Of late, Samuel Beckett, the 1969 Nobel laureate in literature, has been the object of significant biographical interest. A key literary figure of the twentieth century, this practitioner of the Theater of the Absurd is revealed through insights into his emotional and mental life and through both clever and meaningful allusions to his work. Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist sketches a portrait of a deeply dedicated writer, an “ordinary” Parisian Irishman, a man who was humane, profoundly learned, and unusually sensitive to his surroundings, circle of friends, and professional position.
Samuel Beckett was born May 13, 1906, in the family home in Foxrock, a prosperous suburb on the outskirts of Dublin. He later claimed, however, that his birth date was April 13, Good Friday. He also claimed to have had memories that preceded this date, memories of his fetal existence that include being at the dinner table in his mother’s womb shortly before his birth, and overhearing the banal dinner conversation of the guests. Such prenatal memories engendered feelings of entrapment and suffocation in Beckett, as he would later divulge to a psychiatrist.
Beckett was the second son born to William Beckett and Mary Roe, members of an exclusive social class of Dublin society. The Becketts supposed themselves to be descended from Huguenot refugees who had come to Ireland from France after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. William Beckett had shown little interest in an academic career; instead, given that his father was a very successful building contractor, responsible for such buildings as the National Library and National Museum in Dublin, he chose a career in quantity surveying, which, at the time, was equivalent to civil engineering and architecture. William Beckett was a shrewd businessman, socially minded, good-natured, and fond of masculine pursuits such as athletics and drinking. Samuel Beckett’s mother, who was nicknamed May, was the daughter of the most successful Catholic businessman in Dublin. Somewhat high-strung, May Beckett found the world a rather wicked place but believed that it could be redeemed by religious puritanism. In essence, Beckett’s parents were oddly matched: his father adaptable and moderate, his mother extremist and confrontational.
Unlike his brother Frank, his elder by four years, the young Samuel was a thin, sickly baby who cried constantly. As he grew, he became an extremely active child, suffering beatings from his mother, who found his antics inappropriate. A child psychologist might in fact view these acts as suggesting a certain level of disturbance. For example, one of Samuel’s diversions was to climb to the top of a tall fir tree in the garden and, stretching out his arms and legs as if for flight, let himself fall, trusting the lower branches to break the impact. The fear of high places, along with recurring nightmares, would haunt Beckett all of his life.
In 1920, at the age of fourteen, Beckett was sent to Portora, an austere Irish Protestant boarding school, where pupils were taught to aspire to “manly” virtues such as truth-telling, trustworthiness, and fair play. Here Beckett was a normal, athletically inclined, clean-cut boy who could be singled out by authorities as a student to be emulated.
When he entered Trinity College in Dublin in 1923, he enrolled in the arts faculty to study modern languages. At this time, Beckett was an intellectually, emotionally, and sexually undeveloped seventeen-year-old who continued to live under his parents’ roof. He showed little interest in anything Trinity had to offer other than sports facilities; his passions were golf, cricket, and motorbikes. In addition to theatergoing, Beckett discovered the cinema, notably the masters of comedy and pathos such as Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton. He would later become enamored with the Marx brothers and Laurel and Hardy, once silent movies were no more.
Toward the end of his second year at Trinity, Beckett began to take his studies seriously. One teacher, R. B. “Ruddy” Rudmose-Brown, professor of Romance languages, had a profound and lasting effect on Beckett’s intellectual development. Under Rudmose-Brown’s tutelage, Beckett read all sixteen of Jean Racine’s plays, the influence of which can be seen in his own works as they observe, or closely, the three unities as Racine had derived them from Aristotle. In the autumn of 1927, after a summer trip to Florence on a traveling scholarship, Beckett took his degree, coming first in his class in modern languages and receiving a gold medal as well as fifty pounds.
Thanks to the influence of Rudmose-Brown, Beckett secured a job as a French teacher in Campbell College, Belfast, which was the main alternative to Portora for boys of...
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