I can’t remember having any other background image on my computer’s desktop than a picture of the Irish author Samuel Beckett. The picture was taken by the Irish photographer John Minihan in 1985, in Paris. The photograph, in black and white, shows a grizzled, wrinkled Beckett sitting at a table of the terrasse of a café. On the table in front of him are two cups of coffee, and an ashtray towards which Beckett is reaching to stub out a cigarette. The location is evident from the writing on the windows of the café behind him: croissants, glace. The light–coming off diffuse from tthe left, combined with the reflection of the round café lights in the window and on the ceiling–is exquisite. Beckett, despite the intricacies of his wrinkled face, that remarkable hawk-like nose, the streak of dark hair swirling off his forehead, looks a little worse for wear in his thin coat and mottled scarf, but that’s all part of the charm.
The picture is somewhat famous, sometimes recognized as one of the most remarkable photographs of the 20th century. It’s certainly definitive of a time and place, and of Paris as a home for expatriate artists. There’s a compelling account of how Minihan took the picture on his website: how he approached Beckett in advance of the writer’s 80th birthday, and most importantly how Beckett controlled the session, choosing the time and place, late on a Sunday afternoon in December, the light fading fast and Minihan finally managing to snap the shot while Beckett “orchestrated” the picture, changing his demeanour and turning his gaze away from the camera. “They turned out better than I expected because Sam directed the whole scene,” Minihan wrote in The Guardian in 2012.
The truth is that I’ve never read anything by Samuel Beckett–not even Waiting for Godot. The reason why I’ve liked to look at that picture for the last 10+ years is the expression on Beckett’s face, which is hard to describe: worn, focused, distant. The two coffee cups reveals the presence of the photographer, but it creates a certain false intimacy with the viewer–she could be the one with him, sitting at that table, being ignored while Beckett sighs, lost in his own thoughts.
For me that picture represents an idealization of the artist’s mindset. There’s something captivating about the intensity and melancholy of that focused gaze. This is the picture of an artist who takes their work seriously, who gets up early to write, who spends the time in hard chairs, who, shy of his 80th birthday, 16 years after having been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, warms his throat with an ancient scarf. He looks worn down by his own ideas. Looking at that picture makes me want to get to work.
Even now that I know that Becket was posing, I don’t find the image false. Beckett knew exactly what he was doing, enacting a form of control over the art; but that, after all, is the writer’s credo, to be in absolute control of the craft. To reach the ring of truth, a writer has to toil and whittle and pose, and then hide all the work.