A recently published book, Beckett: Photographs by François-Marie Banier, had its origins in 1978 when the photographer happened to be on vacation in Tangier and saw Samuel Beckett, the great dramatic poet of angst and stasis, walking along in shorts and sandals, carrying a shoulder bag and heading for the beach.
At first it seems that Banier more or less stalked Beckett, like a paparazzo, but somewhere along the line they became friends, and the book also contains photographs from the late 1980s of Beckett in Paris, in which Beckett is more complicit.
Those beach pictures do seem genuinely startling. We want to imagine Beckett, like his characters, in some small dark room, suffering for his art, or perhaps just suffering, certainly not going on vacation and sunning himself. And, of course, this is pathetically naïve of us. Many of those pictures confirm, what I suppose we always knew really, that even the greatest, most unworldly writers, spend part of their lives doing the same perfectly ordinary, mundane things as the rest of us.
In the end, however, I don’t think Banier completely demystifies Beckett. In pictures like the one above, Beckett shows, or at least the photographer reveals, that sometimes when he walks he does a pretty good job of looking like an authentic Beckettian figure.
And if Beckett looks a little tense and tentative in his walking, well perhaps he’s remembering the night in Paris in 1938 when he was walking with a group of friends and was approached by a pimp, offering his services. Beckett declined, in some insulting way it seems, since the pimp was so incensed he stabbed Beckett in the chest, perforated a lung and very nearly killing him. The pimp, called Prudent, went briefly to jail, but Beckett didn’t press charges, and by some accounts he later turned the events of that night into a comic anecdote.
James Knowlson, author of the Beckett biography Damned to Fame, recounts that well over 30 years later, he and Beckett were walking in the street near the old people’s home where Beckett was then living, when a man with a camera leapt out and took a couple of photographs of him. Beckett reacted as though he’d been stabbed.
Of course we don’t look to Beckett’s writing for tales of vigorous hiking and wanderlust and yet, poet of stasis as he may be, a couple of Beckettian walking moments spring immediately to mind. A late work for the stage called Quad I and II (above) consists largely of synchronized walking, performed by hooded, robed figures who create patterns as they move rapidly around a square, illuminated space.
Another occurs in Film, in which the protagonist, played by Buster Keaton, scuttles (I think that’s the right word, it’s rapid and shambling but it’s definitely a walk rather than a run) alongside what seems to be the longest, highest, most featureless wall in all of New York City. It was demolished shortly after the movie was made.
Keaton, rather proudly, used to claim that he never understood what the movie was about; then again he never asked. But it hardly matters. Given his onscreen persona: stone-faced but far from inexpressive, suffering, stoical, much abused, he was a “natural” Beckett hero.
In his own movies Keaton does plenty of walking that might well be thought of as Beckettian – “you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on.” But my favorite bit of Keaton walking occurs at the start of The Navigator. Here’s Keaton’s own description of it, from a 1958 interview with George C Pratt, ‘The opening gag … is one of the most stolen gags that ever was done on the screen. I think I knew at one time of twenty-seven times it had been done by other companies. With us, the gag was to establish the fact that I was so helpless, that I went to call on the girl, and I came down and got in my car with a chauffeur and a footman. The footman wrapped a blanket wound my knees – a big, open Pierce-Arrow Phaeton – and drove across the street. That’s all. I got out to call on the girl. I asked the girl if she’d marry me and she said, “No,” and I come back down (to the car). The guy opened the door in the car for me, and I said, “No, I think the walk will do me good.” So I walked across the street with the car followin’ me, makin’ a U-turn.’
Keaton was an extraordinary physical actor, fascinated by what the body can do, and passionately interested in making it do all kinds of things it was never meant to. He was also intensely engaged with the relationship between bodies and machines, cars, boats and of course the locomotive in The General.
The picture above shows Keaton walking along a railroad track, and this being Keaton, and the movie being a comedy, we know that a train is about to come along. The picture below shows Harry Dean Stanton in Wim Wenders’ movie Paris Texas, and because this is a serious, glum, Germanic movie we equally know that a train won’t be coming along. I assume Wenders is well aware of the similarity of the two images.
I suppose one of the problems most of us have with real life is that we’re never quite sure whether we’re in a Buster Keaton comedy, a Wim Wenders existential road movie or, for that matter, a piece of Sam Beckett philosophical minimalism. We walk along not quite knowing where we’re heading, nor what, if anything, is about to hit us, but when something does, whether it’s a train, a bout of Germanic weltschmerz, or the realization that our mothers gave birth astride a grave, well, which ever movie we're in, it really doesn't come as much of a surprise.