Despite its obvious gaps and omissions, some of which are carefully noted by the author, the first biography of that very private person Samuel Beckett is not likely to be superseded for some time. When approached, Beckett insisted that he would “neither help nor hinder” the project, adding further that he did not intend to read the book before or after publication, but he did, apparently, open doors enough to produce this massive, detailed, and readable volume. The result, as one would expect, is a study in paradox: the image of a man who, frequently paralyzed by inner conflict and torment, made his very psychic pain the successful subject of his work, and who, though an absurdist, risked his life in the French underground during World War II, while one of the great pacifists of our time, James Joyce, bewailed the pointlessness of it all.
One wonders whether there is, in a man like Beckett, a special bump of faculty that makes a source of strength out of that which would inhibit most of us, for there seems to be little doubt that he was inhabited by self-destructive tendencies from childhood on, tendencies symbolized by his habit of throwing himself from the top of one of the tall pines that surrounded his house. He was soundly thrashed by his mother for such escapades but was scarcely deterred; in fact, as Bair points out, he seemed to invite her anger and her beatings. Without a doubt, readers will find the tale of Beckett’s childhood and young manhood the most fascinating portion of the biography and, perhaps, the most fruitful. Born into a prosperous Protestant family in the fashionable Dublin suburb of Foxrock, Beckett and his brother, Frank, were reared by a mother who was clearly more at ease with her garden and her pets than with people, and by a father who left all matters of child-rearing to his unpredictable and depressive wife. Bair describes Beckett’s relations with his mother as a battle of wills beginning when Beckett was barely three, but one could hope for—and we will presumably eventually get—a clearer and more subtle psychological evaluation of the tensions and riptides of feeling in the Beckett household. For the father who came laughing home at the end of the day and who saw to the physical well-being of the boys, there was love instead of the careful respect doled out to the mother, a fact that could scarcely have sweetened the mother’s temper.And for Sam, and to a certain extent Frank as well, there was guilt for loving their father so much when their mother told them repeatedly how disgraceful was his behavior; there was shame that they loved him who was so bad and hated her who was so good and therefore deserving of their love. These emotions, instilled in Samuel Beckett when he was very young, became the source of severe mental anguish that plagued him for the greater part of his adult life and found their way repeatedly into his writings.
As analysis that scarcely begins to deal with the conflicts and ambivalences that were the lot of the young Samuel Beckett, but it will do for a start.
Clearly derived from his mother, and revealing themselves quite early, were Beckett’s reserve, his tendency to oscillate emotionally from charming, open friendliness to stony indifference, and his need to create a clear, ordered space around himself. He successfully immersed himself in the school sports that we usually associate with popularity and gregariousness—Bair notes that Beckett is the only Nobel Prize winner to appear in Wisden, the cricketeer’s Bible. Nevertheless, through boarding school and Trinity College the brothers were put through the paces designed for affluent sons of the Protestant middle class—“Beckett became increasingly moody, so that his fluctuations in temper caused him to become an enigma to his classmates.”
It was at Trinity that the outlines of the later Beckett, both intellectual and emotional, began to emerge with some clarity, and Bair sketches this period in Beckett’s development carefully and deftly. Fascinated by certain teachers of romance languages, Beckett began to concentrate on French and Italian and, through his mentors, discovered the literature of the Continent, past and present. At times he found himself at gatherings of the Dublin intelligentsia, and he made it his business to frequent the Dublin theaters, where he saw Irish revivalism, European experimentation, melodrama, and—important for his own plays—vaudeville and silent films. He was growing increasingly estranged from his family, who apparently expected him to enter the family business, at least until brother Frank could take over. But Trinity was grooming him for a teaching post, and Beckett was appointed to a lectureship in a French school as part of an exchange agreement. That proved to be the end of any hope his...
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