Waiting for Godot – Samuel Beckett (Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century #12)

This is part of a series of occasional posts where I look at works from Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century.  Please see the separate page (link at the top) for the full list of books and an explanation of why I would do such a thing.

I have to start a post about a work by Samuel Beckett with a picture of the author, as he has the most incredible face:

Samuel Beckett 1976

(Image from: http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2014/jun/09/samuel-beckett-manuscript-first-novel-on-display )

Who wouldn’t want to read a work written by that face?  Well, as it turns out, a lot of people.  I remember years ago listening to radio phone in programme that was nothing to do with Waiting for Godot, yet somehow it came into the conversation, and it seemed that every listener, and the DJ,  had been tortured with the text by their English teachers.  They all hated it.  And yet Le Monde’s readers have voted it the 12th greatest book of the century. It’s also remained a perennial favourite on the stage, a recent production with real-life friends Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart was an enormous success on both sides of the Atlantic:

I think Godot is just one of those plays that divides people.  It is baffling, incomprehensible, hugely funny and relentlessly serious, tragic, absurd and profound.  It features two rough sleepers, Vladimir and Estragon.  The stage is almost bare, the only set being a tree and a mound.  This is the only scene in both acts.  As the characters wait for Godot, they have conversations that are oblique, filled with non-sequiturs, verge on nonsense, and yet address issues about existence, human nature, the meaning of it all.  Famously, very little happens, Godot never arrives. Vivian Mercier, theatre critic for the Irish Times in the 1950s, summed it up: “a play in which nothing happens, twice.” This is theatre at its most basic and its most complex, its most theatrical and its determinedly least dramatic.

Estragon, sitting on a low mound, is trying to take off his boot. He pulls at it with both hands, panting.

He gives up, exhausted, rests, tries again.

As before.

Enter Vladimir.

ESTRAGON: (giving up again). Nothing to be done.

VLADIMIR: (advancing with short, stiff strides, legs wide apart). I’m beginning to come round to that opinion. All my life I’ve tried to put it from me, saying Vladimir, be reasonable, you haven’t yet tried everything. And I resumed the struggle. (He broods, musing on the struggle. Turning to Estragon.) So there you are again.

ESTRAGON: Am I?

VLADIMIR: I’m glad to see you back. I thought you were gone forever.

ESTRAGON: Me too.

I think this is why it’s so beloved of English teachers and potentially so despised by students.  It can simultaneously seem to contain everything, and nothing.  Try to pin it down and it will slip away from you.  This is why there are so many interpretations as to its meaning.  When I discussed Six Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello (#53) I suggested that if you liked it, you might like Godot.  There are many similarities, mainly the absurdist quality, but whereas Six Characters was theatre about theatre, Godot is how theatre as a visual medium can represent the internal, the rarely articulated:

ESTRAGON: Let’s hang ourselves immediately!

VLADIMIR: From a bough? (They go towards the tree.) I wouldn’t trust it.

ESTRAGON: We can always try.

VLADIMIR: Go ahead.

ESTRAGON: After you.

VLADIMIR: No no, you first.

ESTRAGON: Why me?

VLADIMIR: You’re lighter than I am.

ESTRAGON: Just so!

VLADIMIR: I don’t understand.

ESTRAGON: Use your intelligence, can’t you?

Vladimir uses his intelligence.

VLADIMIR: (finally). I remain in the dark.

And this is where the audience remains, literally and figuratively.  If you like your plays plot-driven and tied up neatly at the end, avoid this play at all costs. But if you want to be made to think about questions to which there are no easy answers, and entertained along the way, you might find Waiting for Godot not as torturous as generations of schoolkids have come to believe.

Sadly, Rik Mayall died this week, at the age of 56.  In 1991 he and comedy partner Ade Edmonson took on the roles of Vladimir and Estragon:

Six Characters in Search of an Author – Luigi Pirandello (Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century #53)

This is the first in a series of occasional posts where I’ll be looking at works from Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century.  Please see the separate page (link at the top) for the full list of books and an explanation of why I would do such a thing. I set myself the challenge in January and I’m only beginning to blog about it now; this does not bode well for my completing this challenge before I see in a century of my own…

(c) Glasgow Museums; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

(Image from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/old-lady-reading-83754)

Six Characters in Search of an Author is a play by Luigi Pirandello, originally written in Italian and performed in 1921 (my copy translated by Frederick May, 1954).  It’s a play about itself, about the theatre, and although philosophical and reflective, it’s also very silly.

“Life is full of things that are infinitely absurd, things that, for all their impudent absurdity, have no need to masquerade as truth, because they are true”

“What the devil are you talking about?”

A producer is putting on a play with a group of actors, who are only identified by their roles: Leading Lady/Leading Man/Ingénue and so on.  As we are presented with what appears to be a rehearsal, there is a sense of the play being simultaneously constructed and deconstructed in front of us.  The ideas are complex and it’s definitely not a play to approach when you’re tired and/or in need of escapism, but Pirandello undercuts the potentially pretentious self-reflexive philosophising with a good dose of humour, having the Producer complain early on:

“We’re reduced to putting on plays by Pirandello? And if you understand his plays…you’re a better man than I am! He deliberately goes out of his way to annoy people, so that by the time the play’s through everybody’s fed up…actors, critics, audience, everybody!”

Well, you can’t say he didn’t warn us.  The rehearsal of the play by Pirandello is interrupted by the arrival of six characters – Father, Mother, Step-daughter, Son, Boy and Little Girl.  They want the Producer to help them, as “the author who created us as living beings, either couldn’t or wouldn’t put us materially into the world of art.” They start to tell their story while the actors look on, and the stage directions tell us: “The CHARACTERS should not, in fact, appear as phantasms, but as created realities, unchangeable creations of the imagination and, therefore, more real and more consistent than the ever-changing naturalness of the ACTORS.” As the actors and characters interact (and bitch at each other and argue about representation) the play presents complex philosophical questions about truth, reality and identity, and whether any of us really has any idea what on earth is going on:

“Each one of us has a whole world of things inside him… and each one of us has his own particular world. How can we understand each other if into the words I speak I put the sense and value of things as I understand them within myself… while at the same time whoever is listening to them inevitably assumes them to have  the sense and value that they have for him…. We think we understand each other… but we never really do understand!”

In this way, Pirandello admirably manages to interrogate the relationship of theatre to representation, reality to illusion, art to life.  There are lots of meta-moments (the whole play is really one big metatheatrical experience); my favourites were where he drew attention to the play’s own limitations, studiously ignoring the Producer’s directive that “When you’re here you have to respect the conventions of the theatre!” and a great moment where the Son walks off, refusing to act because “I’m a dramatically unrealised character”.

Six Characters in Search of an Author is a hugely complex work and at the same time a short, humorous play.  I really enjoyed it, but I also think I could re-read it and each time think that I understood nothing from my previous readings.  I also wouldn’t be surprised if someone entirely hated it, and they would not be alone: apparently the playwright had to leave the premiere performance through a side-exit to avoid the throng of haters.  If you’re a writer, actor, theatre-lover or philosophy enthusiast, you’ll find a lot to interest you in Six Characters in Search of an Author.  If you like Waiting for Godot or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, then this play could be for you.

Phew!  After all that deep reflection on the nature of theatre and our existence, I think it must be time for shark cat on a Roomba:

“Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens/Bright copper kettles and warm woollen mittens/Brown paper packages tied up with strings/These are a few of my favourite things” (Maria Rainer/Julie Andrews, The Sound of Music)

I write to you from within a fog of lemsip and cough syrup.  Yes, this week I’ve had a grotty cold.  Nothing major by any means, but just enough to make me feel grim and make the days a little greyer.  So I thought for this post I’d cheer myself up and be totally self-indulgent, by choosing two books that are thematically linked only in the fact that they are two of my favourites.

Firstly, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor (Bloomsbury, 2002).  This was McGregor’s first novel, longlisted for the Booker, and written when he was only twenty-six.  Choking down my jealousy, I am able to tell you that the accolades are highly deserved.  I think this is such a beautifully written, confident debut.  It tells the story of an ordinary street and its ordinary inhabitants, over the course of a day.

“The short girl with the painted toenails, next door, she says oh but did you see that guy on the balcony, he was nice, no he was special and she savours the word like a strawberry, you know she says, the one on the balcony, the one who was speeding and kept leaning right over, and they all know exactly who she means, he’s in the same place most weeks, pounding out the rhythm like a panelbeater, fists crashing down into the air, sweat splashing from his polished head.”

“In his kitchen, the old man measures out the tea-leaves, drops them into the pot, fills it with boiling water.  He sets out a tray, two cups, two saucers, a small jug of milk, a small pot of sugar, two teaspoons.  He breathes heavily as his hands struggle up to the high cupboards, fluttering like the wings of a caged bird.”

“She opens her front door, just a little, just enough, and she hops down her front steps, the young girl from number nineteen, glad to be out of the house and away from the noise of her brothers.  The television was boring and strange anyway, it was all people talking and she didn’t understand.  She taps her feet on the pavement, listening to the sound her shiny black shoes make against the stone…”

I hope these three examples give a good idea of why I love this novel so much.  McGregor is so skilled at finding the poetry in ordinary lives and how the self is expressed through seemingly innocuous actions.  Gradually the inhabitants of the street emerge as fully realised characters from the details of this one day.  This narrative is intertwined with a first person narrative, and you begin to realise that something significant, and tragic, took place on this ordinary day.  If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things is a novel of startling sensitivity and lyricism.

If this has whetted your appetite for McGregor’s novels, I discuss his second novel, So Many Ways to Begin here.

Secondly, Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov trans. George Bird (1996, English translation 2001, Harvill Press).  How to describe this novel?  It’s frankly a bit bonkers and one of those I think I understand, but maybe it’s about something else entirely.  It’s a great read though.  It tells the story of Viktor, an aspiring writer who gets a job writing obituaries, and his pet penguin Misha, who he took on when Kiev zoo gave all its animals away: “he had been feeling lonely. But Misha brought his own kind of loneliness, and the result was now two complimentary lonelinesses, creating an impression more of interdependence than amity.”

The character of this depressed penguin is as vividly realised as any of the human characters, and you really start to feel for this bird who symbolises the existential crisis of his owner and others caught up in a post-Soviet world that they do not understand: “Sleeping lightly that night, Viktor heard an insomniac Misha roaming the flat, leaving doors open, occasionally stopping and heaving a deep sigh, like an old man weary of both life and himself.”

The fragile relationship between Viktor and Misha is tested to its limit by a series of surreal events.  Viktor’s friend Misha-Non-Penguin leaves his daughter Sonya with Viktor, and so he drifts into a family unit with this self-contained little girl and her nanny.  But meanwhile, someone is using his obituaries as a hit-list, and he is being followed by a mysterious stranger known only as the fat man…

“The Chief considered him through narrowed eyes.

“Your interest lies in not asking questions,” he said quietly.  But bear in mind this: the minute you’re told what the point of your work is, you’re dead. […] He smiled a sad smile.  “Still, I do, in fact, wish you well.  Believe me.””

Death and the Penguin is a surreal adventure story, a post-Soviet satire, an examination of the individual spirit up against forces that seek to control.  It’s funny and it’s sad, it has something to say, and it says it in a truly unique and engaging way.

Here are the novels with another of my favourite things, my psychotic cat (he looks calm in this photo, but trust me, he is hell-bent on world domination):

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