Journalism of the absurd

An Irishman’s Diary: The Samuel Beckett we’ll never know

‘Beckett’s cryptic reply took the form of a deft pun and two questions: “Why don’t I submit my Lafcadio Hernia to Irishman’s Diary? Why is it customary to keep one’s fly buttoned?” And with that, apparently, the subject was closed.’  Above,  head of Samuel Beckett by  sand sculptor Niall Magee (from the Festival of Sand Sculpture at  Dublin Castle, 2007).  Photograph: Frank Miller

‘Beckett’s cryptic reply took the form of a deft pun and two questions: “Why don’t I submit my Lafcadio Hernia to Irishman’s Diary? Why is it customary to keep one’s fly buttoned?” And with that, apparently, the subject was closed.’ Above, head of Samuel Beckett by sand sculptor Niall Magee (from the Festival of Sand Sculpture at Dublin Castle, 2007). Photograph: Frank Miller

Sat, Jun 8, 2013, 00:01

If only Samuel Beckett had been more ambitious in life, he could have been a contributor to the Irishman’s Diary. Yes, that tantalising prospect was raised at least once in correspondence with his family during in the 1930s, when this column was still a compendium of short items, often written by freelances.

As Beckett struggled to find gainful employment, his mother May urged that he too should submit diary material. She even argued – controversially – that he’d be at least as good as some of the people already doing it. But, well, we must always make allowances for blind maternal pride.

More specifically, it was suggested to the writer that the diaries of his 1936/37 trip to Germany could be of interest to newspaper readers, in the manner of Lafcadio Hearn’s accounts of his travels in Japan decades before.

Beckett’s cryptic reply took the form of a deft pun and two questions: “Why don’t I submit my Lafcadio Hernia to Irishman’s Diary? Why is it customary to keep one’s fly buttoned?” And with that, apparently, the subject was closed.

Having declined a possible career in the diary sector, Beckett flirted with one in dairying instead. Again The Irish Times was involved, but only via its small ads section. Where, in 1946, the writer’s attention was caught by an editorial vacancy in the journal of the Retail Grocery Dairy and Allied Trades Association (RGDATA).

The job paid £300 a year, and Beckett was tempted. “I think seriously of applying,” he wrote at the time. “Any experience of trade journalism would be so useful.”

But again he kept his flies buttoned. And not long afterwards, he had his famous epiphany about the direction of his future work, which thenceforth became ever-more minimalist, bleak, and unflinching in its focus on such themes as failure, ill health, exile, and loss.

So we will now never know – and it’s a small tragedy in itself – how Beckett would have met the challenge of RGDATA’s magazine, which offered “attractive prospects to candidates capable of building further the high reputation that the paper enjoys in the trade”.

Perhaps if he’d had no flies on him, Beckett could have done great things in journalism. Still, as is now known, he went on to have some success elsewhere. And one measure of that success is that when the manuscript of his novel Murphy goes up for sale at Sotheby’s London next month, it’s expected to earn about £1 million.

It is, the sellers claim, “the most important manuscript of a complete novel by any modern British or Irish writer to appear at auction for many decades” and contains “almost infinite riches for scholars”.

As an example, Sotheby’s cites the opening sentence: “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new”. Which, as well as hinting that Beckett might have struggled to make it in the newspaper business, never mind grocery promotion, was apparently the culmination of a tortuous process, in
which he first rejected at
least eight other versions of the line.

The auctioneers are clearly impressed by this. But I can assure them such constant revisions are standard even in the diary sector. In fact, I have sometimes experimented with and rejected at least eight different versions of the daily e-mail in which I explain to my sub-editor why the column is late again. I have original manuscripts if anyone’s interested.

The irony of the Murphy sale is that, if Beckett were still alive and had the money, he would probably buy it himself, with destructive intent. After all, by the standards he later set, it was a failure: too much a homage to his idol Joyce and lacking the austerity that became his signature. It was, in short, Beckett with his flies undone.

Anyway, if you’re a scholar of his work and have a million quid to spare, Sotheby’s on July 10th is the place to be. Failing that, you can attend a seminar in the National Museum at Collins Barracks this morning for free. On the downside, the event has nothing to do with literature. Instead, the theme is “1689-2012: three centuries of military relations between Ireland and France”.

But of course Beckett played a notable part in that history, and had a Croix de Guerre to prove it. He was also notoriously discreet about his war record (unlike some contributors to the 1930s Irishman’s Diary). Even so, he will surely
feature in a talk by David Murphy of NUI Maynooth: “Irish men and women in the French Resistance.” More details are at www.museum.ie
fmcnally@irishtimes.com