Seeing Beckett's Ireland. A nostalgic picture tour of the writer's early world

The Beckett Country: Samuel Beckett's Ireland, by Eoin O'Brien. Photographs by David Davison. Boston: Faber & Faber. 400 pp. $60. In Samuel Beckett's plays and novels, sound and silence are equally expressive. It's fitting that among the books published in honor of his 80th birthday there should be an album of pictures. ``The Beckett Country: Samuel Beckett's Ireland'' shows us for the first time what we've felt all along, a basis in reality for the elusive power of Beckett's words. Three hundred photographs by David Davison and others have been matched with passages from the author's writings, early and late, published and unpublished, and Eoin O'Brien's commentary weds the pictures and words into a whole of great beauty.

In page after page of deceptively homemade-looking layout of photograph, memorabilia, and words, we are reminded that Beckett grew up in a prosperous suburb of Dublin, that he loved to walk the surrounding hills and swim in the sea, that he went to Trinity College, and that his youth was rich, full, and varied in ways belied by the eloquent whine and stutter of his fiction.

Beckett left youth and Dublin behind and moved to Paris, where James Joyce had gone before him. But unlike Joyce, Beckett did not recreate Dublin in words. He even composed his works in French, and acted as his own English translator. As we now know from the evidence of this book, Beckett did keep faith with the memory of Ireland.

Exploring Dublin and the environs on foot and bicycle, author O'Brien and photographer Davison have tracked down the originals of the images that lie deep in the texts of Beckett. In so doing, they have created a tour, chronological and spatial, of Beckett's life itinerary up to his final departure for France in 1937.

Whether retrieved from neighbors and archives and dating from the '20s, or taken by Davison recently, the photographs in this book have something in common, a quality that is hard to describe. Nostalgia is, of course, part of it.

And part is art: The authors went to great lengths to get the right mood in their photographs. They often had to return to a site when the light had changed. The quality sought in the pictures was something Davison and O'Brien had felt all along in Beckett's writings.

In addition, a costly duotone printing process has been employed: There are grays - or blues, slate grays, sea grays - here, not just black and white. Given a full page, the satiny quality can render even the gentle heave of waves in Dalkey Sound.

So it's not just that Beckett's Irishness is now beyond dispute. It's that now we can see that his literary power comes in part from the deep presence in his words of the givens of his life in Ireland.

James Knowlson writes in the preface: ``It is at such moments of observed human experience that Beckett's writing seems to me to be almost unbearably moving and most truthful for it contains the fragility and ephemerality of the human experience as well as its claim to reality.''

The irony is complete. Now Beckett speaks through the silence of these pictures. And Ireland has reclaimed her son.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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