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GREAT BOOKS 19: Samuel Beckett, with Nicholas Johnson

“Another heavenly day” is the opening line of Samuel Beckett’s play Happy Days (1961), where Winnie sits buried to her waist in sand, with her husband Willie stuck a few feet away from her … but language, memory, and consciousness are not all she has. Beckett’s plays, novels, poetry, radio plays, and prose reveal our deepest humanity by stripping language to its bare essentials. Beckett wrote much of his work after 1945 in French, a language he learned mostly as an adult, and then translated it back into his native English to purge it of clichés and stock phrases. In the resulting works he reveals how our bodies moving through space are far more than vessels for a roving consciousness. They contain a hint of transcendence which manifests itself as the human need for self-expression through which we locate ourselves — in time, in relation to others, and in relation to ourselves.


I spoke with Beckett expert, scholar, and theater director Nicholas Johnson at the Samuel Beckett Theatre at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, where Beckett taught for a short time in the 1920s before giving up on academia, moving to Paris, and becoming a writer next to James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and others. Our conversation shows how Beckett’s work is surprisingly optimistic about the power of art and language to give us meaning. “You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on” is the final line of Beckett’s 1953 novel The Unnamable. Johnson explained how these words show Beckett’s relentless commitment to strip our existence down to the basics (who we are, what we have, what we want) and then move deeper from there. Instead of adding more words and complexity, Beckett shows that our searching may be our life’s meaning and that not knowing what we want is, in fact, the key to knowing ourselves. “You have to pay attention and be as informed as possible; you have to try to understand things; and you have to speak out!” is Johnson’s summary of what Beckett’s works mean for him. In a time of historic and political turmoil, it’s an urgent imperative and we would do well to heed it.