Bright Star, the new bad Jane Campion film about the love that John Keats and Fanny Brawne had for one another, has been rated PG in America. Parental Guidance is needed because of "thematic elements, some sensuality, brief language and incidental smoking". "Brief language" is good, and might even have been slanted to "incidental language": Keats's. The film is being publicized under the slogan "First love burns brightest". Not sure about that; am sure that Keats was not a pet lamb in a sentimental farce.
Samuel Beckett, old stancher, was the man to stanch sentimentalities. In his first story "Dante and the Lobster" in his first collection of fiction More Pricks than Kicks, he renewed the life of Keats's genius: Take into the air my quiet breath. (The quotation marks around this in the periodical publication of Beckett's story quietly removed, for a more quiet breathing, in the book.) In 1930 he had written to Thomas McGreevy:
I like that crouching brooding quality in Keats – squatting on the moss, crushing a petal, licking his lips & rubbing his hands, "counting the last oozings, hours by hours". I like him the best of them all, because he doesn't beat his fists on the table. I like that awful sweetness and thick soft damp green richness. And weariness. "Take into the air my quiet breath". But there's nobody here to talk to, & it's so rarely one is enthusiastic, or glad of something.
Beckett's First Love (written 1945–6) may not burn brightest of his stories, but it does burn with a hard phlegm-like flame. Among the privileges enjoyed by a creator is that of valuing a creation less highly than do we ordinary creatures. Samuel Beckett made First Love after its kind and saw that it was good – but not good enough. (For him. We are permitted to say that we are another matter.) Dated 1945 by Beckett, written in French, Premier amour was not released until 1970. Partly, this withholding was because he judged the tale too autobiographical and too likely to hurt the feelings of a particular woman, by 1970 dead at last. Partly, he never thought well of it. But, groaningly grateful for the Nobel Prize and pressed by his publishers, French, American and British, Beckett buckled to. First Love saw the light in 1973.
What is this thing called love? Search me, Beckett's narrator might gloweringly allow. What is this thing called first love? (a) The first time one falls in love, the emotion felt at such a time, (b) one's favourite occupation, pastime, profession, etc. The dictionary's earliest instance, pregnant with duplicity already, is from Richardson's Pamela in 1741: "It was a first love on both sides; and so he could not appear to her as a practised deceiver."
The narrator of First Love is not a practised deceiver. We may find ourselves deceived – for instance, how very much older than twenty-five he sounds, not the teller of the tale (for he may be any old age), but the experiencer of its events and of its love, such as it was. But the story is without deception. If the narrator speaks at once of his marriage and then fails to arrive at an actual marriage, he is so good as to make sure that this does not escape us. Duly and cantankerously diffident, he may doubt whether it was indeed love which graced the whole affair: the bench by the canal, the woman's fading songs whose inaudibility is something of a mercy, the room proffered by her and glumly taken, the woman's body proffered and taken unbeknownst (so deep was his ill-earned sleep), the ensuing baby, and so at last the quittance by our hero, with an ear for those fading baby-cries whose continuing audibility across time's tracts is something of a justice. But then this doubt as to love is very honest of him and might chasten the rest of us, insufficiently doubting John Thomas.
And then again, although this is a love story, finding as it does romance in the unlikeliest places and in the weirdest ways (a story wrought with irony, not wrought with sarcasm), we may wonder whether the love of a man and a woman is what it most has or solely has in mind.
Perhaps the first love is rather from one's infancy, for one's parents. "I am what her savage loving has made me," Beckett said in 1937 of his mother. Though there is no mention in this story of a past mother, there is much mention of the past father, who is alive in the narrator's memories of a father's laconic love at the beginning and of his tender story-telling at the end.
Or there is the first and last love which Beckett often incarnates: the love of death, of the grave, of oblivion. Another Beckett hero in More Pricks than Kicks had warbled out a lovely line of Tennyson ("Deep as first love, and wild with all regret"): O Death in Life, the days that are no more!
Do not underestimate the diverse varieties of first love. Nor should the first love of any true writer go unmarked. Another consciousness of Beckett's, the one in From an Abandoned Work, says: "words have been my only loves, not many". Beckett loves words in First Love, and loves the way they love one another, with all the usual savage loving and with all the birth and death pangs of puns and pains:
Yes, I loved her, it's the name I gave, still give, alas, to what I was doing then. I had nothing to go by, having never loved before, but of course had heard of the thing, at home, in school, in brothel and at church, and read romances, in prose and verse, under the guidance of my tutor, in six or seven languages, both dead and living, in which it was handled at length.
Adapted by the author from his preface to the Syrens edition (1994) of First Love.