How curiously this valediction rings, addressed as it is to a man who satirized every form of metaphysics and renounced any mental comfort that might subtract him from the exhausting experience of being alone with his conviction that the world was without meaning and expression futile, yet that all the same he was duty-bound to express the fact. But perhaps it is precisely in Beckett’s repeated renunciations—of English for French, of a rich and traditional narrative facility for texts stripped of everything we would normally think of as plot or color—that we can find a link between these sometimes sentimental centenary remembrances and the core of the author’s work, his special position in the literature of the twentieth century. “How easy,” wrote Cioran, “to imagine him, some centuries back, in a naked cell, undisturbed by the least decoration, not even a crucifix.” With Beckett, it is the persistence of a “religious” seriousness in the declared absence of any sustaining metaphysics that gives his work its special, for some, saintly, pathos.
Born in 1906, Beckett was brought up in a well-to-do Protestant family in County Dublin. Educated at private schools, he excelled in both academic work and sports and, after graduating in French and Italian at Trinity College, Dublin, in 1927, went back and forth between teaching posts in Dublin and Paris, where he met James Joyce, who was then writing Finnegans Wake. But Beckett soon decided he was not cut out for teaching and gave up his job, thus disappointing his parents. The ensuing and bitter arguments, with his mother in particular, plus what appears to have been a number of panic attacks, led to the decision to undergo psychoanalysis in London, where Beckett spent two years trying and failing to start a career as a reviewer. After an extended visit to Germany and another unhappy period in Dublin, he settled permanently in Paris in 1937.
In two essays written in his twenties Beckett declared his great admiration for Proust and Joyce, yet his first novel, Murphy, written shortly afterward, suggests a different inspiration. While Proust and Joyce share a confident commitment to the evocation of complex psychological reality within a densely described material world, Beckett seems embarrassed to present his story of a feckless, unemployed Irishman in London as “real” at all. Despite, or perhaps because of, the novel’s evident autobiographical content, all kinds of strategies are used to prevent the reader from becoming immersed in plot and character in the traditional fashion. The book opens with a tone of mockery:
The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new. Murphy sat out of it, as though he were free, in a mew in West Brompton. Here for what might have been six months he had eaten, drunk, slept, and put his clothes on and off, in a medium-sized cage of north-western aspect commanding an unbroken view of medium-sized cages of south-eastern aspect. Soon he would have to make other arrangements, for the mew had been…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.