'Negation is no more possible than affirmation. It is absurd to say that something is absurd. That's still a value judgement. It is impossible to protest, and equally impossible to assent.'
After a long pause:
'You have to work in an area where there are no possible pronouns or solutions, or reactions, or standpoints - that's what makes it so diabolically difficult.'
Samuel Beckett in conversation with Charles Juliet, 11 November 1977

Samuel Beckett and Bram van Velde first met in 1937. They had much in common. Both were foreigners in Paris, with French as their second language, they had few acquaintances and little hope for the future except that they would continue to practise as artists. They were yet to gain recognition for their work, and materially times were very hard, particularly for Bram van Velde. The Dutch painter lived in utter poverty and soon after seeing his work Beckett purchased a canvas with his own meagre resources - probably in sympathy with such miserable circumstances.

A promising young writer, Charles Juliet, transcribed conversations he had with the two men (from 1964 in the case of van Velde and from 1968 with Beckett). He wrote down these encounters from recollection and they were originally collected together in their French form in 1972. Conversations with Samuel Beckett and Bram van Velde is the first English translation of this book.

Juliet's encounter is a powerful account of a zealous young man's desire to penetrate the creative worlds of two men who, he believed, were great artists of that time. By 1964 their uncompromising talents had been widely recognised. Beckett was soon to be awarded the Nobel prize for Literature and van Velde's paintings were being celebrated and exhibited in Europe and the USA.

Both men represent a turning away from the world toward an encounter with themselves. The notion of self that they epitomise is in deep contrast to a confident individualism that was beginning to emerge in America. Beckett and van Velde encapsulate the uncompromising nihilism that was particularly present in post-war French culture. There is little optimism to be found in their conversations. The dire conditions under which they had lived, and their experience of the Nazi occupation of France (a subject which neither of them was prepared to discuss), no doubt conditioned this. Juliet tries desperately to convert this nihilism into an ascetic effacement of desire. Had they read oriental mysticism or Jung? he asks. But Juliet's attempts to smoke them out as latter-day Buddhas are not successful. Van Velde's only concession was that the act of painting, as a struggle, brought some relief from the despair he felt towards the world and his own creative efforts. Beckett offered no concessions, and his implacable position struck van Velde to the core. When the painter told Beckett that he was almost satisfied with some paintings he had recently completed, Beckett countered 'There's really no reason to be'. Beckett could not condone meagre comfort, in the belief that his creative efforts would lead to the kind of catharsis that van Velde felt was bound up within the impulse to paint.

Juliet's role in these conversations is underpinned by an interesting dilemma. The painter, whose conversations comprise two thirds of this book, reiterates the futility of words and intellectual positions. 'Words, they're just noise. Even little children get taught to make noise.' This is typical of van Velde over many pages of the book. Juliet resorts to an attempt to drape the mantle, if not of a Buddha, then of a Bodhisattva, over the painter. Van Velde's candour comes through in this book as something tangible, but there is a feeling that Juliet is driven by a desire to offer us a hagiography of the painter. The result is an obfuscation of what this man's artistic engagement might have been.

Juliet's admiration for Beckett is apparent from the start. His ambitions as a writer had been led by the Irishman's example, and this is perhaps why he has a difficult time in his interviews with the old eagle. The canon that emerges in the account of van Velde, that words only obscure, is rendered a paradigm with Beckett. Words, in the end, are his material - not as literature but in terms of something akin to silence; the desire is not to control or empower but to listen. Words are a function of listening for Beckett, listening within a silence of being where the world is effaced. Van Velde instead values vision, and words are just a stumbling block that inhibits the silence necessary for looking. Silence is what linked these men but, despite all his austerity, van Velde seems almost like a dandy in comparison to Beckett. At one point van Velde says: 'The more all-embracing the artist is in his approach to life, the more forcefully his work will speak, and so the artwork will be a measure of the spiritual dimensions of its creator.'

This seems like a romantic affirmation when put alongside the famous lines from Beckett's Texts for Nothing X: 'No, no souls, or bodies, or birth, or life or death, you've got to go on without any of that junk that's all dead with words, with excess of words, they can say nothing else, they say there is nothing else.'

I'm not sure who would constitute the audience for this book. Van Velde is a big figure in post-war French culture but his reputation has not travelled well. Beckett's fame borders on beatification, and I imagine Beckett aficionados will be intrigued by the book. And even though van Velde's conversations make up most of the text, it is Beckett's presence that haunts both van Velde's and Juliet's thinking.

Perhaps the most revealing aspect of their encounter is the degree of difference in each man's presentation of their world. Van Velde's nihilism weighs heavily upon the reader and this is not alleviated by his repeated claims that laughter is the only true response to the existential conundrum. Beckett, on the other hand, embodied such a response in both his life and his work and laughter is a product of his writing, not a subject.

Mick Finch