Samuel Beckett (April 13, 1906 – December 22, 1989) was an Irish avant-garde playwright, poet and novelist best known for his play Waiting for Godot. Strongly influenced by fellow Irish writer, James Joyce, Beckett is sometimes considered the last of the Modernists, however, as his body of work influenced many subsequent writers, he is also considered one of the fathers of the Postmodernist movement. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969, “for his writing, which—in new forms for the novel and drama—in the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation.”
Born in the Dublin suburb of Foxrock on Good Friday, 1906, Samuel Barclay Beckett was the younger of two sons born to William Frank Beckett and May Barclay. The area surrounding his family home featured in his prose and poetry later in life. Irish poet and Beckett biographer Anthony Cronin said of Samuel Beckett’s childhood, “if anything, an outdoor type rather than an indoor one. He enjoyed games and was good at them. He roamed by himself as well as with his cousin and brother; and though he often retreated to his tower with a book and was already noticeable in the family circle for a certain moodiness and taciturnity, he could on the whole have passed for an athletic, extrovert little Protestant middle-class boy with excellent manners when forced to be sociable.”
He attended Trinity College from 1923 to 1927, earning a Bachelor’s degree in French and Italian and developing a love for Romance languages and poetry from such esteemed tutors as Thomas Rudmose-Brown, A.A. Luce and Bianca Esposito. He took a teaching position at Campbell College in Belfast before moving to Paris to become a lecteur d’anglais at the École Normale Supérieure. In Paris, Beckett was introduced to Irish novelist James Joyce that had a profound effect on Beckett’s life. Samuel Beckett biographer James Knowlson writes, of the relationship between James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, “They both had degrees in French and Italian, although from different universities in Dublin. Joyce’s exceptional linguistic abilities and the wide range of his reading in Italian, German, French, and English impressed the linguist and scholar in Beckett, whose earlier studies allowed him to share with Joyce his passionate love of Dante. They both adored words — their sounds, rhythms, shapes, etymologies, and histories — and Joyce had a formidable vocabulary derived from many languages and a keen interest in the contemporary slang of several languages that Samuel Beckett admired and tried to emulate.” Around this time Samuel Beckett aided Joyce in his research for what would one day become Finnegan’s Wake, he also wrote a critical essay entitled, “Dante…Bruno. Vico.. Joyce,” in which Samuel Beckett defended James Joyce’s work and method.
Samuel Beckett’s first published work, a short story entitled, “Assumption,” appeared in transition, a highly influential avant-garde serial edited by Franco-American writer Eugene Jolas. He won his first literary prize the following year with the poem, “Whoroscope,” which imagined Réné Déscartes meditating on the nature of time while waiting to be served an egg at a restaurant. Following his first two published works, Beckett returned to Dublin from Paris to accept a lecturing position at Trinity College. He became disillusioned with academia shortly thereafter and resigned from his position by playing a practical joke on the college. Samuel Beckett invented a French author named Jean du Chas who had founded a literary movement called “concentrism” and presented a lecture on Chas and Concentrism to mock pedantry in the academic world.
Resigning from his position at Trinity College, he traveled through Europe and Britain, stopping in London to publish Proust, a critical study of Marcel Proust’s work and Beckett’s only published, long-form work of criticism. During his travels, Beckett met many vagabonds and wanderers, which he would use as the bases for several of his most memorable characters. Throughout his European wanderings, Samuel Beckett also became interested in the works of Arthur Schopenhauer and decided to devote himself entirely to writing, beginning to work on his first novel Dream of Fair to Middling Women, which he subsequently abandoned after little interest from publishers.
William Beckett, Samuel Beckett’s father, to whom he was very close, died in 1933. Samuel was devastated by the loss of his father and sought treatment at Tavistock Clinic in London where he was treated by and studied under influential British psychoanalyst Dr. Wilfred Brion. While at the Tavistock Clinic, Beckett witnessed a lecture given by Dr. Carl Jung on the “never properly born” which affected much of his subsequent work including Watt, Waiting for Godot and All that Fall which ends with an almost word for word recitation of the end of Jung’s lecture.
Beginning what would become his first published novel, Murphy, in 1935, Samuel Beckett traveled once again to Europe, this time to Germany where he documented with distaste the rise of the Nazi party. Returning to Ireland in 1937 to oversee the publication of Murphy, he had a major falling-out with his mother, which contributed to his desire to leave Ireland and settle permanently in Paris. At the outset of 1938, Beckett had installed himself on the Left Bank of Paris where he renewed his friendship with James Joyce and became friends with artists like Alberto Giacometti and Marcel Duchamp. January of that year brought tragedy, he was accosted and stabbed in the chest by a pimp who went by the name “Prudent.” When asked by Samuel Beckett why he did this, Prudent replied, “I don’t know, sir. I’m sorry.”
The dawn of World War II found Samuel Beckett aiding the French Resistance as a courier. In August 1942 his unit was found out and he was forced to move with his lifelong companion, Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil, to the town of Rousillon. There he continued to aid the Resistance while working on his novel Watt.
As the war drew to a close, Samuel Beckett returned to Ireland where he had a critical epiphany. Fearing he would forever toil in the shadow of James Joyce, a new path showed itself to him. “I realized that James Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, [being] 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 was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than in adding,” he wrote. He also began writing in French instead of his native English because he found it easier to write, “without style.” His first novel in French was entitled Mercier et Camier which was written in 1946 but not published until 1970. Immediately after Mercier et Camier, he wrote what many believe to be his best prose in the trilogy of Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable.
Following this new path to full fruition, Samuel Beckett released his most famous work in 1953, the minimalist play, Waiting for Godot. Godot was very successful albeit controversial in the theaters of Paris but was not as well received in London and in the US. As time progressed, however, Godot garnered critical acclaim, which ultimately saw Samuel Beckett awarded the International Publisher’ Formentor Prize in 1961. During this period Samuel Beckett also wrote the plays Endgame, Krapp’s Last Tape, Endgame and Play.
This period also saw changes in Samuel Beckett’s personal life. His mother, with whom he had many difficulties, died in 1950 and his brother, Frank, died in 1954, both of these deaths affected Beckett’s later meditations on life and death in his work. He also married Suzanne in a private ceremony in England in 1961. The success of his plays not only offered him the ability to experiment with his writing but also enabled him to begin a career as a theater director as well as to branch out into other mediums. In 1956 he was commissioned by the BBC to write the radio play All that Fall and continued to expand his scope into television and cinema.
Suzanne, Samuel Beckett’s wife, received the news while they were on holiday in Tunis in 1969, that Samuel Beckett had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, an event she described as a “catastrophe” for her intensely private husband. Despite the accolades and fame, however, Samuel Beckett remained a private man whose literary works continued to explore the outer reaches of minimalism and experimentalism.
His later work, which focused on themes of entrapment and frequently featured characters who were literally trapped from the neck down, went through many phases, culminating in three “closed space stories” in which he interrogates the nature of memory and its effect on the confined and observed self. His final work, written in 1988, was a poem entitled “Comment Dire (What is the Word),” which dealt with the inability to find the words to express oneself.
Samuel Beckett died on the 22nd of December, 1989, just five months after his wife, Suzanne. They are interred together at the Cimitiére de Montparnasse in Paris in a tomb of simple granite, following Samuel Beckett’s instruction that it should be, “any colour, so long as it’s gray.”