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Samuel Beckett
Dublin 13 April 1906 - Paris 22 Dec. 1989 • Irish prose writer and playwright, writing in English and French

photo: John Minihan

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Appropriately, Beckett entered the world on a day that was both a Friday the 13th and a Good Friday. He was raised in a Protestant middle class family and attended the legendary Port Royal school where he excelled in a variety of sports and showed little sign of the gloom that would later characterize his work and life. At 17, Beckett discovered Dante who would become a lifelong literary companion and figure prominently in much of his early work. He excelled in his study of French and Italian at Trinity College Dublin where he earned a highly prized scholarship to study at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. Young Beckett also had his first experiences with romance during his college years, first an unrequited affair with a lovely girl who would later marry one of his close friends, and then with a good-natured, simple, if not very intelligent, girl whose desire for a physical relationship prompted Beckett to end the relationship.

This reticence would change once he arrived in Paris. This modest college teetotaler soon discovered the seedier sides of the City of Lights with classmates. When not studying or debauching, Beckett frequented the haunts of Parisian literary society, where he met many important literary figures and lifelong friends, including James Joyce who later employed Beckett as a secretary during the writing of Finnegans Wake. Joyce's young mentally unstable daughter took a liking to Beckett, but his subsequent rejection put a temporary chill in relationship with Joyce and his family.
Beckett enjoyed his first literary success when his Cartesian influenced poem Whoroscope won a literary prize, all the more remarkable since the poem was his first serious literary attempt. After graduate school, Beckett suffered through a short stint as a high school teacher in Ireland, which led him back to the Continent where he wandered aimlessly for several years, lonely and often in poor health, supported only by a small annuity he received after his father's death. During these wanderings, Beckett read intensely, visited numerous art galleries, underwent two years of intensive psychological treatment in London, drank a lot, enjoyed the occasional prostitute and forged artistic and literary friendships that would later be instrumental in bringing his work to the public. Beckett continued to write but was unable to find a steady employment in any field of writing, though he managed to complete a collection of short stories, More Pricks Than Kicks, which was published when the author was 28 but with little financial success, He also wrote a Joycean autobiographical novel, Dream of Fair to Middling Women, completing the first draft in a matter weeks, but the novel failed to find a publisher and, later, caused Beckett so much embarrassment he refused to publish it during his lifetime.
In the mid-Thirties, Beckett wrote Murphy, which while still showing Joycean influences, exhibits the stylistic compression and depiction of an isolated psyche that would eventually become Beckett's hallmark. After a slow and rejection laden tour through English and American publishing houses, the novel was published in 1938, while Beckett recovered from a being stabbed on a Paris street. Beckett became enamored of German culture and toured Nazi Germany in the late thirties. After a brief fling with Peggy Guggenheim, Beckett met Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil
in 1939, a Frenchwoman six years his senior, who possessed musical talent, literary leanings, a love of the theater and, perhaps most important for Beckett, a sympathy with failure and a hatred of success. She would become his long time lover and, much later, his wife. Germany invaded Paris in 1940, prompting Beckett to join the Resistance as a translator and flee to the country where he worked at the vineyard where the couple lived. To maintain his sanity during the war, Beckett wrote Watt, a novel critics consider the last step before Beckett's mature style due to its pared down prose, word games and bleak depiction of symbolic nonentities. After the war, Beckett worked in a hospital so he could remain in France, and then returned to war-ravaged Paris with Suzanne where he suffered through rationing and financial difficulties. Beckett's breakthrough came while visiting his mother when he realized his domain was despair and broken people and that his way was in 'impoverishment, lack of knowledge, in taking away,' the opposite of Joyce's prolixity.
During a period of poverty and privation in the late forties, Beckett began writing in French because the language lent itself to Beckett's new pared down style and saved him from the stylistic extravagances available in English. He also tried a new literary form: the play. Though he considered his first work in French, the play Eleutheria, a failure, Beckett went on to write several of his best known works by the early fifties, including Waiting for Godot and the novel trilogy Molloy, Malone Dies and the The Unnamable. It took Godot two years to find a publisher and a theater willing to produce it. The financially shaky theater produced the play because it wished go out with a gesture of beauty. After a shaky start, the play found critical acclaim in Paris and fame worldwide. Unfortunately, this success was marred by the death of two family members. His mother died in 1950 while Beckett was still working on the play. Beckett’s brother died in 1954, shortly after the play found widespread success. By the mid-fifties, Beckett found himself very much in demand. He wrote several more stage plays, directed a few of his own throughout Europe, and wrote a number of radio plays for the BBC. Beckett used the money he earned from Godot to buy a plot of land and construct a small, spare house in the French countryside near Ussy.
Beckett now divided his time between his Paris apartment, where he kept up his social and business relationships, and his small country cottage, where he wrote in seclusion. He started gathering awards, including the Nobel Prize in 1969. Suzanne considered the award a 'catastrophe' and the couple fled to Portugal to avoid attention. The worldwide notoriety caused this very private man much anguish. He continued writing throughout the 1960's and 1970's, and gave away much of his money to personal friends and worthy causes. In the 1980's his creative energy began to wane and he increasingly suffered from writer's block, fearing each time that he would never write again. He wrote nothing substantial after the early 1980's and by the mid-80's his failing health prompted a move to an 'old age home,' where he spent his last few years, watching rugby, reading his old favorites, receiving visitors and drinking. He died December 22, 1989. When asked what he found valuable in life, he responded, ‘Precious little.’


The Unnamable
Part III of Beckett's Trilogy. A man without an identity tries to find out who he is.
Written circa 1943, published 1953
–› Excerpt

Insofar as it has a plot, Watt does for the most part concern a man named Watt, who travels to the manor of Mr Knott and there works for him, engaged in the most mechanical yet convoluted tasks, before leaving and (perhaps) ultimately being institutionalized.
Malone Dies
Part II of the Trilogy. The decrepit Malone, bedridden, fills his mind and his remaining time with memories, stories and bitter comment, while waiting for the 'throes'. The novel disintegrates as the protagonist does.
1947 (published in 1951)
Part I of a trilogy of novels. Written in the first person, Molloy consists of two monologues - that of Molloy on his odyssey towards his mother, lost in town and country and finally emerging from the forest; and that of Moran, a private detective who is sent to find him.
A very long poem. Iin which the protagonist, Rene Descartes, waits for his morning omelet of well-aged eggs, while meditating on the obscurity of theological mysteries, the passage of time, and the approach of death.
More Pricks Than Kicks
A collection of stories about Belacqua, a student in Dublin in the 1920 - his adventures, encounters and amours.
That Time
Short play. That Time intercuts three monologues from three separate periods of time in the experience of one character.
Murphy, a work-shy Irishman in London, loved by a prostitute, concerns himself with getting wiser and achieving peace of mind.
Dream of Fair to Middling Women
1932 (first published in 1992)
Samuel Beckett's first novel written in Paris in 1932 and rejected by publishers at the time for its eccentricity. The hero, Belacqua, a near enough alter-ego for the author, is a student in Dublin with a messy love-life and a colorful series of girlfriends.
Waiting for Godot
Beckett's first stage play portrays two men, down on their luck and trapped in an endless waiting for the arrival of a mysterious personage named Godot, while disputing the appointed place and hour of his coming.
Krapp's Last Tape
Play. An old man records his comments as he listens to a tape recording of his own observations on how life felt when he was 39.
How it Is
A novel conceived in terms of the human voice, at the end of its tether, swimming through a sea of mud that is threatening to engulf the swimmer - a powerful metaphor of the human condition which Beckett has dramatised many times.
Play in one act. Outside lies a world of death. Inside the room the blind, impervious Hamm sits in a wheelchair while his lame servant, Clov, scuttles about obeying his orders. Each depends fractiously on the other.
Happy Days
Play in two acts. A woman imprisoned in a mound of earth and a man compelled to remain in her presence rationalize their 'happy' existence together.
Not I
This short play features an actress seated on stage with just her mouth spot-lit. The mouth delivers a long stream of consciousness. One critic said, 'If Molly Bloom's famous monologue is an affirmation of life and assertion of female identity, Not I is its opposite.'
Ohio Impromptu
Short play. An elderly man is plagued by sleeplessness and haunted by the memory of a tragic loss. The story of this loss, and of his life following, is the subject of a worn book read aloud by 'Reader' to the silent 'Listener'.
Ill Seen Ill Said
This novella focuses attention on an old woman in a cabin who is part of the objects, landscape, rhythms, and movements of an incomprehensible universe.
Prose. A old man lying on his back alone in the dark is spoken to by a ghostly, unrelenting voice he can neither verify nor name.
Worstward Ho
The most condensed of all Beckett's prose works, this short parable describes life coming into being and the whole impossible process of creation.
Stirrings Still
In this text - the author's final prose work - the narrator finds the ability, although unable to move from his room, to do so, and to go out and return.
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The Ledge
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