On Samuel Beckett
I HAD LITTLE TALENT FOR HAPPINESS
When Samuel Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969 for ‘for his writing, which –in new forms for the novel and drama – in the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation’, he is said to have given away the prize money in the space of three days.
He was a left-handed sportsman who loved cricket, rugby and football. He loved solitude and routine and repetitive, physical work. He was interested in René Descartes and modern philosophy; the principle of stripping back what we know until we’re left with what we cannot doubt.
Some of the aspects can be traced through his writing; some offer a new and unexpected insight into the man behind Endgame and Rough for Theatre II. Here we explore the events that helped to shape Beckett’s writing.
I VOW I’LL GET OVER J.J. ERE I DIE
Born in Dublin to a middle class protestant family, Beckett studied French and Italian at Trinity College, Cambridge, and was a resident of Paris for much of his life whilst always retaining his Irish citizenship.
When he moved to Paris in 1928, he joined a clique of Irish writers residing there headed by James Joyce. A writer at the centre of the European avant-garde, Joyce’s style was extremely complex and verbose. Beckett assisted him, contributing to the research which would form the foundation of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, widely regarded as one of the most difficult works of fiction in the English language.
Both writers were born in Dublin; both spent much of their lives abroad having studied foreign languages; both headed to Paris upon graduating; Joyce was raised by a middle class Catholic family whilst Beckett was raised a middle class Protestant family. Beckett, 24 years Joyce’s junior, at one time feared that he would always remain in the latter’s shadow. But whilst Joyce was known as a ‘word man’, the Joycean principle being that knowing more lead to greater creative control, Beckett decided to embark on a new approach.
‘I realised that all my writing had been going along the wrong track; that I had thought that I could be like Joyce; that I could add to the sum of knowledge in the world; and then I realised that what I had to do was to embrace these ideas of darkness, incapacity, ignorance and impotence’ Samuel Beckett
EVERY WORD IS LIKE AN UNNECESSARY STAIN ON SILENCE AND NOTHINGNESS
Beckett was a linguist, and language was fundamental to his work. He mistrusted language and saw its failure as a mode of communication; that the instant we attempt to communicate we inevitably mislead. He sought to alienate himself from the style and grammar of the English language.
‘It is indeed becoming more and more difficult, even senseless, for me to write an official English. And more and more my own language appears to me like a veil that must be torn apart in order to get at the things (or the Nothingness) behind it. Grammar and style. To me they have become as irrelevant as a Victorian bathing suit or the imperturbability of a true gentleman… Is there any reason why that terrible materiality of the word surface should not be capable of being dissolved?’ Samuel Beckett
As a writer intent on reducing rather than adding, speaking and writing in multiple languages allowed him to do just that. After the Second World War he stopped writing in English and instead wrote in French ‘parce que c’est plus facile d’écrire sans style’ (because it’s easier to write without style). By writing in his second language, as he did with Endgame, he was able to reject the style that had felt so restrictive to him during his time with Joyce. Instead he was able to show the limitations of language in his exploration of the absurdity and humour of the human condition, allowing him to ‘bore one hole after another’ into language to expose what lies beneath; ‘until what lurks behind it – be it something or nothing – begins to seep through; I cannot imagine a higher goal for a writer today’.
Waiting for Godot, Endgame, Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable were all initially written in French before being translated into English (also by Beckett).
I COULD NOT HAVE GONE THROUGH THE AWFUL MESS OF LIFE WITHOUT HAVING LEFT A STAIN UPON THE SILENCE
Language played a part, too, outside of Beckett’s work as a writer. During the Second World War he joined a resistance group called réseau Gloria SMH and found himself writing to reveal the meaning of words as opposed to concealing it.
He chose to remain in Paris during the Nazi invasion of France in 1940, stating that he ‘preferred France in war to Ireland at peace’ and as he later told his biographer, ‘you simply couldn’t stand by with your arms folded’. During this time he was handling and précising reports from agents, encoding messaged to be sent back to England by embedding them onto micro film. The network was infiltrated in 1942 and 80 of its members were deported, detained or executed. Beckett and his wife managed to flee and escape arrest.
The French government awarded him the Croix de guerre and Médaille de la Résistance in 1945 but he rarely discussed his work for the Resistance.
TRY AGAIN. FAIL AGAIN. FAIL BETTER
The war years undoubtedly had an effect on Beckett’s writing; it was after the war that he began writing in French and also when he rejected the ‘Joycean principle’ and instead worked to expose the very core of ‘language’.
Through all of the subsequent success Beckett became relatively prosperous but as with his Nobel Prize money, he gave most of this away to friends and organisations.
What is left is an exceptionally far reaching legacy; Beckett’s impact supersedes theatre, poetry and literature and has impacted on modern philosophy, music, art and countless other mediums.
THE END IS IN THE BEGINNING AND YET YOU GO ON