It was early May 1986, in Paris.
I had gone there for a literary symposium organized to celebrate the eightieth birthday of Samuel Beckett, for me the most important modern writer, whose work I have translated, annotated and staged in the theatre for many years and with whom I had been in regular contact since the mid-1970s.
According to established tradition, we arranged to meet after the symposium. As usual, Beckett suggested the Café Français at the Hotel PLM, which stood opposite his home on the Boulevard Saint Jacques. I arrived slightly early and sat down at the table we had occupied last time we'd met here, a few years before.
Beckett arrived with his typical punctuality, at twelve on the dot, not a second later. To a meeting that wasn't connected with any creative plans or projects he usually came "empty-handed", as he liked to put it. This time he was holding a small book, which turned out to be an old, very well-thumbed copy of Effi Briest by Teodor Fontane.
Beckett's close friends and those who are experts on his work will know that it was one of his favourite novels, which he often went back to and which he also referred to in his writing. "Let us hasten home", says Mr Rooney to his old wife in the radio-play All That Fall, "and sit before the fire. We shall draw the blinds. You will read to me. I think Effi is going to commit adultery with the Major." And in Krapp's Last Tape, as he's making his recording, old Krapp muses: "Effi... Could have been happy with her, up there on the Baltic, and the pines, and the dunes" - because the action of the novel takes place near Stettin - a city which now, as Szczecin, belongs to Poland.
I too was aware of all these references, and so towards the end of the conversation, when the legendary silence, which anyone who ever met the writer may well have encountered, had descended on the little café table, I asked timidly:
"Are you reading Effi again?"
Paraphrasing a line of Krapp's he answered:
"Yes... a page a day, scalding the eyes out."
"With tears again?" I said, picking up the thread of the quotation.
He gave a wan smile.
"No, I wouldn't go so far as to say that."
I plucked up the courage to ask the vital question:
"Why do you like that novel so much?"
There was a long pause before I got an answer.
"I used to dream of writing something like it. And I still have a bit of that dream left. But I never did. I never did write it..." He broke off.
"You never did write it?" I brazenly tried to drag the words out of him.
Another wan smile, and then, unfolding his hands, he said:
"For... I was born too late. No one writes like that nowadays. Nowadays one writes much worse." He glanced at me and added jokingly: "But don't worry. The world is changing. Perhaps you'll manage it."
That was my last meeting with Beckett. After that we only spoke on the phone. He died in December 1989.
When a few years later I decided to write my own novel, I never planned to follow in the footsteps of my master. My aspirations were far more modest than that. However, I did want him to appear in some way within my book (like Hitchcock in his own films), and I already had a few ideas on how to create such a phantom appearance. And then suddenly I remembered that final meeting in Paris and the words he'd spoken towards the end. But of course!, I thought. That's exactly how I should start!
And that indeed is the origin of the first line of my novel.
When in 1999 the novel was being translated into English, I added one more touch.
Beckett had an extraordinary ear for music and poetry, and retained in his memory all sorts of phrases and entire poems that were notable for their special beauty and metre. One of these quotations was the famous line from Joyce's Finnegan's Wake (which in his youth he had translated into French and annotated), describing the circular Vico Road in Dalkey south of Dublin. It is written in iambic metre and goes like this:
The Vico road goes round and round to meet where terms begin.
I told my English translator about this, quoted the line from Joyce and asked her to try to render the first line of my novel in the same metre. And so she did. The first line reads:
For many years I used to think I had been born too late.
I am sure, when I think about it now, that I owe Madame's success to a large extent to Beckett's "blessing" and to his spirit, which was watching over everything.
Beckett remembering, remembering Beckett: uncollected interviews with Samuel Beckett and memories of those who knew him, edited by James and Elizabeth Knowlson, London, Bloomsbury 2006