University of Almería, Spain | Published: 15 March, 2014
ISSUE 9 | Pages: 44-53 | PDF | DOAJ | https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2014-4171
2014 by José Francisco Fernández-Sánchez | This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.
A study of the relationship between Samuel Beckett and Spain poses some striking questions which are relevant in understanding the cultural inclinations of one of the most important dramatists of the 20th century. Beckett consciously abstained from having direct contact with Spanish culture and never visited Spain, despite showing an interest in the politics of the country at different periods of his life. As a result of this state of affairs a no-go area emerges which calls for a reconceptualization of Beckett’s ideas on travel, politics and even his own country. This article tries to approach the matter of Beckett and Spain from different angles, in an attempt to achieve a full panoramic view. The opinions of one of Beckett’s Spanish friends, Manolo Fandos, are recorded here for the first time.
Cualquier estudio sobre la relación de Samuel Beckett con España tendría que enfrentarse a algunas preguntas muy llamativas cuyo planteamiento, no obstante, es necesario para comprender las inquietudes culturales de uno de los más importantes dramaturgos del siglo XX. Samuel Beckett, conscientemente, evitó viajar a España a pesar de mostrar interés, en distintos periodos de su vida, por los acontecimientos políticos de este país. A raíz de esta situación parece surgir un espacio vacío en torno a España, lo que invita a un replanteamiento de algunas de las ideas ya conocidas sobre el escritor irlandés: su opinión sobre los viajes, sobre política o sobre su propio país. Este artículo pretende acercarse a la cuestión de Beckett y España desde distintos ángulos, con el objeto de lograr una visión general del problema. Las declaraciones de uno de los amigos españoles de Samuel Beckett, el pintor Manolo Fandos, se recogen aquí por primera vez.
Samuel Beckett; Irlanda; España; idioma francés y civilización francesa; idiomas italiano y alemán; Fernando Arrabal; Manolo Fandos.
ESTRAGON: I’m going.
VLADIMIR: Help me up first. Then we’ll go together.
ESTRAGON: You promise?
VLADIMIR: I swear it!
ESTRAGON: And we’ll never come back?
ESTRAGON: We’ll go to the Pyrenees.
VLADIMIR: Wherever you like.
I’ve always wanted to wander in the Pyrenees.
VLADIMIR: You’ll wander in them.
(Samuel Beckett. Waiting for Godot)
Samuel Beckett never went to Spain. At least there are no records that indicate that he ever crossed the Pyrenees. There is nothing particularly remarkable in that, he did not go to many other countries, like Poland, Bulgaria or South Africa, to name but a few. What is striking is that, for many years, he seems to have been skirting Spain, making a huge circle around this southern Mediterranean country, so that, at the end of his life, he had established a kind of cordon sanitaire around the area and this requires an interpretation. He was born in Ireland (1906) and lived there in his youth. In his early manhood he went to France and Italy, lived in London, travelled to Germany, returning to France to live there until his death in 1989. He went back to Ireland, Britain and Germany at different periods of his life, flew once to the US, and he also went on holiday or stayed briefly in the former Yugoslavia, Switzerland, Holland, Austria, Italy, Sardinia, Greece, Malta, Tunisia, Morocco, Portugal and Madeira, marking in this way Spain a place that had to be avoided, a no-go area, with which no interaction seemed possible. I do not think that there is a single answer to the question of why Beckett did not visit Spain. The issue cannot therefore be addressed in a straightforward way, in a single arrow to the centre where the heart of the matter may lie. In what follows I will try to mimic Beckett and to go round the subject in a series of circles, making different approaches as the only possible way of handling the problem.
It should be stated at the outset that this article does not deal with the influence of Spanish literature in the work of Samuel Beckett. Although Spanish culture at large did not leave an indelible mark in his oeuvre (Fernández 2011), it is true that his readings of Spanish authors can be detected in some of his works. María José Carrera, for instance, has proved that Beckett was acquainted with Cervantes’ Don Quijote (which he had read in French) and that this influence can be appreciated in Mercier and Camier (Carrera 2007: 150).
The focus of this essay will specifically be on the relationship of Beckett with Spain, his likely opinions and misgivings, in an attempt to explain the reason for his not visiting the country. It is interesting to note that at different periods of his life he could have easily made the journey. As a young man he had devoted some time at studying the language1 and in October 1935 he thought of visiting the country (Pilling 2006: 54). Many years later, in September 1968, in order to recover from a long illness, he ventured the possibility of having a holiday in the Canary Islands, although in the end he and his wife Suzanne opted for Madeira (Knowlson 1997: 559-560). In the early 1960’s he was invited for a visit by one of his Spanish friends, Manolo Fandos, and in 1985 the organisers of a festival of his work in Madrid also sent the cursory request for his presence at the event, but the frontier was never crossed.
2.- Beckett and travel
The truth is that, with the exception of his visit to New York in 1964, Beckett’s travels were limited to a rather small region of the world. When he was an established author, from the mid-1950’s onwards, he lived in Paris and had a cottage in the village of Ussy-Sur-Marne, not far from the French capital, where he retired when he needed solitude. He occasionally went to England or Germany for work and he took a holiday with his wife to a warmer climate from time to time, and that was it. He did not even travel much inside France. The last time he visited his native country was in March 1968, for a funeral. He was not the seasoned traveller that an international writer of roughly the same age, like Angus Wilson, certainly was, visiting many countries, giving talks and attending conferences.2
The lengthiest journey he ever made was to Germany for six months, from September 1936 to April 1937. He went alone, visiting a number of cities, as he had the intention of studying German art in museums and galleries. He had the vague prospects of becoming an art critic and he thought that this pilgrimage would be instructive. What is known from his (still unpublished) German diaries is that he found it tiring and fastidious to move alone like a ghost in the rain, to sleep in uncomfortable lodgings and deal with the everyday problems of any tourist: where to eat and drink, where to urinate or how to pass the time without spending too much money (Knowlson 1997: 232). Beckett was frequently tired, had a terrible cold, and suffered a series of annoying ailments, such as boils and lumps in various parts of his body. He was also frequently depressed. Reading his letters from Germany is to witness the progress of a tortured soul, dragging his feet from place to place. For instance, on 28 November 1936 he wrote to his friend Tom McGreevy:
If only I felt more up to looking at things, but for the past week I am in rotten form, grippé I think, with the old herpes & a slowly festering finger. I wanted to go to Bremen before leaving Hamburg, but the light is so frightful, and the constitution of the gallery there now so doubtful (I mean what pictures have they left hanging), & my apathy so enormous, that I have not made the trip (Beckett 2009: 386).
It was not the first time he had been to Germany. He had visited his aunt Cissie and her family in Kassel six times from September 1928 to January 1932, a period that covers his stay in Paris as lecteur d’anglais at the École Normale Superieur and his stint as a lecturer in Modern Languages at TCD. A glimpse into the nature of those journeys can be gathered by the highly autobiographical novel that he wrote in 1932 (to be published three years after his death, in 1992), Dream of Fair to Middling Women. Here the protagonist, alter ego of Beckett himself, and the first of a long list of Beckettian heroes, Belacqua Shuah, does not enjoy a single moment of the journeys between the different places he visits (largely repeating the journeys Beckett made between Paris and Kassel). Travel for Belacqua is irksome, something to be endured stoically. Nothing here of the expected excitement of a youth travelling abroad:
At Ostend he secured a corner seat in a through horsebox to Wien and defended it for 29 hours against all comers. The last 599 kilometers on beer (terrible stuff!), and in a horsebox, not a corridor coach, which explains why he stepped hastily out of the train at the Westbahnhof and looked feverishly up and down the platform (Beckett 1992: 12).
Travelling, if we are to believe the experience of Belacqua in the novel, is to be exposed to bouts of diahorrea, to be suffocated to death in a litter on the boat back home, to have one’s feet tormented by new boots (from memories of his visit to Italy in April 1927), or to wander penniless for three days and three nights before reaching the comforts of home. It is not surprising, therefore, that in his novel Mercier et Camier (written in 1946, published in 1970), a narrative by Beckett in which a journey is specifically at the centre of the action, the narrator celebrates the fact that the two protagonists do not leave familiar surroundings and do not venture out to foreign lands:
- Beckett famously translated several poems in Spanish for his Anthology of Mexican Poetry (1958) and it is known that he occasionally corrected the versions of his plays in Spanish. [↩]
- Incidentally, it should be said that Angus Wilson held Beckett in the highest esteem and considered him to be one of the greatest contemporary writers. Wilson admitted having been influenced by Beckett, particularly in the drawing of his characters without the props of modern civilization: “Beckett’s rigour has been a corrective to what I feel to be the rather false humanism which I inherited from E.M. Foster’s novels, a humanism derived from one segment of middle-class civilisation and not from humanity in general” (Angus Wilson in McDowell 1983: 268). [↩]
- An idea reinforced in the same novel: “… a feeble idea may be obtained of what awaits him too smart not to know better, better than to leave his black cell and that harmless lunacy, faint flicker every other age or so, the consciousness of being, of having being” (Beckett 2010: 67). [↩]
- Beckett occasionally received visits from Spanish intellectuals, as it happened with theatre director Trino Martínez Trives in 1959 (all translations are mine): “I talk to him about Spain, about how difficult it is for his theatre to be performed commercially there. Beckett smiles” (Martínez Trives 1965: 40). [“Le hablo de España, de lo difícil que resulta que su teatro se represente comercialmente. Beckett sonríe”]. He also followed the news about Spain. From a conversation he had with Charles Juliet on 14 November 1975, it is obvious that Beckett kept up with what was happening in those days before the imminent death of the dictator Francisco Franco. Beckett is described explaining to his interlocutor the likely outcome of events if Franco were kept alive artificially (Juliet 2009: 34). [↩]
- “Dans l’impossibilité où je me trouve de témoigner au procès de Fernando Arrabal j’ecris cette lettre en espérant qu’elle pourra être portée à la connaissance de la Cour et la rendre peut-être plus sensible à l’exceptionnelle valeur humaine et artistique de celui qu’elle va juger. Elle va juger un écrivain espagnol qui, dans le bref espace de dix ans, s’est hissé jusqu’au premier rang des dramaturges d’aujourd’hui, et cela par la force d’un talent profondément espagnol. Partout où l’on joue ses pièces, et on les joue partout, l’Espagne est là. C’est à ce passé déjà admirable que j’invite la Cour à réfléchir, avant de passer jugement”. [↩]
- “La religión católica, sobre todo en el momento que aprendió las primeras nociones del catecismo, impresionó duraderamente su imaginación por el aspecto solemne, sangriento y fúnebre de sus ritos y sus ceremonias”. [↩]
- “Mucho tiempo después me di cuenta de la importancia con que Suzanne, junto a su marido, me distinguió al aceptarme de inmediato, ya que la pareja vivía un tanto ‘a la defensiva’ ante la marabunta esnobista que los acechaba, hecho que reducía su círculo de amistades”. [↩]
- “Él estaba obsesionado por la economía de medios en la expresión y yo, joven, mediterráneo y quizás demasiado ambicioso en el significado, no comprendía sus tesis”. [↩]
- In the interview I had with him, Manolo Fandos, at 85, did not remember the dates when this journey took place. He mentioned a famous exhibition of Romanesque Art that was taking place in Spain at the time and which they visited. In 1961 the Spanish government organized an international exhibition in Santiago de Compostela and Barcelona (Exposición Internacional de Arte Románico, July-October 1961) and it is possible that they went to Spain during those months. [↩]
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