Review: Conversations with Samuel Beckett and Bram van Velde

There’s a brief review of Charles Juliet’s Conversations with Samuel Beckett and Bram van Velde in today’s Guardian which I thought would interest some of you. The piece is written by Nicholas Lezard and can be accessed by clicking here.

Here is the publisher’s description of the book:

When Samuel Beckett and the Dutch painter Bram Van Velde met in Paris in the 1930s, both were living in abject poverty, and neither could have anticipated that—on the other side of World War II and the brutal occupation of France by the Nazis—they would each go on to be luminaries in their respective mediums: Beckett winning the Nobel Prize and becoming a bulwark of contemporary Western literature, and Van Velde holding exhibitions all over the world.

Thirty years later, a younger author at the start of his career is introduced into the company of these two great pessimists—neither of whom make cooperative interview subjects, and each of whom represents, in his own way, a radical rejection of the common languages of his art.

Itself a mixture of idolatry, deft characterization, and critical insight, Conversations with Samuel Beckett and Bram Van Velde is both an entertaining and insightful contribution to our understanding of the lives and thoughts of two masters.

And here is how the Guardian review begins:

In the third of Samuel Beckett’s three dialogues with Georges Duthuit, we are treated to the following exchange: Duthuit – “One moment. Are you suggesting that the painting of van Velde is inexpressive?” Beckett (a fortnight later) – “Yes.” D – “You realise the absurdity of what you advance?” B – “I hope I do.”

In Beckett’s lexicon, “inexpressive” is not derogatory. It signals, in fact, that an artist is getting to the core of what it means to be an artist – as in his often-quoted remarks about “the expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.”

Bram van Velde could have been made for Beckett. He could, come to think of it, have been made by Beckett, not only in the sense that he has the characteristics of the typical Beckettian character, but in that it was as much thanks to Beckett’s private and public support as to his own talent that he was able to lift himself out of the extreme poverty which he had suffered for much of his life.

There are 30 pages of interviews with Beckett in this book; 120 pages with van Velde. However, one should not feel cheated should one be hoping to hear more from the more famous master: there is plenty about him in the conversations with van Velde. My favourite is his recollection of the time Beckett came to visit him during one of the rare periods when he – van Velde – wasn’t too unhappy with his own work. He told Beckett that he was “almost satisfied”, and Beckett replied “expressionlessly”: “There’s really no reason to be.”

“Totally thrown by this response, Bram retreated to a corner of the studio, where he sat down at the table and began to eat to cover his confusion. Meanwhile, Beckett stood motionless in the loft, fixing him with his eagle eye.” No wonder that, in the next interview, van Velde says: “Beckett? There is nobody more silent. From time to time he used to let slip a few words. But they were not encouraging.”

But they were, really. Van Velde calls Beckett an “archangel”, and his meeting with him in 1940 so fortuitous that it might well have saved his life (or his art). “When you’ve known someone like him, so many other people seem like mere robots by comparison.”

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