Happiest moment of the past half million
The story of the Apmonia -- the vain attempt to blend the opposites in the heart of Samuel Beckett -- begins with a case of pneumonia. So afflicted, William (Bill) Beckett, Jr. was sent to Adelaide Hospital, Dublin, at the turn of the century and was nursed there by a strong-minded woman named Maria (May) Roe. They married in a Protestant ceremony in 1901, and would together raise two sons with four years between them, Frank and Sam.
Samuel Barclay Beckett was born -- depending on who you ask, for Beckett's claims on this issue differ from those of legal documents -- on April 13, 1906 in Foxrock, south of Dublin. Later in life, however, Beckett would purport to have memories prior to this event, memories of being in his mother's womb: a situation less blissful than stifling, readily associable with the tight enclosures pondered by the characters and voices in so many of his works. Anthony Cronin describes young Sam as
if anything, an outdoor type rather than an indoor one. He enjoyed games and was good at them. He roamed by himself as well as with his cousin and brother; and though he often retreated to his tower with a book and was already noticeable in the family circle for a certain moodiness and taciturnity, he could on the whole have passed for an athletic, extrovert little Protestant middle-class boy with excellent manners when forced to be sociable.
In short, Beckett inherited his father's sportsmanship and penchant for long walks as well as his mother's severity and skill at the piano.
Beckett studied for his Bachelor's degree in French and Italian at Trinity College, Dublin, in the years 1923-27. Under the tutelage of such influential teachers as Thomas Rudmose-Brown and Bianca Esposito, Beckett absorbed the history and a love of Romance languages and poetry. During a stint in Paris after his degree's completion, Beckett was introduced by his friend the poet Tom MacGreevy to James Joyce, by this time quite famous for his novels A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man andUlysses, both of which Beckett greatly admired. In the years to come Joyce would have an "overwhelming" (Beckett's adjective) effect on his fellow Irishman. As James Knowlson relates, the two men took to each other quickly because they had much in common:
They both had degrees in French and Italian, although from different universities in Dublin. Joyce's exceptional linguistic abilities and the wide range of his reading in Italian, German, French, and English impressed the linguist and scholar in Beckett, whose earlier studies allowed him to share with Joyce his passionate love of Dante. They both adored words -- their sounds, rhythms, shapes, etymologies, and histories -- and Joyce had a formidable vocabulary derived from many languages and a keen interest in the contemporary slang of several languages that Beckett admired and tried to emulate.
Besides becoming his friend, Beckett became directly involved in Joyce's life in two ways. First, he became one of the intimates in the Joyce "circle" (the creative circle, not just the social one) and contributed time and effort to Joyce's work, on occasion taking dictation for what would become Finnegans Wake as well as writing an important essay, "Dante ... Bruno . Vico .. Joyce," for a collection of writings explicating Joyce's method in his last book. Second, his proximity to Joyce brought him to the attention of the writer's schizophrenic daughter, Lucia, whose designs on him eventually became discomfiting for both men.
By the end of the 1920s Beckett had begun to publish his own work. "Assumption," his first published short story, appeared in Eugene Jolas's influential avant-garde serial transition in 1929, and in the next year Beckett's arcane poem on Descartes, "Whoroscope," won a contest held by The Hours Press. Proust(1931), an intriguing and often overlooked work, was Beckett's first and only published critical study of any substantial length. And it was at this time, too, that Beckett started, with little satisfaction, a novel to be called Dream of Fair to Middling Women.
For a short time, Beckett taught Romance languages, but the appeal of academia was short-lived. Beckett's pupils at Campbell College, Belfast, evidently unaccustomed to the kind of hard grading they faced in his classes, made complaints, and Beckett was on several occasions reprimanded by the headmaster who asked whether he understood that the school's students were "the cream of Ulster." They were, Beckett agreed, "rich and thick." On another occasion, Beckett presented a paper to the members of the Modern Languages Society on the avant-garde movement "Le Concentrisme" led by the French poet Jean du Chas -- all of which was pure invention. Several in attendance confidently averred du Chas's importance, without observing the fact of his non-existence. These kinds of incidents led to Beckett's disavowal of teaching as a profession and certainly coloured his attitude in his own dealings with critics.
After acquiring his Master's degree from Trinity, Beckett settled in Paris in 1937. On his way home with some friends one night in January 1938, Beckett was stabbed by a pimp in the street. The blade just missed his heart, but one of his lungs was perforated and he was rushed to hospital. He awoke to find James Joyce at his bedside with his personal physician in tow, who was now under instructions to care for the great author's young friend. Beckett became, in his own words, "the proud possessor of a pleural barometer," and his inner organs became even more sensitive to the climate of the outside world. Beckett's assailant, improbably named Prudent, met his victim during his criminal trial and said in polite French that he did not know why he had done it, and that he was sorry. It was as ludicrous and bizarre an exchange as any in Beckett's own writings.
During his stay in hospital recovering from the attack, one of Beckett's visitors was Suzanne Descheveaux-Dumesnil, a thirty-seven-year-old French woman whom he had met before socially. They grew very close after that and began to meet regularly. Suzanne was a very disciplined woman and dedicated herself to helping Beckett get his work published, and, later, to protecting him from the prying reaches of journalists, hangers-on, and opportunists. Eventually they married in 1961, in Folkestone, England.
1941 brought new grief: news of the death of Joyce, and the invasion of the Nazis. When the German occupation began, Beckett was ostensibly neutral as an Irishman, but he joined the resistance. Beckett became active in the localized intelligence network known as "Gloria." Although he would later dismiss his work with the resistance as "boy scout stuff," the man referred to by that group of operatives as l'Irlandais would be awarded the Croix de Guerre in 1945 for "extreme bravery" for having had "to endure a hard and clandestine life."
Works produced by Beckett in these years -- books like More Pricks Than Kicks (1934), Murphy (1938), and Mercier and Camier (1946) -- while full of interest and appeal, are ostentatious in their literary devices and represent an author still unsure of himself, still too swayed by the encyclopaedic example and influence of Joyce. After the war, a breakthrough was reached. The "siege in the room," as Beckett characterized it, occurred in the years 1946-50, when his focus shifted to ideas of the essential, the minimal, the unadorned. French became his written language, and the problem of expressing -- expressing anything -- became central to his aesthetic. His trilogy of novels,Molloy (1951), Malone Dies (1951), and The Unnamable (1953), written at an altogether remarkable pace in French and later translated into English by Beckett himself, is among the greatest prose writings of the century, and these books mark out in their pages a very grim but ridiculously circuitous and labored path of human life.
When Waiting for Godot first appeared on the stage in the small Théâtre de Babylone in Paris in 1953, the world of theatre was startled (and perhaps a little resentful) to find itself changed. Didi and Gogo, music hall clowns complete with bowler hats, do very little in the course of two acts but wait, wait, wait, for someone named Godot, who may or may not be coming. While many audiences and critics jeered or shrugged and turned away, a perceptive few found a very human drama pared down to its most necessary gestures: expectation, companionship, abuse, hope. The plays which followed -- Endgame (1958), Happy Days(1961), and Play (1963) -- similarly used abstraction as a means to explore the most powerful themes, and to question whether they have any value or meaning.
Death and sorrow are not conjectured upon in these works, but are responses to experience. Beckett kept vigil by both his mother, who died in 1950, and his brother Frank, who fell victim to lung cancer in 1954. Both passings weighed very heavily on Beckett's heart, and he would remember them particularly in the ghostly voices of his later fiction and drama, in the dread of waiting and the search for comfort.
Fame and accolades began to come in the 1960s. Beckett returned to Dublin in 1959 to receive an honorary doctorate from Trinity College, and two years later he won, with Jorge Luis Borges, the Prix International des Editeurs (or Prix Formentor), valued at $10,000. But the biggest surprise came on October 23, 1969, when Suzanne picked up the first in what was quickly to become a persistent series of telephone calls. Her reaction to the news it brought was to exclaim, "Quelle catastrophe!" Beckett had won the Nobel Prize for, in the words of the Academy's citation, "his writing, which --- in new forms for the novel and drama -- in the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation." Having remarked that Joyce ought to have won it, Beckett gave much of the Nobel money (over $70,000) away to charities and needy writers (among them, Djuna Barnes and B. S. Johnson).
From Godot onwards, Beckett often found himself sought after by devotees in the forms of actors, readers, artists, performers, publishers, and academics. Privacy was difficult to retain, particularly after the Nobel Prize, but Beckett measured his time and appointments strictly, did not like to give interviews, and avoided talking about his work. All the same, he sometimes found himself in extraordinary situations. In 1955, a German prisoner inspired by an inmates' production of Godot broke his parole and journeyed to Paris to find his master. Roger Blin, the playwright's actor-director collaborator and friend, was forced to accommodate this potentially dangerous man while persuading him that Beckett, who willingly offered to pay the convict's expenses to return to Germany, was unavailable. Told by one admirer on another occasion that he had been reading Beckett's works for years, the author drily replied, "You must be very tired."
Beckett wrote less and less in the 1970s and 1980s, whittling down even more rigorously his work to the barest essentials of expression. Rockaby and Ohio Impromptu (both from 1981) are even more phantasmal and tightly orchestrated than his previous plays. After the first foray into television drama, Eh Joe (1967), he wrote more scripts, including Ghost Trio (1976) and Quad(1984). Upon retiring with no great enjoyment to a nursing home called Le Tiers Temps, Beckett received occasional guests, who were always amazed at his intellect's continued alacrity. Although he continued translating some of his works in his final years, he found writing painful and could do little of it. Suzanne died on 17 July 1989. On December 22, 1989, Beckett died in Paris. They are buried together in Cimitière du Montparnasse, Paris.
There have been three full-length Beckett biographies published, and each of them has its particular strengths. Bair's early effort is admirable for its ambition; Knowlson's is probably the most thorough, though perhaps a little too loyal; Cronin's provides a very Irish flavour and perspective. You can purchase any of the below titles at Apmonia's Bookstore.
Deirdre Bair, Samuel Beckett: A Biography (Simon & Schuster, 1978).
James Knowlson, Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett(Simon & Schuster, 1996).
Anthony Cronin, Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist(HarperCollins, 1996).
15 March 2001