Feature Navigation

The Unnamable Samuel Beckett: by Daniel Lindley
"Let me say before I go any further that I forgive nobody. I wish them all an atrocious life and then the fires and ice of hell and in the execrable generations to come an honoured name. Enough for this evening." Malone Dies (1951)

Few writers or artists of any kind have offered the world a bleaker portrait of life than Samuel Beckett. Beethoven once determined to seize Fate by the throat, it has been claimed; Beckett's characters are simply seized by the throat. Men at one time, if not masters of their fates, at least enjoyed the consolation of cursing God before dying; Beckett's merely curse. He has been called one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, although his prose, poems, and plays have confused many. One critic compared his style to "translating the rhythms of defecation into sentence structure."
   Near the end of his life Beckett characterized his writing as "a Stain upon the silence" and concluded that "there has been nothing else worthwhile." The stain was a nasty one. Physical, mental, and emotional cripples lurch along dark paths toward oblivion, fighting poorly, loving ineptly, misunderstanding almost completely, creaking toward entropy on dilapidated bikes or crutches, living in garbage cans, picking at each other like poultry in a crowded henhouse. Working in the days when it was easier to shock - long before Annie Sprinkle's performance art and Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ" drizzled upon postmodern audiences - Beckett prodded with language at once poetic and obscene, especially when he was younger: Women are "cunts" and "clods," men are lame, listless dopes who float along life's currents with all the resolve and intelligence of drifting phytoplankton.

Astride the Grave
Born into a low-church Protestant family in a suburb of Dublin, Beckett may have been a descendant of forefathers who came to Ireland as Huguenot Becquets centuries earlier. He liked to say he emerged from his mother's womb, which he claimed to remember as having made him claustrophobic, on a bad Good Friday, 13 April 1906. Biographers have debated his supposed French ancestry and birthdate; perhaps Beckett enjoyed the confusion, or at least took it for granted. He spent most of his adult life in France, free from a provincial, oppressive, and repressive native land. Though he returned to Ireland regularly to visit family and friends, he never played the Professional Irishman and for a time lampooned Irish writers who affected to write in Gaelic.
   Beckett's mother, May, also a subject of dispute among biographers, was neurotic at least and at worst bigoted, abusive, and cruel. Merely to have been born may have been the Original Sin for Beckett - "astride of a grave and a difficult birth," as a character has it in Waiting for Godot. But a Latin proverb he sometimes cited - nec tecum possum vivere nec sine te (I cannot live with you or without you) - perhaps better represents the relentless ambiguity of his writing.
   Beckett, who began studying French in kindergarten, excelled in modern languages and athletics in English-style Protestant "public" schools and eventually at Trinity College in Dublin. He taught languages in Paris and at Trinity, but eventually quit, later complaining of moon-faced students and the absurdity of teaching what he claimed he did not know.

Prickly Humor
Until he settled permanently in France in 1937, Beckett drifted between Dublin, London, Paris, and other parts of Europe, spending periods at home with his mother back in Ireland, where he broke out in boils and rashes, urinated and defecated with difficulty, suffered from insomnia and all sorts of other physical and emotional woes. In Paris in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Beckett joined a group of expatriate modernists, contributing to little-known avant-garde journals and getting to know another Irishman in exile, James Joyce.
   In 1930 Beckett submitted a ninety-eight-line poem and won £10 in a competition sponsored by Nancy Cunard's Hours Press, which led to publication of his first book, Whoroscope, in a limited edition of 300. The poem, with its title and memorable word play - "two lashed ovaries with prostisciutto" stands out - offended Catholic authorities, and bookstores in Dublin were loath to carry it. Beckett's parents were equally horrified by the odd poem and its terrible title. More Pricks Than Kicks, a collection of short stories, followed in 1934.
   Though he succeeded in shocking, Beckett gained comparatively little attention from his early work. In 1935 the publisher Chatto and Windus reported selling just two Pricks. Dreams of Fair to Middling Women, written in 1932, did not appear in print until six decades later. His first novel, Murphy, an examination of a man who seeks spiritual release by tying himself naked to a rocking chair and obsessively rocking, was published in 1938 after many rejections.
   Remaining in France during World War II, appalled by the Nazis, fighting not so much for the French as against the Germans, Beckett eventually joined the French Resistance - "Boy Scout stuff," as he later modestly described it, though he received a Croix de Guerre for his actions. After he was betrayed to the Gestapo by a former Catholic priest, he went into hiding, where he produced another novel, Watt, not published until 1953.
   Visiting his mother after the war's unequaled carnage, Beckett underwent a literary epiphany on a jetty jutting out into the Irish Sea. His earlier writing, he concluded, had been too silly, too satirical, too full of easy Irish quips, too omniscient and omnipotent. Concluding that peeling back layers of poetry, word play, and literary ornament would reveal the starkest truths, he began writing in French, reasoning that the language was "easier to write without style" and less poetic than English. The dark trilogy that followed - Molloy (1951), Malone Dies (Malone meurt, 1951), and The Unnamable (L'Innommable, 1953) - established his reputation as a writer of the first rank. With the publication and performance of Waiting for Godot (En attendant Godot, 1952 ) - a play he wrote in a few months - he attained an international reputation. Again Beckett shocked and confused, impressing many critics and some audiences with his grim, unrelenting pessimism and queer gallows humor.
   Some have seen God in the title. Beckett did indeed put emphasis on the first syllable of Godot when he spoke, but because the work originally appeared in French, and the French word for God is Dieu, the connection may be tenuous. The name of the play also has been variously attributed to a French slang word for boot, to a crowd anticipating the appearance of an aged French bicycle racer named Godot, or to a streetwalker who unsuccessfully solicited Beckett on the rue Godot de Mauroy, was rebuffed, and huffily demanded: "What are you doing, waiting for Godot?" In Beckett's next stage play, Endgame (Fin de partie, 1958), Hamm abuses three other characters, including his two parents in dustbins, much as a hammer drives nails. Much critical and popular debate followed both efforts. In New York, audiences held earnest post-Godot discussions in search of its meaning. Through it all Beckett largely remained aloof. "If people want to have headaches among the overtones, let them," he once wrote a friend. "And provide their own aspirin. Hamm as stated, and Clov as stated, nec tecum nec sine te."

Bitter End
As Beckett matured he shaved his work down to the barest and bitterest essentials. His writing became semaphoric, telegraphic, staccato word bursts divided by ellipses, fronted by the plainest of titles. In Play (1963) a man and two women blabber about their unending cycle of adultery, completely unaware of one another. Film (1966), almost a silent film full of shifting camera angles and perceptions, features an aged Buster Keaton, who later noted of the production: "I didn't know what the hell was going on." Breath (1970), written as a contribution to Kenneth Tynan's revue Oh! Calcutta!, consists of a few lighting effects, cries, and the sound of breathing. One novel, Imagine Dead Imagine (Imagination morte imaginez, 1965) expires after fourteen pages. Fizzles (Foirades) appeared in 1976, a collection of prose "farted out," according to Beckett. "They really are what they claim to be," one critic noted.
   Out of his despair Beckett attained a kind of dignity in facing the unnamable, and in life he seemed to dwell somewhere beyond his writing. He remained comparatively healthy until old age, a man who enjoyed good drink and friends, and vastly improved over the wretch he had been back in Ireland with his mother. He lived for decades with Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, in what biographer Deirdre Bair - sometimes taken to task for the alleged inaccuracies of her work - has described as a "parallel relationship," marrying the Frenchwoman in 1961 to protect her financial future. By nature diffident, distant, and reclusive, Beckett nevertheless was known for his kindness and politesse. He once was said to have traveled around Paris in search of bicarbonate of soda at 3 a.m. when a friend, the playwright Harold Pinter, became ill after a night of pub crawling topped off by a bowl of onion soup. After Beckett won the Nobel Prize in 1969, he gave much of the prize money away to other writers.
   Confined to a French nursing home at the end of his days, Beckett was asked by a visiting Irish poet what he had found worthwhile about life. "Precious little," came the reported reply. "For bad measure, I watched both my parents die." He himself died in Paris 22 December 1989. His remains were buried with those of his wife.

Daniel Lindley is an associate editor of Biblio.

Feature Articles Listing | Table of Contents Listings
Article Reprints | Order Past Issues |



Subscribe | Archives | Marketplace | Advertising | Contact | Search
Events | Links | Awards

© 1998 Aster Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.
tel. 1-800-840-3810 or tel. +1-541-345-3800.
Please send comments, questions, and feedback about the site to the Web Editor.
To advertise contact the ad sales director.

to Samuel Beckett Resources