Sunday, November 14, 2004

Gardening: on intensely pleasurable private experiences

Trawling through piles of books tucked away behind the TV, I found Damned to Fame, James Knowlson's biography of Beckett. Opening it random, I read Dennis Potter's "review" of Not I when it appeared on BBC TV in 1977

Would Solzhenitsyn have understood? Would the Jews on the way to the gas chamber? Question: Is this the art which is the response to the despair and pity of our age, or is it made of the kind of futility which helped such desecrations of the spirit, such filfh of ideologies come into being?

It's hard to comprehend the arrogance, insensitivity and sheer wrongness of these questions. As Knowlson comments, Beckett would have read this "as someone who had joined the battle against Fascism as a Resistance agent precisely because of what the Nazis were doing to the Jews".

But such philistinism is endemic in British culture, even among those considered avant-garde. Beckett has never been accepted with the same enthusiasm as his mentor Joyce. And yet, even then, Ulysses is often mitigated as a Dublin compendium, as if it were like any other 'ambitious' 800 page time travelogue. Even a Joycean like Anthony Burgess thought that Beckett's reputation would take a deserved downturn after his death. (Of course, it has soared while Burgess's has plummeted).

Knowlson quotes a letter written by Beckett during a period of "inertia and void" toward the end of his life: "I remember an entry in Kafka's diary. 'Gardening. No hope for the future'. At least he could garden."

I tend to think: at least I can read. Forget the culture and desecrations of the spirit by journalists.

Today, I read Franzen's odd, enjoyable review of a book by Alice Munro. He puts it well: Beckett is also "the remote provider of intensely pleasurable private experiences". It doesn't matter that the author is under-appreciated; it doesn't matter that a book is not "a major cultural event"; it doesn't matter that the reviewers get it wrong all the time; it doesn't matter that not one of your friends has heard of him or her. It doesn't matter at all.

Instead, what matters (to me, at least, as I watch Ohio Impromptu) is: how does one discuss these experiences?

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