The World of Samuel Beckett, 1906-1946
by Lois Gordon
"In a sense, Joyce was Beckett's Don Quixote, and Beckett was his Sancho Panza. Joyce aspired to the One; Beckett encapsulated the fragmented many. But as each author accomplished his task, it was in the service of the other. Ultimately, Beckett's landscapes would resound with articulate silence, and his empty spaces would collect within themselves the richness of multiple shadows--a physicist would say the negative particles--of all that exists in absence, as in the white patches of an Abstract Expressionist painting. Beckett would evoke, on his canvasses of vast innuendo and through the interstices of conscious and unconscious thought, the richness that Joyce had made explicit in words and intricate structure.” (p 82)
As I will be reading several of Samuel Beckett's plays over the next three months I decided to explore some biographical material as background. While I have both read and viewed a production of Endgame I am not that familiar with Beckett, the man and artist.
The Samuel Beckett of this fine biographical portrait is an inspiring dramatist with tremendous skill. Gordon presents an alternative view of Beckett that follows the playwright and novelist from his birth until age 40, when he began to find himself as a writer. She parts ways with the popular understanding of Beckett as a grim, rattled existentialist introvert who barely clung to sanity. His life is presented within a larger historical context, following him from his conservative, morally minded, upper-class rearing in a well-heeled suburb of Dublin, to his academic and athletic successes before and during study at Trinity College, his rebellious immersion in bohemian Paris and in economically devastated 1930s London, and finally his involvement as a WW II Resistance fighter in France.
Gordon's craft and her scruples are impressive. The focus is on the world from 1906 to 1946 in which Beckett matured and became the great writer that we know. With fascinating depiction of his involvement with the Red Cross and French Resistance we learn about the life that helped make the man.
Gordon seeks to put us in his shoes by describing in detail, for example, the probable impact on Beckett of his close friendship with James Joyce in terms that help us to feel it, and the political-cultural circumstances leading up to the rise of the Vichy government so that a reader can judge Beckett's likely motives and emotions in opposing it. Avoiding extensive discussion of his work and choosing not to emphasize the testimonials of people who knew him, Gordon relies mainly on external events to support her thesis. Of course, her conclusion- -``Beckett was not a fragile and reclusive man set apart from the real world. He was a sensitive and courageous man marked by and responsive to the world''--is arguable, but she significantly extends the scholarship about her subject. The clarity of Gordon's writing, never marred by willfulness or anxiety, is ideally suited to posing her challenge. Her study also draws us in by sheer narrative force. This is an exemplary glimpse of a literary enigma. I hope to fill in some of the details that made Beckett such an enigma through the exploration of some of his short and shorter dramas over the next three months.
The World of Samuel Beckett by Lois Gordon. Yale University Press, 1996.
Photo at above right of Trinity University, Dublin (commons.wikimedia.org)