Thursday, July 14, 2005

Poetry of the novel: Beckett in Germany looking at paintings

One thing I dislike about biographies is that they often begin with the subject's birth. While I accept that this might be necessary, the background of grandparents, parents and siblings, no matter how brief, is often tiresome. By the time the subject is an adult, my interest tends only to be in finishing the book. For this reason, I began re-reading Damned to Fame, James Knowlson's long, pains-taking biography of Beckett, from Chapter 10: Germany – the Unknown Diaries 1936-37. The chapter also contains the deeper reason for my impatience.

Elsewhere I have mentioned that 2006 is Beckett's centenary. I'm looking out for the news of the promised first editions of his collected correspondence. Knowlson whets the appetite with quotations from a few letters. I have read them before. Indeed Spike's review of this and Anthony Cronin's The Last Modernist was the first thing I ever wrote for it, back in 1996, the year of its birth (which means Spike has a special anniversary itself). I don't recall much of either biography, hence the decision to do so again but without the stifling preamble.

Beckett is 30 and, as he leaves Ireland for a not-so-grand tour of Germany, has various people trying to get Murphy published in the UK and US. In my review of the biography, I mention that these diaries reveal that Beckett to be very conscious of what was happening in Germany at that time. He despised the Nazis and was disgusted by those who parroted received opinion. The Nazis also frustrated the main purpose of the trip, and this is what makes this chapter particularly intriguing; something I didn't mention in the review: Beckett's travels are almost solely given over to viewing art. And he mixed not with writers but collectors and artists. He visits Hamburg, Brunswick, Erfurt, Dresden, Berlin and Munich always to view paintings.

At that time the Nazis had banned 'decadent' art from exhibition, so it was rare he could see all that he wanted. But he found much to inspire in older works, such as 'the profound reticence' of Giorgione's self-portrait and the sacred in Altdorfer's landscapes. Incidentally, when I read this in 1996, I did not have access to the internet, so it was good to be able to access images of these as the biography does not contain illustrations.

I didn't need the internet to visualise one artist however. I was pleased to be reminded that Beckett loved the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. Knowlson says that Two Men Contemplating the Moon might well have stayed in the author's mind long enough to emerge as Vladimir and Estragon. But it is more than inspiration for characters that painting had on Beckett's work.

Knowlson's book is famous for including details of Beckett's excruciating psychosomatic illnesses. In Hamburg, he had a sore on his lip, ruining his chances with art-friendly German ladies, and then festering boils on his fingers. In Berlin he gets laid up by an unexplained abscess behind his scrotum. As he rests, he notes down his thoughts on poetic theatre, having just seen a production of Hebbel's Gyges and His Ring. According to Beckett, 'the poetical play can never come off as a play, nor when played as a play either, because the words obscure the action and are obscured by it'.

Knowlson argues that Waiting for Godot creates 'a poetry of the theatre rather than poetry in the theatre.' The play uses speech rhythms whose vitality comes 'not from poetic forms or metaphors but from music hall and circus and action and gesture [that] create their own kind of intricate, balletic choreography.' In later plays, Beckett 'took care to set up tensions within […] language and create powerful visual images, often modelled on paintings, that either sustain or undercut it'.

This might help us define the necessary distinction between the kind of literary novel at which Grumpy Old Bookman regularly sneers, because it places poetic language over doing a good professional job for the reader (whatever that means), and the real kind of literary novel whose poetry resides not in relentless perception, fancy metaphors or swooning sentimentality, but in the intricate choreography of language and the action it describes. This is why I feel no pressure to admire beautiful sentences and endless mots juste churned out by writers for whom the novel just happens to be the given form (i.e about 95% of modern novelists).

It's also why reading one chapter from the biography can be more affecting than wading through the 700 pages, just as looking at a painting can offer more than any amount of background information. The shape of the life can be sensed over thirty pages. One reads them with the tension of the present either sustained or undercut by the past and future.


  1. Thanks for this post, I was just thinking about Beckett in Germany the other day.
    I have a novel here lent to me by a Polish relative by Siegfried Lenz, The German Lesson (transl. Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins, Methuen 1971), about a "decadent" painter in Holland who is forbidden to continue working during the Nazi occupation. An intriguing story which is not terribly well served by its translators, and which I must return tout de suite or she will think I am keeping it forever. The Knowlson bio is wonderful, I think - funnily enough I quite enjoyed some of the earlier stuff, bearing in mind the visuals of Beckett walking wordlessly with his father, or throwing himself as a child from the top of the pine trees through the branches to the ground, to see what would happen.
    Visiting via the Britlitblogs link, by the way...

  2. Thanks for your comment Genevieve. I would have liked more about his time in Kassel with Peggy Sinclair, solely because I know the place well and want to seek out connections!

  3. Anonymous12:53 pm

    'The shape of the life can be sensed over thirty pages. One reads them with the tension of the present either sustained or undercut by the past and future.'

    Is this an aguement for a return of the author? A return to a biographical analysis of art? Or more of a return to a biographical essay discoursing between the work and the creator?

  4. Not one of those. And not a return. I was just distinguishing between effective storytelling - where what's not said is as significant as anything else - and the tendency toward drenching a narrative with facts and poeticisms. The former can work in biography as well as fiction.

    I was also implying that other art forms can inform literature in form as well as content. In an earlier blog comment, MadInkBeard Derik said painting and literature combine in graphic novels. But they also combine in Beckett.

  5. Anonymous6:44 am

    Sorry to say but facts are the core of biography. With them, with out facts in any form of writing, then writing would not at all be possible.

    By the way what the hell is a 'poeticism' when its at home, Some kind of over use of metaphor?

    And just one more thing - why do you always 'imply.' Why not just say someting directly?

  6. "You're a prick." What does that imply?

  7. Anonymous11:46 am

    Yawn. So many holes. To little time. The wood before the tree's etc etc...

    '...reading one chapter from the biography can be more affecting than wading through the 700 pages,...'

    The impatience of it all.

  8. Anonymous5:34 am

    I came across an interview with Knowlson (available at "") in which he talks about the importance of the paintings that Beckett saw in his German trip to his later work. Apparently he covers the same ground in an essay in his book "Images of Beckett", which I haven't read.

    A good deal of Knowlson's (incidentally excellent) biography doesn't contribute a great deal to an understanding of Beckett's work - so much 'arts and crafts, good housekeeping' - but there are points - for example, the ways in which Beckett seems to have started with an image, often derived from painting, or his remark that stage drama is about little people in a big space whereas TV drama is about big people in a little box - where you do feel that you're gaining a greater understanding of the work.



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