Saturday, November 1, 2008

Something gone wrong with the silence of Samuel Beckett's grave

Yesterday I waited for an hour and a half to vote, shuffling in front of a woman powering through a big fat paperback. When I noticed it was Emma by Jane Austen and took her to be a serious reader, I struck up a conversation that quickly turned to literary pilgrimages. With her in mind, I'll be rummaging through my files and photos and posting up some tidbits about my travels in search of the literary dead.


Marceline and I walked down Opera Avenue (I just can't take this "Avenue de L'Opera" stuff) to Harry's New York Bar, the birthplace of my favorite mixed drink, the Bloody Mary - the brainchild, I am told, of an American bartender named Fernand Petiot, who went by the name of "Pete." (He probably called it "Opera Avenue," too.)

Word has it that the original Parisian version was plain, only tomato juice and vodka, and that Pete spiced it up, later, in New York, to satisfy New Yorker tastes. Be that as it may, New World improvements have cycled back to the birthplace, where Marceline and I both drank down a damn fine Bloody Mary in a brasserie with badges from U.S. cops behind the bar, pennants from American colleges on the wall, and a vintage hot dog box next to the beer taps that looked like it hadn't roasted a wiener since Papa Hemingway checked out of his last hotel.

The price for two Bloody Marys - and the privilege of speaking English in Paris without guilt or apology - was a steep 19 euros, or almost twenty four bucks: Bloody Mary price gouging.

A little glazed by booze, we enjoyed a nice, long walk across the Seine and through the Plaza of the Invalids to the Rodin Museum. I am no fan of realistic figurative sculpture - give me the freaky tribal faces any day - but the museum is situated in a hotel where Rodin lived when his secretary was the poet Rainer Marie Rilke, who lived there as well.

This Czech-born genius, who wrote mostly in German but named his masterpiece, The Duino Elegies, after a castle in Switzerland, did the most to stamp Paris into my imagination. Rilke's novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, is set in Paris, though the city that haunted him (and Malte, his "other self") has vanished.

Rilke saw Paris as a city of hospitals, where a poet could learn to see because life (which, for Rilke, had much to do with death) was so raw there. Now, Paris is a city of monuments and museums; and passing all the bistros, where everyone sits on the same side of the tables, looking out into the street, it seems to be a city where one goes to see and be seen rather than to learn the raw art of vision.

I carried some dirty secrets with me to Rilke's old hotel, and from there on the Metro to the grave of the great Irish writer, Samuel Beckett, who was buried in the Parisian neighborhood of Montparnasse. I need to come clean about this French language thing.

Rilke wrote some very fine poems in French. What is worse, Beckett, born speaking the grand, earthy music of Irish English, wrote most of his works - including his classic play Waiting for Godot - in French. In fact, I was rereading on this journey Beckett's trilogy of novels, Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable, which includes some of my favorite writing in the English language - but in fact, Beckett wrote these books in French and only later translated them into his mother tongue.

My hatred of the French language has a very unhappy relationship to these unmistakable facts. The problem, clearly, is with me and not with French, but if we don't have our problems, we're not quite ourselves.

I collected and placed a stone on Beckett's grave (which he shares with his wife, Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil). This conventional act has special meaning in his case. Beckett, or at least his other selves in his novels, had a thing for stones.

Molloy shuttles sixteen sucking stones perpetually from pocket to pocket, nervously trying to devise a system to ensure that he sucks all sixteen once each before sucking any stone twice.

Malone speaks of "that foul feeling of pity I have so often felt in the presence of things, especially little portable things in wood and stone, and which made me wish to have them about me and keep them always ... And I loved to fall asleep holding in my hand a stone, a horse chestnut or a cone, and I would still be holding it when I woke, my fingers closed over it, in spite of sleep which makes a rag of the body, so it may rest."

Samuel Beckett rests under stone in Paris tonight. I wonder if I wasn't wrong to read to him there in his grave.

I couldn't resist reading to his old bones the words the man wrote - or, rather, translated from his own (I hate to say it) French - when he was alive: "I wonder what my last words will be, written, the others do not endure, but vanish, into thin air. I shall never know."

I read these words to a dead man who, when he was alive, wrote obsessively about characters cursed with speech - a man who once wrote that speech was "something gone wrong with the silence."

And now, in his final silence, something had gone wrong. I had brought him back his voice.


Though I took plenty of my own photographs on this journey, I now can not find them (archical pack rat freakout attack) so lifted this one from somebody's Flickr site.

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