The Swiss tennis champion Stan Wawrinka has the words “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better” tattooed in blue ink on the inside of his left forearm. The lachrymose ending of Israel Horovitz’s recent movie My Old Lady has Kevin Kline paying his respects at a tombstone on which are engraved the words “If you do not love me I shall not be loved.” The first of these quotations is from Samuel Beckett’s late prose piece Worstward Ho, the second from his 1936 poem “Cascando.”
In their original contexts, they do not work quite so well as motivational mottoes or sentimental consolations. “Fail better” (which I recently saw on a recruitment advertisement for a financial services company) is followed a few lines later by a reminder that, for Beckett, the phrase is an exhortation, not to keep trying until you succeed but to keep failing until you fail completely: “Fail again. Better again. Or better worse. Fail worse again. Still worse again. Till sick for good. Throw up for good.” This doesn’t quite work on an athlete’s arm. As for “If you do not love me I shall not be loved,” it is quickly followed by another bout of verbal nausea:
the churn of stale words in the heart again
love love love thud of the old plunger
pestling the unalterable
whey of words
We are unlikely to see that on a Valentine’s Day greeting card anytime soon.
Beckett loved tennis and his sense of humor might have been gratified by the joke that contemporary culture is playing on him, making his enactments of futility themselves futile by reading them as cheerleaders’ chants. And he would have recognized the ironies involved in this transformation of wretchedness into celebration, for he faced them in his own lifetime, not least in the years after the utterly unexpected success of Waiting for Godot in the mid-1950s, which brought him money and fame. Success was not what Beckett had bargained for: his compact with the Muses stipulated that he must embrace, as his biographer James Knowlson summarizes, “poverty, failure, exile, and loss.” Instead of failing better, he was now succeeding worse.
The feeling of abandonment from which he had written (between 1947 and 1950) Godot, Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable—the knowledge that no one greatly cared what he wrote or why—was now impossible. In 1948, he could write, with typically self-wounding humor, to his agent George Reavey in London that “I am now retyping, for rejection by the publishers, Malone Meurt.” In a revealing homage to his Paris publisher Jérôme Lindon, appended to a letter of June 1962, Beckett reveals that he was, indeed, on the cusp of abandoning writing altogether before Lindon accepted his great novel Molloy for publication…
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