The writer in my head settled there most curiously. In 1979, I was playing goal for the Brebeuf College hockey squad in North York. It was a Jesuit high school then, all boys, a team photo of future doctors and lawyers, sturdy business and family men.
Our coach, Jim Barry, was also our English teacher. He achieved the near impossible that winter, turning a Toronto suburban cohort into Samuel Beckett devotees, given to arena recitations of the great Irish modernist’s best-known work.
Here is the scene: a home game against powerhouse St. Michael’s College. Brebeuf boys line both sides of the rink. As I idle in my crease, cheering sections shout across the ice to each other. “Let’s go,” one side says. “We can’t,” the other answers. “Why not?” the first crew asks. “We’re waiting for Godot!” the second crew answers. “Ahhhh,” both sides sigh.
They chant the famous refrain from Waiting for Godot for three periods, as though it is the team fight song. We win that game, but later lose to St. Mike’s, in overtime, in the playoffs.
My days as a goaltender ended with that loss. But my decades with Samuel Beckett had just begun. Or better: Courtesy of Jim Barry’s charismatic exploration of the universal suffering, and the universal humanity, of Beckett’s two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, I found the literary mentor I needed.
“Who are these figures who take residence inside our heads,” Pico Iyer asks in The Man Within My Head, “to the point where we can hear their voices even when we’re trying to make contact with our own?”
“Who put them there?... “ Iyer adds, noting how, if he were to choose a “secret companion, an invisible alter ego,” he would select someone more “dashing” than British novelist Graham Greene. Greene, he admits, “is not a hero or a counsellor” to him. Instead, he is the ongoing presence who whispers the “secrets and fears” that burrow to the core of Iyer’s preoccupations.
The heads of most writers, I suspect, are similarly occupied. We talk, or mostly listen, to a select few authors whose books, and sometimes lives, exert father-like authority over our literary sensibilities and trajectories. First “contact” often comes early on, when, as Iyer notes, one is still searching for a voice of one’s own, and the intensity of the exchanges ebb and flow over a career. But once the bond is formed, it is permanent.
These are not, it should be stressed, actual friendships. (Pico Iyer never met Graham Greene, nor wished to.) Friendships between authors, as between painters or carpenters, emerge for the usual reasons: shared experiences and concerns, simple compatibility.
Between the writer mentor and his or her protégé is the bond of books. Between them is an open-ended conversation about everything to do with the form – its purposes, aesthetics and traditions. Writers talk most companionably via their work.
My Samuel Beckett is a variant on Iyer’s Graham Greene. From that whimsical introduction to Waiting for Godot, through a graduate-school obsession with his fiction, especially the trilogy of Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable, right up to a present-day avidity for any production of Endgame or Krapp’s Last Tape, I have continued to want to hear him.
In 2006, while on a family vacation, my wife and I took our daughters, then 15 and 12, to a production of Godot at the Gate theatre in Dublin. (“It’s about clowns,” I assured our youngest. “You’ll love it!”) As the play was being mounted as part of elaborate centenary celebrations of his birth, the Irish capital was festooned with posters and banners showing the iconic photo of the Nobel laureate in twilight.
That still-handsome Beckett face – craggy, stark, warm, bemused – was almost too much. I ended up averting my eyes, under the vague impression that I had disappointed a man that I, too, never met.
Since then, I’ve kept the four-volume Grove Centenary edition of Samuel Beckett on a special shelf in my office, alongside the essays of Michel de Montaigne and the complete Lu Xun, in translation. I do so mostly on the off-chance that physical proximity to great writing will improve my own. As well, gazing at Beckett in print isn’t nearly so morally taxing.
My response in Dublin to seeing his actual face speaks to why his presence remains a private necessity. Much as I adore his mordant, cadenced prose, I’ve never tried to write like him. Nor do I have either the temperament or courage to address so frontally the strangeness, and unease, of being human. Most writers, it should be said, stop short of where Samuel Beckett starts.
But that is fine. What first lodged him in my conscience back in 1979 was actually embedded in the Godot call-answer that my classmates shouted across a hockey rink. As Vladimir and Estragon wait and wait in loud, funny anguish for Godot to appear, so do human lives pass in discomfort and anxiety about meaning. “Well, shall we go?” Estragon asks his friend at the end of Act I. “Yes, let’s go,” Vladimir replies. Naturally, they do not move.
Admonitions to stay mindful of suffering, to value compassion above all else, to laugh at our collectively dire circumstances: This is what I mostly learn from the writer within my head. Beckett’s literary mentorship has been, in effect, a moral one, and I haven’t always lived up. I have to try harder – or “fail better,” as he would put it. I have to keep him there in order to keep writing.
Contributing reviewer Charlie Foran recently won the 2011 Governor-General’s literary award for Mordecai: The Life and Times.