Samuel Beckett
Samuel Beckett; drawing by David Levine

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.

Against this background, Beckett could scarcely have said to the eager Deirdre Bair, when she proposed a biography, “Don’t!” To forbid others to act involves the pretense that one can forbid oneself, and that one knows what to forbid and what not. Beckett makes no such claim. For his public exposure in this book he is to blame, yet in Beckett’s world blame has an uncertain status. And then, why make such a pother about what is basically of no consequence? The only secrets to which Beckett has clung are the writer’s secrets d’état, and in the midst of meetings with Miss Bair and letters to her he has always maintained that his writing is the only thing that matters. In another mood, when like his character Belacqua he searches for “the best method to attain nullity of being,” he is not so sure that the writing matters either, though he is a little like other writers in not enjoying derogatory reviews.

The relation of Beckett’s writings to his life is problem-ridden. Deirdre Bair says she wants to illuminate it, but she clouds it further. One might suppose from his apparent pliancy before the willful that Beckett is doughlike. Actually he is anything but. He is fearless in taking risks, whether on motorcycles or in the Deux Chevaux that he drives recklessly around Paris, or in his writings, the acceptance of which demanded no less than a total upheaval in his readers’ habits and expectations. Miss Bair does not recognize that the passiveness she observes in his outward conduct cannot be reconciled with his absolute integrity as a writer—an integrity that he says he learned from Joyce.

She does acknowledge that in his behavior as a play director he is anything but all-accepting; here he terrifies actors with his punctilio. He has exerted increasing authority over his plays, holding like Yeats that there should be an author’s not an actor’s theater. Budding Stanislavskys have had to learn that they are not to act, only to do what he tells them. They may contribute to the image he has in mind, nothing more. Upstaging each other, or the author, belongs to that world of will which the play aspires to hold in check. Beckett was pleased to hear some years ago that Yeats had once thought of inserting actors in barrels so as to keep them from “expression.” One of his more recent dramatic achievements was to realize in his play Not I a long ambition of having visible only “a pair of blubbering lips,” though in fact Billie Whitelaw’s lips did not blubber.

This passion for exact detail in play production is strong enough to prompt the surmise that all Beckett’s works are composed with the same strictness. Deirdre Bair prefers to consider that his fictional work is confessional, with The Unnamable as the ultimate confession. Yet the facts she has herself gathered defy this view. Beckett’s first published work is written with fanatical precision. Nor can his novels be considered mere outpourings. A letter from Beckett to McGreevy about Murphy, for example, defends the ending of the book so eloquently and with so much awareness of other possibilities that any notion of uncontrol is scouted. When she takes up Beckett’s trilogy, she assures us without example that whole paragraphs are lifted from Beckett’s confessional letters to McGreevy. If they are, other questions follow. Did Beckett remember the paragraphs, did he make copies of personal letters? In either case, the words remained in his mind as words, not drool. For Beckett the form of literature he most abominates is what he has called “Bloody Veronicism.” That any of his works should just soak the napkin in the bloody actual would never content him.

Beckett’s trilogy has its beginnings in his sense of alienation from his body, from most of his mind, and from the outside world. The old distinction of subject and object crumbles, yet a powerful narrative consciousness remains at work. When in the last volume the Unnamable feels compelled to describe life, he ultimately tries to do so in terms of subverbal sounds—“heart-rending cries” and “inarticulate murmurs.” “I’ll practice,” he says, and then offers, “nyum, plop, psss, nothing but emotion, bing bang, that’s blows, ugh, pooh, what else, oooh, aaah, that’s love, enough, it’s tiring, hee hee, that’s the Abderite, no, the other….” This cluster of sounds of relish, of voiding, of war, of revulsion, then in afterthought of love, and of laughter, consigns life to a ludicrous reduction. Yet the series suddenly shies off into a referential riddle: the Unnamable relates his view of life, perhaps because atomized into cries and murmurs, first to the Abderite, who is probably Democritus of Abdera (known as “the laughing philosopher”), and then by choice to “the other,” who may well be the melancholy Heraclitus (traditionally the counterpart of Democritus), more prone to recognize how all things tire and pass.

This ponderous provenance, mockingly evoked, is proof that literacy will not be put down, and that the reduction to subverbalism sends us, as so often in Beckett’s works, back to the dictionary. The mind, its part in experience disparaged, revenges itself by image-and-word-making, by joking and source-hunting. If Beckett is autobiographical in the trilogy, he is so not by denominating actual events or relationships, but by seeking, as he attributes his own qualities to his creatures, to analyze and objectify them. Grief and silence are pitted against humor and language, and never defeat them. The trilogy ends, the voice of the Unnamable goes on.

Miss Bair quotes without comment that Beckett was deeply offended by a psychiatrist friend who thought the trilogy could be regarded as photographic realism applied to Beckett’s mind. She herself commits the same offense. To judge from what she quotes of the letters to McGreevy, they are written with care, and for Beckett to write is to connect or disconnect, not to vomit. Anguish described is anguish altered. Hence throughout this history, moments of dejection are given tongue quite beyond the necessities of wailing. As someone says in Murphy, after a depressing summary of existence, “Very prettily put!”

To what extent then may Beckett’s negativism, since it is couched with such perfection, be considered a stay against itself? The Nobel Prize committee thought he had “transmuted the destitution of modern man into his exaltation,” and awarded him the prize for literature, though literature was exactly what Beckett, like Verlaine, never wanted to write. Deirdre Bair has an opportunity here to comment on the total implications of his work. Lacking a general theory, she is more silent than Beckett. She persists in saying that his writings are autobiographical, though in what way is never specified except in passing details. For example, she quotes (twice) a sentence from a letter in which Beckett says, “My memories began on the eve of my birth, under the table, when my father gave a dinner party and my mother presided,” but this sounds more like Tristram Shandy than like Beckett’s autobiography. When she feels compelled to deal with Beckett’s mental history, she follows passages in Laing or Jung which skirt the central difficulty, that Beckett is an inveterate writer rather than just an inveterate sufferer.

When she does offer to generalize, she cannot sustain her own generalizations. Beckett remarked, “My father did not beat me, nor did my mother run away from home,” and she asserts that the opposite is true. His mother may have beaten him, but Deirdre Bair’s own evidence indicates that his father never ran away. In fact she almost at once admits that the father was very much there, and that “his homecoming each evening was the special event of the day.” Miss Bair feels she has caught Beckett out in petty deceptions over the date of his birth, which he claims to be Good Friday, April 13, and over his denial of authorship of a sophomoric piece in the Portora school magazine. But these deceptions imply a useless vanity at odds with the self-accusation she represents as his usual burden, and no one who knows Beckett will impute to him gratuitous lies.

Such details may appear unimportant, but they suggest that continuous slight distortion which Miss Bair performs on Beckett in the absence of interpretation. With so amorphous a conception of him, the biography often seems to be a collection of learned gossip. So she speaks more than once of his considering people to be inferior to him because he, unlike them, was born an Anglo-Irishman and attended Trinity College. This is to attribute to Beckett an order of experience utterly foreign to him. Even Joyce comes in for this sort of treatment as Miss Bair says Joyce took “a snobbish pleasure” in having Beckett help him because Beckett was a Trinity man and other helpers were mostly from University College. But Joyce recognized Beckett as the most gifted of his entourage, and had no need of snobbery to value assistance from him. Miss Bair, contemplating a relationship between geniuses, might well forbear to diminish it with tidbits indiscriminately gathered. She seems needlessly offensive to Eugene and Maria Jolas, especially since Maria Jolas has helped her, when she speaks of them as having “insinuated themselves” among Joyce’s friends. Some other term might have been found for two of Joyce’s solidest friendships. Or she will say, some time after Beckett received the Nobel Prize, that “he was unshakably confident that…there would be nothing in his future that he could not handle.” Beckett has suffered too much to be subjected to such banalities.

These distortions become more lamentable when Deirdre Bair describes a trip Beckett made to Nazi Germany in 1937. To prove he was apolitical (a point she insists upon in spite of evidence that he has been a lifelong rebel), she says he was oblivious to the Nazi control of the country, and then two pages later reports Beckett’s amazement at two German graduate students who were working on subjects the Nazis disapproved of. Miss Bair hangs on to wrong views even while amassing information that discredits them. When she discusses Beckett’s writing, she is liable to get things wrong. His piercing essay on Joyce’s Work in Progress she patronizes as “showing promise,” for example, and she insists that Krapp’s Last Tape ends on “a note of self-realization” which was Beckett’s own:

Perhaps my best years are gone. When there was a chance of happiness. But I wouldn’t want them back. Not with the fire in me now. No, I wouldn’t want them back.

But the “fire” which Krapp feels among his banana peels, as he listens to this bit from Spool 3, dictated when he was thirty-nine, is not to be taken in so Wordsworthian a fashion.

Miss Bair’s writing is occasionally well turned, but she lacks the fastidiousness of her subject, and is quite oblivious to such clichés as “crass roots of commercialism,” and can say with a straight face that Peggy Guggenheim “had him in her thrall.” Sometimes there are meaningless subtleties: “Irony is undercut by wit.” There is a good deal of flat and thoughtless summary: “Beckett regarded himself as equally at home in the disciplines of poetry and criticism.” It is not possible to ascertain, since many of her sources are unavailable, how accurately she is rendering them, but certain mistakes, such as placing La Baule in Switzerland, or making Nora Joyce alive in 1953, are disquieting. Beckett must know of many errors, and his tacit toleration of them is not so much a comment on Miss Bair as on the universe.

Yet if Deirdre Bair offers no interpretation in a book which demands one, she provides details which must some day be marshaled from multiplicity. One constant element is the depth of his convictions and of his loyalties. Among the convictions is a steady hostility to his native country. He has that anti-Irish quality which only Irishmen can display. Ireland is for him a “côte de misère,” “the land of my unsuccessful abortion.” Not that he regards his nationality as anything but determining. When a Frenchman inquired if he were English, on an occasion unrecorded in this book, Beckett responded, “Au contraire.” Asked how it happened that so many Irish writers have written so well in this century, Beckett offered (as Miss Bair recounts) a simple explanation, “It’s the priests and the British. They have buggered us into existence. After all, when you’re in the last bloody ditch, there is nothing left but to sing.” The wanton puritanism of suppressing his books, of which the Irish government was guilty, aroused him to say also that Ireland while banning all forms of contraception had legislated “sterilization of the mind.”

In his loyalties Beckett has shown absolute steadfastness. When he talks even today of the deaths of Paul Léon and Alfred Péron at the hands of the Nazis, he clearly has the same feelings of pain and hatred that he had thirty years before. Miss Bair says he participated in the Resistance not to help the French but because the Nazis were killing his friends, and says this confirms her view that he is apolitical. It would seem to confirm the opposite. One related aspect of his life which she fails to handle is that Beckett in all his loneliness has always been gregarious. At a certain stage of his life, she says, “With few exceptions, Beckett was without friends.” He has always had such exceptions, probably more than most people. Friendship is a bright spot that relieves and perhaps throws into doubt his melancholy.

As an artist Beckett has demonstrated a relentless perfectionism. His works appear, each more forbidding than the last, stern and inevitable. “My work is a matter of fundamental sounds (no joke intended) made as fully as possible,” he has said. No one but Joyce has offered as little concession to popularity. Perfection for Beckett has meant a renunciation of small ambitions: his models have been Joyce and Jack Yeats. Early on he denounced most Irish writers for being antiquarians, and he has insisted that any insight into the present age requires a recognition of the “breakdown of the object” and “the rupture of the lines of communication.” These in turn are suited to the lowering metabolism of his characters, and the grotesquerie which he finds to be an indispensable component of the tragic.

He has sought the liberation from family and nationality first by foreign residence and then by writing in a different language. The shift from English to French was an achievement that colored everything that followed it. Henri Michaux remarked, at the time that En Attendant Godot was being performed, that Beckett was one of the few living persons who could write French. The larger number of Beckett’s experiences have occurred in English; to recast them in French has been a source of a second life for him. This was not altogether voluntary. As he has said of his books, or as he sometimes calls them, his “miseries,” “It was not as though I wanted to write them.”

Beckett is quoted by Deirdre Bair as saying, “I’m not interested in stories of success, only failure.” His own success has been a new sadness, and his ultimate reason for permitting her biography is to let his infirmities become public knowledge and so challenge that success. Yet the success is real and deserved. What Miss Bair has presented, in an account that is crowded with stumbles and thwarts and mischances, is a simulacrum, Sim Botchit rather than Sam Beckett. Happily Beckett exists somewhere else.

This Issue

June 15, 1978