'You Begin to Breathe Again': Samuel Beckett's Humor as a Coping Mechanism

Author Paul Auster says Beckett shows how important laughter is in writing.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Jonathan Franzen, Sherman Alexie, Andre Dubus and more.

Doug McLean

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?

Then a little air. “Mr. Graves pronounced his th charmingly.” The tone has suddenly shifted from the convoluted to the clear, and how comforting that “charmingly” feels, which is such a good-natured, warm-hearted word. You find yourself beginning to breathe again.

“Turd and fart…” You are breathing again, and an instant later you find yourself laughing. Schoolboy humor surging up through the fake-scholarly discourse of the opening sentences, an utter surprise in the context of what came earlier, and then, before you can fully adjust, you understand that Beckett is talking about Ireland and the music of the English language when it comes out of the mouth of a working-class Irishman. “Turd and fart, he said, for third and fourth.” And indeed, it is a fair rendering of that music, you say to yourself, even as you go on laughing at Beckett’s prank.

I was 19 years old when I first read this paragraph, and I remember that it was the next sentence, the fifth sentence, that turned my growing laughter into a full-throated roar and convinced me that the book I was holding in my hands was the work of a master writer. “Watt liked these venerable saxon words.” It struck me then, and still strikes me now, as a perfect sentence. The crucial word is “venerable.” Think of all the other adjectives Beckett might have chosen: filthy, pungent, earthy, delightful, bawdy, resonant, blunt—the list is endless. “Venerable” avoids the obvious. It defies expectations with its dignity, its somber bow to tradition, to the long historical life of a language, and yet how funny it is, how deeply funny when you stop and think about it, to call “turd and fart” venerable, to call any word venerable, for that matter, and yet because “venerable” is therefore slightly off, and yet entirely apt at the same time, it is magnificent.

The last sentence of the paragraph, by far the longest sentence of the six, is a small work unto itself, a brief poem that begins as an exercise in self-conscious blarney and ends with a philosophical punch-line that is at once a cry of existential despair and a joke about despair, a beautiful bit of silliness and feeling that could have been written by no one else but the author of Watt: “And when Mr. Graves, drinking on the sunny stoop 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.”

It is useful to know that Watt was written in France during the German occupation of World War II. On the run from the Gestapo, which had broken up the resistance cell in Paris that Beckett had belonged to—and led to the arrest, deportation, and death of his closest friend—Beckett found refuge in a small village in the South, where he spent the last two years of the war working as an agricultural laborer in exchange for food. He worked on the pages of the-never-quite-finished Watt at night. He said he wrote the book to keep himself from going insane. The novel itself often borders on the insane. But you laugh. Again and again, you laugh.