Rare Audio: Samuel Beckett Reads From His Novel Watt

Samuel Beck­ett was noto­ri­ous­ly shy around record­ing devices. He would spend hours in a stu­dio work­ing with actors, but when it came to record­ing a piece in his own voice he was elu­sive. Only a hand­ful of record­ings are known to exist. So the audio above of Beck­ett read­ing a pair of his poems is extreme­ly rare.

The record­ings were made in 1965 by Lawrence Har­vey, pro­fes­sor of com­par­a­tive lit­er­a­ture at Dart­mouth Col­lege, who trav­eled to Paris to meet with Beck­ett a num­ber of times from 1961 to 1965 while research­ing his 1970 book Samuel Beck­ett, Poet and Crit­ic. At one point dur­ing their dis­cus­sions, Beck­ett recit­ed sev­er­al pas­sages from his third but sec­ond-pub­lished nov­el, Watt. The book was writ­ten in Eng­lish in the 1940s, most­ly while Beck­ett was hid­ing from the Nazis in south­ern France. It’s an exper­i­men­tal nov­el (Beck­ett called it an “exer­cise”) about a seek­er named Watt who jour­neys to the house of the enig­mat­ic Mr. Knott and works for a time as his ser­vant. “Watt” and “Knott” are often inter­pret­ed as stand-ins for the ques­tion “what?” and unan­swer­able “not,” or “naught.”

The two poems recit­ed by Beck­ett are from his 37 intrigu­ing Adden­da at the end of Watt. Har­vey also record­ed Beck­ett read­ing a prose pas­sage from the book. The full four-minute tape is now in the col­lec­tion of the Bak­er Library at Dart­mouth. The short clip above is from the 1993 film Wait­ing For Beck­ett. The image qual­i­ty is poor and there are dis­tract­ing Dutch sub­ti­tles, so per­haps the best way to enjoy the read­ing is to scroll down and look instead at Beck­et­t’s words while you lis­ten to his voice. He begins with the 4th Adden­da, lat­er pub­lished as “Tail­piece” in Col­lect­ed Poems, 1930–1978:

who may tell the tale
of the old man?
weigh absence in a scale?
mete want with a span?
the sum assess
of the world’s woes?
in words enclose?

The images in the poem are, accord­ing to schol­ars S.E. Gontars­ki and Chris Ack­er­ley in their essay “Samuel Beck­et­t’s Watt,” a rework­ing by Beck­ett of the bib­li­cal pas­sage Isa­iah 40:12, which says, “Who hath mea­sured the waters in the hol­low of his hand, and met­ed out heav­en with a span, and com­pre­hend­ed the dust of the earth in a mea­sure, and weighed the moun­tains in scales, and the hills in a bal­ance?” The next poem is the 23rd Adden­da. It tells of Wat­t’s long and fruit­less jour­ney through bar­ren lands:

Watt will not
abate one jot
but of what

of the com­ing to
of the being at
of the going from
Knot­t’s habi­tat

of the long way
of the short stay
of the going back home
the way he had come

of the emp­ty heart
of the emp­ty hands
of the dim mind way­far­ing
through bar­ren lands

of a flame with dark winds
hedged about
going out
gone out

of the emp­ty heart
of the emp­ty hands
of the dark mind stum­bling
through bar­ren lands

that is of what
Watt will not
abate one jot

If Beck­ett seems to mis­pro­nounce cer­tain con­so­nant sounds, it may have some­thing to do with a surgery he had in Novem­ber of 1964 to remove a tumor in his jaw. The surgery tem­porar­i­ly left Beck­ett with a hole in the roof of his mouth. Accord­ing to a 1998 arti­cle by Peter Swaab in The Times Lit­er­ary Sup­ple­ment, the record­ings were prob­a­bly made in March of 1965, when Beck­ett was await­ing a fol­low-up surgery to fix his palate. Still, many lis­ten­ers have been struck by the beau­ty of the record­ings. As Swaab writes:

Beck­et­t’s voice is unex­pect­ed­ly soft, and seems more suit­ed to the serene­ly com­mis­er­a­tive vein of his writ­ing than the sple­net­ic and cyn­i­cal one. He reads the poems a lot more slow­ly than the prose–with a pro­nounced chant­i­ng mel­liflu­ous­ness.… The over­all effect of these rare and fas­ci­nat­ing record­ings is of a deliv­ery like that which Beck­ett rec­om­mend­ed to the actor David War­rilow for Ohio Impromp­tu, “calm, steady, designed to soothe”–or (to bring in two of the cen­tral words in Watt) a “mur­mur” meant to “assuage.” The tape evi­dent­ly records a sort of rehearsal, and the per­fec­tion­ist Beck­ett would sure­ly not have been sat­is­fied with it, but it is good to know that his voice has not alto­geth­er dis­ap­peared.

via A Piece of Mono­logue

Spe­cial thanks to Dr. Mark Nixon, read­er in Mod­ern Lit­er­a­ture at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Read­ing and direc­tor of the Beck­ett Inter­na­tion­al Foun­da­tion, for con­firm­ing the authen­tic­i­ty of the record­ing and point­ing us on the way to more infor­ma­tion.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Samuel Beck­ett Speaks

Samuel Beck­ett Directs His Absur­dist Play Wait­ing for Godot (1985)

Find Works by Beck­ett in our Free Audio Books and Free eBooks col­lec­tions

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