Belinda McKeon's Blog
July 9, 2012
Sit in a theater for a Tom Murphy play and I can guarantee you one thing: you will come out of that theater rattled, and throttled, and staggered, in the best of all possible ways. It might take a long moment, afterwards, to catch your breath; use that moment to listen to the torrent of marvelous language that will still be surging through your head. That tussle of starkness and poetry. Murphy doesn’t give us lyricism the way that Irish writers, apparently, are meant to do; he gives us blunt and beautiful rhythm. He doesn’t give us laughter in that way either, though audiences will inevitably seek it out, and connect, in the sting of that laughter falling wrongly, with the defiantly dark intelligence of Murphy’s vision: guffaw at all the drinking scenes, if you will, but these are broken lives, and there’s no joking that away.
Here’s an interview I did with the Irish playwright Tom Murphy for the Paris Review Daily.
June 23, 2012
I got on the stoop that evening. It was time.
Writing today on a Brooklyn sense of space, as part of an Irish Times look at the Science Gallery Dublin’s Hack the City show:
Seven years in and I’m still too Irish to sit on the stoop. Too awkward. The neighbours know how to put a stoop to work: read the Post there, have a beer there, put a few deckchairs around the steps and put the world to rights. From my desk, pushed up against the front window, pushed at in turn by the branches of an old tree – in this borough, everything feels like a sunworn cliche – I watch them, and I hear them, and that’s neighbourhood enough for me.
Or it’s a part of my neighbourhood; the other half of my neighbourhood is in a cafe 10 minutes away, where I sometimes write – see, cliche – and where the people are always the same people, and where there’s a backyard for summer evenings and where, yesterday evening, I saw a neon-green firefly.
Our local park has a kids’ soccer team called Little Guadalupe, and a dog run where the hipsters try to prise the retrievers from the pugs, and a war memorial that is never short of flowers, and old ladies who take one look at what you’re wearing and say, with their eyes, something that they feel needs to be said.
I grew up running around fields, and my first city was Dublin, and I should miss the open space, or the skyline so low it seems ready to strike up a conversation, or the bumping into someone you know at every corner, and I do, in a way, but I don’t in another way. “May my enemies live here in summer,” said Swift of another city – London – and if he was here this week, in 38-degree heat, who knows what he’d say, but probably he’d sit on the stoop, and he’d elbow out a space for himself amid brick walls and chalked pavements and roaring traffic and know-it-all eyes. And he’d love it. I know he would.
June 16, 2012
Thanks to Rosie Schaap for mentioning Solace in her Bloomsday round-up of contemporary Irish literature over on the New York Times 6th Floor Blog. Rosie’s curated reading series on Sunday afternoons at the Good World Bar & Grill in Chinatown (now sadly closed) provided me with my first-ever opportunity to read from Solace when it was still a work-in-progress – in fact, when it consisted of around 30 pages – back in 2007. Her posts on the 6th Floor are always worth a read, and she has a blog here.
June 13, 2012
“You know the way a flash of lightning appears to be there all in the sky at once? Beginning, middle and end, all there at once.”
I’m writing today on the Paris Review Daily about the Irish short-story writer Mary Lavin, whose centenary falls this month.
June 10, 2012
This is how we do emigration these days….
I wrote the programme note for the new Abbey Theatre production of Tom Murphy’s play from 2000, The House. The note has also just been published over on the Generation Emigration blog at the Irish Times, to mark the opening of the play this week.
March 26, 2012
March 25, 2012
A gem among many from Kevin Barry's very fine new collection of short stories, Dark Lies The Island. (And true. I think. I hope. I kind-of-pray. Well, I would, wouldn't I?)
There was the rumble above us of the elevated trains. I complained at the lack of true lustre in my stories. Silvija sighed and stopped up on the pavement and she took hold of my elbow. She gave me one of her statements or manifestos, then, one of her great orations on the Nature of Art:
'When you are worried, that is when you are working. When you are doing nothing, that is when the work is happening. It does not happen in the front section of the brain, Patrick. It happens in back section. Here is the subconscious level. This is the place the story come from. You just have to let it happen. Liberate yourself! If it is going to come, it will come. You just make yourself available and open to it. If it comes good, some day, it comes good. Champagne! But you have no power over it. It is all involving luck. When it feels like nothing is happening, that is when it is all happening. And remember that when you are worried, you are working.'
Still I search for a more succinct explanation of how it all occurs, but I know I will not find one.
From Berlin Arkonaplatz – My Lesbian Summer by Kevin Barry
(That said, I know Kevin Barry. And he's never doing nothing.)
March 23, 2012
Along with an indifferent cat and a not-indifferent* husband, this lot were waiting for me when I got home from my travels this week. Happy about that.
*not a different husband, either.
March 22, 2012
With these two (fellow readers at the brilliant Bookworm Literary Festival), as well as some bespoke goodies from "Johnny" at the artfully-named Wuzhou Friendship Silk Trade Company in the Chaoyang District. This haul includes two pairs of silk trousers which I, worry, look a little too like shellsuit pants for me to get away with…but we'll see.
February 23, 2012
"Oh, that was a very clumsy letter. I don't think I'd ever written a letter like that before."
I was sad yesterday to learn of the death of the great Barney Rosset, the founder of Grove Press and the reason Samuel Beckett – his work, and Beckett himself – came to the United States. Six years ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Barney in his apartment in the East Village, on the occasion of Beckett's centenary. I spent hours there, talking to Barney and his wife, Astrid Myers; looking through the many documents, photographs and letters they took out to show me, listening to their stories. Here's the piece which resulted from that meeting, as well as some photos I took (badly) on the day. I've posted the full transcript of the interview over at Work .
So long, Barney. We are all very fortunate that you worked as hard as you did.
It started with a letter, earnest and self-deprecating; the first uncertain foray towards an understanding that would last a lifetime. "It is about time that I write a letter to you," began Barney Rosset, "now that agents, publishers, friends etc., have all acted as go-betweens. A copy of our catalogue has already been mailed to you, so you will be able to see what kind of a publisher you have been latched onto. I hope that you won't be too disappointed."
The catalogue was that of the publishing house which Rosset had bought two years previously; the publishing house was Grove Press, which would go on to gain a stable of brilliant and controversial writers including Miller, Ginsberg, Burroughs and Kerouac, and to introduce European writers like Pinter, Genet and Ionesco to American readers for the first time. Rosset had secured Grove for $3000; the sum would come, in time, to look like an incredible bargain.
And, apprehensive and hesitant as he might have been as he wrote to Samuel Beckett for the first time in 1953, he was conscious, too, that he had struck another bargain. Having seen a brief notice in the New York Times about a play that was running in Paris, Rosset had gone with his instinct and bought the American rights – for $150. Now he was writing to Beckett to ask him to translate En Attendant Godot into English, and his tone betrays his anxiety that his request might well be refused. "I hope that you will join me in this idea," he appeals. "En Attendant Godot should burst upon us as an entity in my opinion."
Rosset need not have worried – a reply from Paris arrived exactly a week later, with Beckett providing not only his promise of a translation ("I shall send you to-day or to-morrow my first version") but his private address, and a friendly warning on the likelihood of his work drawing unfriendly attention from the censors; "I hope you realise what you are letting yourself in for," he remarked. He hoped that Rosset would be in Paris soon. He expressed an interest in some of the books from the Grove catalogue. He signed off by thanking Rosset for taking a chance on his work; for "wishing us a fair wind". His response could hardly have been more encouraging.
The walls of the East Village loft Rosset shares with his companion, Astrid Myers, are lined with binder upon binder of the correspondence that followed with Beckett. Looking today at copies of those two first letters, Rosset, now 83, laughs at the memory of his initial apprehension. "Oh, that was a very clumsy letter," he says. "I don't think I'd ever written a letter like that before."
The first meeting of author and publisher took place three months afterwards, in September 1953. Rosset, on honeymoon with his second wife, sailed from New York to Paris, where Godot, directed by Roger Blin, was playing at the Théâtre Babylone. But before they saw the play, the couple met with the playwright – and, to Rosset's renewed anxiety, the first moments of the encounter did not go as smoothly as he had hoped. "He was very cool," remembers Rosset. "He came into the Pont Royal Hotel in his raincoat, and said that he would have to leave soon, that he had another appointment in 45 minutes." At four in the morning, however, the three were still drinking happily in one another's company, with Beckett buying champagne for the newlyweds.
Waiting for Godot was published by Grove in 1954, with Molloy following a year later,Malone Dies in 1956 and All That Fall, Murphy and Proust in 1957. Altogether, Rosset published 27 of Beckett's works. Early on, he began persuading him to write once again in English as well as in French. Excited by his discovery of his own roots in Ireland – his father, under threat of execution for the crime of firing a shotgun in the late 1800s, had emigrated to the US from Co. Galway – Rosset failed at first to understand the strength of the forces which pushed Beckett away from his first language towards another.
"I tried to get Beckett interested in all that," he laughs, referring to the story of his father, "but he really wasn't interested. And I just didn't let that sink in on me, for a long time. That Ireland was somewhere he wanted to get out of." This long resistance to writing in English, Rosset believes, was "a very emotional thing" for Beckett, and was complicated further he believes, by Beckett's distressing weeks back in Ireland in 1954, as his brother Frank died of cancer.
"I think that he felt that in English he was less able to take control of himself than in French, but I kept right on at him," says Rosset. "And I don't know how much influence I had, but he did eventually start writing in English again. And that was with Krapp's Last Tape  , which, for me, is the most emotional of his pieces, a replay of his personal experiences."
Beckett and Rosset saw each other several times a year, but mostly in Paris, and Rosset always did the travelling. Except, that is, for one occasion – Beckett's sole visit to the United States, in the summer of 1964. The trip was officially a working holiday; Rosset had commissioned Beckett to write a film script, and the result, a silent piece called Film,starring Buster Keaton and directed by Alan Schneider (an experienced director of Beckett's works onstage, but here on his first film project), was shot in lower Manhattan. The omens for a pleasant stay were not good – it was high summer, swelteringly hot, and the shoot went badly in many respects, with one long, central shot having to be scrapped altogether.
But Beckett seems to have enjoyed himself immensely. He became fascinated with the technical challenges of making the film, which concerned itself with the tension inherent in the act of perception – between seeing and being seen – and he was involved with every step of the process, from scouting for locations to editing a first rough cut. Though his personal encounter with Keaton was painfully awkward – Keaton sunk in silence, Beckett trying to spark conversation – he enjoyed watching him act. And there were other pleasures, from bar-hopping with Rosset, Schneider and others to meeting with Edward Albee; from theatre-going to an afternoon at a baseball game, at which Beckett became an unlikely, but utterly absorbed, fan of the Mets.
It's of Beckett's somewhat farcical last day in New York, however, that Rosset has the fondest memories; having planned to drive their guest to the airport, he and his wife overslept on that morning and woke to find Beckett asleep against their bedroom door; his bags packed, his overcoat on, he had been too polite to wake them. His plane was gone, so they spent the day at the World's Fair in Queens – and promptly lost Beckett, only to find him on a bench in the midst of the crowds, once more asleep and once more in the heavy overcoat.
The anecdotes give glimpses of the Beckett that Rosset knew, a different Beckett, certainly, than the evidence of the plays and prose might lead readers to imagine. This was a man as warm as he was wry; serious and intensely private, yes, but also comical, curious, deeply compassionate. Above all, he was generous. Rosset remembers a payment for thousands of dollars arriving for Beckett at the offices of Grove; Beckett insisted immediately that it be sent to the widow of Sean O'Casey in Dublin, of whom he was extremely fond. When Rosset was sacked by the people to whom he decided to sell Grove, the day before Beckett's 80th birthday, Beckett made him a present of an unpublished play – Eleuthéria, his first complete dramatic work which he had written in French in 1947 – to get him started in his new venture. When the task of translating Eleuthéria into English frustrated him, he completed instead another work, Stirrings Still, to be published by Rosset's new house, Blue Moon Books. "Oh all to end," it concluded, and it was to be an end indeed. Though Beckett would write a last poem, "What is the Word" in his hospital bed, Stirrings Still was his final book.
Rosset was with him close to the end, in the nursing home where he spent his final months. Very soon before his death, Rosset brought him a tape of the famous production of Godot at the high-security prison in San Quentin, California. He didn't know at the time, he says, just how advanced Beckett's emphesyma was at the time, just how close to death he was. "He didn't seem…I couldn't believe he was close," he says slowly. "I thought he looked well. Looked himself."
Amid all the books and papers that Rosset has taken out for our conversation is a photograph he took of Beckett that day, in his bedroom at that nursing home, staring at a tiny television screen. On the table in front of him is a bottle of Tullamore Dew; on his face is a look of absolute concentration. He did not watch his last Godot in silence; Rosset remembers how, as the actors moved onscreen, he reached out, silently signalled to them, directed them, as they grappled with the characters he had made. A creator, and a communicator, to the very last.