The Life of Sim Botchit

Samuel Beckett: A Biography

by Deirdre Bair
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 736 pp., $19.95

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,…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.