Thursday, May 13, 2010

Conversations with Samuel Beckett and Bram van Velde, by Charles Juliet

A visit from Samuel Beckett in 1940 prevented the Dutch painter Bram van Velde (1895–1981) from committing suicide. It was unlikely to have been anything Beckett said. “There is nobody more silent,” van Velde observes. “From time to time he used to let slip a few words. But they were not encouraging.” What Beckett brought was not encouragement but understanding. “For the first time somebody understood his paintings, his silent struggle, his obstinate determination to hold out at the extreme limit of creative possibility,” explains the French poet and novelist Charles Juliet, who explores his meetings with both men from 1968 to 1979 in this short book.

At the age of twenty-five van Velde devoted himself to painting and for thirty years sold nothing, working in poverty and total isolation. “I wasn’t free to live any other way,” he tells Juliet. Beckett experienced a similar lengthy period of neglect. “It doesn’t matter if you’re not published,” Beckett says. “One does it to be able to breathe.” Both men revere Van Gogh. “When you think that he never sold a single canvas,” Beckett observes admiringly.

In 1973 Beckett muses on the “ontological indecency” that prevented his books from being published for so long, and he also amusingly dismisses all the essays and theses on his work as “a useless form of vivisection . . . academic dementia”. Earlier, in 1968, he tells Juliet of a moment of “sudden revelation” at the end of a jetty (as recalled in Krapp’s Last Tape), yet Beckett gave strict instructions to his biographer James Knowlson to kill this canard once and for all. (“All the jetty and howling wind are imaginary,” Beckett told Richard Ellmann.) If Juliet’s interview is accurate, it would appear to be a myth of Beckett’s own making.

This is a powerful record of two isolated, intense presences. Juliet’s conversations with Beckett take up only a third of the book, and the Irishman comes across as mildly manipulative and passively domineering. Van Velde is more nervous and mentally fragile, and in terms of sheer oddness the book belongs to him. “Life is such a horror that one feels that anything can happen,” he tells Juliet. “If someone came around to shoot me tomorrow, I wouldn’t even be surprised.”

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