Samuel Beckett

BeckettBeckett’s Life.

(Quoted from the Samuel Beckett Website) 1

• Born Samuel Barclay Beckett, at Cooldrinagh house, in Foxrock, County Dublin, Ireland on 13 April, 1906, the second of two sons. Parents are middle-class Protestants.

• On Monday, April 24th, 1916, the Easter Uprising breaks out in Dublin, but the conflicts take place for the most part within the city proper, and so Beckett remains somewhat removed from the unrest. At one point his father takes him to a hill near their home at night to watch the fires in the city. Beckett enters Portora Royal School (where Oscar Wilde also attended) later that year, where he becomes very active and successful in the athletic program. It is here that Beckett first begins to study the French language. He is in his second year at Portora when Ireland is partitioned.

• Enters Trinity College, in Dublin, in 1923 at age 17, choosing French and Italian as his subjects.

• Begins suffering from insomnia in 1926, and, soon after, also begins to be afflicted with heart palpitations that often lead to night sweats and panic attacks. Although he eventually seeks medical assistance for the problem, it persists for many years following.

• During his final session at Trinity, Beckett meets Alfred Péron, a student who had once shared a study with Jean-Paul Sartre at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, in Paris. The two quickly become friends, Péron helping Beckett extensively with both his spoken and written French. It is during this period that Beckett firsts comes to grips with the issues of pain and suffering that would influence his work enormously throughout his life: his roommates at that time recall an evening in which Beckett returned to the apartment “with an aluminium strip from one of the printing machines which used to grace the platforms of railway stations, on which he had inscribed the words ‘PAIN PAIN PAIN’ and which he affixed to the wall.” [1]

• Graduates Trinity College in 1927.

• Travels to Paris in 1928, taking a job lecturing on English at the École Normale Supérieure. Begins to drink during his first year in Paris (having avoided alcohol for most of his previous life); within two years, he is drinking heavily, but only after five o’clock in the evening, a custom that will remain with him all his life. Later in 1928, Beckett meets James Joyce, the two becoming close friends almost immediately, and begins working with him on the Work in Progress, later to be titled Finnegan’s Wake. A month after meeting Joyce, Beckett writes the essay, “Dante… Bruno. Vico… Joyce.”, at Joyce’s suggestion that Beckett write something concerning Work in Progress.

• Publishes Whoroscope in 1930, winning an award of ten pounds in a poetry competition. Shortly afterward, his study, Proust, is published to critical acclaim for the Dolphin Books series.

• Returns to Dublin in late 1930, to lecture at Trinity College. Begins writing the short stories that will later comprise More Pricks Than Kicks. Beginning to wrestle with the symptoms of deep depression, as well as feeling frustration with the profession of teaching, he resigns his position at Trinity in December of 1931.

• Travels again to Paris in 1932, where he completes his first novel, Dream of Fair to Middling Women. Broke, he returns to Dublin, and then to London for a brief time, where he composes the main body of Murphy. Plagued by health problems, including a cyst on his neck, he spends many weeks bed-ridden following operations.

• Beckett’s father dies of a heart attack on 26 June, 1933. His last words to his son are “Fight fight fight” and “What a morning”. Beckett’s own health problems grow more serious with the passing weeks, his depression growing worse also. A physician friend recommends that he seek psychoanalysis, and, as the practice of psychoanalysis is not legal in Dublin at the time, Beckett travels to London in December of 1933, and begins undergoing sessions with Dr. Wilfred Bion that will continue over the span of two years.

• Begins studying the German language in earnest between 1934-1936, experimenting with writing many passages in German, and then, later, short stories.

• Travels to Germany in 1936, meeting and associating with several painters in Hamburg. While there, Beckett begins to solidify his negative perceptions of the Nazi party, witnessing numerous examples of the Nazi persecution of Jewish citizens during his stay.

• Settles permanently in Paris in 1937. In December of that year, on Twelfth Night, in fact, he is nearly killed when he is stabbed by a “pimp” [2] while walking home late at night. Joyce visits him often in the hospital, and pays his medical expenses. Murphy is published while Beckett is in the hospital. Soon after being released from the doctor’s immediate care, Beckett engages in a brief affair with the American heiress, Peggy Guggenheim, but breaks it off when he realized that he does not reciprocate the depth of her affections.

• Beckett begins to experiment with writing poetry in French. In early 1938, he meets Suzanne Deschevaux-Dusmesnil: the two quickly become friends, engendering a relationship that will continue throughout their lives.

• In 1940, Paris is invaded by the Nazis. Beckett’s old friend, Alfred Péron, having returned to Paris, recruits Beckett to the French Resistance, and, in September 1941, Beckett and Suzanne Deschevaux-Dusmesnil join the Gloria SMH cell of the network. The majority of their work for the Resistance cell consists of passing on to Allied Forces in London information sent in from all over France regarding German military activities and positions.

• The Gloria SMH cell is infiltrated by a German agent in 1942, and more than 50 of it’s members are arrested by the Nazis. Beckett and Suzanne are forced to flee Paris, leaving their apartment only hours before the Gestapo arrive. They take refuge in the south of France, in Roussillon d’Apt, where Beckett takes work on a farm in exchange for room and board for them both. Alfred Péron is arrested in Paris and deported to a concentration camp: he dies on May 1, 1945, shortly after being freed by the Swiss Red Cross.

• Beckett returns to Paris with Suzanne after the Germans are defeated in 1945. Later that year, he travels to Ireland to visit his mother. On his return to Paris, he begins to compose his writing primarily in French, claiming that his use of his second language enables him to “cut away the excess, to strip away the color”, and concentrate on the sound and rythm of the words, unburdened by the excessive stylistics and allusion he associates with his writing in English.

• Completes Mercier et Camier in 1946, his first novel in French. The Nouvelles (“La fin”, “L’expulse”, “Le calmant”, and “Premier amour”) are also completed that year.

• Writes his first full-length play, Eleutheria, in 1947, but refuses to allow it to be published during his lifetime.

• Writes the bulk of Molloy while staying at a villa near the Italian border in 1947.

• Begins translating for the periodical transition in 1948, becoming good friends with the magazine’s new owner, George Duthuit. [3] Through Duthuit, Beckett is introduced to, among others, Andre Breton, as well as French artists André Masson, Pierre Tal Coat, and Alberto Giacometti. Duthuit and Beckett are conducting a dialogue concerning art when Beckett comments:

“I speak of an art turning from it in disgust, weary of its puny exploits, weary of pretending to be able, of being able, of doing a little better the same old thing, of going a little further along a dreary road.”

To which Duthuit inquires, “And preferring what?”

“The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.”

• Writes En Attendant Godot in 1948-49, visually inspired, at least in part, by a Caspar David Friedrich painting.

• Beckett’s mother, May, dies 25 August, 1950, having suffered from Parkinson’s disease for some time.

• An extract from Watt is published in 1952 in Merlin, a magazine chiefly run at that time by, among others, Alexander Trocchi. In 1953, Merlin Press publishes Watt in its entirety, along with Henry Miller’s Plexus, the first two such books to emerge from the press in their first printing. [4]

• En Attendant Godot is produced by Roger Blin for the stage in 1953, in Paris. It is the first of Beckett’s works to bring him widespread notice, and engenders enormous controversy among critics and audiences, at times even resulting in blows between supporters of the play and disparagers of it within the audience. With the success of the play, Beckett is forced to begin what will become a lifelong struggle to protect his privacy, declining even favorable interviews for both print and radio, and refusing to indulge whatsoever in anything which he perceives as self-promotion.

• In May of 1954, Beckett’s brother, Frank, is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. He dies 13 September, 1954. Despite, or perhaps because of, profound grief at the loss of his brother, Beckett writes an initial version of Fin de partie later that year.

• On October 3, 1954, Beckett receives a letter from Luttringhausen prison in Germany: the letter is signed only “un Prisonnier”. The letter’s contents are described by James Knowlson in Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett:

“You will be surprised,” wrote the prisoner, “to be receiving a letter about your play ‘Waiting for Godot,’ from a prison where so many thieves, forgers, toughs, homos, crazy men and killers spend this bitch of a life waiting… and waiting… and waiting. Waiting for what? Godot? Perhaps.” The prisoner related how he had heard from a French friend about the play that was taking Paris by storm and had the first edition sent to him in prison; he had read it over again and again, then had translated it himself into German… he had obtained permission to put the play on in the prison, had cast it himself, rehearsed it and acted in it. The first night had been on November 29, 1953.

The effect on the prisoners was electric; the play was a triumph. “Your Godot was our Godot,” the prisoner wrote to Beckett. He explained that every inmate saw himself and his own predicament reflected in the characters who were waiting for something to come along to give their lives meaning. He then offered his own interpretation of the play, seeing in it a lesson of fraternity even in the worst of conditions: “We are all waiting for Godot and do not know that he is already here. Yes, here. Godot is my neighbor in the cell next to mine. Let us do something to help him then, change the shoes that are hurting him!”

• Writes Act Without Words in 1956. At the invitation of the BBC, he also writes All That Fall for radio performance; it is broadcast in January, 1957.

• Krapp’s Last Tape is written in early 1958, inspired partly by memories of Ethna MacCarthy, whom Beckett had loved deeply (and unrequitedly), and who had been diagnosed with terminal throat cancer in Decmber of 1957. Beckett promptly withdraws performances of All That Fall and three mimes– which were to be performed by Deryk Mendel– from the Dublin International Theatre Festival when he learns that both an adaptation of Joyce’s Ulysses and a play by Sean O’Casey have been censored from the festival:

“As long as such conditions prevail in Ireland I do not wish my work to be performed there, either in festivals or outside them. If no protest is heard they will prevail for ever. This is the strongest I can make.”

Beckett also encounters much difficulty in attempting to stage both Endgame and Krapp’s Last Tape in England, resulting in many months of argument with English officials before the performances are allowed to run.

• Completes Embers in 1959, having written an initial version of it just before Krapp’s Last Tape: it is broadcast on BBC radio on June 24, and receives the Prix Italia award later that year. Also begins work on Comment c’est in early 1959.

• Awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Letters by Trinity College in 1961.

• Marries Suzanne Deschevaux-Dusmesnil on March 25, 1961, in England. The civil ceremony is kept a secret. Happy Days is completed that year.

• Words and Music and Cascando are written in 1961, to be broadcast on BBC radio.

• Travels to New York in 1964, his only visit to the United States, to participate in the production of Film, starring Buster Keaton. Film debuts at the New York Film Festival in 1965.

• Imagination morte imaginez and Come and Go are completed almost simultaneously in 1965, as Beckett is recuperating from a painful surgery to remove a tumor in his jaw. Eh Joe is also written in 1965, with Jack MacGowran in mind for the character, ‘Joe’. Eh Joe is Beckett’s first work to be composed with the intention of being performed on television.

• Diagnosed with double cataracts in 1966. Bing and Assez are completed later that year.

• Becomes extremely ill in April 1968, and is subsequently diagnosed with a severe abcess on his lung. Although he is somewhat better by September, he is not wholly cured, and he and Suzanne leave for a vacation in the Portuguese islands in December.

• Composes Breath in early 1969, to be included in Oh, Calcutta!, but is furious when the piece is altered without his permission to include naked bodies on the stage. After some difficulty with the contract, Beckett succeeds in having Breath withdrawn from the production.

• Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969. Beckett is in Tunisia when he receives a telegram from his associate and friend, Jerome Lindon:

“Dear Sam and Suzanne. In spite of everything, they have given you the Nobel Prize-I advise you to go into hiding. With affection.”

Beckett is sincerely appalled, knowing that the award will bring only further assaults on his privacy, and takes Lindon’s advice, sequestering himself as much as possible from the efforts of the press. Among the numerous telegrams Beckett receives wishing him well and congratulations is a brief missive from a M. Georges Godot (his real name) in Paris, saying only how sorry he was to have kept him waiting. Beckett sends Lindon in his stead to receive the prize in Stockholm.

• Beckett’s cataracts are operated on in 1970, and again in early 1971. His vision is improved dramatically.

• Not I, Still, That Time, Footfalls and Ghost Trio are all written between 1972 and 1976. Throughout the 1970’s and beyond, Beckett refuses to allow any of his works to be performed before segregated audiences in South Africa. He also befriends and supports many victims of oppressive regimes in Eastern Europe, and is perceived to have held a great sympathy for prisoners in general. Throughout his adult life, Beckett continually manifests a great deal of empathy for those he sees as suffering, for whatever reasons, often causing his friends to feel it necessary to protect him from those who might prey upon his generosity.

• Beckett’s health declines steadily throughout the early 1980’s. Diagnosed with emphysema in 1986, he subsequently moves into Le Tiers Temps nursing home. While staying there, he completes his final work, a poem entitled “What is the Word”.

• Suzanne dies on July 17, 1989. Beckett follows her on December 22. Buried at Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris.

Notes:

  1. This material is drawn almost exclusively, and extremely gratefully, from James Knowlson’s thoroughly detailed and excellent biography, Damned to Fame: The Life Of Samuel Beckett, published by Simon and Schuster, New York, 1996.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *