A cyclical mystery
An Irishman’s Diary: How bike racing may the key to Beckett’s most famous character
‘There are no bikes in Waiting for Godot. But the play may have what Rathjen calls “the bicycle principle” of two connected wheels (or zeroes). In support of which theory, he mentions a late, unpublished prose work, called “The Way”, in which Beckett twice describes a repeating-loop path going up and down a hill.” Above, director Walter Asmus (left) and Conor Lovett as Lucky, on the set of Waiting for Godot, at the Gate. Photograph: Eric Luke
A reader named Mike Moriarty has e-mailed with an intriguing question about Waiting for Godot. It arose when he was watching an “American TV programme”, during which a character pronounced the name in the play’s title as “Gu-doh”. Whereupon Mike, a maths and science teacher, had a Eureka moment, albeit involving Irish.
Could it be, he wondered, that Beckett was deliberately using a corruption of “go deo”? In which case, the play’s implied title would be “Waiting forever”, an apt summary of a plot in which, as a critic famously said, nothing happens twice. “I have since tried the theory on several people more knowledgeable than I and it was news to them,” suggests Mike, adding, “It would give me great satisfaction, as a scientist, to be right.”
Well Mike, you may well be right on a deeper, philosophical level, a subject to which we’ll return. But Beckett himself rejected all literal readings of the title, including – most obviously – anything to do with God. And the truth may be more prosaic. By the writer’s own account, the name was inspired by a one-time French cyclist, professional and well-known, but not especially good.
More particularly, the critic Hugh Kenner quoted Beckett telling him that the model was “a veteran racing cyclist, bald, a ‘stayer’, recurrent placeman in town-to-town and national championships, Christian name elusive, surname Godeau, pronounced, of course, no differently from Godot.”
That was from the horse’s mouth. Elsewhere, with lesser provenance, the story is embellished to have Beckett chancing on a scene in Paris or another town after the Tour de France has passed through. He sees a still-watchful crowd, or in some versions a pair of tramps, and asks why. To which they reply: “We’re waiting for Godeau.”
Some literary detectives have claimed the cyclist was Roger Godeau, a man who lived from 1920 to 2000. If it was, it rules out the Tour stories, because that Godeau was a track rider. In several respects, however, he does fit Beckett’s account. He was indeed a perennial placeman. Pictures suggest he was balding. He also had a very long career.
In fact, his sole appearance in The Irish Times archive is in 1960 when, aged 39, he won a race at Dublin’s Santry Stadium. Against which, his professional career only began in 1943, five years before Godot was written, and a bit late to have made him the veteran of the Kenner quotation. Besides which, I would hate to think Beckett failed to remember the spectacularly interesting name of Godeau’s first team. Génial Lucifer, it was called – a play in itself.
Anyway, while reading about Godeau, I came across a fine essay on Beckett and cycling by a German named Friedhelm Rathjen. It was inspired by the 1998 Tour de France, which started in Ireland. And its general argument is that Beckett loved bicycles, ever since – as a young man – he cycled regularly from his Foxrock home up into the Wicklow mountains
That landscape and bikes were both recurrent features in the writer’s work, Rathjen suggests, most obviously in the novel Mercier and Camier. And wherever cycling occurs, the gloom always lifts temporarily. Even Molloy, the immobilised old tramp who can’t love his mother, has fond memories of a bicycle. Bikes represent joy and hope in Beckett. Perhaps also sex.
Yes, Rathjen suggests Flann O’Brien was not the only Irish writer to explore the bicycle’s erotic potential. He cites a Beckett story wherein the hero, by way of ditching a woman’s unwanted advances, steals a bike, and makes an exhilarating escape on it, before carrying the love object into a field and laying it tenderly “on the grass”.
There are no bikes in Waiting for Godot. But the play may have what Rathjen calls “the bicycle principle” of two connected wheels (or zeroes). In support of which theory, he mentions a late, unpublished prose work, called The Way, in which Beckett twice describes a repeating-loop path going up and down a hill. The title of the first part is the figure 8; the title of the second is the infinity symbol.
And it’s no coincidence, Rathjen says, that the infinity-shape with handlebars was Beckett’s favourite form of transport. Which sounds plausible to me. But either way, if the Tour de France ever returns to Ireland, I think I’ll head for the Wicklow hills and paint one of those slogans on the road, like they do in the Alps and Pyrenees: “Godeau go deo.”