In 1936 Samuel Beckett was a contributing translator to Thorns of Thunder, a brief selection of the poems of Paul Eluard.
Later that year Beckett wrote to his friend and fellow translator, Tom McGreevy:
“My copy of Eluard came, duly signed by author & all available translators. He does come through after a fashion, the frailty & nervousness. But no attempt seems to have been made to translate the pauses. Like Beethoven played strictly to time.”
A text in every texture but texts for nothing the sinews of my soul laid boldly here in the lattice formed by my many deeds and misdeeds strokes that have gone astray paths that led into dark ground where bearings were soon lost
I see too the flickering flames of reds and yellows and orange with streaks of black that burn in self-recrimination a mind charred in the failing honesty of its art and upon it all the criss-cross of patterned purity with which I still hope to redeem myself in my time in my place in my life
Like my poetry, I am a work in progress, as I believe we all are. We all hanker after times and places of innocence and yet we would never exchange the present for the past, go back to our childhoods. Whether or not we make resolutions at the start of a new year is immaterial: we are all constantly evolving and adapting to change. In our hearts we long for growth, for improvement, for greater understanding of ourselves, of our relationships, and of the world around us. Each day is a draft, an attempt, and maturity teaches us at least to accept that among the successes, the minor gains, there will be failures, perhaps even dead-ends that force us to rethink everything, to begin again. Setbacks. The occasional achievement. So it is with writing. There are good days, and days where the writing simply does not flow, or if it does, it flows too easily and in hindsight amounts to nothing.
Reading the letters of Samuel Beckett has been salutary and illuminating. So much of Beckett’s writing is soliloquy. In the novel, The Unnamable, in his theatre Krapp’s Last Tape, the sole soul on the stage or on the page, life’s essential drama, to be or not to be, and Beckett’s Hamlet finally responds in the novel: “. . . where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” Resolution.
To avoid further calamity to recapture the innocence of time and place that I knew as a child there on the heath amid the sand dunes and the gorse the sun scorching my face breath fast and furious up hill and down dale on a bicycle the yellow-brick road of youth innocence of the earth of the seasons of the rise and fall of nature to be finally in tune with myself in control of my idiom and with some understanding of the enigma of my being among all other beings Yes I am guilty of days months and years but the rain the fierce morning rain that shattered my sleep has absolved me I mourn nothing not even the passage of time nor the process of aging I am the only secret I will take to the grave but I am content and I live in hope always
Some poems are little more than an aperçu, an observation picked up as the writer goes about his or her business. Gazing out of the train window, for example, looking for foxes in the undergrowth, or counting the foxholes in the embankment in the approaches to Lewisham station from Blackheath: there are so many! To be alive and to be aware, inwardly and outwardly. It doesn’t take that many words to hit a small nail on the head, not in poetry at least. The devil is in the detail, be it ever so small. How we construct a picture of our external world, growing it and growing into it, piece by piece, and simultaneously building up our mind, the synapses, the memories and above all, the feelings, one thing related to another, one emotion connected to another, the instinct we all have to make maps, physical and emotional. And the maps had better be true or we are lost!
And so to the lines I wrote one afternoon, interrupting my reading of the third volume of Samuel Beckett’s Letters. Writing to Mary Hutchinson on 9 April 1958 from his country retreat in Ussy, Lower Normandy, Beckett included the following observation: “The lady birds have flown. It is so cold the sparrows have interrupted their nesting. There’s hardly a leaf in the trees.” His letters are full of tender observations of the natural world around him. Quite different from the bleak prose of Imagination Dead Imagine.
These words reminded me of my own observation as I travelled by train to Victoria earlier in the week, hence the words below.
One of the most curious artworks on display at Tate Britain, is a two-dimensional sculpture by Bob Law (1934–2004) entitled “Is a mind a prison”. This piece is an obelisk-shaped tablet of lead, upon which some seemingly incoherent lines of poetry have been etched. The title of the work is a question, which in itself is unusual in the world of art: despite the fact that one of the fundamental aspects of art is the asking of questions, most paintings and sculptures have simple affirmative titles. Bob Law’s obelisk is also simple in form: it could represent a chapel, or perhaps even a spaceship, one of the notions clearly indicated in the poetic text. If we examine the geometrical shape of the lead tablet it is basically a rectangle topped by two equilateral triangles which suggest a roof structure. The words on the tablet are imprisoned within the space, just as the words in our minds are locked in. Cell within cell.
We are all on a journey, all travelling through space aboard planet earth, and in the course of our journey we will all be confronted with a series of adventures, highs and lows, as though the gods have taken offence and set out to make our homecoming as difficult as possible, just as they did for Odysseus in Homer’s poem.
Bob Law’s reference to redshift is to the cosmological effect caused by the expansion of the universe whereby light sources moving away from the observer are red in contrast to light sources that approach the observer which are blue. Expansion is process. Expansion within the space of our minds within cosmic space. Would you like to be the daddy longlegs, the kingpin, the big daddy on this trip at the end of which we will all be judged for our actions? And so on. . . .
Bob Law was known as one of the founding fathers of minimalism. However, this piece demonstrates that a minimalist technique can be highly expressive. Minimum of resources for maximum effect, Samuel Beckett might have written. Here the combination of sculpture and poetry challenges the observer to stop and to think about structures, about cells contained within cells and questions contained within questions, one art form contained within another.
On the afternoon that this piece caught my eye as I strolled through the beautiful, spacious, well-lit galleries of Tate Britain, and perhaps because of its location by a doorway, it reminded me very much of one of the Stations of the Cross that can be seen in so many churches. This in turn made me think that art galleries do, in fact, have a strong spiritual dimension, not so much because their spaces can replicate churches, but rather that underpinning the work of all the artists on display is the common link of spirituality, albeit manifest in disparate forms. Their work makes contemplatives of us, urging us to meditate on the nature of the human condition. What is it to be human, what is beauty, what in the world around us is worthy of note, what values best define the essence of human goodness, what content and what colours and shapes should be used to celebrate life even as we question its purpose?
All of which explains why the appreciation of art is so liberating and uplifting and why it is so important to incorporate it in the educational process for our young children. But it also has to be appreciated, where possible, in situ. So get down to Tate Britain in Pimlico as soon as you can and when you’re there, take your time, it’s all you have.
In the story of Jonah and Anna-Belle, I introduced someone called Dr Van Helsing. As I explained at the time, this character was based on the Dr Abraham Van Helsing, who is a major protagonist in the novel, Dracula, written by the Irish writer, Bram Stoker, and originally published in 1897. One should not underestimate the influence of this inspired and seminal work of Gothic fiction. An important element of Stoker’s story is psychiatry, and the lunatic asylum in Whitby where Dr John Seward, one of Dr Van Helsing’s former pupils, treats a patient called Renfield, a mad man under the control of Count Dracula. Renfield’s consumption of flies and spiders is itself a parody of vampirism.
In Samuel Beckett’s first novel Murphy, published in 1938, the eponymous hero is employed for a brief period in the Bedlam asylum where he strikes up a friendship with one of the maddest residents. Beckett’s novel also parodies horoscopes, and in my story of Jonah and Anna-Belle I sought to bring the two elements together in a similar manner. I was further inspired by a real daily horoscope I read for my own birth sign which alluded to vampirism, and advised me to be on my guard. This explains the insanity. Not my own, as one reader cheekily suggested, but fictional.
However, the point of this post is really to give an example of the defective grasp of the English language that Stoker bestows on the Dutch Dr Van Helsing, all part of the fun: after all, Stoker gives the doctor his own name, Abraham. Those who have not read the original text of this classic are really missing out on a comic masterpiece.
In the extract below, Dr Van Helsing is describing, in a memorandum to John Seward, the trip he made in the company of Mina Murray, Jonathan Harker’s fiancée, to Count Dracula’s castle in Transylvania. I attempted to capture something of the flavour of this language in the diction of my own Dr Van Helsing.
So we came down this road; when we meet other ways—not always were we sure that they were roads at all, for they be neglect and light snow have fallen—the horses know and they only. I give rein to them, and they go on so patient. By-and-by we find all the things which Jonathan have note in that wonderful diary of him. Then we go on for long, long hours and hours. At the first, I tell Madam Mina to sleep; she try, and she succeed. She sleep all the time; till at the last, I feel myself to suspicious grow, and attempt to wake her. But she sleep on, and I may not wake her though I try. I do not wish to try too hard lest I harm her; for I know that she have suffer much, and sleep at times be all-in-all to her. I think I drowse myself, for all of sudden I feel guilt, as though I have done something; I find myself bolt up, with the reins in my hand, and the good horses go along jog, jog, just as ever. I look down and find Madam Mina still sleep. It is now not far off sunset time, and over the snow the light of the sun flow in big yellow flood, so that we throw great long shadow on where the mountain rise so steep. For we are going up, and up; and all is oh! so wild and rocky, as though it were the end of the world.
Then I arouse Madam Mina. This time she wake with not much trouble, and then I try to put her to hypnotic sleep. But she sleep not, being as though I were not. Still I try and try, till all at once I find her and myself in dark; so I look round, and find that the sun have gone down. Madam Mina laugh, and I turn and look at her. She is now quite awake, and look so well as I never saw her since that night at Carfax when we first enter the Count’s house. I am amaze, and not at ease then; but she is so bright and tender and thoughtful for me that I forget all fear. I light a fire, for we have brought supply of wood with us, and she prepare food while I undo the horses and set them, tethered in shelter, to feed. Then when I return to the fire she have my supper ready. I go to help her; but she smile, and tell me that she have eat already—that she was so hungry that she would not wait. I like it not, and I have grave doubts; but I fear to affright her, and so I am silent of it. She help me and I eat alone; and then we wrap in fur and lie beside the fire, and I tell her to sleep while I watch. But presently I forget all of watching; and when I sudden remember that I watch, I find her lying quiet, but awake, and looking at me with so bright eyes. Once, twice more the same occur, and I get much sleep till before morning. When I wake I try to hypnotise her; but alas! though she shut her eyes obedient, she may not sleep. The sun rise up, and up, and up; and then sleep come to her too late, but so heavy that she will not wake. I have to lift her up, and place her sleeping in the carriage when I have harnessed the horses and made all ready. Madam still sleep, and she look in her sleep more healthy and more redder than before. And I like it not. And I am afraid, afraid, afraid!—I am afraid of all things—even to think but I must go on my way. The stake we play for is life and death, or more than these, and we must not flinch.