| 'Negation is no more possible
than affirmation. It is absurd to say that something
is absurd. That's still a value judgement. It is
impossible to protest, and equally impossible to assent.'
After a long pause:
'You have to work in an area where there are no
possible pronouns or solutions, or reactions, or standpoints
- that's what makes it so diabolically difficult.'
| Samuel Beckett in
conversation with Charles Juliet, 11 November 1977
Samuel Beckett and Bram van Velde
first met in 1937. They had much in common. Both were foreigners
in Paris, with French as their second language, they had few
acquaintances and little hope for the future except that they
would continue to practise as artists. They were yet to gain
recognition for their work, and materially times were very hard,
particularly for Bram van Velde. The Dutch painter lived in
utter poverty and soon after seeing his work Beckett purchased
a canvas with his own meagre resources - probably in sympathy
with such miserable circumstances.
A promising young writer, Charles
Juliet, transcribed conversations he had with the two men (from
1964 in the case of van Velde and from 1968 with Beckett). He
wrote down these encounters from recollection and they were
originally collected together in their French form in 1972.
Conversations with Samuel Beckett and Bram van Velde
is the first English translation of this book.
Juliet's encounter is a powerful
account of a zealous young man's desire to penetrate the creative
worlds of two men who, he believed, were great artists of that
time. By 1964 their uncompromising talents had been widely recognised.
Beckett was soon to be awarded the Nobel prize for Literature
and van Velde's paintings were being celebrated and exhibited
in Europe and the USA.
Both men represent a turning away
from the world toward an encounter with themselves. The notion
of self that they epitomise is in deep contrast to a confident
individualism that was beginning to emerge in America. Beckett
and van Velde encapsulate the uncompromising nihilism that was
particularly present in post-war French culture. There is little
optimism to be found in their conversations. The dire conditions
under which they had lived, and their experience of the Nazi
occupation of France (a subject which neither of them was prepared
to discuss), no doubt conditioned this. Juliet tries desperately
to convert this nihilism into an ascetic effacement of desire.
Had they read oriental mysticism or Jung? he asks. But Juliet's
attempts to smoke them out as latter-day Buddhas are not successful.
Van Velde's only concession was that the act of painting, as
a struggle, brought some relief from the despair he felt towards
the world and his own creative efforts. Beckett offered no concessions,
and his implacable position struck van Velde to the core. When
the painter told Beckett that he was almost satisfied with some
paintings he had recently completed, Beckett countered 'There's
really no reason to be'. Beckett could not condone meagre comfort,
in the belief that his creative efforts would lead to the kind
of catharsis that van Velde felt was bound up within the impulse
Juliet's role in these conversations
is underpinned by an interesting dilemma. The painter, whose
conversations comprise two thirds of this book, reiterates the
futility of words and intellectual positions. 'Words, they're
just noise. Even little children get taught to make noise.'
This is typical of van Velde over many pages of the book. Juliet
resorts to an attempt to drape the mantle, if not of a Buddha,
then of a Bodhisattva, over the painter. Van Velde's candour
comes through in this book as something tangible, but there
is a feeling that Juliet is driven by a desire to offer us a
hagiography of the painter. The result is an obfuscation of
what this man's artistic engagement might have been.
Juliet's admiration for Beckett
is apparent from the start. His ambitions as a writer had been
led by the Irishman's example, and this is perhaps why he has
a difficult time in his interviews with the old eagle. The canon
that emerges in the account of van Velde, that words only obscure,
is rendered a paradigm with Beckett. Words, in the end, are
his material - not as literature but in terms of something akin
to silence; the desire is not to control or empower but to listen.
Words are a function of listening for Beckett, listening within
a silence of being where the world is effaced. Van Velde instead
values vision, and words are just a stumbling block that inhibits
the silence necessary for looking. Silence is what linked
these men but, despite all his austerity, van Velde seems almost
like a dandy in comparison to Beckett. At one point van Velde
says: 'The more all-embracing the artist is in his approach
to life, the more forcefully his work will speak, and so the
artwork will be a measure of the spiritual dimensions of its
This seems like a romantic affirmation
when put alongside the famous lines from Beckett's Texts
for Nothing X: 'No, no souls, or bodies, or birth, or life
or death, you've got to go on without any of that junk that's
all dead with words, with excess of words, they can say nothing
else, they say there is nothing else.'
I'm not sure who would constitute
the audience for this book. Van Velde is a big figure in post-war
French culture but his reputation has not travelled well. Beckett's
fame borders on beatification, and I imagine Beckett aficionados
will be intrigued by the book. And even though van Velde's conversations
make up most of the text, it is Beckett's presence that haunts
both van Velde's and Juliet's thinking.
Perhaps the most revealing aspect
of their encounter is the degree of difference in each man's
presentation of their world. Van Velde's nihilism weighs heavily
upon the reader and this is not alleviated by his repeated claims
that laughter is the only true response to the existential conundrum.
Beckett, on the other hand, embodied such a response in both
his life and his work and laughter is a product of his writing,
not a subject.