Desperately Seeking Sam

Boylan_34.6_beckett Roger Boylan in Boston Review:

I could not have gone through the awful wretched mess of life without having left a stain upon the silence. –Samuel Beckett

The first and last time I saw Samuel Beckett, he was walking down a Paris street, the Rue Rémy Dumoncel. At least, I think it was Beckett. The height was right; the near-skeletal thinness was right; the location was right—near the nursing home where he died not long after. I think he was wearing a hat and coat, but I can’t be sure. It was twenty years ago.

Seen always from behind whithersoever he went. Same hat and coat as of old when he walked the roads. –Beckett, Stirrings Still

But I never got close enough to be certain. I was across the street, behind a row of parked cars, admiring, if memory serves, a silver Porsche. Unusually for July in Paris, it was a gray, drizzly day, what Parisians call “la grisaille,” and it was a bit misty, as if in November. Despite all that, I could easily have crossed over and asked my suspect if he was, in fact, the One True Sam. But I didn’t. I funked it. He disappeared. Six months later he was dead. And I had wanted to meet him for years.

I first learned of his work from Mr. Achkar, my French teacher in high school in Geneva, who was most enthusiastic about Oh les Beaux Jours (Happy Days), of which he’d seen the Paris premiere in 1961.

“What a play!” he enthused.

A woman sinks slowly into the earth while reciting the inanities of her everyday life … c’est magnifique! Does anyone understand as well as Beckett does the banality of tragedy and the tragedy of banality? This woman, she could be my wife: the eternal optimist despite all the evidence. Non, mais non, c’est magnifique.

There were the other plays, notably Waiting for Godot, that incomparable hymn to the vital nothingness of life (the play in which, in the words of the Irish critic Vivian Mercier, “nothing happens, twice”); Krapp’s Last Tape, Beckett’s melancholy homage to memory and failure; Rockaby, the tender death-lullaby; and the great Fin de Partie (Endgame), Mr. Achkar’s favorite—and mine.