Pull out: This pleasure was bestowed by the knowledge of the Fire Station across the way that had apparently been copied here and there from the Palazzo Vecchio. In homage to Savonarola? Hee! Hee! Anyway, no matter how you looked at it, it was a tolerable ramble in the gloaming…”
In his first written—but posthumously published—novel, The Dream of Fair to Middling Women, Samuel Beckett has his protagonist, Belacqua Shua, as he stalks a Dublin backstreet, wax poetic remembering Another, far-away city: “For there Florence would slip into the cantilena, the Piazza della Signoria and the No 1 tram and the festival of St. John there with the torches of resin ensconced in the niches of every tower flickering all night long and children with the rockets at the fall of night over the Cascine still flagrant in their memory opened the little cages to the glutted cicadae that had survived the long confinement and sat on with their irresponsible parents long after their usual bedtime. Then he walked slowly in his mind down the sinister Uffizi to the parapets of the Arno etc. This pleasure was bestowed by the knowledge of the Fire Station across the way that had apparently been copied here and there from the Palazzo Vecchio. In homage to Savonarola? Hee! Hee! Anyway, no matter how you looked at it, it was a tolerable ramble in the gloaming…”
As every tolerably well-informed student of European literature knows, Samuel Beckett, by birth an Irishman, encountered fellow countryman James Joyce, moved to Paris in the 1930s, settled in France, and transitioned into writing primarily in French in the wake of World War II. However, as finding the above-quoted passage lead me to discover, before the literary encounters with Proust and Diderot, Beckett was obsessed with Dante, before his success writing for the Pariasian stage with Waiting for Godot, he wrote two practically unpublishable books—a novel and a collection of stories culled from the novel—and, like his friend and Mentor Joyce, for Beckett, before Paris there was Italy—and Beckett’s Italy, I discovered, lies right here in Florence—“Along the Mugnone,” as he says in Dream…
According to James Knowlson’s Damned to Fame: the Life of Samuel Beckett, the Irishman came to Florence his senior year of university to prepare for his final exams in Italian and French, hoping to perfect his Italian, absorb as much of Florence’s artistic patrimony as possible, and especially because his private Italian tutor in Dublin’s sister, Vera Esposito, was living near Fiesole. The future absurdist found lodging in Via Campanella, 14, near the Piazza Oberdan, “paying 30 lire for a small room and three meals a day.” Apparently the trip was a success, seeing as how Beckett came in first in his class in the exams. Also, judging from the reminiscence of Belacqua’s in Dream…, the city and the celebration of its patron Saint John left an indelible mark on the young scholar’s memory.
Not only the sensory and visual memory of the city, but certainly the great epic poem of Florence’s most famous son, Dante Alighieri, features quite heavily in Beckett’s oeuvres, particularly the early writings. Besides many allusions and references to the Commedia, The protagonist of both the unpublished first novel (Dream of Fair to Middling Women) and the collection of tales of his life and death (some excerpted from the novel itself), More Pricks than Kicks, is one Belacqua Shua. Belacqua takes his name from the slothful Florentine lute maker met by the Pilgrim on the shores of Mt. Purgatory in the Commedia’s second canticle. This first creation of the young Irish author does not betray the later catalogue of Beckett’s absurdist proto-human figures, from Murphy (of the eponymous novel, the first Beckett managed to publish), who releases tension by tying himself to an overturned rocking chair and dangling from it, to the disembodied figures plodding through the dark of the Nohow On Trilogy, the ineffectual, ambitiousless, Purgatorial nature of life on earth has never been better depicted. I doubt Dante, the Christian optimist, would approve. Still, Beckett’s wonderful comic representation of creatures and situations most of us would deem tragic, opened up the tragi-comic or absurdist strain of literature, perhaps the twentieth century’s most startling literary invention. It’s nice to know that, classicist as it is, the city of Florence is not altogether absent from the genesis of such shenanigans.