Saturday, December 4, 2010

Samuel Beckett—Life and Works

Birth and Education
Samuel Beckett was born on a Good Friday, the 13th April 1906, at Foxrock, near Dublin. That he was born on a Good Friday seems singularly appropriate for a man who subsequently became obsessed both with the Crucifixion and with the sheer bad luck of human existence. Beckett’s family was Protestant. He was educated in Ulster at Portora Royal School and then proceeded to Trinity College, Dublin, where he studied the modern languages and where he eventually took his M.A. degree. From 1928 to 1930 Beckett lectured in English at the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, and in French at T.C.D. from 1930 to 1932. Then he gave up university life, moved for some time to London, wandered around Europe, and finally settled in Paris in 1937.

His Devotion to James Joyce
Beckett first appeared on the literary scene as a relatively conventional member of the highbrow experimental group that surrounded James Joyce in Paris. He had much in common with Joyce, both socially and intellectually. Joyce was considerably impressed by Beckett’s essay on “Dante......Bruno......Vico...... Joyce,” and thought that Beckett had promise.
It seems that Joyce’s daughter, Lucia, fell in love with him, though he did not respond to her feelings, telling her bluntly that he was visiting the Joyce flat primarily to see her father. To Joyce himself, Beckett was considerably devoted. It was perhaps this devotion to Joyce that made someone suggest, in all seriousness, that Beckett was his own model for Lucky to Joyce’s Pozzo in Beckett’s first important play, Waiting for Godot.
The Natural Bond Between Joyce and Beckett
There was, too, a natural bond between the two men. Their backgrounds and their intellectual tastes were similar; but, more than that, both were chronic victims of depression, though in very different ways. Joyce suffered from an older man’s depression which grew from a life-time of private dedication to his own genius and the public rejection of it. Beckett’s gloom, on the contrary, seems a condition he was born to. Depression has also been Beckett’s constant theme, emerging more and more powerfully as his age and authority increased, until he reached the climax of despair.
The Nobel Prize
Beckett has never been a prolific writer. He remained quite obscure till almost the age of 47 when Waiting for Godot made him famous. Till 1953 (the date of the first production of this play), Beckett had published just a few books which included a short study of Proust, two slim volumes of poetry, a book of short stories called More Pricks than Kicks, and some novels (Murphy, Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable). In fact, up to 1950 Beckett was known only to the most devoted, followers of the avant garde. Yet only 16 years after the first performance of Waiting of Godot (which took place in Paris) Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Not only that; he was one of the few Nobel choices about whom nobody argued. His right to this honour was unquestioned and obvious. He was a recognised world figure, an authority, a major influence.
His Role in the French Resistance
Samuel Beckett took an active part in the French Resistance for nearly two years, during World War II, and for the next two-and-a-half years he had to hide himself from the Gestapo. The circumstances under which he joined the Resistance throw much light on his character. At the end of 1931, Beckett, then; lecturer in French at Trinity College, Dublin, suddenly resigned, left Ireland and spent the next five years moving about Europe, sometimes in Germany sometimes in Austria, sometimes in England, finally settling in Paris in 1937. When the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, Beckett happened to be in Ireland spending a month’s holiday with his mother. He hurried back to his flat in Montparnasse, but at first he refused to involve himself in a war which, as he insisted, was of no concern to a neutral Irishman like himself. Once the Germans occupied Paris in 1940, however, his attitude of unconcern did not continue for long. He felt soon very annoyed with the Nazi treatment of the Jews among whom he had many close friends. His anger led to action. By the end of 1940 he had become actively involved with a Resistance group with agents all over France gathering details of the movements of German troops. In August 1942, the group was betrayed, and out of 80 members, fewer than 20 survived. Beckett and his wife Suzanne were alerted and got away barely half an hour before the Gestapo came for them. For the next four months they were on the run, making their way through enemy territory, liable at any moment to be recognised, executed then and there, or sent to be tortured in a concentration camp. At last they were able to cross into unoccupied France, reaching a village high in the mountains behind Avignon. There they remained in semi-hiding until the German collapse, Beckett working as a farm labourer during the day-time, while in the evenings he wrote his fantastic, comic novel called Watt. His writing helped to take his mind off the war and the German Occupation. For these two-and-a-half years Beckett’s life and Suzanne’s depended wholly on his ability to pass himself off as a French peasant, and to earn enough money for a living. As soon as he could move about freely again, he hurried back to Ireland to see his mother, but he was now so reduced physically that many of his old friends failed to recognise him. These are facts which we should remember when we find Beckett described as an intellectual leading an isolated existence. More than most people Beckett had this experience of living close to death every minute of the day, and saw those around him butchered suddenly and ruthlessly. He has had personal experience of fear, suffering, hardship, and always he showed a firm determination to stay alive and go on, a determination which we find again and again in the characters that he has created.
Most Productive Period
Late in the winter of 1945 Beckett returned to his old apartment in Paris, finding it intact and waiting for him. This home-coming marked the beginning of the most productive period in Beckett’s life. Seized by a powerful and sustained creative impulse he wrote in the next five years a series of important works: the plays—Eleutheria, Waiting for Godot, and Endgame; the novels—Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable, and the unpublished Mercier et Gamier; the short stories and fragments of prose published under the title Nouvelles et Textes pour Rien. All these works, some of which have become the basis of Beckett’s reputation as one of the major literary forces and influences of his time, were written in French.
The Probable Reason for Beckett’s writing in French
Beckett’s writing a large number of his works in French, seems rather strange. There are many writers who have risen to fame with works written in a language other than their own, but usually they are compelled by circumstances to write in a foreign language: the necessities of exile; a desire to break the connection with their country of origin for political or ideological reasons; or the wish to reach a world audience, which might induce the citizen of a small language community, a Rumanian, or a Dutchman, to write in French or English. But Beckett was certainly not in exile in that sense, and his mother-tongue is the accepted lingua franca of the twentieth century. He chose to write his masterpieces in French because he felt that he needed the discipline which the use of an acquired language would impose upon him. While in his own language a writer may be tempted to indulge in virtuosity of style for its own sake, the use of a foreign language may force him to divert his ingenuity to the utmost clarity and economy of expression instead of spending it on mere embellishments of style. Works like Beckett’s, which have their source in the deepest levels of the mind and which probe the darkest wells of anxiety, would be destroyed by the slightest suggestion of glibness or facility; they must be the outcome of a painful struggle with the medium of their expression. By writing in a foreign language, Beckett perhaps wanted to ensure that his writing remained a constant struggle, a painful wrestling with the spirit of language itself.
Beckett’s Great Triumph
The works published by Beckett up to 1950 hardly attracted any attention. However, when Molloy was published in 1951, it created a stir. But Beckett’s real triumph came when Waiting for Godot, which had appeared in book form in 1952, was first produced on 5th January 1933 at the little Theatre de Babylone (now no longer in existence) in Paris. Against all expectations, this strange tragic farce, in which nothing happens and which had been scorned as undramatic by a number of managements, became one of the greatest successes of the post-war theatre. It ran for four hundred performances at the Theatre de Babylone and was later transferred to another Parisian theatre. Subsequently the play was translated into more than twenty languages and performed in Sweden, Switzerland, Finland, Italy, Norway, Denmark, Holland, Spain, Belgium, Turkey, Yugoslavia, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Israel, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Japan, West Germany, Great Britain, the U.S.A., being seen in the first five years after its original production in Paris by more than a million spectators—a truly astonishing reception for a play so enigmatic, so exasperating, so complex, and so uncompromising in its refusal to conform to any of the accepted ideas of dramatic construction.
The Principal Works of Samuel Beckett
NOVELS
1.         Murphy.
2.         Watt.
3.         The trilogy comprising Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable.
PLAYS
1.         Waiting for Godot.
2.         Endgame.
3.         Krapp‘s Last Tape.
4.         Happy Days.
5.         Play.
6.         Breath.
7.         Not I.
For Radio, Television and Cinema
1.         All That Fall.
2.         Embers.
3.         Eh Joe.
4.         Film.
5.         Words and Music.
6.         Cascando.
7.         Come and Go.

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