Samuel Beckett and Avigdor Arikha: The Long Friendship of an Irish writer and a Jewish Painter

“A Different Side of Sam; Beckett, Arikha and a Parisian Adolescence.”

Annual Samuel Beckett Lecture by Alba Arikha

Tel Aviv University

29 May 2014

This is the eleventh successive year of the annual Samuel Beckett lecture at Tel Aviv University.  It is the brainchild and longstanding project of Prof. Linda Ben-Zvi.  I want to thank her and the University’s Theatre Department for creating this wonderful literary bridge between Ireland and Israel.

This year the lecture will be delivered by Alba Arikha, the daughter of one of Israel’s greatest artists and the godchild of the great man himself, Samuel Beckett.  Her life, and her story of her father’s forty years of friendship with Beckett in Paris, weave together many strands; from the Irish writer’s Jewish connections and sympathies, Avigdor Arikha’s own Holocaust and wartime experiences, to their lives in Paris over the decades and the grounds for their deep friendship.

The causal chemistry of friendship is a mystery, as ineluctable as it is abiding.  But the outsider can usually trace some of the elements that forge it.

Both Beckett and Arikha found themselves deeply immersed in the great cataclysm of the rise of Nazism and World War II. Beckett fleetingly witnessed Nazi triumph within Germany during his stay there between 1936 and 1937 before moving to France and fighting alongside the Resistance, the Maquis, during the war.  Arikha survived the death camps and serious injury in Israel’s War of Independence before moving permanently to Paris.  Both men were confronted with the abject abandonment of all morality and goodness that was both a cause and a consequence of the great global conflict and its greatest sin, the Shoah.

As men of the arts, they arrived at the same conclusion about their craft and its purpose; to look unflinchingly at life and report back without artifice.

For the writer Beckett this meant spare, even brutal prose to describe the existential absurdity of life without a god, without meaning.  For Arikha, it meant abandoning abstract art in favour of drawing from life directly and in one go.  He would use neither photographs nor memory but draw his subject – whether himself, models or the quotidian things of life like fruit, furniture, rooms, even stones – there and then in one sitting.

Indeed, Arkiha’s art has a startling immediacy, most notably in his self-portraits which are alert, even electrifying.  His many sketches of Beckett show the mastery of his craft.  Like all great art, they capture Beckett both physically – angular, slouching comfortably, smoking, peering – and psychologically: meditative, ever thoughtful, as if always on the verge of being about to say something.  You long to hover in that apartment in Paris as Arikha sketches his friend and to wait to hear their conversation.

While we can’t go back, we have an emissary from that time and that very place in Alba Arikha.  She, along with her sister Noga, grew up with her father and her mother, the poet Anne Atik, in a household that served as an intellectual and artistic hub, whose energies and emotions were coloured by the seismic events through which both her father and his close friend Beckett had lived.   It was also an arena for the struggle between a traumatised father and a young adolescent striving to create her own future and her own life, to escape what Beckett’s mentor, James Joyce, called the nightmare of history.

Her memoir, Major/Minor (Quartet, 2011), recounts her coming of age in the 1980s and her evolving view of the Irishman.  Her inclination was to dismiss him as part of that burden of history that loomed over her home until she discovered Beckett through his writings.  As she recalled of his style, “No surplus, all essentials; something to strive for, when I’m older and wiser.” She remembers him: “He had a very gentle way of talking, Beckett, very calm. He spoke slowly and there was definitely something very soothing about him, very shy about him. He never judged, really.” And he would encourage her as a writer.

In association with the Theatre Studies Department of Tel Aviv University, the Embassy is delighted to host Alba Arikha as the speaker for this year’s Samuel Beckett Lecture: “A Different Side of Sam; Beckett, Arikha and a Parisian Adolescence”.

It promises to be a wonderful evening, followed by refreshments and conversation.  Please come to join us on Thursday, May 29th at 6:00pm, Room 101 Kikone Building, Tel Aviv University.

Best wishes,

Eamonn

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Filed under Ireland Israel, Irish Writers, Israel

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