Samuel Beckett’s reading notes

Beckett’s map of the classical world (MS 10967 fol 4).

We have now reached number four in our series of guest blog posts kindly authored for us by the students of Dr Julie Bates’ ‘Samuel Beckett: afterlives’ module who are responding in text to their experience working directly with original Beckett manuscripts in the library. This weeks it is the turn of Yannick Marien:

‘Christmas!’ announced a jolly curator, breezing in with her colleague in tow. Both held trays aloft bearing the manuscripts. One by one these were laid out before us, always accompanied by witty and congenial explanations. Letters from Barbara Bray, attesting to her influence on her lover, which others sought to expunge. More letters, tacked in an imposing tome, which had been bound in puce leather embellished with gold, Beckett’s name conspicuously displayed on the spine. You could probably use it to bludgeon someone to death. Some of the items in it were commonplace postcards, and the pages to which they had now been attached were likely to be much more expensive than the actual pieces they were meant to hold and preserve. My eyes soon wandered to doodles in the margins of a small notebook. Samuel Beckett, literary icon, scribbling on his notes like a school boy? My own school notes used to look like that, every blank space daubed like the caves at Lascaux, in my case with the ruminants wandering through my school’s corridors. I always doodled unintentionally, in moments when my mind felt clogged with information, as if some software program was kicked into action and started rinsing the ducts, relieving pressure. Someone turned the page, and the strange crop circles were hidden from view.

Finally, my attention was caught by two other notebooks containing reading notes. When the curator explained how most of Samuel Beckett’s reading notes in possession of the Library had actually been written after his days as a student, trying to mend every hiatus in his own knowledge — he found his education at Trinity College to be flawed — I felt a curious sort of sympathy for these notebooks, and the intentions behind them: an obstinateness, a demanding curiosity, that felt quite familiar.

The plethora of impressions and anecdotes now seemed to have saturated my mind. And no opportunity for doodling. I would have to return to the Library, and take my time scrutinising these notes.

I climbed the narrow stairs winding up to the reading room, where I found one of the notebooks laid out ceremoniously on the table. It bore a bird logo on the cover, and up close it was clear to see that the paper had grown very brittle. Gingerly I turned the pages. No doodles this time; the notes just gave a succinct overview of Dante’s ‘Inferno.’ I could now imagine these notes being written by a real hand, the pen flitting across the paper, producing handwriting that hints at being neat and elegant, but distorts into spidery jabs because of the speed with which it is being thrust onto the page. It might as well have been Arabic script.

Beckett’s notes on Dante’s Inferno (MS 10966).

Next, I was presented with a bundle of separate leaves. In each piece of paper, holes had been punched to allow metal rings to keep all of them together. The edges of the perforations showed signs of wear. The layout of these materials, an extensive overview of Western philosophy, was wonderfully endearing. The text was rigidly organised into chapters, each with its own title, usually typed out with a typewriter, followed by notes in black ink, and additions in red. Content tables and chronological overviews, where Beckett had clearly used a ruler to draw accolades, grouping ancient Greek names into schools, structured the whole. After a few pages, to my surprise, I encountered a detailed map of the Greek world, its contours so meticulously drawn that either the author had traced an existing map with painstaking care, or he had the abilities of a true cartographer. All the landmasses had been coloured in with a neon pink pencil, cross-hatching in blue suggested the sea lapping at their shores, and all the major cities from Antiquity had been pinpointed and named, along with their famed inhabitants. A small piece of paper, depicting the territories of Magna Graecia, had even been attached to the map of Greece like a little fold-out! Samuel Beckett had fashioned himself a professional syllabus, and he obviously put an enormous amount of time and care into this labour.

These manuscripts are subtle but unmistakeable testimonies of a ruthless curiosity, an insatiable need to probe and scrutinise one’s surroundings — at least that is what I seem to recognise in them. They tell me that a normal human mind was the source of Beckett’s fabled oeuvre, a mind that was aware of its limitations. But, nonetheless, Samuel Beckett felt as if certain things had to be given a voice, had to be expelled from his body, in a sense, and therefore kept toiling away all his life, kept revisiting his own themes, studying, reading voraciously, not because he received a divine epiphany every other day after supper, but because he felt things festering, throbbing behind his eyes. There is no other way but drudgery when you want to write, it is an endless birthing process, and the thoughts that appear to be the most lucid, the most imperative, the most straightforward, turn out to be elusive, much like trying to hold on to a fistful of sand: if you clench your muscles together the sand pours out in a matter of seconds.

Works of literature are most appealing and relatable to me if I am able to discern these particular qualities; a pure and unadorned form of creative expression, brought into the world by a human being, constantly grappling with the world he or she inhabits. Which can result in the creation of excessively thorough reading notes, meant to be a tool for a greater labour. A mere mortal. Something people tend to overlook. However, it cannot be repeated enough.

Last year, I visited Beckett’s grave in the Cimetière de Montparnasse, Paris broiling under a limpid quicksilver sky in September. All over the cemetery, I noticed that visitors tend to leave their Métro tokens on the tombs of the dead and famous, pinning them down with a pebble, yet for some reason all Beckett got was pebbles. And a lonesome pine cone. On such a sweltering day, when the heat resuscitates the smell of urine and booze, spilled on the curb during the previous night, it is not hard to realise that all these fine people were put there to rot. And that is how it should be. What added value can a reader find in a book if one thinks the writer just transcribed a divine revelation?

Yannick Marien