In 1974, Samuel Beckett sat in a Paris café across from a nervous, chain-smoking American—a 27-year-old named Paul Auster. Auster wouldn’t become a well-known man of letters for another decade: Back then, he was just another lost expatriate freelancing his way through France, young and glum, and so obsessed with Beckett that a mutual acquaintance took pity and set up a meeting. At Beckett’s opening gambit—“Well, Mr. Auster, tell me all about yourself”—Auster froze. He suddenly found he had absolutely nothing to say. Or maybe the idea of revealing something real about himself—his poverty, his rootlessness, the crises of purpose he’d later recall in a memoir, Hand to Mouth—terrified him.
“I felt like crawling into a hole,” Auster recalled in 2009.
This is the kind of harrowing and funny scene that might be found in books by either man. Both Auster and Beckett famously embrace the comic horror of being held helpless in absurd situations. For both writers, humor is a way out, a means to dignify and redeem what might otherwise be anguished, insufferable. “Even in some of my grimmest works, there have been comic touches,” Auster told The Washington Post in 2003. “There have to be, because that's the way we're built as human beings, and often when we're in dark circumstances we survive them by cracking jokes.”
When I asked Paul Auster to contribute to this series, he chose to return to Beckett, in an essay celebrating a brief but masterful example of the Irish author’s use of humor. For Auster, Beckett’s Watt is a profound reminder of how humor can help writers and readers alike foster the courage to endure.
Paul Auster is the author of many celebrated books of fiction and nonfiction; his new memoir, Report from the Interior, is published today. Interior, like many of Auster’s works, collects several long pieces on a theme—here, four essays explore how fleeting impressions take root and begin to shape us. The title section explores the lovely mental fluidity of youth, when objects seem alive and emblematic. “Two Blows to the Head” remembers two films Auster saw as a boy that had a seismic impact on the author’s work and outlook. “Time Capsule,” which collects confessional letters written to his ex-wife (the writer and Proust translator Lydia Davis), ponders the physical persistence of objects from lives we leave behind. The final piece, “Album,” poetically captions snapshots from a childhood—movie stills, photographs, and book illustrations that were the key texts of Auster’s early life.
Paul Auster wrote this essay in Brooklyn, New York, where he and his famous doppelgangers live.
Watt conceived for Mr. Graves a feeling little short of liking. In particular Mr. Graves’s way of speaking did not displease Watt. Mr. Graves pronounces th charmingly. Turd and fart, he said, for third and fourth. Watt liked these venerable saxon words. And when Mr. Graves, drinking on the sunny step his afternoon stout, looked up with a twinkle in his old blue eye, and said, in mock deprecation, Tis only me turd or fart, then Watt felt he was perhaps prostituting himself to some purpose.
Paul Auster: I chose this passage because it’s funny—and because it provides a good example of the flavor of Beckett’s book, which I consider to be one of the funniest novels in the English language.
What jumps out at you about the paragraph is first of all the oddness of the diction. “Watt conceived for Mr. Graves a feeling little short of liking.” Think of how many ways a writer could express that idea in more direct and conventional language. “Watt understood that he was beginning to like Mr. Graves.” Or: “Watt enjoyed being with Mr. Graves.” Or: “Watt was developing a real affection for Mr. Graves.” Beckett’s formulation is intentionally awkward. It seems to mock itself on the page, sitting there in all its pompous glory, pretending to have achieved a kind of glacial, academic rigor, when in fact it knows all along that it is ridiculous. That is the essence of Watt’s comedy, of Beckett’s comedy. It isn’t only about droll or absurd situations, it’s about the language used to describe those situations.
Which leads directly into the lunacy of the subsequent sentence, with its hilarious, altogether unexpected double negative. “In particular Mr. Graves’s way of speaking did not displease Watt.” The narration seems to be strangling itself. The words are tied up in knots. Even the sounds of the words are unpleasant. “Speaking” followed by “displease,” with its grating repetition of the long e shriek. Fingernails scratching on a blackboard. You ask yourself: What is he doing, and where is he going with this?