The Painful Comedy of Samuel Beckett

Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett

by James Knowlson
Simon and Schuster, 800 pp., $35.00

The World of Samuel Beckett, 1906-1946

by Lois Gordon
Yale University Press, 250 pp., $28.50

The Complete Short Prose, 1929-1989

edited by S.E. Gontarski
Grove Press, 294 pp., $23.00

Eleutheria

by Samuel Beckett, translated by Michael Brodsky
Foxrock, 196 pp., $12.95 (paper)

Nohow On: Company, Ill Seen Ill Said, Worstward Ho

by Samuel Beckett
Grove Press, 116 pp., $11.00 (paper)

How ironic that a writer as chary of public scrutiny as Samuel Beckett should this year be the subject of two very substantial biographies and a biographical study, between them taking up some fifteen hundred large, dense pages, as well as of numerous new critical works to add to what has become a flood of Beckett criticism. While Beckett was still alive, he allowed Deirdre Bair to write a Life, telling her, in a by-now famous phrase, that he would neither help nor hinder her in the task, a formula which Ms. Bair, understandably, took to be the great man’s coy way of giving her the go-ahead. When her biography appeared in 1978 it was strongly criticized for what were claimed to be its many inaccuracies and a general misinterpretation of the man and his work. With his characteristic restraint and unwillingness to wound, Beckett made no public comment in the matter, although his silence was taken by many to indicate deep distress.

What would he have made of the attentions of Knowlson, Cronin, and Gordon? Damned to Fame is the Authorized Version. James Knowlson, an Englishman, is the founder of the richly stocked Beckett Archive, now the Beckett International Foundation, at Reading University, where he holds a chair of French. In the early 1970s, at the behest of an American publisher, he approached Beckett, whom he had already met, asking if he would agree to a biography of him being written. Beckett said he would prefer not. (“He always hoped that it would be his work rather than his life that was placed under the microscope,” as Professor Knowlson, getting his tenses mixed, tells us.) In 1989, the year of Beckett’s death, Knowlson tried again, and this time received a positive, faintly Molly Bloomish, reply: “To biography of me by you it’s Yes,” with the stipulation that the book should not appear until Beckett and his wife were dead.

Anthony Cronin is an Irish poet and novelist, and the biographer of Flann O’Brien. He has taken an active part in Irish cultural life; in the 1980s he was Cultural Adviser to the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Charles Haughey, and was one of the prime movers in the setting up, under Haughey, of Aosdána, an organization that honors, and financially supports, Irish artists. He knew Beckett slightly, when both did some work for the BBC in the 1950s and 1960s—he contributed a prefatory talk to a reading from Beckett’s novel The Unnamable on the Third Program by Patrick Magee, but Beckett was less than enthusiastic: “Cronin delivered his discourse…. It was all right, not very exciting.” It is a sign of Cronin’s probity and scrupulousness that he includes this unflattering remark in his book.

Lois Gordon is professor of English and Comparative Literature at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Her book is not a biography, nor does it aspire to be. She relies on secondary material—especially, though with detectable trepidation, on Bair’s biography—and …

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Letters

Nohow On’ April 24, 1997