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 claims no new biographical discoveries. Her aim is to place Beckett and his work against, or within, the political and social events of the first forty years of his life. Two solecisms within the first four pages (“salutory,” and “Abigdor Arikha” for Avigdor Arikha) do not inspire confidence, but after this wobbly start the book goes on to be a provocative, sometimes illuminating, and immensely warm study of this “kind, modest man.”
However different their approaches, Knowlson, Cronin, and Gordon have a common intention, which is to present in a more appealing light the personality and work of an artist who is too often seen as unapproachably difficult, pessimistic, and misanthropic. At a certain level, all biographies are also autobiographies. Thus Knowlson’s Beckett is not only a great writer but also a kind of super academic, a man steeped in world literature, a paragon of scholarship and learning. Cronin’s Beckett, on the other hand, is a dedicated working artist, not at all as disengaged from the world as he liked to pretend, or as his admirers preferred to believe, an Irishman fond of a drop, a ladies’ man who would sooner essay a song than talk “balls” (a favorite Beckett word) to the likes of Professor Knowlson. In Gordon’s version, Beckett is caught up in and to a large extent shaped by the history of his time, the great events of which are reflected, however obliquely, in his work. All three versions, complementary rather than contradictory, are more or less persuasive, and although few non-specialist readers may be prepared to plough their way through all three of these books, taken together they do provide a remarkably rounded picture of a deeply mysterious artist.
Of the three studies, Cronin’s is by far the most elegantly written. Here he is meditating on the sexuality of Belacqua Shuah, Beckett’s lightly disguised alter ego who is the lugubrious protagonist of his first novel, Dream of Fair to Middling Women, and the short-story collection More Pricks than Kicks:
In the novel Belacqua substitutes for physical intercourse with the Smeraldina “a fraudulent system of Platonic manualisation, chiro-platonism”—in other words, masturbation. That Beckett should prefer masturbation to the “real thing” was in keeping with his general narcissism and quietism, his preference for what took place in his own mind rather than in the outer, “real” world, with its contingencies, its disturbances of inner tranquility, its futile exercises of will and ambition.
His book is aimed at the general reader (there are no footnotes), and he has an eye for the good story and the startling detail. He is cool, measured, amused, and maintains a respectful yet often wittily ironic attitude toward his subject, acknowledging Beckett’s human weaknesses as well as his strengths, his artistic failures as well as his triumphs.
This approach offers a welcome corrective to the image of Beckett as secular saint fostered by some of the members of his inner circle. Gordon quotes Beckett’s English publisher, John Calder: “[Beckett’s] only real social lack is that commonest of social accomplishments—hypocrisy. Beckett is unable to tell the smallest white lie or engage in the smallest dishonesty.” The sentiments are admirable (every writer should be so lucky in his publisher), the facts false. Certainly Beckett was no hypocrite, but the human being has not yet been born who has managed to get through life without recourse to “the smallest white lie or…the smallest dishonesty,” and Beckett, though a man of very great integrity and honesty, was, as these biographies attest, as prone as any of us to the common social subterfuges, especially where his numerous love affairs were concerned.
Cronin is shrewd and clear-eyed in these matters. No doubt there will be some, in Ireland especially, who will accuse him of “begrudgery,” as the Irish term has it, but Cronin knows well the day-to-day workings of the literary life and can distinguish between the glooms and groans of an artist struggling with the intractable material of language, and the anguished cries of the truly miserable man. Beckett indulged in both kinds of complaint, but there was a distinction between the two, which his authorized biographer does not always see. Knowlson quotes Beckett writing to a friend after attending the presentation of the Prix Italia in 1959: “Nearly killed me. Never be the same again,” entirely missing, it would seem, the characteristically mordant note of Beckettian humor. On the other hand, when he was close to death, Beckett answered the poet John Montague’s question whether he had found much that was worthwhile on the journey through life with the words: “Precious little. And for bad measure, I watched both my parents die.” One hears in this the authentic note of the deep melancholy that afflicted Beckett from (literally, according to his own account) the beginning to the end.
None of this is to say that Knowlson has produced a hagiography, or that he is blind to Beckett’s failings. He has the advantage of a twenty-year acquaintance with Beckett, who granted him long interviews in the last months of his life, and who encouraged his family, friends, and associates—notably Beckett’s heirs, his niece and nephew Edward and Caroline Beckett, and his literary executor, Jérôme Lindon—to be generous with information and reminiscences. His most notable find is the “six long, tightly written notebooks” of a diary that the young Beckett kept during his formative travels in Germany in 1936 and 1937, discovered by Edward Beckett in a trunk in Beckett’s cellar after the author’s death.
Damned to Fame is therefore the best-informed and most detailed life of Beckett we are likely to get, at least in this generation (some of Beckett’s former lovers are alive, so no doubt there is much correspondence still in private hands). Yet Knowlson has so many facts at his disposal that he does not know when to stop piling them on. Thus he tells us of Joyce’s daughter, Lucia, who developed a morbid love for the young Beckett: “She would often sing in French, German, Italian, or English. One of her favorite songs was DeSylva, Brown, and Henderson’s current hit, ‘You’re the Cream in My Coffee.”‘ Surely DeSylva, Brown, and Henderson would have been startled to find themselves hauled into the limelight in this fashion.
Lois Gordon, though very much less ambitious than Knowlson or Cronin in re-creating an entire life, is particularly stimulating, for instance, on the possible effects on the young Beckett’s sensibility of the 1916 Easter Rising, and the bloody War of Independence and the bloodier Civil War in the early 1920s, many of the battles of which were fought out in the streets of Beckett’s native Dublin. Her account, too, of Beckett’s years in France during the Second World War, when he worked first for the Resistance and then for the Red Cross, is detailed and moving.
However, her method inevitably involves a great deal of reference to written histories, eyewitness accounts and newspaper reports of the events of these turbulent years, and for pages at a stretch the reader is in danger of forgetting that Samuel Beckett, and not twentieth-century European history, is the subject of her study. And it is well to remember that Beckett himself commented hardly at all on the events she brings to our attention. In politics Beckett was vaguely left-wing, vaguely republican; he joined the Resistance less out of political conviction, it would seem, than out of a general commitment to the ordinary decencies of life as against the wickedness of the Nazi and Vichy regimes. Gordon’s sweeping surveys of world history in this century have a kind of scatter-gun effect:
Anti-Semitism [in the late 1930s] escalated in Rumania, Poland, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Egypt, Morocco, South Africa, and Libya. Italy continued expelling Jews; Mexico began debates about the Jewish problem. Le Temps’s regular column “La Situation Internationale” published brief items on these events.
All true, no doubt; but we do not even know if Beckett read Le Temps in those years, or what his thoughts might have been on the Jewish problem in Mexico.
Samuel Barclay Beckett was born in Foxrock, a well-to-do suburb of Dublin, on Good Friday, April 13, 1906. His birth certificate (incidentally, what a Beckettian notion it is that a human being should have a certificate attesting to his birth!) records the date as May 13, which has led many people to assume that Beckett was lying about the correct date in order to invest the moment of his entry into “this bitch of a world” with the spurious portentousness of religious and superstitious connotations. Cronin is neutral in the matter, though he is inclined to think the confusion was the result of error rather than Beckett’s pretensions. Knowlson, however, has verified the Good Friday date by the simple expedient of checking the “Births and Deaths” column of The Irish Times—and who could doubt that august organ?
The Becketts, of Huguenot descent, were a prosperous Protestant family who had made their money in the building trade. In describing their class, Cronin quotes the Irish critic Vivian Mercier to good effect:
The males and some of the females of the typical Protestant family took the train every weekday to office, school or university in Dublin. In all these places they were likely to be associating almost exclusively with fellow Protestants. The females who stayed at home spent their leisure time with other Protestant ladies, though their maids and gardeners were usually Catholic. If one preferred to think of oneself as English there was really no reason not to.
However, in one of numerous instances where Cronin shows to advantage his native grasp of the subtleties of Irish life, he cautions against misconceptions, pointing out that “to call this class Anglo-Irish and to lump it in with the Protestant land-owning aristocracy—the class to which Yeats affected to belong and to which J.M. Synge and Lady Gregory actually did—is to create considerable confusion.” The Becketts and the few other families with whom they associated were hardy, assured, comfortable members of the professional middle class; they were survivors who would successfully weather the storms of revolution and civil war that battered the country in the first twenty-five years of this century.
Though their loyalty to the Crown and the Union Jack was automatic and unquestioning, their sources of income had not been threatened by the sort of legislation which had brutally loosened the aristocracy’s grip on the land—and therefore on Ireland itself—since the 1880s and so their interest in British politics was less fevered and personal. They were content to vote Unionist [i.e., in favor of continued union with Britain] and hope for the best.
Beckett’s background and early life are a highly significant element in his art, from the quasi-autobiographical Dream of Fair to Middling Women to late works such as Company, in which images and events from Beckett’s childhood are evoked with remarkable vividness and an intensity bordering on the sentimental.
A small boy you come out of Connolly’s Stores holding your mother by the hand. You turn right and advance in silence southward along the highway. After some hundred paces you head inland and broach the long steep homeward. You make ground in silence hand in hand through the warm still summer air.
The house in which Beckett was born, Cooldrinagh, was a spacious structure standing in its own ample grounds (it was sold again earlier this year for half a million pounds); life there was comfortable, ordered, and stultifying, and Beckett had a sheltered but not unhappy childhood. His mother, May, was a loving but stern, brooding woman given to unpredictable fits of anger followed by lengthy bouts of depression, behavior which roughened the tranquil life of Cooldrinagh. Beckett, like so many other Irishmen, was deeply attached to his mother, in a classic love-hate relationship that was to endure long after her death; his later decision to settle permanently in France, and to write in French, seemed as much a flight from mother as from the motherland. Beckett’s father, Bill, a bluff, vigorous, kindly man whom Beckett loved very much, was a surveyor with offices in Clare Street, near the back gate of Trinity College. Both parents figure throughout Beckett’s work, emblematic of loss, of constraint, of mortality, and of the power and limits of love.
Beckett attended Portora Royal School in County Fermanagh in what was, after partition in 1920, to become Northern Ireland; Oscar Wilde had also been a pupil there, a fact not much boasted of by the school authorities in those strait-laced times. Young Samuel, or Sam, was a brilliant student and a keen sportsman, starring on the school’s cricket eleven, and playing on the rugby team in his final two years there, hard as it is to imagine Beckett in a rugby scrum.1 From Portora he made the natural progression to Trinity College, Dublin, where his main interest was French literature, from the Troubadors to the Moderns. He studied under Thomas Rudmose-Brown, professor of Romance languages. Beckett was much favored by “Ruddy,” who, he said, “opened all kinds of doors for me.” Knowlson writes:
Retrospectively, Beckett spoke of Ruddy as a witty, disillusioned man. But, as a young student, he was highly intrigued and vastly entertained by some of his professor’s more outrageous idiosyncrasies and fiercely held prejudices, as well as flattered by the interest that he was taking in him. Rudmose-Brown, who was a great talker, was, for instance, rabidly anticlerical…. He used to swear like a trooper and was full of cleverly barbed witticisms and sharply etched epigrams. Once he defined the best government as the one “that charges you the least blackmail for leaving you alone”; Beckett never forgot this cynical turn of phrase.
Ruddy brought a whiff of luxe, calme, et volupté to the sober corridors of Trinity—the parties he gave for students Beckett later described as “very sexy”—but he was also a strong scholarly and literary influence on Beckett, whom he introduced to modern French authors such as Proust, Gide, and Larbaud. Beckett immersed himself in the French masters, especially Racine, an enthusiasm which would register strongly later on in his own work for the stage. He also read widely in Italian literature—Dante was to be his companion throughout his life—and also read the great German philosophers, finding Schopenhauer particularly congenial.
In the summer vacations he traveled for long periods not only in France but in Germany and Italy also, where in the great galleries he could indulge his passionate love of painting, especially that of the Dutch Old Masters. He experienced a more profane kind of love with his cousin, Peggy Sinclair, who lived first in Dublin and then in Germany and who was to die young of tuberculosis, and with Ethna McCarthy, a fellow student at Trinity, an intelligent, vivacious girl, whose beauty haunted him for the rest of his life. It is unclear how much of a sexual element there was in these attachments; Beckett always saw a clear distinction between love and sex, and regarded the latter as an itch that could be scratched just as satisfyingly in the bed of a prostitute as in the arms of Peggy or Ethna (although he described sex without love as “taking coffee without brandy”).
Despite the young Beckett’s fondness for and success in sports, he was physically delicate, and suffered recurrent and positively biblical plagues of skin infections and blood ailments. Cronin and Knowlson both speculate that these illnesses were attributable in part at least to his stormy relations with his mother and with Peggy Sinclair and Ethna McCarthy, as well as to his own highly nervous disposition. Cronin writes:
There is no doubt that many of the painful and lowering ailments from which Beckett recurrently suffered were psychosomatic in origin. Whatever proportion of blame the diagnostician might decide to allot to physical causes as well, certain situations caused him acute stomach upsets, fevers, colds, heart palpitations, dizziness, boils, cysts, facial rashes and other disturbances. They also aggravated his insomnia and his tendency to nightmare.
Beckett’s passion for Dante, and the Book of Job, is hardly surprising.
In 1928, with the help of Rudmose-Brown, Beckett secured a temporary teaching post in Paris, at the Ecole Normale Supérieure. His predecessor in the job was Thomas MacGreevy, an Irish poet and academic, who was to become a good friend of Beckett’s, and who introduced him to James Joyce and his circle. Joyce and Beckett became friendly, in a wary sort of way, Joyce using the young man, as he did all the others around him, to run errands for him, to write essays about his work, and to translate part of “Work in Progress,” as Finnegans Wake was known in those days, into French. The place of Joyce in Beckett’s life is a matter of some disagreement among his biographers. Bair held that Beckett regarded Joyce as a godlike figure, to be slavishly imitated in everything from shoe size to prose style; to Gordon, Joyce is without flaw, a kind of Jesus to Beckett’s St. John; Cronin, on the other hand, considers Joyce a thoroughgoing cad from whose clutches Beckett was relieved to escape.
Here Knowlson strikes what seems to me the right balance, portraying Joyce as both a monster of ego and a solicitous friend whom Beckett revered as an artist but about whose character he was both clear-eyed and forgiving. In return for some work Beckett did on the proofs of Finnegans Wake, Joyce paid him a miserly couple of hundred francs and “supplemented it,” Beckett reported, “with an old overcoat and 5 ties! I did not refuse. It is so much simpler to be hurt than to hurt.” That says it all.
Beckett returned from Paris to Dublin in 1930 to take up a teaching post at Trinity College. He was not happy in Ireland, finding Dublin life suffocating, and the tensions with his mother unbearable. He left Trinity precipitately, traveled in Germany, tried to live in Paris and in London, then, broke and dispirited, had to “crawl home” in 1932 and throw himself on the mercies of his family once again. Then, in the summer of 1933, his father was stricken with a heart attack.
He suffered badly for several hours and then, with all his family gathered around him, he died about four o’clock in the afternoon. Sam was never to forget his father’s final words to him: “Fight fight fight” and (with massive understatement) “What a morning.”
Beckett now suffered a nervous collapse. At his family’s expense, he travelled to London, where he underwent a two-year course of treatment at the Tavistock Clinic under the Kleinian psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion. Gordon writes:
Bion’s main goal in analysis was to assist his patients in moving from what he called the “alpha” to the “omega” stage—the point of “Onement” or “O”…. The process was a probing of self aimed at personal integration—rather than cure.
One is wary of making too much of this experience, yet it is impossible not to see the marks of it throughout Beckett’s subsequent work, so much of which is cast in the form of a monologue in which a speaker, often lying on his back in dimness or dark, gabbles in a kind of delirium of doubt and self-seeking to a faceless auditor.
The analysis at an end, Beckett came back to Ireland, from where he made a number of escapes to the Continent, notably in 1936-1937, when he traveled extensively in Germany. This was an important European pilgrimage, and Knowlson makes fruitful, if somewhat heavy-handed, use of the “unknown” diaries from that period. Low in spirits as well as in funds, the young Beckett trailed from one city to the next—Hamburg, Berlin, Dresden…—using art galleries as a sort of stepping stones. His love of art was profound and perceptive. As Knowlson says, the German diary “positively quivers with excitement” as he discovers another unknown master, or an unknown painting by a master already familiar to him. However, on the pages facing these rhapsodic entries he notes the prosaic details of the painters’ dates, schools, and influences. Giving an account of a conversation on the writing of history with two German artists whose acquaintance he had made, he confides to his diary:
I am not interested in a “unification” of the historical chaos any more than I am in the “clarification” of the individual chaos, and still less in the anthropomorphisation of the inhuman necessities that provoke the chaos. What I want is the straws, flotsam, etc., names, dates, births and deaths, because that is all I can know.
Frequently the excitements and the transports of enthusiasm give way in the diaries to bouts of solipsism and self-pity:
…I am utterly alone…and without purpose alone and pathologically indolent and limp and opinionless and consternated. The little trouble I give myself, this absurd diary with its lists of pictures, serves no purpose, is only the act of an obsessional neurotic.
We must keep in mind that these self-communings are not untypical of a youngish (he was thirty at the time), overeducated, lonely artist-in-waiting. On occasion he sees a gleam of light in the murk; he thinks that he may perhaps be “equal to the relatively trifling act of organisation that is all that is needed to turn this dereliction, profoundly felt, into literature.” He was to devote the next fifty-five years of his life to this “trifling act.”
In 1937, his travels over for the present, Beckett returned to Paris, where he was to live for the rest of his life.
For nearly two decades Beckett lived a precarious existence in France (Cronin is splendidly informative on the intellectual and social milieu of Paris in the 1930s). His first novel, Dream of Fair to Middling Women, a chaotic ragbag packed with abstruse learning and laborious juvenile humor, was rejected by scores of publishers before its author, wisely, put it away and went on to other projects. His second novel, Murphy, a comic tour de force and his first substantial artistic achievement, also met with little success; although he succeeded in getting it published in London, it sold hardly at all. Short pieces appeared in the English-language magazines, such as transition, which flourished in Paris at the time. Despite poverty and his propensity to melancholy (as the narrator of From An Abandoned Work says, “An unhappiness like mine, there’s no annihilating that”), Beckett in those years lived the life of the artistic expatriate, eating in the bars of Montparnasse, and spending much time in the congenial surroundings of the quarter’s numerous brothels.
He wrote much poetry—gnomic miniatures, mostly—short stories, and criticism, including a short book on Proust. He enjoyed an energetic love life: for a period toward the close of the Thirties he was carrying on three simultaneous affairs: famously, with Peggy Guggenheim; intriguingly, with Mrs. Adrienne Bethell, an Irish antique shop owner holidaying in Paris; and with Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, who was to be his companion for life, and whom eventually he married.
Suzanne was six years older than Beckett, a teacher, a fine pianist, a resourceful seamstress, and a fierce and tireless champion of Beckett’s work. It was she who hawked his books from publisher to publisher, until eventually she found a fellow enthusiast in Jérôme Lindon at Les Editions de Minuit. The conclusion that Suzanne was a mother figure for Beckett, though banal, is unavoidable. She was forbiddingly protective of him and his reputation (“Sam chooses his friends like a dog chooses arse holes,” she told John Calder), and he appreciated, admired, and loved her, in his way, acknowledging to friends on more than one occasion that whatever success he had achieved in terms of publishing and theater production, he owed it all to her.
Nevertheless, relations between Suzanne and Beckett were sometimes strained, especially in the latter half of their life together, when Beckett had many, though discreet, affairs. They stayed together to the end, despite Beckett’s permanent close attachment to Barbara Bray, an English translator and a widow with two children, whom he first met in the 1950s when she worked at the BBC; eventually she gave up her job and moved to Paris, where she settled in an apartment close to where Beckett and Suzanne were living.
Many readers of Beckett will be startled by the revelation of these romantic adventures (as they will be by the news that he was a devourer of French detective pulp fiction). Knowlson recounts an episode in the late 1960s when Beckett, in Berlin to direct Endgame, conducted a brief affair with a young Israeli writer, Mira Averech, outside whose door he appeared one night “with a bottle of Johnnie Walker and two imitation Waterford crystal glasses” (that “imitation” is characteristic of Knowlson’s finicking style). Meanwhile, Suzanne flew in to watch the rehearsals, and then Barbara Bray arrived to see the play. As Knowlson laconically remarks, “This must have led to some interesting scheduling.”
After the collapse of France in 1940 Beckett joined the Resistance, acting as collator and typist of the numerous scraps of intelligence that came into Paris from agents all over France. Eventually the cell for which he worked was betrayed, and he and Suzanne fled south to Roussillon, where they lived, in great poverty and some hardship, until the end of the war. This was the period in which he wrote the novel Watt, a work which marked the transition to Beckett’s mature style, the style of his masterpiece, the trilogy comprising Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable, and of Godot and Endgame, work which in turn gave way to the great, last flowering of his old age, the short works such as Company, Worstward Ho, and what I consider to be the pinnacle of his achievement, the death-haunted Ill Seen Ill Said.
It is neatly significant that Finnegans Wake, that all-embracing joke at the expense of language and the world, should have been published in 1939, and Watt completed in 1945 (it was not published until the 1950s). Between these two events stands the terrible watershed of World War II, which marked the end of what might be called the humanist phase of Modernism. Beckett, like so many young avant-garde writers of the time, had chafed under the unavoidable influence of Joyce (see, for instance, the early fragment, Text, in The Complete Short Prose): now, in the midst of war, and with the Master dead, Beckett at last found his own voice. Already, sometime in the late 1930s, while he was still living at Cooldrinagh with his widowed mother, he had undergone a transformative experience which is directly, if disjointedly, described in Krapp’s Last Tape:
Spiritually a year of profound gloom and indigence until that memorable night in March, at the end of the jetty, in the howling wind, never to be forgotten, when suddenly I saw the whole thing…. What I suddently saw then was this, that the belief I had been going on all my life, namely [Here Krapp winds the tape forward]… clear to me at last that the dark I have always struggled to keep under is in reality my most…
Perhaps, as Knowlson suggests, too much significance has been placed by critics on this sudden flash of insight. Even the geographical location of it, so vividly described by Krapp—“great granite rocks the foam flying up in the light of the lighthouse and the wind-gauge spinning like a propeller”—is an invention, for as Beckett told Knowlson, the “vision…was in my mother’s room.” Yet it is certain that Beckett did undergo some kind of profound realization of the artistic path that he must take. He would allow “the dark” into his work, the chaos, pain, and painful comedy of existence as he experienced it, and thereby make a new kind of art, one that depended not on Joycean richness and playfulness, but on deliberate shrinkage of material and elimination of literary ornament, an art that sought its apotheosis in failure (“Fail again. Fail better,” says the voice in Worstward Ho), an art shot through in equal measure with unassuageable anguish and bleak humor. The result, especially in the trilogy, in Godot, and in the last, highly condensed texts from Company onward, is one of the most profound, sustained artistic explorations of the enigma of human life and death that world literature has yet produced.
The story of Beckett’s sudden success and worldwide fame is well-known—the triumph of Godot, first in France, then in England and eventually America (“the laugh sensation of two continents!” was how Variety described the play, not inaccurately), the Nobel Prize in 1969 (“Quelle catastrophe!” was Suzanne’s comment, not inaccurate either, when the news came from Stockholm). Here Knowlson and Cronin have little new to add. Worldly success is curiously boring to read about. Despite the notoriety and the wealth (he gave away most of the Nobel money, anonymously; at the time it was said that the English novelist B.S. Johnson bought a sports car with some of it), Beckett continued to live much as he always had, writing, dining with his friends, carrying on his discreet affairs, planting trees at his modest country house in the Vaucluse.
He never ceased to complain of nervous disorders and spiritual woe, and yet, though there is no doubt that his sufferings were real, having read these biographies one feels that all in all he had a good life, was loved by those around him, honored by the world, read and performed with deep admiration and attention by admirers and interpreters, always his own man, who, after initial pains and confusions, found his genuine self and was true to it to the end. There was sorrow at the close, but is it otherwise for any of us? He was modest (“What matter who’s speaking, someone said what matter who’s speaking,” says the nameless narrator of Texts for Nothing, a cry which Michel Foucault was to make much of in his post-humanist philosophy) but richly gifted: he worked hard, and the work repaid him in consummate artistic achievement.
As I made my way through these many pages of biography, I longed, as the hart panteth after water, for the cool deeps of Beckett’s work itself, so it was a relief to turn to The Complete Short Prose, 1929-1989. Most of these pieces are familiar, except for a few scraps of early writing such as his first published story, “Assumption” (1929), and the comically grisly “A Case in a Thousand,” which contains the following sentence: “He felt the afternoon light, glistening now between showers, like a high frequency shampoo on his face,” which prompts one to meditate on the deliberate way in which the older Beckett archaicized his material; the landscape and objects of his mature work are those of a stylized childhood world of country roads with donkeys and antique bicycles and muttering old men in ragged coats and dented bowler hats who are unlikely ever to have used shampoo, high frequency or otherwise.
Since Beckett’s death a number of disputes have arisen among his publishers in Britain, Ireland, and the United States. Dream of Fair to Middling Women was published by Black Cat Press in Dublin, but was withdrawn after legal action by Beckett’s English publisher, John Calder, who subsequently brought out an edition of his own. The play Eleutheria, written in 1947 and never produced, was withheld from publication by Beckett, but has now been published by Barney Rosset, Beckett’s American publisher, whose dismissal from Grove Press, the imprint which he had started, was a literary cause célèbre in New York in the 1980s. The Beckett estate and Jérôme Lindon refused permission to print the play, but after some unedifying wrangling, Rosset went ahead anyway and published a translation by Michael Brodsky. The estate, having lost the battle, then gave permission for the play to be published, in French and English, whereupon Faber & Faber, the publisher of Beckett’s dramatic works, commissioned a new translation from Barbara Wright. These squabbles are unfortunate, and surely damaging to the reputation of a very great artist.
Eleutheria is a poor work, overlong, with a too-large cast of characters, and fatally uneasy in tone. It is a cross between boulevard comedy and “existentialist” drama in the style of Ionesco or Arrabal. Victor, the main character, is caught in an incurable stasis, a “sordid inertia,” unable to act or to explain himself, a sort of absurdist Hamlet with nothing to revenge; around him move a cast of pompous men and prattling women with names such as Krap and Piouk (the strain of scatological schoolboy humor that runs throughout Beckett’s work is its least appealing trait). There is a Glazier who fulfills the role of a Shakespearean jester, and at one point a member of the audience climbs on stage to join in the action. It is easy to see why Beckett suppressed this immature and embarrassingly self-conscious work (he was forty-one when he wrote it). Barbara Wright’s translation is better than Michael Brodsky’s, which is littered with anachronisms and inappropriate American usages (“garbage cans,” “rubbernecks,” “But what’s with this bull?”).
Nohow On is the first American edition of a “trilogy” assembled after Beckett’s death by John Calder. It comprises Company, Ill Seen Ill Said, and Worstword Ho. I have already argued, in these pages,2 against the propriety of designating this collection a trilogy, and I shall not repeat the argument, except to say that in particular the title strikes me as entirely wrong. It is taken from the last words of Worstward Ho, which are “Said nohow on,” the point being, as I read the line, that the very fact of being able to say “nohow on” implies a way forward; for all his yearning toward the siren of silence, words never failed Beckett. However, it is good to have these luminous texts gathered in a handsome, eminently readable single volume, which also includes a perceptive introduction by S.E. Gontarski, the critic, academic, and theater producer for whom Beckett wrote the late dramatic piece Ohio Impromptu. Of the three texts, Company is the least successful, an uneasy amalgam of the arid tone of Beckett’s work in the late Sixties and Seventies and the startlingly straightforward evocations of childhood which characterize the work of his final years. The unfortunately titled Worstward Ho is a wonderfully astringent but difficult piece:
Say a body. Where none. No mind. Where none. That at least. A place. Where none. For the body. To be in. Move in. Out of. Back into. No. No out. No back. Only in. Stay in. On in. Still.
Ill Seen Ill Said is one of the greatest prose works of this century, a heartbreakingly beautiful meditation on an old woman living out her last days alone in an isolated cottage, watched over by twelve mysterious sentinels who at a fixed distance ring the cottage. In this portrait Beckett was surely drawing on his memories of his mother in her last years, when she was dying of Parkinson’s disease. The tenderness with which Beckett depicts the solitary woman is unmatched in his work, and is deeply moving.
She shows herself only to her own. But she has no own. Yes yes she has one. And who has her.
It is a curious, and seemingly inevitable, phenomenon that after a writer’s death his reputation will go into decline. Beckett’s fame as a playwright is secure, as the recent series of productions of his work in New York by the Dublin Gate Theatre troupe showed. It would be a sad irony, however, if he were to be remembered only, or even primarily, as a playwright; as he said himself, “Theater for me is mainly a recreation from working on the novel.” There is a distinct danger that the prose works of his maturity, and especially these intense, compact, elusive last pieces, which together form a unique and piercing investigation of the mystery of being, might be ignored or forgotten. No one else in this century has, in my view, expressed so unflinchingly the world’s anguish, or portrayed so movingly its tragic, fleeting beauty. The biographers have done their jobs, and done them well. Now Beckett’s own voice should be heard.
There then all this time where never till then and so far as he could see in every direction when he raised his head and opened his eyes no danger or hope as the case might be of his ever getting out of it. Was he then now to press on regardless now in one direction and now in another or on the other hand stir no more as the case might be that is as that missing word might be which if to warn such as sad or bad for example then of course in spite of all the one and if the reverse then of course the other that is stir no more. Such and much more such the hubbub in his mind so-called till nothing left from deep within but only ever fainter oh to end. No matter how no matter where. Time and grief and self so-called. Oh all to end.
November 14, 1996
John Montague recounts how in a Paris bar late one night he and Beckett amused themselves by picking the ideal rugby team made up of Irish writers. Montague said he did not suppose James Joyce would have been much of a player, but Beckett disagreed; Joyce, he thought, would have been “a very nippy scrum-half.” ↩
The New York Review, August 13, 1992. ↩