‘A Ditty Full of Old Muck’

The London Magazine has great pleasure in publishing the following two extracts from Bettina Jonic’s memoirs concerning her many-layered friendship with Samuel Beckett.

The text is composed in a prose poem style that fades in and out of intensity, like a radio playing at the edge of waking. This form brings successive waves of vivid sensuality and quiet delicacy to her reminiscences, and its musicality reflects Jonic’s life as a singer, in particular her devotion to Mozart, Strauss and Brecht. Her chosen style maybe idiosyncratic, but there is also a sense of absolute attention to cadence and emphasis.

Jonic was born in the United States and grew up also speaking the Croatian of her parents. This shifts her writing into another mindset as her transient bilingualism belongs more within a European compass. And here her relationship with Samuel Beckett and his work can be keenly discerned. As an Irish émigré Beckett did not owe absolute allegiance to the English language and, just as in his writing, Jonic’s English has a European accent. The tones of Rilke and Lorca can be heard whispering at the margins of her thoughts.

The implicitly allusive quality to her writing (whether for the sake of propriety or because her friendship with Beckett was ultimately unclassifiable) might lead one to ask ‘What has been said?’ ‘What has been furthered?’ Perhaps just this: the enunciation of a long, full and twining friendship, with Jonic allowing her audience the freedom to answer these questions on their own.

Steven O’Brien, June 2010

A Bizarre Lady

n. Eccentric, fantastic, grotesque, unusual, weird
[F, = handsome, brave, f. Sp. & Port. Bizarro,
f. Basque bizarra beard]

Suzanne Beckett was fairly tall, slim, elegant and very French, Her hair was white grey at the time I met her / beautifully groomed / cut short and shingled in the back /she was distinguished, intelligent and with
a character as full of integrity as Sam’s.

Her looks and clothes were typical of a well turned out Parisian in the same genre as Simone de Beauvoir. The obligatory well made suit in a good fabric of a subdued colour. A pure silk blouse well fashioned with the collar hand finished. The standard gold brooch sitting in the middle of the collar at the top end of the row of buttons. The sort of attire well achieved by a petite couturier, that indispensable little treasure that infests the world of the thoughtful, well groomed woman in Paris, who follows in a conservative manner la grande mode at half the price.

I can quite accurately describe Suzanne but almost everything else I know about her I came by second hand. People were only too happy to convey information about someone they knew very little about; Sam was never loquacious about her nor did he indulge in tittle tattle about their shared existence.

She taught music at the very prestigious École Normale Supérieur and was a fine pianist, Yet I have been asked over the years, again and again, didn’t I find her bizarre.

Would Sam have shared his life with a bizarre lady?
No of course not / nor did he.

There is a great penchant to confuse him with the characters in his plays. He was not a tramp or derelict / to the contrary he was in every sense
distinguished and bien élevé….

Suzanne was handsome, loyal and courageously bold. Sam might have looked at bimbos and nibbled on occasions but it was the good looking, talented, intelligent, and well turned out woman who claimed his interest, attention and with whom he chose to spend idle time.

Perhaps the question should be inverted / how could she have shared her
life with Beckett? She did ….
and she didn’t.

I wonder at her tenacity. Those whom the Gods bless and curse are the most difficult for mere mortals to cope with.
At his best he was not a comic turn emitting bawdy jokes with shrieks of laughter. The utmost would have been a laid back, subdued smile lit by bright shards of good humour / or ironic chuckles would break through from time to time. The burden of his perpetual low keyed intense moods which swung from moderate to barely tolerable she endured full time.

In spite of his acute intensity / he was warm, generous, thoughtful and caring. It would have been very difficult for her not to have been beguiled by Sam. He was, after all, extremely attractive and wholly masculine.
And they shared that one factor which enlightens all / music.

I never ever heard Sam, over the years, use four-letter words or coarse language. His written works might be peppered with such / but certainly not his every day langage. Due to her very French image I could never imagine Suzanne accepting exposure to grossness either in comportment nor in a conversation. Sam’s inclinations and attitudes to women were never crass nor was he, in my experience, ever offensive.

I have always been surprised at how he conveys an image or feelings towards the female in some of his writings in vulgar, heinous terms. First Love is simply unacceptable male misogyny / its attitudes hideous in every sphere. A writer’s licence to be licentious in print ….
without it reflecting in their personal lives.

I never experienced, when with him, signs of a hatred of women or the need to denigrate her existence / if I had I would most certainly have taken a walk and told him to take his prick and use it to piss off with. I would have chosen ‘prick’ and ‘piss off’ as a counter-balance to his use of the word ‘cunt’ in First Love. But no word, relating in a pejorative manner, to a part of the male anatomy is as offensive. He actually did not want First Love reprinted / but after he received the Nobel Prize
he gave carte blanche
for everything to be reissued.

It was obvious Sam and Suzanne shared a life together but it was never stated as such. Not many people who have what is now termed a ‘permanent partner’ go around advertising what is self-evident. How they functioned with close friends in Paris, together and separately, would of course be different from how they coped with me and my husband at that time….
eg / an English publisher and his wife
who came to Paris fairly frequently
for a variety of reasons.

When I first orbited their existence, which was in 1961, their relationship bore all the ear marks of a déja-vu French scenario.
The civilised understanding of each other’s needs / which separated and segmented aspects of their everyday existence but the bonding always remaining intact. They were apart and never left each other’s side.

She had her telephone and he had his. There is an oft-repeated tale that could be pure fantasy which was that she had her own entrance to the shared flat and he had his. Why not if it gave them space? I never experienced their flat in Paris but used both telephone numbers.

Over the years I always met Sam in Paris at the Closerie des Lilas at the top end of Blvd Montparnasse. I never questioned how he and Suzanne chose to invite or share friends, strangers, foes / why would I be a gossipy intruder into how they chose to fashion their world? And if that included not being invited into their shared space / so be it. They had made their rules and neither chose to disclose the rules of their game.

I did know Sam’s small house in Ussy about sixty kilometres from Paris. Sam did tell me Suzanne at the out-set shared time with him there / but retreated from such a pattern / mainly due to friends of Sam’s who lived in proximity. A Polish painter, Henri Hayden, and his over-exuberant wife Josette who played to the hilt the role of a painter’s wife. The Haydens had bought a place in the village of Ussy to be near Sam …

He liked Hayden as a painter / they played chess together, shared the same haunts in Paris and a lifestyle which Suzanne, I am also told, found burdensome. I can vouch-safe for her that continuous Bohemian antics can become an intolerable circumstance to have to endure.

For Sam it was a distraction / and although he had lived like the French for decades / an expatriate, like the leopard, always rigidly keeps the original spots. He needed and looked for boozed-up Parisian frivolities. He was not a monk be it either in French or Irish.

But as Sam used Ussy primarily to write / the Haydens were a welcome diversion from his concentrated efforts to put words on paper. And there was the added inducement of their dog called Fal / a big, white, woolly poodle of mixed parentage who had been abandoned at the Falstaff ….
the preferred watering hole for late nights, and heavy drinking. A place to find friends and in this instance a homeless puppy.

Sam did drink / slowly and continuously…
I never saw him drunk / but certainly experienced how much he could knock back
in an evening coupled with packet after packet of Gitanes
the really lethal French cigarettes with their blue cellophane wrappings.

Who can blame Suzanne for not wanting to share his continuous boozing nor spend time with alcoholics like Brenden Behan nor covet conversations with Robbe Grillet and his wife who were obsessed with strip clubs and porn films.

The French have a great penchant for tilting at windmills when they banter on with word games / a form of intellectual gymnastics. Stimulating / but windmill tilting by the discerning produces a wealth of clarity and leavens in a healthy manner the inevitable solitude.

Would Sam have betrayed Suzanne / not to my knowledge, No straying or peccadilloes on his part could ever have been strong enough to rupture their bonding nor would he have allowed her place in his life to be threatened by a usurper.

I can count the number of times I saw Suzanne Beckett on one hand. The first occasion was after a concert I gave in Paris at the Salle Gaveau. At this point I had married Sam’s English prose publisher, John Calder, and as he published a great number of French novelists in England / in particular Le Nouveau Roman Français / the salle was full of the literary chic. The mighty of the avant-garde. Maragaret Duras, Robbe Grillet, Natalie Sarraute, the formidable Madame Jolas of James Joyce fame – and of course the Becketts.
I can’t imagine any of them had ever been to a formal singer’s recital, Perhaps the Becketts.

The obligatory eighteenth century Italian songs, a Mozart concert aria, and Strauss in the first half / the second half two contemporary works
one of which was a setting by the gifted
English composer, Marc Wilkinson
the text was taken from Godot …
it was scored for chamber ensemble
and female voice ….
The ensemble involved was from the illustrious
flavour of the month / Le Domaine Musical,
Boulez’s own trend-setting group which
tout Paris supported in order to show how
universally cultured they were ….
A pure pretension, French literati are as distanced
from an interest in music as are their equivalents
in other parts of the world,
The Becketts were an exception.

It is not possible that Sam could have been comfortable or happy with a text from Godot set for a female voice / albeit Marc had written a finely balanced work between

spoken and sung text and the scoring followed the same form of instrumentation as Berg and the Viennese school. And Sam had given him the rights to set it.

He used the very famous lines from the second act of Godot which are spoken between Vladimir and Estragon:

‘we are incapable of keeping silent
it’s so we won’t think
it’s so we won’t feel
like sand, like leaves….’

After the concert / through the mob I saw Sam in the distance
with Suzanne. We didn’t speak. It would have been
impossible through the scrimmage of people to have spoken. He was probably very relieved
at being spared the ordeal.

It wasn’t too long after that he stayed in my flat in London for the rehearsals of Happy Days. I was pregnant and he of course was preoccupied with the play / no choice of time or place could have been
more inappropriate to talk about
a Paris sing-a-long.

The second time Suzanne came into view was after a performance of
Happy Days in London. Sam had left without seeing the final
result / to say he was not happy is too mild a description.

He contained his rage / just …

Yet in spite of his unmitigated anger and despair he found time to send me flowers
and a case of champagne / a thank you for my hospitality,
our music making ….
and having looked after him.

Suzanne came to see the play on her own / we were quite a large group after the performance at a restaurant near the theatre. She was dressed in dark trousers, a navy blue, round neck, lamb’s wool sweater with a white blouse underneath. She
was very quiet during the meal
but I put that down to the fact of a language barrier.

I always spoke to her in French / and have no idea how good her
English was. I never asked Sam / how good is Suzanne’s English?
I didn’t think it mattered.

The third occasion was a dinner at the Lindons’ / Sam’s French publisher, There were the Becketts and me with publisher husband John Calder. A very civilised, very French evening. Sam and Suzanne were as much a couple as were the Lindons and me and John. Nothing special to remember / except that it happened at all. It was obvious however the
Becketts and the Lindons were very comfortable in each
other’s company and that it was not a rare occasion.

The fourth occasion Suzanne was in London for a weekend
and came around to the flat on the Saturday evening for a drink.

I still remember she had on a markedly beautiful silk blouse worn with black silk trousers. The blouse was pale yellow with very fine drawn black lines like you see in Japanese prints. She was indeed elegant. The only time I had any inkling that my name was of any relevance to her was when she asked me why I had given my vocal score of Wozzeck to Sam. As my perception of Sam as a loner was so total I was startled and surprised she even knew, I gave a straightforward reply, I had no illusions that I would ever sing the role of Marie and thought Sam would enjoy browsing through the score. / no more was said ….

The fifth time I saw Suzanne was in the transit lounge at Orly Airport / she was going where? I think it might have been Rome and I was either going into or coming out of Paris.

I remember an occasion when my ex recounted to me he had spent an evening with the Becketts and remarked Suzanne sat silent the whole time. My only remark at the time was ‘sounds like you and me out with some of your loutish pretenders of literary chic’. Since I saw fit to be married to Calder / perhaps Suzanne painted me
with the same tar brush
she used on him.

There is no way she could have known we shared a way of life and many friends in Paris which had nothing to do with my husband / nor did Sam. It was only after I separated and started seeing old friends, and reactivated my old ways and haunts which had been completely neglected during my marriage that Sam became au fait with our shared milieu and mode of living in Paris. It is most extraordinary our paths had never crossed before my star-crossed marriage.

Would the obsequious Beckett groupies find Suzanne’s tenacity and commitment to take on board the onerous task of finding a publisher for Sam bizarre? She cared for and nurtured him over the years and it was she who sustained and perceived the quality of his work and the unstinting power of his intellect, He has become so illustrious it is easy to forget
how many years it took, through her efforts, to get him on the first rung of
a publishing ladder.

It was achieved by knocking on door after door only to have to return again and again with the operative word ‘rejected’. It was she alone who carried the burden not only through the endless trying but of sustaining Sam’s moods through each rejection / the multiple refusals

You only had to know Sam to marvel at how she coped, How she must have felt when after trudging back with yet another door slammed shut, of having to submerge her own disappointment and distress in order to sustain a positive attitude to Sam’s hunched-over and haunted persona when faced yet again with the big ‘no’ ….

one day a door did open
Jérôme Lindon of Editions de Minuit
took on board three novels
Suzanne had succeeded
Sam never forgot

Once the publishing circumstance had been stabilised came the ceaseless search of theatres and directors for the plays to be produced …
in order to do that she and Sam scoured the papers and followed theatre trends with
an instinct as acute as Sam’s abilities….

together they planned and searched / she, however did the leg work.
She found Roger Blin / and submitted two plays for him to consider.
he chose Godot because it had a small cast.

The slow climb to recognition had finally begun. She wasn’t vainglorious with her achievements and kept a low profile / she had no personal need to preen. People found her lack of desire
to take full stage a bizarre eccentricity.

I only learned that there was the possibility of someone else in Sam’s life at a large, boring literary drinks party in my London flat. I was talking to Martin Esslin, who was head of BBC Drama at the time / when he all of a sudden said ‘oh there is Mrs Beckett. I turned and saw a woman whom I had never met or seen before. She was quite attractive and bubbly in a green and white checked summer dress. Much to my surprise she lacked even a modicum of politesse to her hostess, eg me. I subsequently learned Martin Esslin had replaced her at the BBC and she worked full time as a translator of French into English.

The long entrance hall between the lift and the two main reception rooms of the flat had a deleterious effect on many a person who strode from the lift door to where all the bods were busy being important. If not careful I risked being treated like a squashed centipede with beloved husband acting like a bar room bouncer with me the victim to be bounced out of the way. The force of his pugilism dependent upon how illustrious he felt the new arrivals to be.

I was introduced to a Barbara Bray / when I asked my beloved why she had been called Mrs Beckett there was no direct answer. She barely acknowledged my presence / and brushed past me, the centipede,
my beloved did his bouncer’s act
and pushed me out of her way.

I did not give a knee-jerk reaction nor did I allow myself to be crushed against the wall / as for ‘my beloved bouncer’, he was told it was my
patch he was operating on and I had every intention
of sacking him on the spot / he could leave immediately
taking all his guests with him ….
Like all bullies when faced with a superior mallet he backed off.

The permissive society of the sixties always seemed to degenerate into bad manners, lapsed morals and forgotten responsibilities. I didn’t take part.
I looked on and had monumental confrontations in my marriage
I was called ‘bizarre’ and a snob by many of the swingers
it left me unperturbed.

Sam, in my experience, never anointed Bray with place or dignity…
only a presence that was tolerated. Whereas he would mention Suzanne for whatever reason he never spoke to me about Bray. I suppose you could ask / what could or would he have said? I can’t believe
that she doesn’t now tinge each word she relates to him
with tastes of wormwood!

Sam’s impeccable concern and good manners towards others….
always alerted him to allow the other person/s to choose what
ever permission he/or she sought, As for his morals / he had deep
integrity to his friends, relation-ships, and certainly to his writings….
if this was muddied sexually I was not aware.

Since time immemorial two can become three / perhaps and most likely
a discomfiting matter to one of the three. The nest, however, should be
left unsullied / respect should remain untrammelled
and be duly sustained by both of the nesting pair.

I cannot believe he acted dishonourably to Suzanne. As a matter of fact, in the particular circumstance of Barbara Bray, when she moved to Paris one presumes a large mitigating factor was to be near Sam ….
he, however, at that precise moment had taken steps to legalise his relationship to Suzanne by marrying her. Swallow that as the other woman, but it is an onerous role to become a predator over a nest fashioned with such love and care over so
many years and on so many levels.

The next time I saw Barbara / was when Sam was in London for the rehearsals of Play. I was told by my husband / I had to invite her over for lunch. When I asked why I got no response except
‘do it for Sam.’ / Sam never asked me.

I couldn’t understand why he didn’t just take her out to a restaurant nor did I suspect they were anything more than just friends or working colleagues. I may have been street wise from L.A. but I never spent time concerning myself with the machinations of other people’s private lives.

She was very changed from the first time I had seen her. All the bounce was gone and a rather spinsteresque gloom coloured her aura. Since she had been living in Paris it was strange that Parisian chic had not rubbed off on her, instead the piquant style she had had in London had rubbed off. She wore a hat all during lunch which had a little veil over the forehead. I hadn’t seen anything like that outside of old movies. She looked like the numerous women who come up to London from Bromley, Kent for the day, middle England’s fashion-setters.

Perhaps they had a private code between them / and the hat was like the second act of Happy Days where Winnie has a hat on all the time with the mound encircling her neck. As Sam, like Willie, didn’t speak ….
the dialogue between them was fulsome and indeed very private.
The hat shouted and the response was dumb silence.

It was a very uncomfortable lunch due to Sam and Barbara’s proclivity not to make conversation / they both simply remained mute.
I exhausted myself keeping a conversation of trivia turning endlessly on the turntable. It was not very apt to talk about Wagner or Mozart or whether the French were still torturing the Algerian people. You cannot, however, have a luncheon with four people sitting as if they belonged to a Carmelite order where they have all sworn vows of silence.

Strange, if it had been Sam and me …
or Sam, husband and me
there would have been no strain.

He did on some occasions / speak well of Barbara’s work as a translator and on another occasion mentioned one of her daughters had done well in her university studies, That was the sum total of any reference to her. And yet I can only conjecture, through conveyed gossip, a long involvement existed. I really wasn’t very interested to know more.
Both ladies were frosty with me. As regards Suzanne I simply assumed it was her very formal French manner / and we had never had a long track record of being in each other’s company. As for Barbara I just put it down to a rather taciturn personality.

I didn’t start meeting or seeing any of Sam’s friends until after I broke up my marriage / while married it was always Sam, John and myself / or me on my own with John supposedly going to show up – which he sometimes did and sometimes didn’t.

I did see Barbara on one more occasion after the lunch debacle. It was after the opening of Happy Days in Paris. Sam had invited friends to a party at the Falstaff after the performance / there was as usual no Suzanne she had her own friends she imbibed with ..
he was in a very mellow mood / and was very pleased with Madelaine Rennaud’s Winnie – we were all doing the usual yet there sat Barbara with a silent invisible shroud draped over herself / she looked neither to right nor left and seemed to be listening to her own inner voice which separated her from all the live bodies in the room. As for Sam I have never seen him so relaxed and animated / I don’t imagine he even noticed
her self imposed purdah …

She certainly did not welcome my presence / perhaps she had access to a rune- staff and had divined my friendship with Sam would hold many layers. I was, at the time, I thought, a happily married woman and would never have contemplated sullying my marital vows.

Sam always came alone to lunches and dinners in Paris
during my marriage and when it broke up ….
the pattern continued minus one person.

I never expected my relationship with him to take on a life of its own nor the bonding we had established over a ten-year period would develop an unforeseen strand.

An affair / which was like a blip on the screen
with a beginning a middle and an end….
and had no effect whatsoever with what had
come before and what came after.
truly French in a manner that observes
all the rules / wonderfully civilised
an entertaining diversion which never assumes a significance greater than the much treasured and long established friendship…

to be close to someone
and let it remain extraneous
is the perfect way to avoid
mundane repetitions which
stifle, strangle and pollute….
pure flights of fantasy
the joy of suspended time

Neither Suzanne nor Bray needed to see me through green glasses …. as far as I was concerned Sam had always moved as a free agent, a loner, and at this juncture so did I. I did not want to submit to being shackled nor did I have any intention of shackling Mr. B. Perhaps that is a rather appropriate definition of one aspect of permissive.

London / Jan ‘99

To Meet Sam

a quiet figure
head down… not so much huddled
as folded into itself
cigarette or cigarillo lit
he’s never late…. you arrive….
he peers at you, pushes his glasses up to help his eyes
you are there first… early
probably nursing a drink and just enjoying being in
a quiet, pensive person materialises through the revolving
doors of the ‘Closerie’…. peering myopically around….
as your eyes have already adjusted to the visibility of the
‘Bar’… you say hello in order to establish you are
there and to help where to look and find.

the musicality of a slightly accented Irish voice returns
the greeting in his own well bred terms
and, yes, a pleased expression of recognition….
relief, that contact has been achieved.

can such a folded in….
introspective figure make you feel
extraordinarily good?
very much so ….

Irish or English breakfast tea from Harrod’s is handed over
along with duty-free goods …. cigarillos and whiskey.
thank you or thanks…. you shouldn’t have taken
the trouble / and or bothered… is said.
the gifts one knows will fulfil consciously or otherwise

a moment of pleasure while his brain ticks on through the twenty-four
hours that make up a day.
they are stuffed into a brief-case…
to be carried home as
a means of discretion or convenience

how is it possible to explain the feeling that another’s
perpetual state of intense alertness
represents for you… comfort, ease.
happily I was allowed into this indrawn defined space of
awareness and acute thought….
which did not pontificate.

simple mundane conversation… normal everyday repartee
the pleasure of a shared meal,
the wines, the ‘mare’ after dinner..
never… have you read? or what do you think?
in the usual manner of literary bullshit.

yes of course people, places and events
talked about…
but with brevity, clarity of reason… fill in verbiage.
a common vocabulary always accepted with
no character assassinations or blood-letting
all ordinary and to some boring……
what was stored in the brain didn’t need to be reiterated
unless demanded by a specific reason.

very comforting the existence of such a person
described by so many in terms of his writing as nihilistic:
he rejected nothing and pondered the component parts.
the fact that you existed made him feel comforted:
your comfort was his
and his yours.
straining to fulfil the need to exist… deliberation as to
why… creates a feeling of such strength, power, calm….
that some kind of peace is achieved within the turbulence.

he helped me stitch up my shredded seams when it was needed
dragged me… out of a mare de sang
without my even noticing
after all you’re unconscious when drowning

was that all simple?

yes, as a matter of fact
he’d been doing that page after page for a long time
I was just another particle or extension of his norm…
lucky me
not to he reduced to
print on a page
an abstraction
but then
he never did that to anyone
alive or in print.

was he saintly?
of course not

was he wild reckless…a mischief maker?
not to my knowledge

was he always in high spirits….
happy go lucky?
ridiculous thought
who is!

London / Nov ‘90

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