Beckett Plays Beckett

Samuel Beckett, Paris, 1964; photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson
Magnum Photos
Samuel Beckett, Paris, 1964; photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson

What did the elderly Samuel Beckett think about in the dark of night when he could not sleep? The hollowness of human existence? The inevitable failure of all expression? In fact, he played in his mind the first five holes of Carrickmines golf course overlooking Dublin Bay and facing the rugged hills he had walked so often with his father.

We know from the final volume of his marvelous letters that he played the course in reality for the last time on a visit to Dublin in 1966, when he was sixty. His sight was then badly affected by cataracts, lending a ghostly air to his golfing: “Could just see the ball on the tee, never in the air.” Over the following years, as more bodily woes afflict him, the idea of actually playing the Carrickmines course fades into impossibility: “Wd. love a few more swipes before the course is closed,” he writes to his nephew Edward in 1971, “but have no great hopes with my Dupuytren claws.” (Like the Protagonist in his late play Catastrophe, Beckett had Dupuytren’s syndrome, which locks the hands in a “clawlike” position.)

By 1975, as he is nearing seventy, the golf course is a place that can be seen only with the eyes of a former self: “I wouldn’t mind a few minutes in Ireland on the 4th (quondam 5th) tee, seeing the Welsh mountains with the then eyes. Then slice into the dimples.” (It is typical of the superb annotation throughout the four volumes of the letters that we know the dimples are a series of bumps and hollows to the right of the fourth fairway.) And by 1985, when eighty is looming, it has all become pure memory: “When I can’t sleep I play a round at Carrickmines but seldom get beyond the then short fifth.” His mind between waking and sleeping is drawn back to a well where errant golf balls found their nemesis: “From its shallows when short of balls as a boy I retrieved many a Warwick & even Spalding.”

Is all of this not a trivialization of a writer who, in these years, was battling heroically onward to wrest works of ferocious beauty from the depths of futility and despair? Do we really need to think of the creator of Not I or Ill Seen Ill Said, texts that still seem to occupy the outer reaches of expression in theater and in prose, as a golfer? And how does the publication of these letters meet the criterion laid down by Beckett himself when he gave permission in 1985 to Martha Fehsenfeld to edit his correspondence: “its reduction to those passages only having bearing on my work”? What bearing can the fourth hole at Carrickmines possibly have on late…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.