A Friend Recalls Affectionately a Shy Nobel Prize Playwright Named Samuel Beckett

updated 04/13/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/13/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

The world celebrates anew a paradoxical dramatist of despair

Samuel Beckett, the world's most distinguished living playwright, never goes to the theater. When not writing his monuments to modern despair, he spends most of his time reading at home in Paris, where he lives quietly with his pianist wife, Suzanne. Their modest adjoining apartments overlook the gray, forbidding wall of Santé prison. They also have a two-room country house, and around the small, barren plot the Irish expatriate has built a tall barrier—"not so people couldn't look in," says an old friend, "but so he won't have to look out." This spring, however, Beckett's frosty solitude is being thawed, in spirit at least, by the arrival of his 75th birthday. Though he has always abhorred publicity (he characteristically refused to travel to Stockholm to accept his 1969 Nobel Prize), Beckett has so far given his blessing to several theatrical bouquets from his admirers. Two new plays will soon premiere—Rockaby in Buffalo, N.Y. and Ohio Impromptu in Columbus, Ohio—and a festival in his honor will be mounted in Paris this fall. Beckett himself will direct two of the Parisian productions—though, as always, he is not expected to attend any public performances. But if his love for privacy and bleak themes makes him seem cold and aloof, those who know Beckett best dispute that image. Indeed, they describe a loyal and generous friend. Here, in a rare intimate glimpse of Beckett the man, PEOPLE Tel Aviv correspondent Mira Avrech recalls a 1967 meeting that grew into a warm and affecting friendship.

The knock at the door came at 11 p.m. There stood the tall, gaunt figure of Samuel Beckett, a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label in his right hand, two glasses in his left. "May I come in?" he asked politely.

For days we had nodded at each other in the corridors of the Academy of Arts in West Berlin, where we each had a studio. He was there to direct his play Endgame. I was attending the Academy of Film and Television. Because I was so awestruck by the legendary writer and he was so shy, we might never have exchanged a word—but then, hearing that I had been unable to obtain a ticket to his play, he sent me his own seat for the opening night. I promptly wrote in gratitude, explaining in my note that I would have crossed the corridor to thank him but I respected his privacy. I added that I would have loved to invite him over for a drink. Hence the knock now on my door.

Awkwardly stretching his long legs from the narrow couch, Beckett chainsmoked Gitanes. He invariably missed the ashtray as he tried to stub them out. Later I learned that the ashes and spilled whiskey on my coffee table resulted not from sloppiness but from poor vision. Not until almost two years afterward were the cataracts removed from both of his eyes. Later, too, I discovered that he had not sacrificed seeing the previous night's performance at the theater for me. He never attended his opening nights, preferring to wait for the actors to join him afterward at a nearby cafe. Shunning celebrity, he turned down all requests from the press. "When I say something, they simply turn the words around in my mouth," he told me. "Later I read those interviews or the interpretation of my works, and I understand nothing whatsoever of what I read!"

My fear that I would have nothing to say to Samuel Beckett vanished when I saw the Agatha Christie and Perry Mason paperbacks stacked in his room. Over the next weeks we would sit and talk for hours about the Holocaust (my parents had barely escaped) and literature (particularly Kafka). I recall his blue eyes piercing through their gold-rimmed glasses, his elegant sentences wasting not one word. It was the fall of 1967, and student leftist demonstrations dominated the headlines. The night after one especially violent confrontation, Beckett gazed out my window and murmured, "We are slowly beginning to leave this earth." A similarly nihilistic thought was expressed later in one of his letters. "Yes, the earth is crazier than ever," he wrote me, "and the best thing for all concerned would be to let fall 100 atom bombs, 50 on each hemisphere." Yet despite such gloomy moments, he would point excitedly at the flower beds during our strolls through Bellevue Park, once clutching my arm and dragging me down a hill to see the goldfish pond.

When the time came for him to return to Paris, I drove him to the airport. Sipping whiskey as we waited for his flight, he said quietly, "I wish I were not leaving. I wish I could stay." "Then stay," I responded. For a long time he said nothing, deep in thought. Then he replied, "I can't. I must return to Paris. I have responsibilities there."

Over the next five years we wrote to each other often. Although I had invited him to visit Israel, he declined. "Time is running out on me," he said. Only 61 when we met, he still referred to himself as "an old wreck." He was impatient at the time lost waiting for his eye operation. "What I need is to get to the cottage in the country and be alone and try to work," he wrote me. "Time is getting short, and there may be a few more drops to squeeze from this old lemon."

Visiting Paris at last in 1973, I tried calling Beckett's unlisted number. But no one ever answered. When I finally contacted him, he explained that even on this private number, he picked up only from 11 a.m. until noon each day. "And soon I shall be answering only from 11 to 11:55," he joked. We went to a bistro where, he told me, "I used to sit and drink for hours and hours with James Joyce."

On his way to meet me that evening, Beckett had been stopped by a young man. "He asked if he could send me his poems," Beckett recalled. "He says he is working in a bank and wants to know if his poems are good. If I like them, he'll leave the bank and devote himself to writing. How can he ask me to do that? To tell a man what to do with his life!" Making his own decisions was clearly burden enough for Beckett. "If you had a choice, what is it you would really like to do?" I asked him over dinner. He was silent. Ten minutes passed, neither of us uttering a word. I had forgotten my question when he suddenly looked at me intensely. "Mira, you have asked me what I would like to do," he said. "I want to drown." Shaken, I replied, "If you truly do, why don't you?" He shook his head slowly. "I can't," he answered, in the same tone he had used when he told me he couldn't stay in West Berlin. "I really can't. I still have so many responsibilities."

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