Last Words: Mel Gussow remembers Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett's hands. Photograph by John Minihan.
'I was in Paris early in March. Beckett phoned me at my hotel. I asked him how he was and he said, disconsolately, 'I'm in a nursing home. I've been in several nursing homes.' I asked if I could come by. He said, 'I'm not much to talk to, But I would like to see you.' He suggested Friday at 5 p.m., then gave me the address. Later in the day he called back and said he had confused his appointments and could I make it on Saturday instead? Yes, of course.

'The sign read 'Tiers Temps Orléans. Retraite.' It was a plain institutional building next door to a small hospital on a quiet residential streat. I walked through a dayroom in which five elderly people were silently watching television. Finding a nurse, I said I had come to see Mr. Beckett. She led me through a garden to his room, which faced a patio. Because it was March, the landscape was bleak.

'The room was small and unadorned, almost as bare as a cell. There were no pictures on the walls, no obvious amenities, only a narrow bed neatly made up, a desk and a table with several books on it, including a dictionary and his schoolboy copy of Dante's Divine Comedy, with his annotations. In the last year of his life, Beckett was re-reading Dante in Italian. There was a portable television on the floor, on which he continued to watch tennis and football. On the bedside table were a telephone and a diary. There was a wardrobe across the room and what looked like a small refrigerator. His shoes were lined up in a corner. This could have been the setting for a late Beckett play.

'Having seen him previously only at the café or walking briskly along the street, it was unsettling to find him in a nursing home. Although the room was warm, he was wearing a tartan dressing gown over his clothes. He was as erect and as alert as ever, but he seemed a stoical and forlorn figure. His attitude could be described as one of embarrassment - not for the Spartan quality of his living quarters, but for his residence there, the fact that he was nit well, that he was getting older.

'He poured me a glass of Irish whiskey and had one himself. Then he offered me the room's one easy chair and he sat down at his desk. He said that every morning he took a 20-minute walk in a nearby park. His doctor visited him daily, bringing him a copy of his favourite newspaper, La Libération (and an Irish friend sent him a newspaper from Dublin so that he could keep up with rugby results.) Meals were delivered on a tray. The food was 'edible', though 'there was too much meat.' While I was there, he smoked a single cigar.

'Apologizing for his circumstances, and for not being more hospitable, he painted a picture of necessity. Because he had recently fainted, there was an oxygen machine in the room for emergency. But breathing was not his problem, he said. What is? Old age and 'balance'. When he stood up, he seemed somewhat unsteady. His wife was not well, and his doctor was also taking care of her. He said he thought of his life as 'surviving' [...]

'[...] As we talked, he suddenly rose from his chair and began to walk around the room. Was that to keep his blood circulating? 'No,' he said, 'because I'm restless.' As he continued walking back and forth, he began to resemble the character who reaches back into memory in Footfalls. It was the final image I had of Samuel Beckett, pacing out his life, with no end yet in sight.'

Mel Gussow, 'I'm the last' (11 March 1989)
Excerpted from Conversations with and about Beckett