Today is the birthday (1906) of Samuel Barclay Beckett, an Irish avant-garde novelist, playwright, theatre director, poet, and literary translator who lived in Paris for most of his adult life. He wrote in both English and French, and is probably best known for Waiting for Godot, which he wrote first in French, and then translated into English.
Samuel Beckett was born in Dublin on Good Friday, 1906, to William Frank Beckett, a quantity surveyor and descendant of the Huguenots, and Maria Jones Roe, a nurse, when both were 35. They had married in 1901. Beckett had one older brother, Frank Edward Beckett (1902–1954). At the age of 5, Beckett attended a local playschool in Dublin, where he started to learn music, and then moved to Earlsfort House School in Dublin city center near Harcourt Street. The Becketts were members of the Anglican Church of Ireland. The family home, Cooldrinagh in the Dublin suburb of Foxrock, was a large house and garden complete with tennis court built in 1903 by Samuel’s father. The house and garden, together with the surrounding countryside where he often went walking with his father, the nearby Leopardstown Racecourse, the Foxrock railway station and Harcourt Street station at the city terminus of the line, all feature in his prose and plays.
In 1919/1920, Beckett went to Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh (which Oscar Wilde had also attended). He left 3 years later, in 1923. Beckett excelled at cricket as a left-handed batsman and a left-arm medium-pace bowler. Later, he was to play for Dublin University and played two first-class games against Northamptonshire. Beckett studied French, Italian, and English at Trinity College, Dublin from 1923 to 1927. He graduated with a BA and, after teaching briefly at Campbell College in Belfast, took up the post of lecteur d’anglais at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris from November 1928 to 1930. While there, he was introduced to James Joyce by Thomas MacGreevy, a poet and close confidant of Beckett who also worked there. Beckett assisted Joyce in various ways, one of which was research towards the book that became Finnegans Wake.
In 1929, Beckett published his first work, a critical essay entitled “Dante… Bruno. Vico.. Joyce.” The essay defends Joyce’s work and method, chiefly from allegations of wanton obscurity and dimness, and was Beckett’s contribution to Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress (a book of essays on Joyce which also included contributions by Eugene Jolas, Robert McAlmon, and William Carlos Williams). Beckett’s close relationship with Joyce and his family cooled, however, when he rejected the advances of Joyce’s daughter Lucia owing to her progressing schizophrenia. Beckett’s first short story, “Assumption”, was published in Jolas’ periodical transition. The next year he won a small literary prize for his hastily composed poem “Whoroscope”, which draws on a biography of René Descartes that Beckett happened to be reading when he was encouraged to submit.
In 1930, Beckett returned to Trinity College as a lecturer. In November 1930, he presented a paper in French to the Modern Languages Society of Trinity on the Toulouse poet Jean du Chas, founder of a movement called le Concentrisme. It was a literary parody; Beckett had in fact invented the poet and his movement that claimed to be “at odds with all that is clear and distinct in Descartes.” Beckett later insisted that he had not intended to fool his audience. When Beckett resigned from Trinity at the end of 1931, his brief academic career was at an end.
After Dublin, Beckett travelled in Europe, and spent some time in London, where in 1931 he published Proust, his critical study of Marcel Proust’s work. Two years later, following his father’s death, he began two years’ treatment with Tavistock Clinic psychoanalyst Dr. Wilfred Bion. Aspects of this time played out in Beckett’s later works, such as Watt and Waiting for Godot. In 1932, he wrote his first novel, Dream of Fair to Middling Women, but after many rejections from publishers decided to abandon it (it was eventually published in 1992). Despite his inability to get it published, however, the novel served as a source for many of Beckett’s early poems, as well as for his first full-length book, the 1933 short-story collection More Pricks Than Kicks.
In 1935—the year that Beckett successfully published a book of his poetry, Echo’s Bones and Other Precipitates—Beckett worked on his novel Murphy. In May, he wrote to MacGreevy that he had been reading about film and wished to go to Moscow to study with Sergei Eisenstein at the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography in Moscow. In mid-1936 he wrote to Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin to offer himself as their apprentice. Nothing came of this, however, as Beckett’s letter was lost owing to Eisenstein’s quarantine during the smallpox outbreak, as well as his focus on a script re-write of his postponed film production.
Murphy was finished in 1936 and Beckett departed for extensive travel around Germany, during which time he filled several notebooks with lists of noteworthy art that he had seen, and noted his distaste for the Nazi savagery that was overtaking the country. Returning to Ireland briefly in 1937, he oversaw the publication of Murphy (1938), which he translated into French the following year. He fell out with his mother, which contributed to his decision to settle permanently in Paris. Beckett remained in Paris following the outbreak of World War II in 1939, preferring, in his own words, “France at war to Ireland at peace.” His was soon a known face in and around Left Bank cafés, where he strengthened his allegiance with Joyce and forged new ones with artists Alberto Giacometti and Marcel Duchamp, with whom he regularly played chess. Some time around December 1937, Beckett had a brief affair with Peggy Guggenheim, who nicknamed him “Oblomov” (after the character in Ivan Goncharov’s novel).
In January 1938 in Paris, Beckett was stabbed in the chest and nearly killed when he refused the solicitations of a notorious pimp (who went by the name of Prudent). Joyce arranged a private room for Beckett at the hospital. The publicity surrounding the stabbing attracted the attention of Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil, who previously knew Beckett slightly from his first stay in Paris. This time, however, the two would begin a lifelong companionship. At a preliminary hearing, Beckett asked his attacker for the motive behind the stabbing. Prudent replied: “Je ne sais pas, Monsieur. Je m’excuse” [“I do not know, sir. I’m sorry”]. Beckett eventually dropped the charges against his attacker—partly to avoid further formalities, partly because he found Prudent likeable and well-mannered.
After the Nazi German occupation of France in 1940, Beckett joined the French Resistance, in which he worked as a courier. On several occasions over the next two years he was nearly caught by the Gestapo. In August 1942, his unit was betrayed, and he and Suzanne fled south on foot to the safety of the small village of Roussillon, in the Vaucluse département in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur. There he continued to assist the Resistance by storing armaments in the back yard of his home. During the two years that Beckett stayed in Roussillon he indirectly helped the Maquis sabotage the German army in the Vaucluse mountains, though he rarely spoke about his wartime work in later life.
Beckett was awarded the Croix de guerre and the Médaille de la Résistance by the French government for his efforts in fighting the German occupation. To the end of his life, however, Beckett referred to his work with the French Resistance as “boy scout stuff.” While in hiding in Roussillon, he continued work on the novel Watt (begun in 1941 and completed in 1945, but not published until 1953, though an extract had appeared in the Dublin literary periodical Envoy).
In 1945, Beckett returned to Dublin for a brief visit. During his stay, he had a revelation in his mother’s room: His entire future direction in literature appeared to him. Beckett had felt that he would remain forever in the shadow of Joyce, certain to never best him at his own game. His revelation prompted him to change direction and to acknowledge both his own stupidity and his interest in ignorance and impotence:
I realized that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, [being] in control of one’s material. He was always adding to it; you only have to look at his proofs to see that. I realized that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than in adding.
In the future, his work focused on poverty, failure, exile and loss.
In 1946, Jean-Paul Sartre’s magazine Les Temps modernes published the first part of Beckett’s short story “Suite” (later to be called “La Fin”, or “The End”), not realizing that Beckett had only submitted the first half of the story, Simone de Beauvoir refused to publish the second part. Beckett also began to write his fourth novel, Mercier et Camier, which was not published until 1970. The novel presaged his most famous work, the play Waiting for Godot, which was written not long afterwards. More importantly, the novel was Beckett’s first long work that he wrote in French, the language of most of his subsequent works which were strongly supported by Jérôme Lindon director of his Parisian publishing house Les Éditions de Minuit, including the poioumenon “trilogy” of novels: Molloy (1951); Malone meurt (1951), Malone Dies (1958); L’innommable (1953), The Unnamable, (1960). Despite being a native English speaker, Beckett wrote in French because—as he himself claimed—it was easier for him to write “without style” in French than in English.
Beckett is, of course, most famous for his play En attendant Godot (1953) (Waiting for Godot). In a much-quoted article, the critic Vivian Mercier wrote that Beckett,
has achieved a theoretical impossibility—a play in which nothing happens, that yet keeps audiences glued to their seats. What’s more, since the second act is a subtly different reprise of the first, he has written a play in which nothing happens, twice.
Godot premièred in 1953 in French in Paris and was a critical and popular, yet controversial, success in Paris. It opened in London in 1955 to mainly negative reviews, but the tide turned with positive reactions from Harold Hobson in The Sunday Times and, later, Kenneth Tynan. In the United States, it flopped in Miami and had a qualified success in New York City. After this, the play became extremely popular, with highly successful performances in the US and Germany. It is frequently performed today.
The US television sitcom, Seinfeld, is frequently praised as being “about nothing.” No. Seinfeld is quite obviously about something. Godot is about NOTHING – at great length. In my younger years I did not appreciate Godot. You have to have experienced life, and reflected on it to understand what Beckett is getting at. Life is an endless succession of pointless encounters, that seem, at first, to be brimming with meaning, but turn out to be devoid of it. Reading academic appraisals of Godot makes me laugh out loud: it is about ego, sex, fascism, stupidity, hunger, etc. etc. etc. Beckett is laughing at all of you.
Beckett translated all of his works into English himself, with the exception of Molloy, for which he collaborated with Patrick Bowles. The success of Waiting for Godot opened up a career in theater for Beckett. He went on to write successful full-length plays, including Fin de partie (Endgame) (1957), Krapp’s Last Tape (1958, written in English), Happy Days (1961, also written in English), and Play (1963).
In 1961, Beckett married Suzanne in a secret civil ceremony in England (its secrecy due to reasons relating to French inheritance law). The success of his plays led to invitations to attend rehearsals and productions around the world, leading eventually to a new career as a theater director. In 1957, he had his first commission from the BBC Third Programme for a radio play, All That Fall. He continued writing sporadically for radio and extended his scope to include cinema and television. He began to write in English again, although he also wrote in French until the end of his life.
From the late 1950s until his death, Beckett had a relationship with Barbara Bray, a widow who worked as a script editor for the BBC. In October 1969 while on holiday in Tunis with Suzanne, Beckett heard that he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Anticipating that her intensely private husband would be saddled with fame from that moment on, Suzanne called the award a catastrophe. He gave away all of the prize money. Suzanne died on 17th July 1989. Beckett died on 22nd December the same year, confined to a nursing home and suffering from emphysema and possibly Parkinson’s disease. The two were interred together in the Cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris and share a simple granite gravestone that follows Beckett’s directive that it should be “any colour, so long as it’s grey.”
Although Beckett was intensely private and ascetic with a generally pessimistic outlook on life, he did enjoy meeting friends for a good meal once in a while, especially grilled sole and white wine in restaurants such as Aux Îles Marquises on the rue de la Gaité. Well, grilled sole is about as simple as it gets. The usual habit is to grill fillets and serve them with lemon wedges and butter. I’m happier to be even simpler than that. I like nothing better than to take a whole fish – head on, but gutted and cleaned – heat the grill or broiler as hot as it gets, and grill the fish for about 12 minutes without turning it. Plate and serve as is. Sole has an extremely delicate taste (if you buy actual Dover sole and not some mimic), and needs no additions. French chefs will bristle at that sentiment, but I am not French. As a small boy my mother would occasionally serve me a whole sole (or plaice) for lunch, caught that day off the Eastbourne coast, and sold from the fishing boats. She grilled it, put it on a plate, and let me have at it with a slice of buttered brown bread. For some reason she thought brown bread would help in case I swallowed some bones. I accompany grilled sole with buttered new potatoes and spinach or asparagus. A simple dish to celebrate Beckett’s favored simple life.