- Words by Mr Stuart Husband
There's a famous photograph of Mr Samuel Beckett taken in Paris, the author's adopted home, by Mr Richard Avedon on 13 April 1979, his 73rd birthday. It's a diptych; in the left panel, Mr Beckett interrogates the lens with a rare intensity, his craggy face - the protruding ears, aquiline nose and piercing eyes - having a monumental quality that his friend, the writer Ms Nancy Cunard, once compared to "a magnificent Mexican sculpture". In the right panel, Mr Beckett looks down, the better for us to admire his leonine quiff and austere-but-dapper get up; dark grey jacket, black polo neck and trousers, glasses tucked snugly into breast pocket. If, as Mr Beckett once wrote, "words are the clothes thoughts wear", then the starkly minimal but painstakingly punctilious quality of his best-known works - Waiting for Godot, Happy Days, Endgame - is echoed in his personal style, a sort of hardcore normcore. "He was dismissive of pretentiousness," wrote Mr James Knowlson, Mr Beckett's biographer, "but meticulousness was always one of his most striking characteristics."
If Mr Beckett remains an icon beyond the intelligentsia and pretensia, a quarter of a century after his death, it's because of this sense we have of him as a man of quiet dignity and integrity, as much as the enduring power of his deadpan tragi-comedies anatomising life's toils and strivings. "To all requests for interview, you can always answer no," he wrote to his publisher, and he maintained a visceral loathing for any kind of public attention throughout his life. When he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969, his wife described it as a "catastrophe", and, when press-ganged into a photocall at a Tunis hotel to mark the occasion, he appeared in a sports jacket and turtleneck, smoking a cigar, and refused to speak. "He was gone," said Mr Knowlson, "before the cigar had time to burn down a single centimetre."
Mr Samuel Beckett, Paris, 1979
Photo Richard Avedon. © The Richard Avedon Foundation
But Mr Beckett's horror of becoming a public figure didn't mean that he lived like an isolated ascetic. He was light heavyweight boxing champion at his Dublin school, and, thanks to two cricket tours with his university team, is the only Nobel winner to appear in the pages of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack, the sport's annual bible. He displayed physical and moral courage throughout his life, throwing himself from the top of a 60ft fir tree as a boy, relying on the lower branches to break his fall, winning the Croix de Guerre for his work with the Resistance during WWII, and, later, refusing to allow his plays to be produced in apartheid South Africa and speaking out against censorship and oppression. He smoked Gauloises and drank John Jameson Irish whiskey (or "JJ", as he called it) with enthusiasm, and loved reading thrillers by Ms Agatha Christie and Mr Edgar Wallace. He was also immensely attractive to women; despite a relationship that lasted more than 50 years with Ms Suzanne Déchevaux-Dumesnil, a former piano student, whom he secretly married in 1961, he had numerous affairs, with the heiress Ms Peggy Guggenheim being one of his conquests.
If Mr Beckett is a stylistic role model for the older man, it's perhaps because, like fellow playwright Mr Alan Bennett (author of The History Boys and Talking Heads), he adopted an "old chap" uniform early on and, over the decades, came to refine it. A student photograph finds him in essentially the same elements - tweed jacket, flannels, round eyeglasses - he would sport as a giant of modernism some 60 years later. And while he had an aversion to "lording the hat" - as he once described dressing up - the fine detail of clothes, as with prose, didn't escape him. In one essay he quoted a favourite fable: a tailor, weeks overdue with a pair of trousers, is reminded that God took only six days to create the world. "Yes," replies the tailor, "but look at the world, and look at my trousers."
Mr Samuel Beckett leaving the Royal Court theatre, London, 1976
Photo © Jane Bown/ The Observer
In his later years, Mr Beckett created a smart/ shabby, old/ new benchmark for seniors to follow. On Moroccan holidays, he'd sport fawn shorts, a white shirt and a canvas bag slung over his shoulder containing his student edition of Dante's Divina Commedia. Back in a wintry Paris, it would be smart grey or blue suits, and everyday wear comprising cream/ grey/ beige sweaters (or two polo necks at once if the wind began to bite), a sheepskin coat, a beret pulled squarely down over his ears (no rakish angles, thank you), corduroys or tweed trousers (on once being complemented on the cut of the latter, Mr Beckett, with something of a twinkle in his eye, informed the admirer that they'd come from a charity shop), and a pair of his beloved Clarks Wallabees. It summed up his work/ life aesthetic perfectly - always committed, never precious - and illustrates why he remains revered by students of both the human condition and elder-statesman élan. To paraphrase his most enduring maxim: "Try again. Fail again. Dress better."