Reflections on Beckett and the Creative Process
By Tim Parkinson (Creative Fellow, 2018-2019)
It’s a great delight to have been invited to be a Creative Fellow at the Samuel Beckett Archive. I have a very well trodden path to Beckett’s door. I’ve known his work for most of my life now, I know it so well it has become subsumed along with a host of other life and years into whatever makes up my present self and being. I am familiar with the work as with old friends. There are shared sympathies and sentiments, in the voices and concerns and presentation, and my current experience would not be mine without his before it. And although I never met the man, his work remains a companion, and dear friend.
So of course I was excited to be made aware of the Beckett archive, and to be invited to make regular visits to explore what was there, and to get to know it, and to make some work in response.
I am moved and overwhelmed at the amount of material. Traces remaining from a life of 83 years, rich in thought and time. Aside from the body of work, behind it lies manuscripts, notebooks, letters and other primary sources; traces of the man himself, the voice of which is not so different from those of the work. It is an opportunity to get closer to the artist himself, famously private. The body of work has also left a litter of materials relating to performances and other moments in time involving an array of participants, facilitators and audiences, and in addition the work is crowded on all sides by a flotilla of artists, academics, scholars and other commentators, as well as a multitude of other art made from his art. Furthermore are shelves of books by other authors that provide a context and background to his many years of life and work.
Immediate feelings are of rude curiosity, to rummage around in the drawers and boxes, to gaze at ephemera and what remains of a time passed, feeling like a tourist in someone else’s life objects.
On the first visit, looking at the Murphy manuscript; his barely decipherable handwriting, with pages crossed through, time and thought crossed through in favour of better later, though not erased, it’s existence still evident, although a text legible only to a few now rendered further illegible by the lines through it; seeing the hand, the ink, and the fascinating doodles, a corner of Beckett’s expression of which I was previously unaware, these bits of non-art, of unthinking, or non-thinking, moments of pause and of daydream, of mind at rest, the hand pursuing habitual mark making albeit not in words, not on the job, but on a break, a mental pause, making curves and twists and clear pleasure in drawing treble clefs, and cartoon faces, some Chaplins, perhaps a Joyce, the doodles on a sudden page in the manuscript where the mind has got stuck, where time has stopped, the flow arrested in a whirlpool, or in a moment of unclarity, like a schoolboy in an exercise book, which is what the notebook is, a cheap exercise book, made priceless by its content and the period of time and thought invested in it, (a sentiment which I share), months or years of carrying it around, continuing and evolving the work from time to time in different places, from a young Beckett who was in London at the time.
I ask myself where am I in all of this? What’s my relationship to it all? Beckett died when I was 16. I can think of these trips to the archive as the nearest equivalent to meeting him, by communing with the things which passed through the hands of a life now gone. My own life’s preferred communication has been through music, and I know that Beckett played the piano, and that the experience of music is indissolubly part of his work. I would like to have talked with him about music, an art form which has its own problems, which take up much of my concern, as well as the twin need yet intractable nature of making any new work at all. I’m listening out for that conversation, finding my way through the labyrinth of material, trying to hear it amongst the silent objects which remain.
One way in for me was to begin looking at what’s there from the early 1950s when Beckett was around my current age. I wanted to try to look beneath the layers of time that have been laid upon Samuel Beckett, a name which is now a giant cultural icon and property of the world, to try to find the person with whom I might have been able to relate as an artist at a similar age, at a similar time in life, looking for comparisons with his relationship with his own practice, and his ways of negotiating that with the world. For him, these are the years of emerging awareness of his work in the Parisian publishing community, of the exciting first publications of the postwar novels by Les Éditions de Minuit, the pages of which first editions are now browned and brittled with years, as well as publications of smaller texts and extracts in collections within journals which, as artefacts in the archive, serve as glimpses of curatorial platforms reflecting their times, both in their appearance, as well as in their choice of texts and authors, their gathering together of mutual endeavour, and of community. How did these objects end up here? Who owned them, read them, carried them around, before they arrived here?
Another focus has been to listen to the recordings that the archive holds. I looked for whatever scraps exist on tape of Beckett’s own voice, precious few remnants of the voice of this famously private person. (How would he have preserved this untouchable seclusion if he’d lived in our present times of mass digital documentation?) I have sat in the archive at the tape recorder like Krapp himself, squinting through ears to the hiss and blurry sounds of a few moments of past time, sound on tape being a closer semblance than photography or text to a feeling of an actual living person. Knowledge that these tapes are physical copies of copies, an invisible path leading backwards in time to its origin from Beckett himself, and that unless preserved one day the hiss will cover all. One tape is blank. What happened?
Knowing of Beckett’s privacy, listening to his own voice on a home-made audio recording from almost 50 years ago, feels like an intrusion on that privacy. But then he is no longer alive to invite me to listen. And it is not Beckett’s voice; it is a recording of Beckett’s voice. There is no living self to offend any more by my intrusion.
Encounter with the Sam Francis notebook
A path through the notebooks. Looking for the everyday, the familiar.
Going to the place he once was, notebook, the writer’s studio/workshop. The personal object.
To ask questions of him as I do to my friends, other artists, composers, writers, to meet and talk, “What are you working on? How’s it going? How’s life?”
My internal image of SB’s work is of it in isolation, in a black box. Self-sustained. Attractive and addictive. Obsessive. Self dwelling. I relate to it. Circling around its own concerns. Playful. Playful with mind, playful with itself. Go to that black box.
My notebook containing my own work, as companion. I put mine next to his. Ordinary objects.
The same size.
I prefer pencil & no lines.
His has lines. Pen, biro.
I made mine from folded A4 sheets.
His is bought from a shop.
How’s the work going? I can’t talk about it. Me neither.
Instead observe the traces of activity of behaviour, and interpret it as once having been alive and in process, as I am now. He encourages me with glimpses of a self-made space infinite of possibility. Keep going. Questions of self judgment, self censorship, procrastination. Fighting against the noise, for clear personal space/universe. Parallels with my own process. Work, work more, judge, weigh, balance, compare to intention, step back, check, feel.
What draws me back? To see the pen marks on paper, indentations on page, scribbles to get biro working, signatures to get the ink flowing from a new ink cartridge, crossings out, dismissals, other work abandoned, not crossed out, still subject to thought, not dismissed, put aside forgotten, leave it, it ran dry. When to abandon and when to cross out. Keep going. Even abandoned work valued by author as time well spent but did not bloom, not used (or finalised) but unwilling to let go.
Ongoing conversation, about working process & relationship with practice, feeling connections. Friends’ notebooks I’d like to see. The personal object. It feels so familiar as well. I know you. Hello.
Continuing my journey through the notebooks. Now he seems to prefer squared pages. I still prefer blank.
Dates and locations.
Paris, 26.3.68, “Imagination morte”, scribbled out.
Comforted that the working process does not appear smooth for him either. Looking at these is a substitution for having a conversation with him about it. I interpret the handmade marks as evidence of behaviour, thought, energy. Pages filled with writing, crossed out, the usual verso and recto, then analyse, list themes, reorder, rewrite, retype, questions to self, try to write it again, be more accurate?
Ussy, 3.4.68 “donc… continuer”
Jump cuts in the notebooks to years later. Different pen, different light. Plans for plays or prose stillborn. An image proposed, attempts to explore it, mysterious diagrams.
The joy of finding blank pages, following pages of concentrated energies over years. What might have been written on these blank pages? A blank page for me is a charged space of unlimited potential. Perhaps a new notebook was needed? Fresh pages, fresh time ahead, clean blank slate, no associations with past work, start afresh.
Trying to read the clearest of one set of drafts, the type is covered with noise from the pen and subsequent mind. Typed and handwritten, interrupted, crossed out, inserted, bracketed, numbered, analysed, illegible additions. Other phrases appear intact from draft to draft that seem to have avoided reconsideration, suggesting a fondness for them.
Having read through the noise, I now have something in my head. But what? Not his final intended experience. Yet some thing, some thought. Not a story which would have suffered from being incomplete, but a static prose image which perhaps might have been just that in its final state. My experience here then is of the repeated attempts to write the same image. An unintended form in itself. The different drafts show different sides of the same mind. However the received intention is that only one side should be turned to face the reader on permanent display.
A final attempt, a later date, handwritten, renewed energy, commencing a plan to extend the image according to a preconceived structure balancing proportions (listed, numbered) of Themes (list of capital letters from A to I ). Theme A completed. Theme B one paragraph only then blank page. Abandoned.
Why abandoned? Was the process a trap? A mind-occupying pursuit of method, trying to reignite the imagination into more action, but ultimately a distraction? Ran out of fuel? Or was there not enough there in the beginning to sustain itself?
I’ve been there before. I recognise it and share that feeling from past working processes. Pursuing a thought, getting stuck, run out of energy, lost it, leaving the blank page to return to at a later date.
Encounter with COMPANY notebook 09/01/19
Looking at a holograph is following a journey of composition. Seeing the working process.
Choice of paper & pen important. (No pencil.)
With “Company” I am almost willing him onwards as I look through the pages. Next paragraph. Next paragraph. Are there 60? Predetermined amount?
Neat and consistent one after another.
All dated. Consciously so?
An accounts ledger. Was it given to him? (Seems arbitrary.) Or conscious choice? Small writing. Sense of conscious orderliness? A place completely removed from anywhere one would write literature. Not squared anymore but one step even more scientific. Perhaps chosen because of this. Fresh foreign land to think afresh.
At last a long scale structure. Forward progress, inching along by repeating and building on the static forms of Fizzles. From where he got stuck with the Ray.
On versos analysis of work already done. Or summary. Themes. An overview of the landscape. Seems after the fact. The process led the way, small packages of thought spilled into small paragraphs, nose close to the page, don’t look back. It feels like this, maybe not true, but a way of working I connect with. Then afterwards zoom out, rediscover these condensed fruits of thought from past time. Read it all afresh with critical eye/ear, as if by another.
Hardback notebook. Looks neat and well kept. Corners rounded. Atoms lost along over time, in bags from Paris to Ussy.
May 77 to August 79. Like a diary. Written chronologically. Writing more legible? Final page of English the corner cut off. To find the end again? Then begins the French translation. Completed a month later in Tangier.
The smell of it. Old. It can’t have retained smell from 40 years ago. Old, musty, I associate with bags, coats, age, dust.
Grey green hardback cover. “Olympic”. About A5. Something illegible written on the back in pencil, faded, erased by travel. Short paragraph. The only pencil I’ve encountered.
Neat, portable. Now enclosed in a box made by Reading University, perfectly fitted, with catalogue number embossed on the side in gold, 1822, like a treasure. Then contained within soft cardboard A4 wallet, with information written on front in pencil, tied closed by a ribbon in a cross embracing both sides and top and bottom. Then to be returned to larger thick cardboard box, to be laid flat amongst other treasures unseen, on a shelf, in the archive building, itself a giant windowless rectangular box.