Samuel Beckett is so revered a writer that one website dedicated to the avant-garde (ubu.com) carries a photograph of him glowering over the contents of its homepage, with no accompanying quote or caption, just the square-cut grey hair, wrinkled skin, and steely gaze visible through dark glasses. He is the watchful master, overseeing proceedings like the bespectacled eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg on the billboard overlooking the Valley of Ashes: which is a metaphor, from The Great Gatsby, for atheistic Western Man’s vision of God – second only in fame, perhaps, to Beckett’s own, forever-absent Godot.
In an early‑90s comedy sitcom, the late Irish comedian, Sean Hughes, would face tricky situations by musing ‘What would Beckett do?’ He was speaking for a whole generation of the intelligent, sensitive young for whom Beckett was an uncompromising master artist. ‘The truth about Beckett,’ wrote Robert Nye, ‘is that he stands in danger of becoming the patron saint of writers.’ Beckett’s death conferred not sainthood but godhead.
The Nobel Prize in Literature had been awarded to Beckett in 1969, two months after the Northern Ireland riots which heralded the start of ‘the Troubles’ (the presentation speech spoke of ‘a country divided’). The Academy wasn’t going to let down Ireland again, having neglected to award the prize to James Joyce. Beckett had been close to Joyce in Paris, had read to him, been loved by Joyce’s adored but highly disturbed daughter Lucia, and even taken dictation when Joyce was composing his punning opus, Finnegans Wake (famously, there had been a knock at the door during one such dictation; Joyce said ‘Come in’ and Beckett included the words, which Joyce let stand).
The similarities and differences between these two great Irish writers are worth considering. Both were modernist pioneers, both were Irish (county Dubliners), and both lived as exiles. But modernism’s claim on Beckett is less certain than its claim on Joyce: was Beckett really (as one of his biographers asserts) the ‘last modernist’ – or the epitome of postmodernism (that recently fashionable movement of self-referentiality)? They were different sorts of Irishman, too: Joyce a Catholic who endured increasing levels of poverty in his childhood and sympathized with the Irish nationalist cause (while rejecting its ‘old pap of racial hatred’); Beckett from a respectably middle-class, Anglo-Irish Protestant background, residing at a boarding school in the North when the Partition of Ireland occurred, and adept at the ‘West Brit’ sport of cricket while at Trinity College Dublin.
In literary terms, what do these differences of upbringing matter? Joyce’s writing is ‘catholic’ in the sense of all-embracing, while Beckett is temperamentally drawn to bareness and barrenness: Finnegans Wake grew out of a sketch called ‘Here Comes Everybody’; Beckett’s motto could be ‘Nobody Comes Here’. But Beckett put it best himself when he contrasted his approach with Joyce’s, writing to his official biographer: ‘my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than adding.’ While both writers continue to be revered, it is Beckett who seems like our contemporary still…
Nobody interested in Beckett would want to be without an early work as entertaining as the novel Murphy, with its opening sentence – ‘The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new’ – as good as any he wrote. But though some readers prefer the early prose work for its caustic humour and wordplay, others reject it as immature and even (as in the satirical portrait of Beckett’s first love – and first cousin – Peggy Sinclair) misogynistic. While everything in his maturity exists in the early work in embryonic form (and whose work doesn’t?), there are few authors whose writing so demonstrably shows a new beginning – effectively a clean break. Beckett (who claimed to be able to remember being in the womb) was, as a writer, born again.
There was a lot of living, and suffering, to be got through before that. He was the younger of two sons born to Bill and May Beckett: the couple met when Bill was a patient in the hospital where May worked as a nurse – Bill was still reeling from his relationship with a Catholic woman being abruptly ended by her parents’ disapproval. A family friend asserted that ‘Bill never got over it, never.’ May was practical and efficient but, like her youngest son, prone to bouts of depression – he said of himself as a child that he had ‘little talent for happiness’. Being sent away to boarding school might adversely affect any sensitive child, but, if anything, Beckett’s level of unhappiness grew less.
An outstanding Modern Languages student at Trinity College Dublin, at age 22 he went to the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris as lecteur d’anglais. It was through his friendship with the poet Thomas MacGreevy that he came to know Joyce in Paris. But he was required to return to Trinity to teach there, which he loathed, and he resigned his lectureship. After both his beloved father Bill and Peggy Sinclair died, he moved to London for psychoanalytic treatment at the Tavistock clinic. In 1936, he witnessed the barbarity of the Nazis at first hand on a trip through Germany. A year later he returned to Paris after falling out with his mother; he was already the published author of a story collection, and soon Murphy was accepted for publication.
Beckett’s apparently motiveless stabbing by a pimp on a Paris street led to him being hospitalized and visited out of sympathy by an acquaintance, Suzanne Descheveaux-Dumesnil, who became his companion and later his wife. Beckett joined a Resistance cell in occupied Paris during the War but was betrayed by a priest who was in reality an agent of the Nazis. Beckett fled with Suzanne to Southeastern France, where he wrote the novel Watt. In 1945, he returned to Paris and also took the opportunity to visit his mother and his brother Frank in Ireland. He was taken aback by his mother’s frailty, but the two got on much better than before. And it was in her bedroom on this visit that he experienced a pivotal revelation which transformed his writing. Soon he was composing the major works that brought him fame for the rest of his life.
‘It’s the extreme that’s important,’ Beckett once said. And if you suppose that a modernist experimenter would say that, here is what Thomas Hardy, an innovator within traditional forms and a writer as pessimistic and unsettling as Beckett, had to say on the subject:
I prefer late Wagner, as I prefer late Turner, to early (which I suppose is all wrong in taste), the idiosyncrasies of each master being more strongly shown in these strains. When a man not contented with the grounds of his success goes on and on, and tries to achieve the impossible, then he gets profoundly interesting to me. Today it was early Wagner for the most part: fine music, but not so particularly his – no spectacle of the inside of a brain at work like the inside of a hive.
The inside of a brain at work like the inside of a hive: one would be hard-pressed to come up with a better description than this of Samuel Beckett’s writing.
The above is an extract from Samuel Beckett: The Middle and Later Years by David Cameron, published by Greenwich Exchange.