Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Cult of Impersonality


Fame is fleeting, but to Samuel Beckett's taste, not fleeting enough. If most writers feel themselves condemned to obscurity, for Beckett the opposite was the case. He was, in his own words, ``damned to fame."

Indeed, the durability of his fame is on striking display these days. In celebration of Beckett's centennial, his plays are being produced in hundreds of theaters around the world; conferences and colloquia are taking place everywhere from Dublin to Oxford, Paris to Tokyo, Ankara to Odense; and a splendid new edition of his works, edited by Paul Auster (and with introductions by Colm Toibin, Salman Rushdie, Edward Albee, and J.M. Coetzee), has just been published by Grove Press.

Beckett, who died in 1989, lived to see the full flowering of his fame, and the retiring Irishman was forced into a spotlight he had no desire to stand in. But what were the chances that this spotlight would shine on him in the first place? He was an obscure writer writing in a foreign language about obscure figures living in a very foreign world. When one considers the strangeness of the works that sealed his fame, the plays ``Waiting for Godot" and ``Endgame," both written in the 1950s, not only is it remarkable that they were successes, it is remarkable that they were produced-and that the first audiences were patient enough to await their seemingly endless endings. But wait they did. And to his limitless consternation, Samuel Beckett became an international literary celebrity.

With piercing blue eyes, a gaunt face scored by lines of laughter and loss, and hair standing on end-as if outraged by the thoughts transpiring beneath it-Beckett looked the part, and got the part. And thanks to the special logic of fame, the more he tried to lead a private life, the more he tried to move away from literary groups, associations, councils, and societies, the more they courted him with prizes, decorations, and honorary degrees. Awarded the Nobel Prize in 1969, he chose to accept it only because refusing-as had Sartre a few years earlier-would have aroused more attention. So he sent an envoy to Sweden to accept the check and discreetly distributed the money to those in need.

And yet, as much as Beckett hated the limelight, his desire to withdraw from it makes a fitting metaphor for his peculiar literary achievement.

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