And so I said to him, ‘You’ve been living in Paris for all these many years and yet they haven’t included you among their ‘dinosaures des lettres Francaises.’ You live in France, you speak and write in French, yet they didn’t include you. Why do you think they did that?”
At first he looked puzzled by the exclusion, but then, with another smile, merely said, it’s okay, I forgive them. Maybe it was because he still thought of himself as Irish even after living 50 years in France or maybe it was because the redacteur en chef hadn’t edited the copy or perhaps the staff had thought him dead. At any rate, I didn’t forgive them.
“But when were you last in Ireland?” I asked.
‘68, he said, for a funeral. And then in a transition that wouldn’t have been a stain upon his craft, he said his mother was dead, and his brother was dead, and Blin was dead and so was Jack Yeats.
And one could see the furrowed frown in his forehead as he held his hand to his head, thinking, perhaps repeating thoughts, or losing them, within the confines of time, time in the Vaucluse, Rousillon, with his wife, with others, time with Watt. The furrowed frown.
Through some set of verbal perambulations he came to talk of his early work, how he couldn’t make it as a teacher since he felt he knew no more than his students. A last ditch writer, he called himself. No one took his work, no one looked at it.
No one till Lindon, till Jerôme Lindon took his work. Without reservations. How fortunate he was, he said, to have found him, and how lucky he was to have found Roger Blin. And John Calder. How lucky I was, he repeated. How lucky he was. How lucky they were I thought, but he would have never said that. Never.
It’s somewhat difficult to reconstruct the scene, seen so many years ago now, two decades on, now after his centenary. I tend to think of how that meeting ended. Of what things I took away with me the last time I met Beckett.
And I vividly remember two moments: first was his response to my simple-minded question: “What are you planning to write next?” acknowledged with the sublimely succinct answer, “All things come to an end.” With that statement there was nothing more to be said, nothing less. No symbols where none intended. It was over. One needed no redacteur to understand that, and yet hearing the words come from him rendered me depressed and sullen, rendered the day depressed and sullen.
At the end of that chat, I suggested that, perhaps, he needed to go, to leave, to do whatever he needed to do since I didn’t want to take up any more of his time. He nodded, picked up his glasses, paid for the coffees and we both headed for the door.
The other moment was more sanguine. I recalled from our first meeting that he smoked Dutch cigars. Small ones. Small ones that came in a yellow cardboard box the brand of which escapes me. Holland stokjes or something of the sort. The ones he placed on the table when he arrived. As it was nearing his birthday, I had bought several boxes of those cigars to give to him as a present, as a gift and before he walked out of the café I told him I had something for him.
I removed the crudely wrapped cigars from my leather bag, crudely wrapped as only I could crudely wrap them and handed the cigars to Beckett. He unwrapped the paper and when he saw they were the same cigars he smoked he looked at me with a look that was both perplexing and grateful, a look that would have suggested that what I had given him was a gift beyond all measure, a gift that was speechlessly invaluable. He asked me how I knew; I said I merely remembered.
And so they stayed a little while, Mr. Beckett and Mr. Axelrod looking at each other with Mr. Beckett’s hand on Mr. Axelrod’s shoulder, looking straight before him, at nothing in particular, and then Mr. Beckett thanked Mr. Axelrod, stuffed the boxes in his coat, bid Mr. Axelrod a safe trip home, shook his hand and left. A left turn, a right turn and he was gone though the sky, falling to the buildings, and the buildings falling to the river, made as pretty a picture, in the afternoon light, as a man could hope to meet with, on a waning day in April.
But the day wasn’t over for me. What I could not fathom was the line “All things come to an end.” Depressed and sullen discourse. One fathoms such a line from a dictionary of well-worn phrases perhaps, but not in the context of someone of Beckett’s literary station.
I recall I left the café, ambled, turning down aleatory alleys until I eventually found myself walking along the Seine, somewhere along the Seine, perhaps near the Hotel Lauzun, perhaps not, it didn’t really matter, repeating the line, the same line he spoke not that long ago, “All things come to an end.”