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California Literary Review

Whatever — Whatever?

Non-Fiction Reviews

Whatever — Whatever?

One wades through an awful lot of pretentious chatter published when a new production of a work like “Waiting for Godot” is mounted. But what work is ever like Samuel Beckett’s excruciating 2-Act masterpiece? An English friend of mine, a literary scholar and sharp theater critic who has passed most of his life in Cambridge, detests that writer’s work. Although recently widowed and cast into the slough of desolation, he quotes from Godot in an e-mail when it is a matter of trying to describe his state of mind in his mid-Seventies since he was left waiting for …? Only recently he wrote:

”Not reading much at moment whatever, except occasional compulsive bashes at old fave ‘comfort’ stuff. My head is not properly back together yet, I fear. Wonder if ever will be. Still, my life reminds me of that bit of Godot dialogue I never tire of quoting, ‘Well, it helped to pass the time.’ ‘It would have passed anyway.’ That’s what my life is at present; full of fuckall but it passes anyway. Am I btw the only person in the entire world who considers Waiting For Godot [apart solely from above quote], along with the rest of Beckett [with perhaps exception of Play which have always uncharacteristically admired], + the entire oeuvre of the, to me, completely incomprehensibly adulated H Pinter, the most consummate bollox, the lot of it…?”

There is scarcely any way to reply to such an outcry, for at our point in life, most things are understood, and to pursue that conversation would be like poking at a person scorched all over with 3rd degree burns. And yet, what came to mind after I read his words was a recollection of the first performance in the US of Waiting for Godot, which I saw in New York with Bert Lahr and E.G. Marshall, Kurt Kaznar and Alvin Epstein as Lucky [1956]. And there was that dead tree on the empty stage in Act I, which at the end of Act II had sprouted a few green leaves. Hopeful? Hoping for hope? Nothing and yet everything can be said about that subtle touch. Not that Beckett’s novels or his later stage works, gradually reduced to the absolute silence in a world grown ever more raucous, offered what is thought of as hope, which is the contrary to despair. Did Beckett despair? It is hard to say, since from the first that is what seems to have been the foreground and background of his work. Yet, he went on, and on. I regard him as the epitome of the heroic, which is not a matter of muscle, but of mind that is truly an example of Mind itself.

How has this subject come to me at this hour? The first association that offered itself is the moral, or morale? of Voltaire’s Candide. For after trials and tribulations around a tumultuous world of warfare that would have defeated, in real life, most of us, Candide is reunited with his beloved Cunegonde and they retire to a little house with a little plot in back for their vegetables. Voltaire tells us, Il faut cultiver son jardin. A motto wise enough, if open to multiple meanings.

Which leads me to my present association. We have a small house and garden, in which I ignorantly and presumptuously planted trees in May of 1962, when we bought the property. A city man’s garden, of course. Three different apricot trees, a Mirabelle or greengage tree, an Osborne Prolific fig tree at its center, two orange trees to one side and a white nectarine with them. Beside that a tangerine tree. The nectarine bore and bore for twenty years and died abruptly. The tangerine did likewise. After thirty years, the navel orange had had it — I cut it down and left a branched stump on which a roughly-cut blue marble slab sits, upon it a flower pot draped with cyclamen in four colors. The Valencia orange survives, and yielded two and more crates of fruit this past Spring. The fig tree is twenty-five feet high and spreading out. The greengage is thirty-five feet high, with two huge trunks, one of which went dead some years back; nevertheless, at least a hundred pounds of plums are ripening again today. But, that apricot?

For the last decade it has been more or less unfruitful, to say the least, and the question was whether to cut it down. It needs pruning, but I have neglected that task; besides, I read in the newspaper some while back that other apricots are necessary for pollination. Who understands our Santa Monica climate, a mile from the Pacific, with different streams of air flowing in every 20 yards as one walks down the street to the mailbox at night? At any rate, we have had extremes, and Southern California has been drought country for the past five and more years: we were lucky to get 5 or 6 inches of rain over the past rainy season! I paid no attention this past Spring, really, to the apricot, though the greengage stood smothered in blossoms in February, a vast tower of white that snowed on the grass beneath for two weeks.

When, lo and behold! Two weeks ago, there was a lot of bird chatter outside, and a few small pale yellow fruits lay on the grass! I stopped, looked up, and saw a tree which, though scraggly and full of dead twigs and branches — mea culpa, mea maxima culpa! — was simply loaded with bunches of ripening apricots. Rest assured, these apricots taste like none you will ever encounter in the market: if there is such a thing as the essential, indescribable taste of apricot, that is what they offer. Unfortunately, the busy birds are up earlier than I am.

So by nine in the morning, I would find a half-dozen half eaten scattered on the ground. Nothing for it, but to lay hold of the 12-foot pole with the basket atop it and its hooked claws for plucking fruit. Over three days, I managed to keep about 100 pounds of fruit away from the scrub jays and whichever else screamers and chirpers were flitting about all the time. And then, three days ago, I had that Beckettian moment, or experience, or revelation of something in nature that was unnatural indeed.

I had brought in about 15 pounds of fruit snatched by the pole, taken down from the top of the tree about 15 or more feet overhead, firm, not quite ripened to soft deliciousness, intending to stew them for compote. They filled the basin of the kitchen sink. I was sorting and turning them under cold running water, looking for black mold that spreads from holes pecked out, soft spots that would taste rancid or acrid … when I picked one up from the water only to find it bore a message. Uncanny as it seemed to me, I nevertheless went for my camera and snapped several pictures, some from 15 inches’ distance, a few macro shots taken at 5 inches. What can I say? That apricot presented itself as something inexplicable. The photograph presented below shows a two-lettered word in block print, their lines composed of tiny round indentations, as if a blunt stylus had pressed into the skin just enough to leave their mark.

Now if this is like Beckett’s forlorn tree with a few leaves, it is also something else, not merely a sign of renewal. I take it for a greeting from elsewhere. The reader will have objections or questions; the reader may scoff, may scorn, ridiculing whatever suppositions can be offered: it would be skepticism well-merited. But after a long life, one steeped in critical objectivity during well over 60 years, a life fortified and stuffed with unbelief, I remain, to say the least, nonplussed.

My next association arrived soon enough. I heard ring in my head a voice that had never been sounded since 1986 — my mother’s. Insouciant as that short inscription on the apricot, that HI! As Robert Ripley used to declare in the comics pages supplement over half a century ago, “Believe it or Not.”


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Jascha Kessler
Professor Emeritus of Modern English & American Literature, UCLA
Santa Monica, CA

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