The Life of a Literary Genius
Samuel Beckett was the most eminent dramatist of the absurdist movement of the twentieth century. Samuel Beckett was born on Good Friday, April 13, 1906, at Fox rock near Dublin, Ireland. Belonging to a middle class Protestant home, Samuel Beckett enjoyed very good childhood because his family was Protestant and well to do in Ireland. His family home is of a Tudor style house, standing amidst lawns, a tennis court and a croquet lawn. He was second son of William Frank Beckett and Mary Beckett. In a poor country like Ireland, William Frank Beckett was a self-made person and he made his living as a surveyor. He was well-liked, respected and prosperous businessperson in Dublin. The Becketts had very good parental terms with Samuel Beckett and in this regard, he had a happy childhood, enjoying a comfortable life style. Moreover, Samuel Beckett’s parents wished him to be educated well, and were proud of his sporting as well as academic progress. Finally, they were able to send Samuel Beckett to the best schools of Ireland such as Earlsfort House School in Dublin and Protoria Royal in the north. Therefore, he was educated at Earls Fort House preparatory school in Dublin, and then at the boarding school Portia Royal, one of the best and most expensive schools in Ireland. All through his childhood, Samuel Beckett’s chief talents and interests were in French and English and he was inspired by the works of Dante and Racine.
Samuel Beckett then entered Trinity College Dublin in October 1923, where his one of the major subjects was Modern languages. In school and college, Samuel Beckett was a brilliant student as well as an outstanding sportsman. At college, he played chess, golf, cricket and other sports. He actually played one first class cricket match. He participated in dramatics and, was an ardent theatregoer. His intellect was shaped by his continental influences quite as much as being Irish in 1926, and he won a scholarship that destined him to leave home and take up rooms in Trinity College. Here he made friends with Alfred Peron, a younger teacher from Ecole Normale in Paris who had come on an exchange programme. Under his influences, Samuel Beckett’s opinions were crystallized. His power of arguments and expression became strong and lucid. He completed his Bachelor of Arts at Trinity College in 1928, topping his batch with a first class and winning the gold medal. Afterwards, the continental influences strengthened when Samuel Beckett was selected to represent Trinity College in an exchange programme with Ecole Normal superior in Paris, which he joined in 1928. For the two terms in between, he taught at Comebell College, Belfast. In his second year in Paris, Samuel Beckett was still voraciously reading the Italian writers such as Dante, Giordano Bruno and Giambattista Vico. He also read Arthur Schopenhauer and engrossed himself in the works of Rene Descartes and a Belgian called Arnold Geulinex. The ideas of these authors would loom larger in his life later. Arnold Geulinex’s famous idea: ‘Where you are worth nothing you should want, nothing’ so impressed Samuel Beckett that it became the central idea of his novel “Murphy” (1935).
Samuel Beckett’s first friend in Paris was Thomas McGreevy, whose rooms he took over at Ecole Normale. Thomas McGreevy was already famous in Paris and Dublin. It was through him that Samuel Beckett was acquainted with a fellow Irishman, James Joyce. The two years he spent at Paris are notable for his meeting with James Joyce and becoming part of his intimate circle. Samuel Beckett was eager to meet James Joyce, of whom Thomas McGreevy spoke in glowing terms as the one true genius and greatest novelist of the twentieth century. Thomas McGreevy was also known for his talent, spotting skill and was convinced Samuel Beckett would one day be famous like James Joyce. However, James Joyce became a major influence on Beckett’s early literary style. The relations of twenty years between Samuel Beckett and James Joyce developed slowly and steadily. Samuel Beckett admired James Joyce sincerely as the greatest writer of twentieth century and had a great affection for him. Deirdre Bair says James Joyce was “quick to appreciate Beckett’s intelligence and wit”, and that the relationship between them was that of “a professor and trusted research assistant” (Deirdre, Bair, 1993, p.69). At this time, James Joyce was writing his book “Work in Progress”, latter published as “Finnegan’s Wake”. James Joyce incorporated bits of Samuel Beckett’s conversations on Dublin and Ireland directly into his work. As his eyesight was falling, James Joyce needed someone willing to read to him and Samuel Beckett did this for him. In this way, Samuel Beckett became his secretary but Samuel Beckett says, “Like all his friends, I helped him….I did odd jobs for him, marking passages for him, or reading to him, but I never wrote any of his letters” ( Deirdre, Bair, 1993, p. 71).
In 1929, James Joyce asked Samuel Beckett to write an essay on “Work in Progress”, in which he planned to incorporate a dozen articles altogether. He planned to write on Dante and the love of Italian and French was a common bond between Samuel Beckett and James Joyce. Among the many articles on James Joyce’s book, Samuel Beckett’s articles was very interesting. Samuel Beckett fascinated James Joyce’s experiments with English language. James Joyce tried to bend and form the words to convey meaning to new words from existing words, to stretch language beyond its established frontiers. Samuel Beckett commented in his essay on “Work in Progress” as follows:
“Here form is content, content form…it is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to. His writing is not about something: it is that something itself. When the sense is sleep, the words go to sleep. When the sense is dancing, the words dance” (Bair, Deirdre, 1993, p. 94).
Samuel Beckett said James Joyce had become “an ethical idea” for him and that “he had made me artistic integrity” (Cohn, Ruby, 1973, p. 14 and also quoted in Deirdre, Bair, 1993, p. 14). In 1929, Samuel Beckett published his first work, a critical essay entitled “Dante….Bruno. Vico…Joyce.” The essay defends James Joyce’s work and method, chiefly from allegations of meaningless obscurity and dimness. The heavy influences of James Joyce did not allow him finding his original voice in his writing and James Joyce’s occasional style could not be his. Therefore, he rejected James Joyce’s coining of new words from the existing ones and writing techniques as he earlier did those of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. He felt a keen affinity with others who did the same, such as the Sculptor Pala, he once visited for hours, asking only, “When did you begin reducing?” Samuel Beckett’s move into the French language was a strand of his quest for purity. With a more limited vocabulary, free from the more vigorous or playful aspects of English, and to a degree shored up by the formality of French, his work increasingly suggested the inability of language to convey the depth of human suffering.
At this early literary productive period, Samuel Beckett's style is filled with erudite remarks, complicated imagery and general literary effusion. He was aware of his style and it did not satisfy him. In the middle of 1960’s, in a discussion with Aidan Higgins, the Irish novelist, Samuel Beckett vehemently denigrated style, comparing it to a bow tie about a throat cancer. Samuel Beckett obviously wished to free himself from the temptation towards an elevated style. His goal was to achieve a simple and stark style, which would express clearly and concisely what he was endeavouring to say. The trilogy, in its comparative lack of extended and pretentious figures of speech, shows the reader the success of Samuel Beckett's attempts to modify his style. What is being said takes precedence over how it is said. Ironically, the style of the trilogy is as truly indicative of Samuel Beckett's hand as was that of his earlier works, though it is far more compelling and hypnotic by virtue of its simple strength. Samuel Beckett’s modified style shuts the absurdist elements he desires to project in his novels.
Samuel Beckett went to the office of Jack Kahane, owner of obelisk press, seeking translation work, and crossed the path of Henry Miller, a man who surprisingly had much in common with Samuel Beckett. Henry Miller advised Samuel Beckett to move away from James Joyce and his method and to strike out on his own. Perhaps a seed took root. Whatever the exact sequence of events, Samuel Beckett came to see the Kernel of his own method in reduction, a shift away from complex expression and self-conscious virtuosity of the aesthetic achievement. He told his biographer James Knowlson that, his “own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and taking away, in substraction rather than adding” (Knowlson, James, 1998, p. 48). He felt a keen affinity with others who did the same, such as Sculptor Pala, he once visited for hours, asking only, “When did you begin reducing?” Samuel Beckett’s move into the French language was a strand of his quest for purity. With a more limited vocabulary, free from the more vigorous or playful aspects of English, and to a degree shored up by the formality of French, his work increasingly suggests the inability of language to convey the depth of human suffering. Samuel Beckett’s moving away from the shadow of James Joyce allowed him to forge an intellectually compact, concise, compressed style that discloses absurdity fully in his works. He experimented with the stream of consciousness techniques, poetry, essays and translations but his own voice was still somewhere around the next corner, maddeningly elusive. There came a break into Samuel Beckett’s relationship with James Joyce because of his daughter Lucia Joyce, an unstable young woman who began to chase Samuel Beckett and told him very clearly and frankly that she had settled on him as the man in her life. Lucia Joyce fascinated Samuel Beckett as a neurotic case study and he tried to avoid her, telling her that he only came to visit James Joyce and had no interest in her. Samuel Beckett’s close relationship with James Joyce and his family cooled, however, when he rejected the advances of Lucia James because of her rapidly progressing schizophrenia. Subsequently, Lucia’s depression and schizophrenic condition angered James Joyce and he forbade Samuel Beckett from visiting him again. McGreevy urged him to immerse himself in writing and forget his despair at break up. In 1945, Samuel 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. Samuel Beckett had felt that he would remain forever in the shadow of James Joyce; certain to be 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 importance as follows:
“I realized that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, 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 in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than in adding.” (Beckett, S., 1931, p. 5).
In this regards, James Knowlson argues that, “Beckett was rejecting the Joycean principle that knowing more was a way of creatively understanding the world and controlling it… In future, his work would focus on poverty, failure, exile and loss - as he put it, on man as a non-knower and as a non-caner” (Knowlson, James 1998, p.10). The revelation has rightly been regarded as a pivotal moment in his entire literary career. Samuel Beckett fictionalized the experience in his play Krapp’s Last Tape (1958). While listening to a tape he made earlier in his life, Krapp hears his younger self say “clear to me at last that the dark I have always struggled to keep under is in reality my most”, at which point Krapp fast-forwards the tape (before the audience can hear the complete revelation). Samuel Beckett later explained to James Knowlson that the missing words on the tape are “precious ally”. In 1946, Jean-Paul Sartre’s magazine Les Temps Modernes published the first part of Samuel Beckett’s short story “Suite” (later to be called La fin , or the End), not realizing that Samuel Beckett had only submitted the first half of the story; Simone de Beauvoir refused to publish the second part. Samuel 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” (1953), 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, including the famous Trilogy of novels: Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable. Despite being a native English speaker, Beckett wrote in French because - as he himself claimed - it was easier for him thus to write “without style”.
As a result, Samuel Beckett’s first short story, “Assumption” (1929), was published in Jolas’s periodical ‘Transition’. His hastily composed poem “Whoroscope” was also published in 1930, which is his first independent literary work. The poem draws on a biography of Rene Descartes that Samuel Beckett happened to be reading when he was encouraged to submit. The poem was clever but full of many obscure references. The next year he won a small literary prize with his poem “Whoroscope” (1930). The poem gained him 10 pound, which enable him to stay on in Paris, as his term at Ecole Normale was ending, and to start work on a book on Marcel Proust. This is his early critical work in which language flows, the ideas are lucid and Samuel Beckett’s own intelligent in-depth criticism of Marcel Proust prove him as a very intelligent young man. The book sold well and received excellent reviews. In 1930, the conditions of the Ecole Normale scholarship were that Samuel Beckett returned to Trinity College as a lecturer in French for three years where he was to live on campus. He found Dublin, after two years in Paris, painfully provincial and limited. He hated the general Irish fascination with politics and gossip and family ‘dos’. Almost his only social contact was with Georges Pelorson, the new exchange scholar from Paris. McGreevy worried about Samuel Beckett’s growing isolation and withdrawal. Feeling his need to have a father figure like James Joyce in his life, he arranged his meeting with Jack Yeats, the painter and brother of W.B. Yeats. It was an inspired move. Jack Yeats was sixty when they meet and he became one of Samuel Beckett’s closest friends until his death in 1957. Many artists can be counted among Samuel Beckett’s friends. They all suggested with the problems of literary production and the artistic vision in similar ways. Jack’s friendship provided him the balm for a much-battered literary soul in provincial Dublin.
Moreover, Samuel Beckett hated teaching so much that he drank heavily at night to cope with classes the next day. He did not encourage any interaction between himself and his students, avoiding discussion, tutorials, and even eye contact in class. He felt depressed and ill prey to boils and constant flue. However, he soon became disillusioned with his job of lecturing. He went back to Paris in his holidays. Finally, after completing only a year of his contract, he resigned from Trinity College. He was in Germany, on his Christmas vacation in 1932, when he telegraphed his resignation about which he was to say later that, “I could not bear the absurdity of teaching other what I did not know myself.” (The News Magazine, 1996, p. 2). After, resigning from Trinity at the end of 1931, his brief academic career was terminated. His parents were deeply worried. He commemorated it with the poem “Gnome”, which was inspired by his reading of Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. It was eventually published in the Dublin Magazine
“Spend the years of learning squandering
Courage for the years of wandering
Through a world politely turning
From the loutishness of learning” (the Dublin Magazine, 1934, p. 2).
However, Samuel Beckett expressed his aversion by playing a trick on the Modern Language Society of Dublin. He read a learned paper in French on a Toulouse author named Jean du Chas, founder of a movement called Concentrism. Chas and Concentrism were pure fiction, having been invented by Samuel Beckett to mock pedantry. Samuel Beckett also won a prize in a competition for poems written on the subject of time. In 1930, Samuel Beckett returned to Ireland to join Trinity College as an Assistant Lecturer in French. He received his Master of Arts degree. He was not enjoying an academic career even though he published his acclaimed book on Marcel Proust during this period in 1931. Samuel Beckett travelled in Europe. He was in Paris, then in Germany and London, where he spent some time in 1931 and published his book “Proust” (1931), which is a critical study of the French author Marcel Proust. He was drifting some years here and there, translating the books and composing poems. In May 1932, he started a novel “Dream of Fair to Middling Women”. This is an autobiographical novel, possessing heavily sarcastic points about many of Irish friends and neighbours. No publisher wanted to publish it in Europe. Samuel Beckett himself refused to publish it, believing to be too immature a work. In 1933, he returned home in Ireland. His eccentricity, over-drunkenness, and lack of any social graces led him to turn inward and his only contact with the outside world became his letters to McGreevy in Paris. What we know about Samuel Beckett owe to his over 300 letters to McGreevy, who was confidant and guide to Samuel Beckett and to whom he poured out his thoughts and fears unrestrainedly and withholding no fear or pettiness or hope from him. Deirdre Bair claims he is the only person with whom Beckett was truthful and to whom he “poured out all the agony, anger and uncertainty of his existence” (Bair, Deirdre, 1993, p. 159).
In 1932, Samuel Beckett completed his first novel, “Dream of Fair to Middling Women” (1932; published in 1992). After many rejections from the publishers, finally, Samuel Beckett decided to abandon it and then it was eventually published in 1993. This novel served as a source for many of Samuel Beckett’s early volumes of poems as “Whoroscope” (1930), “Echo’s Bones and other Precipitates” (1935), and Collected Poems in English (1961). His first full-length books were published in 1933, such as his short-story collections “More Picks than Kicks” (1934), “First Love” (1945), “Stories and Texts for Nothing” (1954). Samuel Beckett published a number of essays and reviews, including Recent Irish Poetry in The Bookman, August 1934 and Humanistic Quietist, a review of his friend Thomas McGreevy’s poems in The Dublin Magazine, July-September 1934. They focused on the work of McGreevy, Brian Coffey, Denis Devlin and Blanaid Salkeld, despite their slender achievements at the time, comparing them favourably with their Celtic Revival contemporaries and invoking Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and the French Symbolists as their precursors. In describing these poets, he desired to form “the nucleus of living poets in Ireland”. Samuel Beckett was tracing the outlines of an Irish poetic modernist Canon. We find in his early work that he is not a joyful person. He observed that there was too much misery in the world and he was too aware, too sensitive to neglect it.
In June 1933, Samuel Beckett’s father died. However, Samuel Beckett had nursed him in his last days without complaint and with great tenderness. His father was always affectionate comparatively to his demanding and domineering mother, who caused him feeling of guilt, rage, frustration and sorrow. Samuel Beckett never could fit into the mould that his mother wanted for him and consequently, he always disappointed her. In this period, Samuel Beckett completed a collection of ten stories entitled “More Pricks than Kicks”. The book brought him some fame but little money because its only 500 copies were sold. Samuel Beckett did not allow the book to be reissued until 1966, believing the stories of this collection to be too juvenile. However, the modern public opinion persuaded him otherwise. After two years of his father’s death, he began two years’ treatment with Tailstock Clinic Psychoanalyst and he was undergoing therapy. Doctor Wilfred Bion took him to hear Carl Jung’s third Tavistock lecture and he was deeply impressed by the lectures, an event that Samuel Beckett still recalled many years later. The lecture focused on the subject of the “never properly born”. Samuel Beckett showed his general interest in mental disorders and psychiatry coupled with Carl Jung’s ideas and beliefs. Aspects of it became evident in Samuel Beckett’s later works such as “Watt” (1945; published in 1953), “Waiting for Godot” (1953) and especially in “Murphy”.