A mostly dairy farm in the Ottawa Valley and family owned, so miscellaneous enough to include acres of grain, alfalfa, parcels of produce we never worried about. It was a summer job, not my first job, but certainly the first time I had encountered work that could rightly be described as physical, exhausting, the kind that make young people cry or give up. We were day laborers, Derek and I, assigned to follow Richie around all day, every day, tasked with doing whatever he asked, and fast.
Richie was a sort of normal farmhand in his early twenties, remarkably strong, if not physically massive; not family, but so intimate with the different seasonal demands of the place that he could have handled it himself. There was no menacing aura about our working conditions: no rural scorn for city boys who stole more cans of beer than bags of groceries, full CVs in dishwashing and food preparation. The question was simple: take a walk. We need a hand. But if you think it's too much, go away.
In the variety of menial tasks that need to be performed on farms, other than rock gathering, hay season is low on the required technical skill metric. It's hard work, done fast. A baler made cutting easier, but getting those tons of hay out of the ground and into an attic according to a timer meant bodies and sweat. Wagons with shelves front and back had to be stacked twenty feet high, the bales in a geometrically interlocking system, then hauled across the fields, load by load, to the barn. Conductor; a pile of bodies; a box at ground level lifting the bales onto the box stack.
Outside of sport, this was my first experience facing a stubborn, clumsy, massive world with uncertain capacities and bodily coordination, its muscular strength relative and unknown. Not just the uncertainty of a body. A mind unsure of what the body can do, can go on doing it. The first time a bundle twisted, lost its shape, and then dissolved into a mess, it caused something of an embarrassment and frustration. The learning curve involved in wrestling is steep. Lines and fields repeat like a looping movie.
You have to master the leverage that comes from grabbing the two pieces of twine from a bale, then pressing both forearms into the condensed hay at the bottom of one end of the heavy cobblestone. Now drive the cantilevered weight up with your lower thigh until your mass rests on parallel forearms (an inverted forklift) and then it's like throwing a closet down the stairs. Repeat a few hundred times and point the tractor at the hayloft, where an elevator awaits, craning its neck into the dark attic like the reflection of a heron fishing.
The question was simple: take a walk. We need a hand. But if you think it's too much, go away.
Two in the attic and one throwing bales on the slippery metal of the elevator. They look docile, sleepy, like stuffed pies lined up for display, and the tips of their buttocks rise as they disappear from the upper lip one by one. Derek and Richie move in and out of the shadows upstairs, working together, piling rows of foundation along the back wall of the attic, tighter and tighter. Both shirtless now in the oven and soon covered by an infernal mixture of straw and dust that expel from the nose towards the light. Swirling, sticky molecular structures of field snot, the imprints of their work gloves forming cat's whiskers on either side of their noses.
I would accompany them. I had trouble keeping up with them. The skies changed and the winds were suddenly warm with deeply buried chills. The first fat drops echoed in the elevator. In moments, the rain began to fall. What we were already doing at a pace now had to be accelerated. I fell off the wagon with steps twice. I went downstairs when the engine stopped and the conveyor stopped. Derek was pointing at the extension cord, unplugged from the AC power cord, lying still as a snake in the puddle of soggy grass and straw with his fangs out.
Plug it in, idiot! Go!
But... Connect! That! At the!
I'm not sure-
— Saturday morning cartoon violence, reconnecting a power while standing hip-deep in a flooded room. I was knocked to the ground and strange deep sensations paralyzed my limbs. My lips tingled as if they had thawed from the anesthesia after the dentistry. Derek doubled over in a fit of laughter, his head and shoulders breaking out of the downpour. The bales were moving again. Once I recovered, I let my arms wander slightly away from my hips, turning my palms toward him.
I could have died!
Yes, he could barely get the words out, his face was still doubling up six times from laughing so hard, I know!
Derek was the kind of friend (irreverent, intrepid, daring, not complaining, passionate, lawless, loyal) you learned things about the universe from. Valuable lessons: abstract, koanish, proto-laws with deep internal contradictions. There would be at least three more instances, before we start to lose touch, where we would have good reason to get to the gloss event that we might have died. A motorcycle accident. An upset man with a hidden gun. Propane tanks and an engine fire. Why was everything so fun?
Why is everything so funny? That was nearly two years before Samuel Beckett died in a Paris nursing home. I read about his late death, flying from Montreal to Dublin.
e BeckettWatt, Watt spends heavy mental fuel trying to figure out how to get into Erskine's room; Erskine, like Watt, is employed by Mr. Knott, residing there, like Watt, in Mr. Knott, all the time. Watt is of the opinion that Erskine's room contains a bell; this bell must be Erskine's way of calling or replying to Mr. Knott or communicate with him when he, Erskine, is not within earshot of Mr. Knott, thinks Watt.
Anyway, come in. To Erskine's room. Which indeed contains a bell, but the bell is broken and useless. Watt is none the wiser about communication etc. etc., although there is, on Erskine's wall, a picture hanging. Watt's attention is drawn to the image, and the image causes Watt to reflect painfully. We are drawn with an image of the image: “A circle, obviously described by a compass and broken at its lowest point, occupied the central foreground of this image. Was he going backwards? Watt had this impression. On the eastern background appeared a dot or dot. The circumference was black. The dot was blue, but blue! The rest was white."
Before choosing Paris as his home, the man who would take literature to the coldest confines of non-representation – a sort of Kazimir Malevich of fiction – had been an inveterate student of images. He had prepared his own grand tour of the important galleries in Germany and Italy, spending hours and hours in front of paintings he knew and others he didn't. Taking notes, big stacks of notes.
Then a lot of correspondence, which incorporated the notes into opinions, preferences and queries. Learning to articulate ideas about composition and humor, experimentation and the modern, and then come back the next day to sit back and look again. In 1936, in a fit of apathetic indifference, Beckett even wrote to Sergei Eisenstein, begging him to study with him at the Moscow State Film School. Eisenstein did not respond.
The echoes, the tangents, the correlations, when and where they occur, are my own voluntary pattern.
Oddly, then, images never came to dominate Beckett's literary work or even claim any conspicuous thematic background. It is as if a process of not seeing, or of seeing the not-there, began. Although his production developed (did?) ever more intensely towards mental images, the mental landscapes themselves became so bereft of setting, object and outline that certain works have the feeling of taking place inside the reader's head.
Passages, images, in later great works, especially in short prose, enter the blood stream: litanies of partial phrases, reformulations, antiphrases, following an evolutionary law like music, objectless, eliminatory. The silent, repetitive theater of his and Suzanne's forced confinement in Vaucluse during the war years planted a prosodic seed. A rhythm of work and solipsism. Work, solipsism and an incisive threat of horror. There is little or no correspondence from late 1941 to late 1944, although Beckett was an obsessive (and amusing) letter writer. What survives from the emptiness that was from 1942 to 1945 is the novelWatt, Beckett's gateway drug to the complete trilogy experiments (molloy,malone dies,the nameless), the large pieces and the later miniatures, increasingly smaller and more uprooted. What does it mean to attempt an imaginary “life” of Sam and Suzanne in those years alongside fragments of my own story: the madness of gluing a mirror to the back of a mirror?
The echoes, the tangents, the correlations - when and where they occur - are my own voluntary pattern, a network I decided I needed and which is no more and no less stupid than any other necromancy. Maybe my life was a palimpsest, layers of marginalia and final notes ofWattand beyond. When I'm down, I hear myself questioning my delusional, falsely intimate relationship with Beckett-in-my-head, the Beckett-in-residence, whose resonance and meaning are shaped at times by his work and at other times by his persistent advocacy. life after death as an interlocutor, as a pointy and undulating set of planes, folds and ice pits, whose predatory look is just the prologue of warmth and wisdom about things that, in fact, will not improve in the short term.
On a Monday in early June 1940, Beckett wrote to Marthe Arnaud, the new partner of his friend, the painter Bram van Velde: "Under blue glass, Bram's painting emits a dark flame." She had just paid for a painting by van Velde in an attempt to help her friend financially, and had arranged with Peggy Guggenheim that she should visit a gallery in order to increase her own collection. Paris was four days away from the first vanguards, followed by columns of the German Wehrmacht coming down the rue de Flandres.
Eventually, under blackout orders, ordinary Parisians who had not left the city were instructed to paint their windows with a solution of blue powder, water and oil. Dazed, hostile or indifferent, dependent, people crawled like ghosts through their private aquariums, then staggered through the blackened streets to take the last few drinks before things got worse. Beckett finished the letter to Arnaud two days before he and Suzanne left town. "Today will be something different." It sounds like you are referring to the painting while referring to more than the painting. “You think you're choosing something, and it's always you who chooses; a me you didn't know, if you're lucky."
Bury My Father shared some of the emotionally mute and deflationary notes on what it must be like to retrieve lost luggage by an airline, returned months later, once you've determined your bags didn't contain anything of value anyway, and you were in a lighter effect during the interim. If someone in authority (or even in the midst of bureaucracy) had made it clear that it was within our prerogatives, and it would have been entirely understandable, to get rid of him, I think my brother and I could have opted for that option and left the phone .
So my brother, the youngest of four children, and probably for that reason in irregular contact with him the longest, ended up getting the call. Not from a porter, but from our father's sister, who lived less than ten minutes from the nursing home he was in, where he had reached a dormant state, relaxed and gathered, near Gander, Newfoundland. And here's the thing,she didn't want to have to deal with it. G—– came over to mine, sat down on the cobblestones with a beer, and we passed a phone back and forth with our other two brothers on the line. I booked flights for the two of us and started thinking about Gander International Airport.
We approached the tree-lined swaths cut by suburban construction and landed in the drizzle, entering the tiny terminal and exiting before the pale modular partitions gave a glimpse of the beautiful anomaly of mid-century design. We left our bags somewhere in the city so we had to check in. I remember the hospital hallway to his room; G—– was receiving text messages from our aunt and a nurse in charge, and time, they stressed, was not enough. We stood outside the room, facing each other in a miasma of palliative disinfectant.
One of us asked: Who first? One came in and the other came in later. The one who entered first spent an unknown amount of time inside with him, while the other stayed in the hall with the painting. While the one in the hallway saw painting and people leaning against or sitting down, the other was in the room with him lying on top of them, hoping not to hurt the one in the hallway or waste minutes in the room where the wreckage lay. With an interval of time, the one in the room left the room, and the one who was aimlessly in the hallway went inside where he was lying on his back and not responding.
Then that one left the corridor and entered the room while the one in the room assumed a posture and location very similar to the corridor it had just entered. Countless minutes passed. The last one in the room left the room and again checked in or made arrangements with the one whose company it was to clean the paint and the seated forms.
It is as if a process of not seeing, or of seeing the not-there, began.
Kind of disappointing, isn't it?
A little disappointing.
I had imagined hitting it in flight.
Playing here. I imagined this on the flight.
I thought of the movie pillow. There.
Stop the beep-beep?
Interrupting the beep-beep. So maybe hit him?
It was late afternoon in a Newfoundland town we knew nothing about, except the presence of locals who, though their numbers were still hazy, conjectural, carried our last name and… what that might mean, we had no idea. . As brothers and as men of deliberation we decided - as we rode the bus into town, in our minds, conscious of beeps and death coils, terminal exhalations and no-being-more - to lubricate ourselves in a proper and obliterating way Gander has bars for that . We have been to some of them. They kicked us out of one of them. I landed in the gravel chasing a fox-faced kid I gave money to buy coke.
At this point, he still wasn't dead. Morning came, drumming and chanting and what sounded like kicks at the door woke my brother, who answered in blue language. I think I opened the door. In the hallway stood a woman with a badge and gray hair, flanked by two hotel staff whose badges must have been similarly affixed, although the manager hid their breasts. I was sure her purpose was to eliminate us. I was sure we had broken or stolen or burned something. I was sure they were inspecting the blood that ran in rivulets from my cheek, where I'd removed the pillowcase that, over the night, had hardened into the dry, rough crust. It dripped onto my chest.
Mr. Babstock. He looked past me to my brother, still stretched out on the single bed like a tent. Sir.drinksvalues. I wanted to include both of us. We've been trying to wake him up. I knew a lot about it. Your family has been trying to get in touch with you for hours. I mentally turned to my son in Toronto. I'm sorry, but your father passed away this morning. You really should get in touch with your family. My family is here, I let one arm swing slightly back, indicating the form on the bed, but thank you. Thanks. I'm sorry for bothering you. I didn't bother them. did we? I was apologizing for my appearance, for responding to their drumming and banging and screaming, and I went back to bed because there was no urgency right now and they wouldn't need us yet.
It was 1992 and I had nothing. Or you had $7 and most of a Player package, but there was work if you wanted it in British Columbia. Moving west from Montreal, even hitchhiking, requires money for food. It's a four-day trip, times the number of days you'll be stuck outside Wawa, the Bermuda Triangle of transcontinental travel. And the job of planting trees in the interior of the Northwest, I was told, would require equipment. As soon as.
Seven hundred and fifty dollars in hand to spend seventy-two hours "volunteering" as a test subject for some kind of drug. It was a one-story complex with blue glass panels somewhere in a light industrial area north of town. We had been driven there in a company van, having eaten nothing in the previous 24 hours; a change of clothes, a book (if you're into that), and our signatures on a consent form.
I had been picked up on street corners for menial jobs in the past and I told myself that was it, just medicine and no menial work. Built-in beds crammed into gender-separated "rooms"; it looked like they had just pushed the wallets to the side. A common area with TVs bolted to the pillars like a sports bar, Ping-Pong tables, card tables, and plush chairs facing each other, hastily rearranged so they don't face each other. There was a low security prison feel, chronic boredom accessories to the place. We would be eating and drinking a strictly controlled diet, they said. They would divide us into a placebo group and a test group without knowing which was which, they said. And they would draw blood every hour, they said, while most of our daylight hours would be spent on a battery of cognitive tests.
The only test I remember involved a tangle of electrodes attached to my scalp, face and fingers while I was reclining in an armchair; a cart of pre-served alcoholic beverages (orange vodka) pulled up to my right. A pharmaceutical agent pressed play on the TV in front of him: Harrison Ford inin search of the lost ark- and he said he could drink the vodka as often as he liked, but he had to finish the vodka before Harrison finished off the Nazis. I asked if there was more vodka after these six were finished. They said no.
After the movie was over, I asked him if he had done it right. I was asked if I didn't think spreading the drinks throughout the movie would make the viewing experience more enjoyable. I said I hadn't thought I would, no, and they took me to get more blood drawn.
Watt's Agon (or the Quest, or the Plot ofWatt), if you can call it that, inWatt, it boils down to Watt's desire to understand enough about the person of Knott, Knott's premises, Knott's purpose, as an employee, in his home, so that he can say goodbye safely, when the time comes, while maintaining his sanity. . , Watt's. Success is not Watt's in this.
The scenario invented by Beckett does not seek plausibility or imply any definite point in historical time.
Beckett doesn't give us much about Knott's house, but we see the structure through the house's staple fixtures, selectively and incidentally named, combined with the novel's resonant tone of bare walls: the aura of sideboards and chandeliers. of an Edwardian style House in decline, or stuck in perpetual decline, having never gotten anywhere. Watt, from the outset, "would have liked to hear Erskine's voice summing up in sure words the kitchen space, the extraordinary floor lamp, the stairs which were never the same and where even the number of steps seemed to vary from day to day. to day, and from night to morning, and many other things in the house, and the bushes outside, and other plants in the garden," though all this is presumably laid out before Watt, should he himself feel compelled. to describe them. .
I always imagined the terribly meaningless events ofWatttaking place in a symmetrical two-story, flat-fronted house, with mansards projecting from the tiled roof, its sash windows dripping from recent rain, the cobblestone or white plaster exterior developing stains like decayed makeup under the blue-gray. doors Inside, I can count the wide dark floorboards, the few miniatures that hang from simple nails on the whitewashed walls.
Light, when there is light, enters unobstructed, and heavy beams appear on the upper floors. I smashed a Galway surgeon's Victorian ivy house, now rented on Airbnb, with ascetic Northern Revival interiors, and added a few Quaker elements, perhaps a banister from the Bauhaus staircase leading to steel hospital beds in the upper rooms. In other words: everything very out of place and anomalous. But the scenario invented by Beckett does not aim at plausibility or imply any definite point in historical time. Knott's home is part workplace, part refuge, part institution, and part cogs of an unnerving autonomous presence.
Indeed, Beckett based Knott's house, in part at least, on Cooldrinagh, the prosperous Foxrock house where he was born and raised. A Tudor-style four-bed room designed by a talented architect, marked the family; they now lived in the prosperous suburban comforts that Beckett's businessman father had accumulated over time. Standing on an acre full of landscaped greenery, fenced and set back from the road, this is where Beckett found himself trapped more than once, seemingly without prospects and confined with his immediate family, before finally and forcibly leaving for Paris forever.
If so, writingWattDuring Beckett's war years, of transience, fear, insecurity and rootlessness, his central project, cladding the armor of the rationalist dream, he is also arguably haunted by domestic issues. The home of his origins, elegantly decorated but oppressively squalid, has followed him like a ghost from the basic Paris apartment he fled with Suzanne through countless "safe" houses, hotels, strangers' beds and roadside kips, and even the years in Roussillon in the house he could only warm by exchanging his own work. Perhaps I am seeing the psychic presence of his family home as the inverted negative of the catastrophic essentialist nostalgias that kept Europe in a death spiral at the time. Home ideas are not neutral. It is possible that carrying cracks in the first foundation, recognizing dampness and sinking, helps one to accept a flawed cosmos at its core.
"Abandoned Lives" by Ken Babstock appears in the Winter 2023 issue of Brick.