Beckett's shadow lies behind both Banville and Pinter


Samuel Beckett is the unsung hero in this year's literary awards to John Banville and Harold Pinter, having deeply influenced both men, writes Tim Rutten.

Harold Pinter's Nobel Prize for literature and John Banville's Man Booker Prize were better than well-deserved. They were right. But last week's big winner was the 1969 Nobel literature laureate, Samuel Beckett, who died 16 years ago and in whose fecund shadow both Pinter and Banville have worked so admirably and admiringly.

At this historical moment - besotted as it is by piety and passion on all sides, by cruelty in attack and reciprocal cruelty in response - recognition of Beckett's continuing relevance through the work of his foremost admirers could hardly be more apt. It's even amusing to note both writers' Beckett-like responses to news of their awards.

When a Swedish journalist working for the official Nobel website rang Pinter and said, "I would like just to ask you what, in your career, you think has been the most important, what has the most," Pinter interjected, "I cannot answer. . . . I can't answer these questions."

On the day Banville's novel, The Sea, was short-listed for this year's Booker, a reporter called and asked, "Can you summarise your book in your own words?" Banville replied, "I already have - 65,000 of them."

No one summed up Beckett's ethos better than the critic Hugh Kenner, who said, "His argument was with the Book of Genesis." What better antidote to the gooey piety that seems to spread across the surface of our public life like some uncontrollable religious oil spill than Beckett's astringent verity: "God is a witness that cannot be sworn."?

Pinter, who was Beckett's friend and to whom the Irish playwright was a mentor, has been most explicit in his admiration.

"The farther he goes the more good it does me," he said once of Beckett. "I don't want philosophies, tracts, dogmas, creeds, ways out, truths, answers, nothing from the bargain basement. He is the most courageous, remorseless writer going. . . He's not flogging me a remedy or a path or a revelation or a basinful of breadcrumbs. . . He brings forth a body of beauty. His work is beautiful."

Banville also frequently has drawn attention to Beckett's influence on his work. His own sequence of novels, The Book of Evidence (1989), Ghosts (1993) and Athena (1995), usually are compared to Beckett's Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable. Among the most telling of Ghosts' many memorable sentences are these, pure Beckett and Banville: "Such suffering, such grief: unimaginable. No, that's not right. I can imagine it. I can imagine anything."

In the United States, at least, Pinter's Nobel is bound to be a source of dismay to some who object to his fierce criticism not only of the war in Iraq but also of its conduct, particularly the use of torture by US forces. His categorical opposition to cruelty and oppression, however, springs from an insistence on the primacy of decency and humanity over ideology in any form.

In this too he is a disciple of Beckett, who famously left his neutral homeland for France on the very verge of the second World War. As he later said, "I should rather be in France at war than Ireland at peace, and by the grace of God I made it just in time."

In occupied France, Beckett joined the Resistance and served heroically enough to be awarded the Croix de Guerre following liberation.

As Banville has written, "In politics Beckett was vaguely left-wing, vaguely republican; he joined the Resistance less out of political conviction, it would seem, than out of a general commitment to the ordinary decencies of life as against the wickedness of the Nazi and Vichy regimes."

A loyalty to decency and humanity rather than programmatic ideology is at work in Pinter's public statements - however injudicious some in the United States may find them.

Beckett used to pause occasionally to torment academics hoping to discover precisely what had inspired him to write Waiting for Godot with its two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon.

(He said to Susan Sontag, among others, that the play actually originated in the "vertigo and nausea" he experienced during the agonising waits entailed by his work for the French Resistance.)

The playwright told more than one professor, though, that, at a certain point in his life, he'd spent a great deal of time in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris reading Augustine.

There he had come across the saint's reflection on the two thieves the Gospels say were crucified on either side of Christ.

He was struck, Beckett said, by the theologian's admonition: "Do not despair: one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume: one of the thieves was damned."

But, as the medievalist and Augustine scholar, James J. O'Donnell, recently pointed out, "Thinking of Vladimir and Estragon as the two thieves crucified with Jesus is intriguing, to say the least, and it is wonderfully Beckett-like that the particular passage cannot be found anywhere in the surviving writings of Augustine for all that the language and tenor are quite perfectly Augustinian."

In other words, an insight delivered with perfect pitch and, achingly true - but in what sense?

How perfectly characteristic of Samuel Beckett that is and how perfectly suited to the present moment. - (Los Angeles Times/ Washington Post service)