Samuel Beckett (1906-89), the Irish novelist, playwright, and poet who became French by adoption, was one of the most original and important writers of the 20th century. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1969. Like Oscar Wilde before him, Beckett attended the famous Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, a town that is now the centre for the world’s first annual Beckett Festival – HAPPY DAYS.
Samuel Beckett stood apart from the literary coteries of his time, even though he shared many of their preoccupations. He wrestled with the problems of “being” and “nothingness” but he was not an existentialist in the manner of the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Although Beckett was suspicious of conventional literature and of conventional theatre, his aim was not to write anti-novels or anti-plays as some authors did.
Beckett’s work shows affinities with James Joyce, especially in the use of language; with Franz Kafka in the portrayal of terror; and with Fyodor Dostoevsky in the probing of the darker recesses of the human spirit. Beckett was inspired, rather than influenced, by literary figures as different as the Italian poet Dante (the Divine Comedy’s circles of Hell and Purgatory); the French philosophers René Descartes (the cogito) and Blaise Pascal (“the wretchedness of man without God”); and the French novelist Marcel Proust (time). Beckett’s own work opened new possibilities for both the novel and the theatre that his successors have not been able to ignore.
Beckett was born in Dublin, Ireland, on April 13, 1906. He attended the Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, where he excelled in both academics and sports. In 1923 he entered Trinity College in Dublin to specialise in French and Italian. His academic record was so distinguished that upon receiving his Baccalaureate degree in 1927, he was awarded a 2-year post as lecteur (assistant) in English at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris.
In France, Beckett soon joined the informal group surrounding the great Irish writer James Joyce and was invited to contribute the opening essay to the book Our Exagmination round his Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress, a collection of 12 articles written as a defence and explanation of Joyce’s still-unfinished Finnegans Wake by a group of Joyce’s disciples.
Beckett also moved in French literary circles. During this first stay in Paris he won a prize for the best poem on the subject of time in a competition sponsored by the Hours Press. His poem Whoroscope (1930) was his first separately published work and marked the beginning of his lifelong interest in the subject of time.
Beckett returned to Dublin in 1930 to teach French at Trinity College but submitted his resignation, after only four terms, saying that he could not teach others what he did not know himself. During the year he had obtained a Master of Arts degree. A penetrating essay on Proust, published in 1931, indicates how many of his subsequent themes Beckett was already beginning to consider at this time. After several years of wandering through Europe writing short stories and poems and employed at odd jobs, he finally settled in Paris in 1937.
First Novels and Short Stories
More Pricks than Kicks (1934), a volume of short stories derived, in part, from the then unpublished novel Dream of Fair to Middling Women (1993), recounts episodes from the life of Belacqua, a ne’er-do-well Irish reincarnation of Dante’s Divine Comedy procrastinator of the same name who lived beneath a rock at the Gates of Purgatory. A blood brother of all Beckett’s future protagonists, Belacqua lives what he calls “a Beethoven pause” the moments of nothingness between the music. But since what precedes and what follows man’s earthly life (that is, eternity) are Nothing, then life also (if there is to be continuity) must be a Nothingness from which there can be no escape. All of Belacqua’s efforts to transcend his condition fail.
Although Beckett’s association with Joyce continued, their friendship, as well as Joyce’s influence on Beckett, has often been exaggerated. Beckett’s first novel, Murphy (1938), which Joyce completely misunderstood, is evidence of the distance between them. Deep beneath the surface of this superbly comic tale lie metaphysical problems that Beckett was trying to solve. As Murphy turns from the repugnant world of outer reality to his own inner world, always more and more circumscribed until it becomes a “closed system” – a microcosm where he finds a mystical peace – Beckett ponders the relationship between mind and body, the Self and the outer world, and the meaning of freedom and love.
When World War II broke out in 1939, Beckett was in Ireland. He returned immediately to Paris, where, as a citizen of a neutral country, he was permitted to stay even after German occupation. He served in the Resistance movement until 1942, when he was obliged to flee from the German Gestapo into unoccupied France, where he worked as a farmhand until the liberation of Paris in 1945. During these years he wrote another novel, Watt, published in 1953.
Watt, like each of his novels, carries Beckett’s search for meaning a step further than the preceding one, or, as several critics have said, nearer the centre of his thought. In many respects Watt’s world is everyone’s world, and he resembles everyone. And yet his strange adventure in the house of the mysterious Mr. Knott – whose name may signify: not, knot, naught, or the German Not (need, anxiety), or all of them – is Beckett’s attempt to clarify the relationship between language and meaning. Watt, like most people, feels comfort when he is able to call things by their names; a name gives a thing reality. Gradually Watt discovers that the words men invent may have no relation to the real meaning of the thing, nor can the logical use of language ever reveal what is illogical and irrational: the infinite and the Self.
Writings in French
After the Liberation Beckett returned to his apartment in Paris and entered the most productive period of his career. By 1957 the works that finally established his reputation as one of the most important literary forces on the international scene were published, and all were written in French. Beckett sought the discipline of this foreign, acquired language to help him resist the temptation of using a style that was too personally evocative or too allusive. In trying to express the inexpressible, the pure anguish of existence, he felt he must abandon “literature” or “style” in the conventional sense and attempt to reproduce the voice of this anguish. These works were translated into an English that does not betray the effect of the original French.
The trilogy of novels Molloy (1951), Malone Dies (1951), and The Unnamable (1953) deals with the subject of death; however, here it is not death which is the horror or the source of absurdity (as with the existentialists), but life. To all the characters, life represents an exile from the continuing reality of themselves, and they seek to understand the meaning of death in this context. Since freedom can exist only outside time and since death occurs only in time, the characters try to transcend or “kill” time, which imprisons them in its fatality. Recognizing the impossibility of the task, they are finally reduced to silence and waiting as the only way to endure the anguish of living. Another novel, How It Is, first published in French in 1961, emphasizes the solitude of the individual consciousness and at the same time the need for others; for only through the testimony of another can one be sure that one exists. The last of his French novels to be published was Mercier and Camier. This work demonstrates Beckett’s interest in wordplay, especially in its use of French colloquialisms. Written in 1946, it was not published until 1974.
Beckett reached a much wider public through his plays than through his novels. The most famous plays are Waiting for Godot (1953), Endgame (1957), Krapp’s Last Tape (1958), and Happy Days (1961). The same themes found in the novels appear in these plays in more condensed and accessible form. Later, Beckett experimented successfully with other media: the radio play, film, pantomime, and the television play.
Beckett maintained a prolific output throughout his life, publishing the poetry collection, Mirlitonades (1978), the extended prose piece, Worstward Ho (1983), and many novellas and short stories in his later years. Many of these pieces were concerned with the failure of language to express the inner being. His first novel, Dreams of Fair to Middling Women was finally published, posthumously, in 1993.
Although they lived in Paris, Beckett and his wife enjoyed frequent stays in their small country house nearby. Tall and slender, with searching blue eyes, Beckett retained the shy and unassuming manner of his younger days. Unlike his tormented characters, he was distinguished by a great serenity of spirit. He died peacefully in Paris on December 22, 1989, and was buried, as he had wished, in a small, quiet ceremony.
The University of Reading is the leading academic centre for Beckett Studies and has the largest Beckett archive in the world.
For more information: www.reading.ac.uk/beckett/
Near the end of his life, Beckett authorized a biography by James Knowlson, Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett (1996).
Another good source of biographical material on Beckett is Richard Ellmann, James Joyce (1959).