12.7.11

Beckett's Germany

The artistic and philosophical influence of German culture on Beckett's writing
Rembrandt, The Money Changer (1627)
Derek Scally surveys a new way of thinking about Samuel Beckett's work:
After Beckett’s death, in 1989, his nephew, Edward, discovered six notebooks in a trunk: diaries from his first German phase, a six-month journey through the country in 1936-7.

It was a sensational find: 500 handwritten pages of the only diary Beckett ever kept, extracts of which were first published in Prof James Knowlson’s 1996 biography, Damned to Fame.

Since then the diaries, though studied and cited by academics, have remained unpublished and are a matter of speculation, dispute and friction among Beckett scholars. How best to reconcile the known Beckett, the Irish Nobel Prize literary laureate who lived in France, with the unknown, “German” Beckett?

“The idea of Beckett as the Irish Frenchman is deeply entrenched and may be difficult to dislodge, both in academic and non-academic circles,” says Dr Mark Nixon, a Beckett scholar and the head of the Beckett International Foundation at the University of Reading.

But, slowly, efforts are gaining momentum to establish Germany next to Ireland and France as part of a triumvirate of Beckett’s cultural influences.

For Beckett scholars Germany is no longer just a place where his work was well received after he became a name, but a cultural spring from which Beckett drank thirstily in his formative years.

Erika Tophoven produced Beckett’s Berlin, in 2005, an illuminating and accessible volume putting his first stay in the capital in its historical context. Last month Nixon published the first critical analysis of Beckett’s German diaries. Now Beckett’s German publisher, Suhrkamp, has secured agreement with Edward Beckett, executor of the estate, to publish a three-volume annotated edition of the diaries.

Two decades after his death, what Knowlson calls Beckett’s “artistic pilgrimage” has moved into the limelight, offering an intriguing portrait of the artist as a young Germanophile.

“People will be surprised,” says Knowlson, “at how much Germany had an impact on him and how much some of his later attitudes – politically as well as aesthetically – were nurtured and moulded at this stage.”

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“He is formulating an aesthetic,” says Knowlson. “He is going into a whole zone of being that has not been explored by artists, the zone of loneliness, the inner world, probing into the inner world, probing a whole area of ignorance and impotence, and I think that began in Germany.” Although he spent much time alone – “how I ADORE solitude” – Beckett left his Baedeker guidebook bubble and forced himself to meet locals to improve his spoken German.

“How absurd,” he wrote, “the struggle to learn to be silent in another language.”

After learning French and Italian he began a serious effort to teach himself German around 1930. To his friends’ amusement, he was soon ploughing through heavy fare such as the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.

“Beckett liked the precision of the German language, which the French language didn’t have,” says Nixon. “He liked reading Schopenhauer for his style rather than content.”

Before his departure for Germany he began an exhaustive course of German art and culture while trying to teach himself German. In a lengthy trawl of German literature, he studied closely Goethe’s use of the autobiographical in his work just as he, Beckett, was struggling with his own “self-writing”.

He had much to do in his tour: after visiting public galleries, often dismayed at works deemed “degenerate” and removed by the Nazis, he had introductions to meet artists forbidden from exhibiting.

Despite the intense earnestness of his endeavour, a sociable and humorous Beckett emerges from the diaries, too. In Hamburg, his first stop, the diary is filled with bar jokes and lewd remarks spotted on toilet walls. Scribbled over a men’s urinal: “Come closer to prevent envy arising.”

Artist Roswitha Quadflieg, who used Hamburg diary extracts in a 2006 exhibition in the city, says, “It was all so exhausting for him because trying to register, filter, retain everything.” Her show caused a sensation, she says, because Beckett’s youthful diary entries were such a contrast to what she calls the humourless “grey eminence” that emerged from the later German translations of his work.

Beyond his deep immersion in the language, his German trip infused Beckett with a rich store of images he would draw on throughout his career, stored in a “photographic memory”, says Knowlson. The stage set of Krapp’s Last Tape , he suggests, is a “virtual reproduction” of Rembrandt’s The Moneychanger , which Beckett saw in Berlin.

In Dresden, Beckett records in his diary a “pleasant predilection” for a painting by Caspar David Friedrich, Two Men Observing the Moon , reflected in the staging of Waiting for Godot.

On his final stop, in Munich, Beckett records a memorable encounter with Karl Valentin, a tragic comedian located somewhere between Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, whose trademark shambling style may equally have fed into Godot.

Beckett left Nazi Germany on April 1st, 1936, physically and emotionally exhausted, but with a rich cultural-linguistic collage forming in his head. It changed him as an artist and left indelible marks on him as a man, too. [Read More]

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