Samuel Beckett, who is eighty this month, is sui generis, a writer with his own stamp, assured and stylized. This said, he can still usefully be ranged against his Irish predecessors. Because of what he has written, they take on a different aspect. Because of their work, he may seem not quite so rootless as he first appears. Although Beckett has not called attention to his Irish nationality as Yeats and Joyce did, his books are apt to mention with fondness unexpected Irish details. For example, in his first publication, the poem “Whoroscope,” he draws in two brothers named Boot from seventeenth-century Dublin so as to compliment them for having refuted Aristotle. His character Molloy suddenly remarks, “Da, in my part of the world, means father,” and the name Molloy reminds us of Beckett’s conspicuous fondness for the commonest Irish names, especially if they begin with M—Murphy, Molloy, Moran. In his Fizzles the Irish word deasil, which means “clockwise,” suddenly appears, and we recall that it is also used conspicuously as the first word in the Oxen of the Sun episode in Ulysses. Beckett’s translations of his works into English tend to give them an Irish inflection. When someone asked him if he were an Englishman, he replied, “Au contraire.”
These inclinations to acknowledge his Irish antecedents were qualified by his decision in early youth to live outside Ireland. At the age of twenty-two Beckett went from Dublin to Paris; twenty-six years earlier, at the age of twenty, Joyce made the same journey. Equally pivotal were the displacements of Yeats at twenty-two from Dublin to London, and of Wilde, at twenty, from Dublin to Oxford. The geographical change symbolized for all four of them an attempt to proceed from the known to the unknown, to remake themselves in unfamiliar air.
When Beckett arrived in Paris in 1928, he might well have supposed that the principal outposts of literature had already been stormed, some of them by his own countrymen. Disapprove as he did of Yeats when he postured—for Beckett hates posturing—he could not help but find Yeat’s late verse and prose incongruous with that poet’s frequent references to his decrepitude. Joyce, whom Beckett soon met in Paris, had reconstructed prose narrative and, not content with radical modifications of English, was evolving “heavenly vocables” in a language never before uttered by man. Other eminences, of other nationalities, were of course about, and activity in related arts was intense. Beckett was not intimidated. Initially he pursued the academic career that he had earlier marked out for himself. He wrote about Proust and Joyce, in partisan and cryptic terms; he worked, or disdained to work, at a thesis in French literature; and after two years as lecteur at the Ecole Normale he went back to teach at Trinity College, Dublin.
His friends suspected that he was a genius, yet no one knew as yet how his abilities would be deployed. His teaching post at Trinity he …