in Italian at the University of Cape Town. Famous for his play 1952 Waiting for Godot, a story about two vaudeville-like tramps who wait for the (non) arrival of a certain Godot, when Beckett won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969, he received a brief telegram from a certain Georges Godot, a real-life Parisian, apologising for having kept Beckett waiting all those years. Despite not making it to South Africa, Beckett cultivated a distant interest in the country. An early member of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement, Beckett refused all requests for his plays to be performed in South Africa, until 1976 when he allowed Mannie Manim to stage a version of Waiting for Godot at the Market Theatre, on condition it played to a non-segregated audience. Manim did one better, employing a black director, Benjy Francis. (The license was granted on May 18, 1976.) Characterised as “diffident, silent, and solitary” by his biographer, James Knowlson, Beckett retained an interest in the ailing republic down south right up until his death in 1989. Kenneth S. Brecher, executive director of the Sundance Institute, recalls of a rare personal engagement with Becket in Paris in the 1980s. Brecher, who was staging Beckett’s plays in Los Angeles, spent an hour chatting with Becket, who unprompted, discussed South Africa, “about which he was both knowledgeable and up-to-date”.

The portrait here is by photographer Jane Bown and appears in her new book, Exposures (R470.53 through Kalahari.net). The book features such famous faces as Bono, Robert Redford and artist David Hockney. The Beckett portrait was taken in 1976 at the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square, as he was coming out of the stage door. Bown took three pictures, writes Andrew Billen in a 1996 book on Bown, printing the middle one. As for her strategy of ‘ambushing’ the notoriously press shy playwright, who absented himself from his Nobel award commitments by fleeing “to Africa” (according to one account), Bown has said: “I used my noodle.”

Bono, 1987. Copyright: Jane Bown

Robert Redford, 1970. Copyright: Jane Bown

David Hockney, 1966. Copyright: Jane Bown

A postscript. It’s not that I have no faith in blogging, it’s just that I’m… well, let me quote some more from Beckett’s poem:

“… terrified again
of not loving
of loving and not you
of being loved and not by you
of knowing not knowing pretending

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