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Samuel Beckett

This article is about the playwright. See Quantum Leap for the lead character of that television series.
Samuel Beckett

Samuel Barclay Beckett (April 13, 1906December 22, 1989) was an Irish playwright, novelist and poet. Beckett's work is stark, fundamentally minimalist, and deeply pessimistic about human nature and the human situation. His later work explores his themes in increasingly cryptic and attenuated style. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1969 and elected Saoi of Aosdána in 1984.

Table of contents

Early life and education

The Beckett family (originally Becquet) were of Huguenot stock and had moved to Ireland from France after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. The family home, Cooldrinagh in the Dublin suburb of Foxrock, was a large house and garden complete with tennis court and had been built in 1903 by Beckett's father William. The house and garden, together with the surrounding countryside where he often went walking with his father, the nearby Leopardstown Racecourse, Foxrock railway station and Harcourt Street station at the city terminus of the line were all later to feature in his prose and plays.

At the age of five, Beckett attended a local kindergarten where he first started to learn music and then moved to Earlsford House School in the city centre near Harcourt Street. In 1919, Beckett went to Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh (Oscar Wilde's old school). A natural athlete, he excelled at cricket as a left hand batsman and left arm medium pace bowler. Later on, he was to play for Dublin University and played two first-class games against Northamptonshire. As a result, he became the only Nobel laureate to have an entry in Wisden, the cricket bible.

Early writings

He studied French, Italian and English at Trinity College, Dublin from 1923 to 1927, graduating with a B.A. and shortly thereafter took up the post of lecteur d'anglais in the Ecole Normale Supérieure, rue d'Ulm Paris. While there he was introduced to James Joyce by Thomas MacGreevy. This meeting was to have a profound effect on the younger man. Beckett continued his writing career while assisting Joyce in various ways. In 1929 he published his first work, "Dante...Bruno.Vico..Joyce", a critical essay defending Joyce's work, chiefly from allegations of wanton obscurity and dimness. This was Beckett's contribution to Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress, a book of essays on Joyce which also included contributions by Eugene Jolas, Robert McAlmon, William Carlos Williams and MacGreevy, amongst others. His first short story, "Assumption", was published the same year in Jolas' periodical transition, and in 1930 he won a small literary prize with his hastily-composed poem "Whoroscope", which draws from a biography of René Descartes that Beckett happened to be reading when he was encouraged to submit. Beckett's relationship with the Joyce family cooled when he rejected the advances of Joyce's daughter Lucia.

He returned to Trinity College as a lecturer in 1930, but left after less than two years and began to travel in Europe. He also spent time in London, publishing his critical study of Proust there in 1931. Two years later, in the wake of his father's death, he began two years of Jungian psychotherapy with Dr. Wilfred Bion, who took him to hear Jung's third Tavistock lecture, an event which he would still recall many years later. In 1932 he wrote his first novel, Dream of Fair to Middling Women, but after many rejections from publishers he decided to abandon it. The book was eventually published in 1992. Despite his inability to have Dream published, it did serve as a source for many of his early poems and for his first full-length book, More Pricks Than Kicks 1933. This was a collection of short stories or vignettes with several characters recurring.

Beckett attempted to publish a book of poems in 1934, with no success. He also published a number of essays and reviews around that time, including Recent Irish Poetry (in The Bookman August, 1934) and Humanistic Quietism (a review of MacGreevy's Poems in The Dublin Magazine, also 1934). These two reviews focused on the work of MacGreevy, Brian Coffey, Denis Devlin and Blanaid Salkeld, comparing them favourably with their Celtic Twilight contemporaries and invoking Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and French symbolists as their precursors. In describing these poets as forming 'the nucleus of a living poetic in Ireland', Beckett traced the outlines of an Irish poetic modernist canon. Unsurprisingly, these reviews were reprinted in the early 1970s in The Lace Curtain as part of a conscious attempt by the editors of that journal to revive this alternative tradition.

In 1935 he worked on his novel Murphy. In May of that year Beckett wrote to MacGreevy that he had been reading about film and wished to go to Moscow to study with Eisenstein; in the Summer of 1936 he wrote to Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin, offering to become their apprentices. Nothing came of this. He finished Murphy and in 1936 departed for extensive travel around Germany, during which time he filled several notebooks with lists of noteworthy artwork that he had seen, and also noted his distaste for the Nazi savagery which was then overtaking the country. He returned to Ireland briefly in 1937. During this visit, Murphy (1938) was published and the next year translated into French by the author. After a falling-out with his mother he decided to settle permanently in Paris. He returned to that city after the outbreak of war in 1939, preferring, in his own words, 'France at war to Ireland neutral'. Around December 1937, he had a brief affair with Peggy Guggenheim.

In January of 1938, when refusing the solicitations of a notorious Parisian pimp, he was stabbed and nearly killed. Joyce arranged for a private room at the hospital he was taken to. The publicity attracted the attention of Suzanne Descheveaux-Dumesnil, who knew Beckett from his first stay in Paris, but this time, the two would become lifelong companions.

When asked by Beckett for the motive, his assailant replied "Je ne sais pas, Monsieur": "I do not know, sir", and this statement by the attacker became an important, if not thematic line in several of his plays.

World War II

Following the 1940 occupation by Germany, Beckett joined the French Resistance, working as a courier. During the next two years, on several occasions he was almost caught by the Gestapo. In August 1942 his unit was betrayed by a former Catholic priest. He and Suzanne fled south on foot to the safety of the small village of Roussillon, in the Vaucluse département in the Provence Alpes Cote d'Azur region, where he was still actively assisting the French Resistance by storing armaments in the back yard of his home.

Although Samuel Beckett rarely if ever spoke about his wartime activities, during the two years he stayed in Roussillon, he helped the Maquis sabotage the German army in the Vaucluse mountains. While in hiding, he continued work on the novel Watt, started in 1941, completed in 1945, but not published until 1953. For his efforts in fighting the German occupation, he was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille de la Résistance by the French government. Even to the end of his life, Beckett would refer to his laborous efforts for the French Resistance as "boy scout stuff".

Fame: novels and the theatre

A scene from Waiting for Godot, Beckett's breakthrough play which was first performed in 1953.

In 1945, Beckett returned to Dublin for a brief visit. During his stay, he had a revelation in his mother's room in which his entire future literary direction appeared to him. This experience was later fictionalized in the play Krapp's Last Tape (1958). In the play, Krapp's revelation is set on the East Pier in Dun Laoghaire during a dark and stormy night. Some critics have identified Beckett with Krapp to the point of presuming Beckett's own artistic epiphany was at the same location, in the same weather.

In 1946 Sartre’s magazine "Les Temps Modernes" published the first part of Beckett’s story 'Suite', not realizing that Beckett had only submitted the first half of the story. Simone de Beauvoir refused to publish the second part. Beckett began to write Mercier et Camier, his fourth novel. In 1947 he began writing Eleutheria.

During the late 1940s and early 1950s, Beckett wrote his best known novels, the series written in French (often referred to, against Beckett's explicit wishes, as "the Trilogy") and later translated into English, mostly by the author: Molloy (finished in 1947, published in 1951, English, translated in collaboration with Patrick Bowles, 1953), Malone Dies (finished in 1948, published in 1951, English translation 1956) and The Unnamable (1953, English translation 1957). In these three novels, the reader can trace the development of Beckett's mature style and themes. Molloy has many of the characteristics of a conventional novel: time, place, movement and plot. Indeed, on one level it is a detective novel. In Malone Dies, movement and plot are more or less dispensed with, but there is still some indication of place and the passage of time. The 'action' of the book takes the form of an interior monologue. Finally, in The Unnamable all sense of place and time have also disappeared. The essential theme seems to be the conflict between the voice's drive to continue speaking so as to continue existing and its almost equally strong urge to find silence and oblivion. It is tempting to see in this a reflection of Beckett's experience and understanding of what the war had done to the world. Despite the widely held view that Beckett's work is essentially pessimistic, the will to live seems to win out, as the book ends with the words 'I can't go on. I'll go on.'

Beckett is most famous for the play Waiting for Godot, which was famously described by the critic Vivian Mercier as 'a play in which nothing happens, twice'. Like most of his works after 1947, the play was first written in French (under the title En attendant Godot) between October 1948 and January 1949, published in 1952, premiering in 1953, with the English translation appearing two years later. The play was a critical, popular, and controversial success in Paris. It opened in London in 1955 to mainly bad reviews, but the tide turned with positive reactions by Harold Hobson in the Sunday Times and, later, Kenneth Tynan. In the United States, it flopped in Miami, and had a qualified success in New York. After this, the play became extremely popular, with highly successful performances in the United States and Germany, and it is still frequently performed today.

As already noted, Beckett was now writing mainly in French. He translated his works into the English language himself, with the exception that Molloy was collaborative (see above). The success of the play opened up a career in theatre, and Beckett went on to write numerous successful plays, including Endgame (1957) the aforementioned Krapp's Last Tape (written in English), Embers (1959) and Happy Days (also written in English) (1960). In general, the plays of this period reflect the same themes as the novels: despair and the will to survive in the face of an uncomprehended world. In all the work of this period, it is also possible to see the working out of Beckett's belief that writing was a process of self-relevation and of dealing with the space between the self and the world of objects. In most, if not all, of these writings there is also an important element of comedy in the handling of the themes.

Later life and work

The 1960s were a period of change, both on a personal level and as a writer. In 1961, in a secret civil ceremony in England, he married Suzanne, mainly due to reasons relating to French inheritance law. The success of his plays led to invitations to attend rehearsals and productions around the world, leading eventually to a new career as a theatre director. In 1959 he had his first commission from the BBC for a radio play, Embers. He was to continue writing for radio and ultimately for film, with the work Film (1964), and, from the mid 1970s, for television. He also started to write in English again, although he continued to do some work in French until the end of his life.

This new-found fame, coupled with the Nobel award, meant that academic interest in the life and work grew, creating eventually something of a 'Beckett industry'. Other writers also started to seek out Beckett, with the result that a steady stream of students, poets, novelists and playwrights passed through Paris hoping to meet the master. In 1961, he published his last full-length prose work, Comment C'est (How It Is, 1964). This work, written as a sequence of unpunctuated paragraphs in a style approaching telegraphese, relating the adventures of an unnamed narrator crawling through the mud with a sack of canned food, is generally considered to mark the end of Beckett's middle period as a writer.

There followed a series of short minimalist plays and prose works exploring themes of the self confined and observed. Beckett came to focus more clearly on his long-standing opposition to the tyranny of realism in art and of what he viewed as the dictatorship of social norms and expectations. In the 1982 play Catastrophe, dedicated to Václav Havel, he turned his attention to harder forms of dictatorship. In the last ten years of his life, this minimalist style resulted in three of Beckett's most important prose works, the three novellas Company (1979), Ill Seen Ill Said (1982) and Worstward Ho (1984). His last work, the poem "What is the Word" (1989), was written in bed in the nursing home where he spent the last period of his life, suffering from emphysema and possible Parkinson's disease.

Suzanne died on July 17 1989. Beckett died on December 22 of the same year and was interred in the Cimetière du Montparnasse, Paris, France. His gravestone is a massive slab of polished black granite. Chiseled into its surface is "Samuel Beckett 1906–1989" below the name and dates for Suzanne, who is buried with him. At the foot of his grave stands one lone tree, a reminder of the stage set for his most famous play.

Beckett's legacy

Beckett considers himself

Of all the English-language modernists, Beckett's work represents the most sustained attack on the realist tradition. He, more than anyone else, opened up the possibility of drama and fiction that dispense with conventional plot, characterisation and the unities of place and time in order to focus on essential components of the human condition. Writers like Václav Havel, Aidan Higgins and Harold Pinter have publicly stated their indebtedness to Beckett's example, but he has had a much wider influence on experimental writing since the 1950s, from the Beat generation to the happenings of the 1960s and beyond. In an Irish context, he has acted as a major model and influence on writers like Trevor Joyce and Catherine Walsh who are writing in modes that look to the modernist tradition as an alternative to the dominant realist mainstream. Many major 20th-century-composers, including György Kurtág, Morton Feldman or Heinz Holliger created musical works based on his texts.

Selected bibliography

Dramatic works

Prose

  • Proust (1931)
  • Dream of Fair to Middling Women (1932/published 1992)
  • More Pricks Than Kicks (1934)
  • Murphy (1938)
  • Mercier et Camier (1946/published 1970)
  • Molloy (1951)
  • Malone Meurt (1951)
  • L'Innomable (1953)
  • Watt (1953)
  • Nouvelles et textes pour rien (1954)
  • Molloy (1955)
  • Malone Dies (1956)
  • The Unnamable (1958)
  • Bram van Velde (with Georges Duthuit and Jacques Putnam)(1958)
  • Comment C'est (1961)
  • How It Is (1964)
  • Stories and Texts for Nothing (1967)
  • Le Dépeupleur (1971)
  • The Lost Ones (1972)
  • First Love (1973)
  • Mercier and Camier (1974)
  • Fizzles (1976)
  • Company (1979)
  • Mal vu mal dit (1981)
  • Ill Seen Ill Said (1982)
  • Disjecta (1983)
  • Worstward Ho (1984)
  • Stirrings Still (1988)
  • Soubresauts (1989)

Poetry

  • Whoroscope (1930)
  • Echo's Bones and other Precipitates (1935)
  • Collected Poems in English (1961)
  • Collected Poems in English and French (1977)
  • What is the Word (1989)

Translations

  • Negro: an Anthology (Nancy Cunard, editor) (1934)
  • Anna Livia Plurabelle (James Joyce, French translation by Beckett and others) (1931)
  • Anthology of Mexican Poems (Octavio Paz, editor) (1958)
  • The Old Tune (Robert Pinget) (1963)

References

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