Samuel Beckett: A Biography
Of all modern writers, the one presumed to be least likely to permit a biography of himself to be written has been Samuel Beckett. Addicted to silences, prone to despair and panic, suffering Job-like boils on his neck and cysts in his anus, practicing what he calls “baroque solipsism,” no more unwilling subject than Beckett could have been imagined. His aversion to public ceremonies itself became public when, in refuge from the Nobel Prize, he hid out in a Tunisian village, vainly hoping that the press would never track him there. Stomping over his desire for privacy, an American scholar, Deirdre Bair, has managed a scoop which in literary history is like that of Bernstein and Woodward in political history.
It all began in 1971. Deirdre Bair was looking for a subject for a Columbia dissertation. There in the shooting gallery was a big duck, or drake, named Beckett; she took aim and brought him down. More specifically, she wrote a letter and another letter and another, and to each Beckett replied courteously, in his best mixture of self-effacement and unwillingness to interfere. His life, he said, was “dull and without interest. The professors know more about it than I do.” The next letter repeated that he was “a very dull dog.” But that the correspondence continued at all was a highly favorable sign, as Deirdre Bair understood. She arranged to meet Beckett in November, and at this encounter was given one of his famous noncommitments, “I will neither help nor hinder.”
Seven years passed during which Beckett’s neither helping nor hindering proved supportive. Whenever Deirdre Bair needed a grant, or an entrée to a friend unwilling to suffer an interview by her, she asked Beckett, and he obliged with the information that he was neither helping nor hindering, and that the foundation or friend might be well advised to do likewise, that is, by according a grant or an interview. “And all the while,” her preface admits in a matter-of-fact way, “I am sure he did not want this book to be written and would have been grateful if I had abandoned it.” Instead of abandoning it, she interviewed a great many people, including some anonymous Deep Throats, and secured access to correspondence. The most important cache of material is the three hundred and more letters written by Beckett to Thomas McGreevy, who was also a principal correspondent of Wallace Stevens. To the young McGreevy, a talented critic and a delightful companion, Beckett wrote with great candor; and even later, when McGreevy withered into success as director of the National Gallery of Ireland, Beckett out of loyalty continued to write to him. These letters are as revelatory as those of Joyce, and since Deirdre Bair quotes Beckett as expressing dismay over the publication of Joyce’s letters, he can scarcely feel less at the divulging of his own.
Whatever its defects, and it has many, the book that Deirdre Bair has put together is staggeringly full of surprises. There are long melancholy stretches: his illnesses are recorded groan by groan, as if to bear out his contention to a doctor that “All life is a disease.” Flashes of intense and unexplained physical pain forced him to undergo a two-year psychoanalysis in London. Miss Bair presents an intimate portrait of his life with his family in Foxrock, a well-heeled suburb of Dublin. She traces in some detail his love affairs, which seem to have occupied him a good deal in spite of his later remark to a young poet, “This thing called love, there’s none of it, you know, it’s only fucking.” Like others before her, she summarizes his unpublished novel, “Dream of Fair to Middling Women,” from which several published works have been quarried. She also describes his unfinished early play about Dr. Johnson and Mrs. Thrale, which shows Beckett identifying closely with Johnson’s diseases and depressions. He interprets Johnson’s attitude to Mrs. Thrale as desire checked by unwillingness and compounded with impotence:
It becomes more interesting, the false rage to cover his retreat from her, then the real rage when he realizes that no retreat was necessary, and beneath all, the despair of the lover with nothing to love with….
Deirdre Bair describes what has been known but never before spelled out, Beckett’s steady unsuccess with publishers, and his gradual convergence with publishers obscure or courageous enough to risk his work, usually at moments when he had almost ceased to care. There is a long and detailed account of his marriage—for Beckett has let himself marry—which is remarkable for containing so many elements of non-marriage. Deirdre Bair is especially interesting about Beckett’s wartime activities, gleaned by her from fellow-members of his réseau in the Resistance. Beckett was recruited early to serve as a translator, and at his own suggestion soon began to microfilm as well. There were several hairbreadth escapes which culminated in his walking out of his Paris flat with his wife just before a Gestapo raid. From Paris he made his way with her to Roussillon, where he joined the Maquis as a dynamitard. Beckett told Miss Bair nothing of all this, and of course never mentioned that in 1945 General de Gaulle decorated him with the Croix de Guerre. The last part of Miss Bair’s book is a close-up picture of Beckett’s activity as untitled director of his own plays.
The publication of this biography, which Beckett has disdained to avert and apparently to read, is a new disaster for a man who sees his seventy-two years as a prolonged disaster. All his priceless things, as Yeats said after George Moore’s Hail and Farewell appeared, are now a post that passing dogs can defile. Beckett has not always been so tolerant. When an earlier scholar, Laurence Harvey, ventured into biographical areas, Beckett insisted upon the suppression of all but the most skeletal details. Why then did he allow Deirdre Bair to proceed? The question is quite as interesting as any problem propounded by the book, and answers may be guessed at. To some extent his experience of playing censor with Harvey had revolted him more than disclosure would have done. His urge for self-protection must have grown fainter as Miss Bair turned up one new lead after another. He cannot have anticipated how much her tireless efforts would discover, and since he had tolerated her beginning the task, where to cut her off became increasingly difficult to say. More than this, he saw besmirchment as the human condition. What right had he to exempt himself from it? Might not his claim to privacy be the last rag of egotism? After all, he had himself once printed in a story some sentences from a woman’s letter to him, and having violated another’s privacy he could scarcely be hoity-toity about his own.
Beckett’s tolerance of his biographer had another cause as well. Deirdre Bair reports, though not in relation to herself, that toward women Beckett has been almost habitually passive. There was first his mother, whose domination he accepted, though he subverted it. Some of their difficulties arose from his repeated struggle to live with her, at an age (as late as thirty or more) when lesser men than Beckett have found a filial role impossible to discharge. He was to nurse her in her last illness, and for three years thereafter, as he once told me, he wrote nothing, bogged down in grief and guilt.
Among women he knew as a lover, such as Peggy Guggenheim, Beckett is represented as having been more seduced than seducing. Giving rather than taking has been his usual tendency. His pliancy, which Deirdre Bair does not highly regard, contains an element of secularized saintliness. The principal example of female domination offered by Miss Bair is that of the woman Beckett eventually married, Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil. One day in 1937 this talented pianist saw a man lying on a Paris street with a knife wound, and called an ambulance. The man was Beckett, stabbed motivelessly by a pimp. She paid visits to him in hospital, and after some further acquaintance decided to move in with him. According to Deirdre Bair, Beckett was unresisting if unrequesting. The great Nay-Sayer has never been able to say no. He seems to have accepted the situation then, and made no effort to terminate it later.
Miss Bair speaks of Mme. Beckett as a substitute-mother, but the attachment, which she claims to know has ceased to be sexual, is clearly not to be encompassed by such a term. During the war Beckett and his wife were joined in the intimacy of subversion, and their eventual escape from the Nazis necessitated walking hundreds of miles by night and hiding out by day. There were conflicts later, which Miss Bair describes on the testimony of their obliging friends, for at least on this subject Beckett has held his tongue, and Mme. Beckett appears not to have uttered a word to her husband’s biographer. To judge from the fact that they continue to live in the same flat, though not necessarily in the same rooms in it, and that they travel together on vacations, the area of disagreement may be more confined than chatterbox friends recognize. If they indeed have separate telephones in their flat, and sometimes communicate by them, this is to facilitate the exchange of messages without the obligation of meeting each other’s guests. It seems clear that husband and wife (they were officially married in 1961) regard their marriage as an absolute commitment, beyond sexual trivia.
Deirdre Bair has profited from Beckett’s apathy, indifference, self-destructiveness, guilt, and another quality which is the one he has exhibited in his life more steadily than any of the others—sheer kindness. This is the one that psychoanalysis has least to say about, but it is the one by which Beckett is known to hundreds of people—scholars, brothel-keepers, actors, nondescripts. It would be wrong to assume, as Miss Bair appears to do, that his passivities are directed only toward women. His relations to men often exhibit the same character. Early in his life he read Schopenhauer, and there confirmed what presumably he had already come to feel, that most people lived in an unremitting exercise of will, expressed by rapacity in love as in business. It was all push and shove, and Beckett decided that he wanted as little of it as he could manage. He is quoted as saying early on, “All I want is to sit on my ass and fart and think of Dante.” The only form of competitiveness he has sanctioned is that involved in sports: a never surrendered ambition was to play cricket for Ireland. Chess also has been allowed. Otherwise he has stood aside. The Antwerp philosopher Arnold Geulincx, also a Beckett enthusiasm, reinforced Schopenhauer by separating will from act. We cannot claim to control what our minds do, let alone our bodies, those “ungainly, unlovely, and unintelligent instruments.” We are only “naked spectators” of a psychophysical machine—our mind-body and by extension the universe—which is operated in disregard of our wishes.