Beckett's Berlin


ON A mild summer evening, Erika Tophoven is sorting through her treasures. Hundreds of files fill her Berlin apartment. They are on a wall filled with bookshelves; in a massive filing cabinet. Other folders and files lie around the room, others are out of sight. “All Beckett,” she says, waving a hand at her life’s work.

For more than 30 years, she worked with her husband, Elmar, to give Samuel Beckett a voice in German, translating his novels, short stories and plays. On the table in front of her lies their typescript translation of Happy Daysfrom 1961; in the margins are small pencil corrections by Beckett.

It’s half a century since this seminal Beckett play had its European premiere at Berlin’s Schiller Theatre, and the tortured Winnie in her mound became an instantly recognisable dramatic figure.

Happy Dayswas just one of many Beckett productions at the theatre where in 1965 he would make his directorial debut. What neither the Tophovens nor the Schiller’s creative team realised at the time, however, was that this was Beckett’s second phase in Germany.

“He never mentioned it, and we had no idea,” says Tophoven. “Even though he wasn’t yet on the Beckett pedestal when I got to know him in 1957, it was just his way that you didn’t hassle him with questions.”

After Beckett’s death, in 1989, his nephew, Edward, discovered six notebooks in a trunk: diaries from his first German phase, a six-month journey through the country in 1936-7.

It was a sensational find: 500 handwritten pages of the only diary Beckett ever kept, extracts of which were first published in Prof James Knowlson’s 1996 biography, Damned to Fame.

Since then the diaries, though studied and cited by academics, have remained unpublished and are a matter of speculation, dispute and friction among Beckett scholars. How best to reconcile the known Beckett, the Irish Nobel Prize literary laureate who lived in France, with the unknown, “German” Beckett?

“The idea of Beckett as the Irish Frenchman is deeply entrenched and may be difficult to dislodge, both in academic and non-academic circles,” says Dr Mark Nixon, a Beckett scholar and the head of the Beckett International Foundation at the University of Reading.

But, slowly, efforts are gaining momentum to establish Germany next to Ireland and France as part of a triumvirate of Beckett’s cultural influences.

For Beckett scholars Germany is no longer just a place where his work was well received after he became a name, but a cultural spring from which Beckett drank thirstily in his formative years.

Erika Tophoven produced Beckett’s Berlin, in 2005, an illuminating and accessible volume putting his first stay in the capital in its historical context. Last month Nixon published the first critical analysis of Beckett’s German diaries. Now Beckett’s German publisher, Suhrkamp, has secured agreement with Edward Beckett, executor of the estate, to publish a three-volume annotated edition of the diaries.

Two decades after his death, what Knowlson calls Beckett’s “artistic pilgrimage” has moved into the limelight, offering an intriguing portrait of the artist as a young Germanophile.

“People will be surprised,” says Knowlson, “at how much Germany had an impact on him and how much some of his later attitudes – politically as well as aesthetically – were nurtured and moulded at this stage.”

The British author Christopher Isherwood opened his novels of 1930s Berlin with the memorable line, “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.” Isherwood left in 1933, and a 30- year-old Samuel Beckett arrived three years later, in December 1936, just as the tolerant facade rolled out for the Olympic Games was being rolled up again. The Nazis were reasserting their grip on the capital of the Third Reich.

The first riddle Beckett’s German diaries throw up is why he came at all. Artists who hadn’t already fled Germany were hurriedly packing their bags. Within days of his arrival, listening to histrionic Hitler speeches on the radio, he began to perceive the pressure that was building. “They must fight soon or burst,” he noted.

Beckett’s arrival in Germany had a bittersweet personal note. His love of German culture had been nurtured by his uncle by marriage, Boss Sinclair. His first serious attempts to speak German were most likely pillow talk he shared with his cousin, Peggy, Sinclair’s daughter, during a brief romance in 1928. But Peggy had died of tuberculosis five years later and Sinclair, a Jew, had fled Germany with his family.

So why did Beckett come, and why did he stay six months?

“He had personal reasons, in particular the tense relationship with his mother,” says Tophoven. “She was hugely disappointed that her talented son had given up his teaching job in Trinity College, Dublin and, in effect, was sitting around doing nothing.”

Touring Germany offered not just an escape from Ireland but an alternative to his adoptive home, Paris, which he was avoiding after falling out with James Joyce and his family.

Living in Paris, Beckett realised he lacked a familiarity with German culture and language that, at the time, was a crucial part of any serious artist’s training. And so he took himself to Germany.

If Isherwood was a camera, Beckett was a sponge, anxious to soak up as much German culture as he could.

With a dedication that can be described only as obsessive-compulsive, Beckett began a rigorous programme of artistic self-education. For weeks he haunted the hallways of Berlin’s Kaiser Friedrich (now Bode) Museum and the rest of the Museum Island, spending hours studying paintings and writing extensive notes of his impressions.

When he wasn’t indoors, he took endless walks through Berlin, the Grunewald forest and even far-flung towns, which are now Berlin suburbs. His punishing regime is all the more extraordinary considering he was a physical wreck, suffering from recurring herpes sores on his lip, a sceptic finger and thumb, and a strange lump under his scrotum – or, as he put it, “between wind and water” – that made standing up and walking “like for an execution”.

Staying in a series of guest houses, living on a tight budget, Beckett consumed books, took in concerts and plays, and bathed in German culture, while his first novel, Murphy, was still doing the rounds of London publishers.

“He’s already starting to think about how to write after the war but doesn’t get it immediately,” says Nixon. “He was writing more about writing, what the next step would be.” Published extracts of the diary reveal nuggets of what would later become Beckettian philosophy: uninterest in trying to understand the chaos of history and a growing acceptance of the mess of human civilisation on its own terms.

Beckett wrote: “I want the straws, flotsam etc, names, dates, births and deaths, because that is all I can know.”

AFTER HIS EARLY YEARSidolising Joyce, writing clever, erudite essays, Germany was where Beckett began to contemplate simpler, more authentic writing. In the diaries, Knowlson suggests, Beckett is groping his way forward in the dark towards the writer he would later become.

“He is formulating an aesthetic,” says Knowlson. “He is going into a whole zone of being that has not been explored by artists, the zone of loneliness, the inner world, probing into the inner world, probing a whole area of ignorance and impotence, and I think that began in Germany.” Although he spent much time alone – “how I ADORE solitude” – Beckett left his Baedeker guidebook bubble and forced himself to meet locals to improve his spoken German.

“How absurd,” he wrote, “the struggle to learn to be silent in another language.”

After learning French and Italian he began a serious effort to teach himself German around 1930. To his friends’ amusement, he was soon ploughing through heavy fare such as the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.

“Beckett liked the precision of the German language, which the French language didn’t have,” says Nixon. “He liked reading Schopenhauer for his style rather than content.”

Before his departure for Germany he began an exhaustive course of German art and culture while trying to teach himself German. In a lengthy trawl of German literature, he studied closely Goethe’s use of the autobiographical in his work just as he, Beckett, was struggling with his own “self-writing”.

He had much to do in his tour: after visiting public galleries, often dismayed at works deemed “degenerate” and removed by the Nazis, he had introductions to meet artists forbidden from exhibiting.

Despite the intense earnestness of his endeavour, a sociable and humorous Beckett emerges from the diaries, too. In Hamburg, his first stop, the diary is filled with bar jokes and lewd remarks spotted on toilet walls. Scribbled over a men’s urinal: “Come closer to prevent envy arising.”

Artist Roswitha Quadflieg, who used Hamburg diary extracts in a 2006 exhibition in the city, says, “It was all so exhausting for him because trying to register, filter, retain everything.” Her show caused a sensation, she says, because Beckett’s youthful diary entries were such a contrast to what she calls the humourless “grey eminence” that emerged from the later German translations of his work.

Beyond his deep immersion in the language, his German trip infused Beckett with a rich store of images he would draw on throughout his career, stored in a “photographic memory”, says Knowlson. The stage set of Krapp’s Last Tape, he suggests, is a “virtual reproduction” of Rembrandt’s The Moneychanger, which Beckett saw in Berlin.

In Dresden, Beckett records in his diary a “pleasant predilection” for a painting by Caspar David Friedrich, Two Men Observing the Moon, reflected in the staging of Waiting for Godot.

On his final stop, in Munich, Beckett records a memorable encounter with Karl Valentin, a tragic comedian located somewhere between Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, whose trademark shambling style may equally have fed into Godot.

Beckett left Nazi Germany on April 1st, 1936, physically and emotionally exhausted, but with a rich cultural-linguistic collage forming in his head. It changed him as an artist and left indelible marks on him as a man, too.

Beckett saw no big Nazi demonstrations – the Kristallnacht pogrom against Jews was still two years away – but his diaries pick up on the building atmosphere even without the benefit of historical hindsight. He was irritated with the constant “heil Hitler” greetings, “blaring” radio speeches and ordinary Germans, dubbed the “great proud angry poor putupons”. “He had his own anti-Nazi experience, even if some are disappointed that he doesn’t come across in diaries as a prophet,” says Quadflieg.

Knowlson agrees, suggesting that Beckett’s German journey inculcated him with a hatred of anti-Semitism and intolerance of any kind.

“He’s a guy who didn’t have to get involved in the [French] resistance but did,” says Knowlson. “He once said to me: ‘You couldn’t just stand by with your arms folded when you saw what they were doing to Jews.’ ”

At a time of enormous emotional and artistic disorientation, his German diaries reveal that Beckett’s moral compass was in perfect working order.

He set out for Germany to absorb the country’s cultural treasures just as the Nazis were, quite literally, ripping them from the gallery walls. He belongs to the last generation of European artists for whom engagement with the German language and culture was as self-evident and essential as it seems an optional extra for artists today.

Even if he told no one in West Berlin of his eleventh-hour encounter with the cultured Germany in the 1930s, it may well be what eased his return to the country and his great German success of the 1960s and 1970s.

“Despite everything that happened during the war he was quite happy to go back to Germany; he writes of having a ‘feeling of peace’ there,” said Nixon. “His German diaries don’t give answers to all the questions you want to ask: he’s very reticent. But there is a sense in which Beckett’s Germany journey is very important.”

Follow the Beckett trail

Beckett wrote in his Germany diary that the Third Reich capital was a “chatty Sphinx which, apart from the inconsequential nature of its appearance, has no further secrets to divulge”.

After long walks to get his bearings, he began an intensive series of museum visits: 24 in six weeks. Berlin visitors anxious to follow in Beckett’s footsteps are in luck: many of the museums and collections the Irish dramatist visited have recently reopened to the public.

For an authentic Beckett day, start at the Elephant Gate entrance to the Berlin Zoo, Beckett stayed in a boarding house opposite (Budapesterstrasse 14) which no longer exists. Take a stroll north east through the Tiergarten park to the Brandenburg Gate, pass down Unter den Linden and turn left at the “awful Baroque” cathedral to the Museum Island.

His favourite museum, the Kaiser Friedrich Museum, is now the Bode Museum and holds sculptures rather than paintings. It’s been freshly renovated and is well worth a visit. The paintings he studied are around the corner at the Nationalgalerie.

Next door at the Pergamon, you can marvel at the Rescued Gods exhibitition displaying for the first time in six decades ancient Syrian statutes from Berlin’s Tell Halaf museum, admired by Beckett. Though damaged in wartime bombing, parts of the collection have been carefully pieced together again.

The Samuel Beckett Summer School is at Trinity College Dublin from this Monday to Friday