Posts Tagged ‘Samuel Beckett’

Getting ready for the Nobel in literature. And where better to do it than Stockholm?

Monday, October 5th, 2015
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Concert Hall with nobel program. Stockholm 8/2015

Laureates are seated onstage at the Concert Hall during the ceremony. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

The Nobel Prize for Literature will be awarded this Thursday in Stockholm. While we await the announcement, our New York City-based  correspondent, roving photojournalist Zygmunt Malinowski, reports on his recent visit to the Nobel Empire in Stockholm…

During last summer’s visit to Gdańsk for the opening of European Solidarity Center (read about it here), I found a nearby harbor with ferry to Sweden. I remembered a well-known photograph of Polish poet Czesław Miłosz dressed up in a tuxedo receiving his diploma from the king of Sweden, and I wondered what traces his visit to Stockholm might have left.

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Stockholm City Hall for the Nobel banquet (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

A journey without the usual hustle of airports and cramped airplanes makes a ship seem more natural way to travel. Even though the ferry was spartan in its accommodations, it felt spacious (except for the usual closet-sized sleeping cabin). In the evening at the large cafeteria with panoramic windows, time passes slowly. One can order a coffee or something stronger and gaze at the grayish Baltic Sea and the semi-circular, unending horizon, where the distant water edge never seems to get any closer.

After about 19 hours, we arrived at the port city of Ninanshamn. From there, it’s a short rail ride on a comfortable train to Stockholm. Stockholm consists of interconnected islands; its many bridges and water taxis efficiently transport passengers on its clean waterways and canals. The historic old town (Gamla Stan) with the narrow cobbled streets and shops, restaurants, and cafés, dates back to 13th century. The neoclassical Nobel Museum, home of the Swedish Academy that nominates the literature award, is pretty much in the center of it.

Nobel Ice Cream at Bistro Nobel, Nobel Museum. Stockholm. 8/2015

Nobel ice cream at Bistro Nobel (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

I took advantage of a guided tour offered in English. As a young man, Alfred Nobel wanted to be a poet. Inspired by Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron, he wrote all his poems in English. His father dissuaded him, saying that it was not a real job, so Alfred Nobel is remembered for inventing dynamite instead.

He also wrote several plays, but his family destroyed most of these papers, since they wanted him to be remembered for chemistry and inventions. He lived most of his adult life in Paris, never married, and had no children. His last will and testament gave away most of his fortune as annual prize. According to the museum, “Nobel was against inherited fortunes that he believed contributed to the laziness of humanity. The will was an ingenuous way of solving this dilemma. The inheritance, in the form of a prize, would reward those who have made themselves worthy by way of their work.”

Nobel had over 350 patents and made a fortune, but his idea of ideas was establishing the Nobel award in five categories: physics, chemistry, physiology and medicine, literature, and peace (later a prize for economy was added). The peace prize is awarded in Norway. Nobel met Victor Hugo in Paris, and throughout his life corresponded with Countess Bertha Von Sutter, founder of Austrian peace movement and author of Lay Down Your Arms. The latter influenced the formation of a peace prize, which she won in 1905.

The Nobel nominating process begins in September of the previous year, when the Swedish Academy committee responsible for the literature award sends out hundreds of letters to universities, institutions, and individuals qualified to nominate Nobel laureates. By the following April, the list that’s been gathered is whittled down to about 20 candidates. In May, the selection is narrowed to five candidates. The Academy becomes familiar with the proposed authors and their work. In September, the Academy finally makes a decision and the winner is announced in October. On December 10, laureates receive their prizes. The decision process remains a secret for fifty years – only now can we learn who nominated the winner from 1965.

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Would you sign my chair, please? (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

The ceremony takes place in three separate locations. The laureates are invited to the Academy for lunch, on December 9, and afterwards a rehearsal. On December 10, during a ceremony at the Concert Hall they receive an elaborate calligraphy diploma and medal from the King of Sweden, in addition to a check. Attendance is by invitation only. Limos line up to take the 1,300 guests to City Hall for the banquet, first walking through the Golden Hall down marble staircase to the spacious Blue Room. In Sweden, the event is almost a holiday; it’s followed closely on TV throughout the day.

One of the highlights while visiting the museum is having lunch and Nobel ice cream with chocolate Nobel medal at the Vienna-style ‘Bistro Nobel.’ Yes, the ice cream tastes as good as it looks, and it’s actually the same dessert that was served for many years at the Nobel Banquet. Another tradition started in recent years is signing the back seat of bistro chairs. One can turn over a chair to see which laureate signed it. Signatures started after Miłosz’s visit, but I located Mario Vargas Llosa on chair #26 and Seamus Heaney, chair #23.

So where was Miłosz? See the photo below, from the central area of the museum. Also, all Nobel winners are featured on a ceiling display (also pictured below), but it would take hours to find a specific person since they are not in any particular order. I know, I waited as Samuel Beckett, Wisława Szymborska, and Madame Curie-Sklodowska, the first woman to receive Nobel Prize and first to receive it twice, rolled past, before heading for the ice cream.

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Miłosz at last. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

9 © Zygmunt Malinowski

After the feast, the ball – and it takes place at the gorgeous Golden Hall. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

3 © Zygmunt Malinowski

Previous winner Wisława Szymborska in a rotating ceiling display at the museum. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

1 © Zygmunt Malinowski

The august Nobel Museum and the Swedish Academy. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

4 © Zygmunt Malinowski (1)

In my end is my beginning. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

A minute’s silence? Try an hour: Billie Whitelaw and Beckett

Tuesday, March 10th, 2015
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Ta very much, Billie.

One among the many attractions of living in London is getting a chance to see some of the world’s leading actors onstage – and so I was introduced to the legendary Billie Whitelaw as Andromache in a brilliant 3-night Sir Peter Hall/John Barton Royal Shakespeare Company production, The Greeks. Her powerful performance seemed rooted to the center of the earth. Whitelaw, best known for her work with Samuel Beckett, who wrote several roles for her, remained my favorite actress. She  was too little-known and appreciated in the U.S., so my chances to see her again were few (she appeared in The Omen and Hitchcock‘s Frenzy, but I don’t do horror films – the daily news is bad enough).

In the lead-up to Christmas, I hadn’t noticed that she quietly passed away in London on December 21. From The Guardian obituary:

Speaking in 1997, she said that death held no fear for her. “Death’s not one of those things that frighten the life out of me. Getting up on stage with the curtain going up frightens me more. I very often wake up at two in the morning with my stomach going over. Sometimes it’s difficult to work out why – it’s all the things you’ve put to one side during the day,” she told the Independent.

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Ashamed of the good life.

During the war, her family moved from her native Coventry to Bradford to escape German bombing of the latter. Her father died of lung cancer when she was aged 10 and the family struggled for money at times.

Speaking about the stark difference between her relatively comfortable later life and her childhood, she said: “It’s something I haven’t come to terms with – I’m rather ashamed of having the good life I have.”

“Sad to see Billie Whitelaw has died,” tweeted comedian Robin Ince. “I’d suggest a minute’s silence, but I imagine Beckett would suggest it should be much longer than that.”

Below, her landmark performance in Beckett’s Happy Days (read about the Stanford performance here). This grainy video is taken from a production directed by Beckett himself, with Leonard Fenton as Willie.  Act II is here.  And thanks to George Szirtes for alerting me to this video.

 

For Beckett, this is what a “happy” play looks like…

Saturday, August 24th, 2013
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Courtney Walsh as Winnie … I’d go into a tunnel, too.

After Samuel Beckett wrote his play KrappMaureen Cusack, wife of the leading actor Cyril Cusack, suggested that he “write a  happy play.”  Happy Days is the Irish playwright’s idea of a happy play.  “But what is the play about?” Stanford Summer Theater Artistic Director Rush Rehm asks.  “A marriage?  The onslaught of old age and physical limitation? The strength of a female psyche in the face of the inevitable?  The humor (and hell) of habit?”

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“Krapp” … definitely not a happy play

Come to the Nitery for the final performance tomorrow afternoon.  Or rather don’t come, because the tickets are gone.  Or rather do come, and take your chances – doors shut promptly at 2 p.m., and no latecomers are seated, so that provides a few unexpected opportunities.  There were a few empty seats around me today.

In any case, here’s the story, in Rush’s words: “Winnie finds herself buried to her waist in a mound of earth, but she carries on with irrepressible energy, winning zest, and that ‘deriding smile’ for which Beckett is famous.”  Spoiler:  By Act II, she’s up to her neck. Her husband Willie grunts, hacks, harrumphs, and eventually emerges (in Act II) from behind the mound of sand.  Not much to go on, yes?  Here’s what Beckett thought it was about, as related by Brenda Bruce, the first Winnie in 1962:

He said: “Well I thought that the most dreadful thing that could happen to anybody, would be not to be allowed to sleep so that just as you’re dropping off there’s be a ‘Dong’ and you’d have to keep awake; you’re sinking into the ground alive and it’s full of ants; and the sun is shining endlessly day and night and there is not a tree … there’s no shade, nothing, and that bell wakes you up all the time and all you’ve got is a little parcel of things to see you through life.” He was referring to the life of the modern woman. Then he said: “And I thought who would cope with that and go down singing, only a woman.”

When the play was performed in 1962, critic Kenneth Tynan wrote that it was “a metaphor extended beyond its capacity” – then urged his readers to buy tickets.

Courtney Walsh‘s 80-minute uninterrupted monologue – uninterrupted except for a few brief interruptions from Don DeMico’s “Willie” – is a tour-de-force, a restless, chirpy show of indefatigable brightness that would drive just about any thoughtful, introspective soul into a tunnel.  Rush rightly calls it “the Mt. Everest of female roles,” so it’s perhaps the most impressive achievement of her long association with Stanford Summer Theater.

UPDATE:  For the official wait list go here.

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Maureen’s hubby

UPDATE on 4/2/2014:  Sometimes an error produces interesting mail.  We received this email from Paul Cusack:

Firstly, I suspect that S. Beckett would have been amused by the mis-conjugation, my mother was not his wife! My father Cyril was my mother’s wife. I was there, in Paris in 1960, aged 14, when my father played Krapp at the Theatre des Nations and won Critics Award Best Actor. I was not allowed to see it. It was then, that my mum said, ‘Sam, would you ever write a happy play?’.

I am told, that around about the same time, Sam asked my father what he thought of Krapp, and he said, ‘I think it is a load of Protestant guilt’, to which (I imagine after a ‘significant’ pause) Sam responded, ‘I think you’re probably right!’

Thanks for the correction.

“Age has nothing to do with the template that Beckett has pressed into my soul.”

Friday, May 17th, 2013
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It changed him for the better. Really it did.

Occasionally, you hear someone blather on about how art can change your soul.  And far more rarely, you run across someone for whom it’s actually true.

Over at “A Piece of Monologue,” Rhys Trantor interviews 79-year-old actor and former felon Rick Cluchey, founding director of San Quentin Drama Workshop. Cluchey discovered Samuel Beckett and theater at the same time, while serving a sentence for armed robbery.  It’s a moving and powerful story, and it’s here.

The occasion for the article:  this month Cluchey was performing in one of Beckett’s very last plays, Krapp’s Last Tape, in Chicago.  It’s a role Cluchey has put his stamp on.  Even Beckett himself approved of the portrayal: “Rick is an impressive Krapp,” he confided in a letter.  And he repeated variants of the same thought to others before his death in 1989.

Cluchey was paroled in 1966, and finally met his mentor in Berlin, 1975.  He worked with the Irish playwright, and performed Krapp for the first time in 1977.

From the interview:

Since Cluchey’s first encounter with Beckett’s work in 1957, some fifty-six years have elapsed. I ask whether age has changed the way he performs the plays, or whether it’s changed what the texts mean to him. ‘No. Age has nothing to do with the template that Beckett has pressed into my soul. Beckett is the architect of the play, I follow his blue lines.’ Of Krapp’s Last Tape, he says: ‘I have played this part in three generations: prior to the age of Krapp in the play, whilst I was his age, and for many years after.’ Does the play, then, seem to remain relevant over the course of a whole lifetime? ‘Based on Beckett’s writing and direction, age shouldn’t be a factor.’

 Apparently, Chicago agrees. According to Lawrence B. Johnson writing in Chicago on the Aisle:  “Samuel Beckett died in 1989 at age 83, which gives one pause upon seeing that the current staging of his monodrama Krapp’s Last Tape produced by Shattered Globe Theatre is directed by Beckett himself. The answer is that the masterly impersonator of Krapp before us, Rick Cluchey, acquired the ticks, wrinkles and regrets of this hermetically sealed old man while working with Beckett late in the playwright’s life.

Curiously enough, we found a video of Cluchey performing the same role, also in Chicago, in 1981.  It’s below.

Joshua Landy: “Literary texts are not cudgels but weight machines.”

Tuesday, September 11th, 2012
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"Literature as Rorschach test, simulation space, participatory wrestling match" (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Why read hard books? the Guardian‘s Stephen Abell asks.

Joshua Landy rushes to the rescue with equally hard answers in his new book, How to Do Things with Fictions.  Josh is nothing if not a lively thinker.  Abell writes:  “His answer, when shorn of its sometimes uncomfortably scratchy fleece of critical theory, is simple: complicated literature (like green vegetables) is good for you. Landy believes that certain texts provide training for our minds, by actively working on the reader to expand their mental capacity: ‘each work, in other words, contains within itself a manual for reading, a set of implicit instructions on how it may best be used.'”

Frankly, I like the even more simple answer he gave me in his Stanford office, nearly two years ago: “Spending time in the presence of works of great beauty can powerfully change your life.”  In fact, I think the article I wrote goes some way towards answering the questions I posed last week about defending the humanities:  “The Cambridge-educated Landy rejected the notion that literature is morally improving. Instead, great works ‘enable us to clarify ourselves to ourselves.’ He offered ‘literature as Rorschach test, literature as simulation space, literature as participatory wrestling match.’ He advocated moving away from the ‘stranglehold of narrativity,’ which literature shares with biography and history, and turning to ‘a more lyrical mode of thinking.'”

The case studies from his new book range across five countries and 2,500 years: Plato‘s Gorgias and Symposium, St. Mark‘s gospel, Chaucer‘s Canterbury Tales, a sonnet by Stéphane Mallarmé, and Samuel Beckett’s trilogy Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable.  Abell writes:

Before we get to the evidence, we receive a breathless summary of various other literary theories that seek to explain the purpose of fiction. Landy is fond of lists and numbers, and posits “13 ways of looking at fiction”, which include three main schools of thought: the “exemplary” (novels as morals; read Clarissa and become a better person); the “affective” (freeing our emotions; see Kafka‘s wonderful observation that “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us”); and the “cognitive”. Landy spends most time on the “cognitive”, subdividing it – I think – into four other sections, but basically categorising it as the view that novels are “directly educational”.

Landy’s own theory, of fiction as a thought-trainer, comes close to this notion, but he exerts himself considerably to condemn those “meaning-mongers” who insist that fictions provide the key to straightforward verities. He is also dismissive of those of us who only want to dwell on the enjoyment of being told a story, or what he calls “the glorious uselessness of fiction, its ostensible inability to yield anything beyond pleasure”.

Abell hints strongly at the end of the piece that he reads books for the plots.  But Josh Landy’s description of one case study, the Gospel of St. Mark, during a colloquium two years ago, was downright spellbinding:

Landy offered an example from his forthcoming book, focusing on Jesus’ parables, as told in the Gospel according to Mark: “The big mistake that people have made across the centuries is to think that what’s on offer in the parables is some kind of message. But the parables do not seek to teach; they seek to train.”

The parables, often obscure, were meant to move readers of Mark’s texts from the literal to the metaphoric, Landy said, a shift that “implies that nothing we see is inherently significant, since the entire visible realm is merely a symbol for a higher plane of experience.”

“To move away from literal language to figurative language is to move away from the body and to the spirit,” Landy said.

“Literary texts do not bludgeon us into submission,” Landy said. “They are not obligations but offers. They are not cudgels but weight machines. Their effects are neither automatic nor inevitable.”

Read the rest of Abell’s interesting article here.  Or read my story here.

The Cahiers Series: “really, really beautiful” – and hand-stitched, even

Monday, September 26th, 2011
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In a world where everything is becoming faster, cheesier, and more functional – when books are no longer tactile, sensual objects, but characters on Kindle – it’s cheering to see anything swimming upstream.  Bonus points if it extols that most underrated of literary trades, translation.

Applause keeps mounting for the Cahiers Series, published by the Center for Writers & Translators at the American University of Paris and Sylph Editions. It’s hard to stay on top of it.  But Daniel Medin, one of my more charming correspondents, has been sending me updates from the American University.

The latest plug is in Friday’s New York Review of Books blog, where Colm Tóibín introduces László Krasznahorkai‘s Animalinside (with illustrations by Max Neumann):

The prose of Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai is full of menace, but it would be a mistake to read the menace either as political or as coming from nowhere. In novels such as The Melancholy of Resistance and War & War, his imagination feeds on real fear and real violence; he has a way of making fear and violence seem all the more real and present, however, by removing them from a familiar context.

Daniel, now an associate professor at the American University (after teaching at Stanford a year or two back), said this:

The allegorical tissue in that text [i.e., Animalinside] is very thick, the “animal inside” a literal and metaphorical thing at the same time – think Herbert‘s Report from the Besieged City, where “a rat became the unit of currency.” We’re in the realm of Kafka and Beckett here, and not just in approach: I believe that Krasznahorkai is a writer of nearly the same magnitude who has the mixed fortune of having been born Hungarian – mixed because of that country’s embarrassment of (literary, cultural) riches on one hand and its linguistic isolation on the other.

Quite a coup for a small series that lives more or less hand to mouth, on uncertain funding. Part of the problem is shipping, which makes U.S. distribution difficult, even for a downright modest price of, say, $15.  Distribution in France is a little problematic, too, since the language is English.  “Every penny goes toward quality of production and keeping down the price,” Daniel writes.

Via the Cahiers Series subscription page you can buy a boxed set of volumes 1-6 (or a boxed set of volumes 7-12) for £51 – “which is approximately $4,000, but like I said, these are really, really beautiful. (Kidding—£51 is only $75 and these are worth every dime),” according to the Three Percent blog.  (Sorry, the blogger got me going for a moment – so I had to try it on you.)

[New updated deal: In addition to having the option of ordering cahiers individually, readers can now select any 6 cahiers for £55 in Europe/£59.50 everywhere else. Check it out here.]

Last year Daniel  told the Three Percent blog: “There are two main justifications for the Cahiers Series. The first is that we publish material that cannot easily be published anywhere else; we can play with form in a way that commercial publishers cannot. The second justification is to make something where the parts, through their relation to each other, add up to more than just that.”

Much more.  Clearly, the project is gaining momentum and some very high-profile attention – for example, from James Wood in the New Yorker here.

Daniel – handsomer than this, really

Daniel also sent me a copy of George Craig‘s Writing Beckett’s Letters. Craig spent 15 years translating the thousands of letters Beckett wrote in French.  It’s chock full of impressive insights, and handsomely produced – hand-stitched, even. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but Rhys Tranter did, and said this in the Spectator Book Blog (it’s here and here):

Whilst George Craig’s book is neatly timed to anticipate the next volume of Beckett’s Letters, it is more than just a preview of things to come. To Beckett scholars and enthusiasts, the appeal of this book is obvious, tightly-woven with rare insight and beautiful reproductions. But it is also thoughtful and engaging introduction to the problems of translation, and a testament to the status of correspondence as a kind of art-form. To paraphrase Craig’s description of Beckett and Duthuit’s correspondence, this is a work that abounds in strange, unexpected things.

Prescient words. Daniel has been promoting literary translations in other ways: He’s proud that the first invitation he issued at the American University was to Adam Zagajewski, who read from his latest collection and chatted with his students about his first encounter with Kafka. “An incredibly lucky bunch, they were: Tomas Venclova dropped by the next week and shared his own stories about discovering The Metamorphosis – in Polish!”

We’ll be writing more on the exceptional Cahiers series in posts-to-come.