Tuesday, December 13, 2005


Beckett: It's a small world after all

In 1964 we lived in Queens, and my parents took us to the World's Fair several times during that spring and summer. Not surprisingly, the place made a big impression on me. I still have vivid, Technicolor memories of several exhibits: the robotic Abe Lincoln, later pastured out to Disneyland, and the General Motors Pavilion (at right), where you rode little bumper cars into the radiant, predominantly plastic future. It was at the World's Fair that I observed my mother telling a lie for the first time--she fibbed about my age to get me into the Scandanavian playground--and I've never let her forget it. As I've now discovered on the Web, the Fair also marked the debut of the Ford Mustang, the IBM Selectric, Kellogg's Pop Tarts, and Diet Pepsi. Had we really been living in the Dark Ages as recently as 1963, deprived of these iconic products?

In its corny, aerodynamic, New Frontier style, the World's Fair really did encompass some of the strangest sights a five-year-old could possibly imagine. No doubt my dreams are still teeming with visual footnotes from that era. Yet I might have stumbled across, and overlooked, one of the strangest spectacles of all: Samuel Beckett snoozing on a bench. The very thought produces a thunderclap of cognitive dissonance. (In the same way, I can hardly picture Gustav Mahler on the subway, although he reportedly loved to ride it during his tenure as conductor of the New York Philharmonic between 1909 and 1911.) But Beckett was there, according to this excellent bit I read earlier today in Anthony Cronin's Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist:
Barney Rosset had made a reservation for Beckett on an early-morning flight, so they went to bed early in the little brownstone on Houston Street, where Barney and his then wife, Christine, lived. When Barney and his wife awoke and saw the time, they found to their horror that they had probably missed the plane. When they opened the door of their bedroom they found Beckett sitting outside on the landing in his overcoat and with his suitcase. He had got up in time, but had been too polite to knock on their door and then had fallen asleep himself. Another reservation was made on a flight for that evening and Barney suggested that they might pay a visit to the World's Fair, which was in Flushing Meadows on the way to the airport. It was another very hot and humid New York day but Beckett was still wearing his overcoat as they walked through the exhibits at the fair, all three rapidly getting into a state of torpor and exhaustion. When Barney and Christine were sampling some food at an exhibit they suddenly discovered that Sam was nowhere to be seen. In a panic they went back the way they had come, looking to left and right. It took them about half an hour to find him, sleeping again, this time on a bench, where he had sat down to rest while they investigated another exhibit. After he had been woken and somewhat revived, he was driven to the airport and caught his plane. This ended Beckett's only visit to the United States.

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