"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)
ew 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
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
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.
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
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
Daniel Lindley is an associate editor of Biblio.