Beckett, Samuel (Vol. 14)
Beckett, Samuel 1906–
Beckett is an Irish-born playwright, novelist, poet, critic, essayist, short story writer, and translator who now resides in Paris and writes predominantly in French. He is usually grouped with Pinter, Genet, and Ionesco as a member of the Theatre of the Absurd and explores existential, absurdist themes in all of his creative work. His themes are reinforced by a literary style that experiments with formlessness and fragmented language, reflecting the influence of James Joyce, to whom Beckett was both secretary and literary colleague. The recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969, Beckett has had a major influence on contemporary drama. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 10, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
[No] one has been more felicitous in illustrating black humor than Winnie in Beckett's Happy Days, as she asks the rhetorical question: "How can one better magnify the Almighty than by sniggering with him at his little jokes, particularly the poorer ones?"… (p. 89)
One usually remembers with glee the scene in Gulliver's Travels where he tells about his arrival in the land of the Lilliputians and—frightening monster that he appears to be—has to submit to a minute search of his person by the country's officers. "I took up the two officers in my hands," he reports, "put them first into my coat-pockets, and then into every other pocket about me, except my two fobs, and another secret pocket which I had no mind should be searched, wherein I had some little necessaries that were of no consequence to any but myself. In one of my fobs there was a silver watch, and in the other a small quantity of gold in a purse." (p. 90)
If Swift's humor … provides us with a satire of and an insight into the spirit of the eighteenth century by revealing to us the content of Gulliver's pockets, Beckett's humor displays before us a great number of characters provided with or even contained in pockets and redolent of the spirit of our age as well as timelessly pointing beyond it. (p. 95)
It is perhaps because Beckett's protagonists are so often on the go, and carry all their belongings with them, that...
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Mark J. Sachner
Beckett's novels push the concern of art beyond its visible object, beyond even "the fiction of the artist" in the act of manipulating that object, and deep into the artistic consciousness as it perceives itself in action. Beckett uses the novel and the necessary presence of a narrator to focus on the problems that are inherent in the basic narrative task of telling a story, the act which is the narrative premise of his trilogy—Molloy, Molone Dies and The Unnamable—and of How It Is. But before the Beckettian story can be told, an initial act of perception must occur as the springboard for the narrative. The object perceived by Beckett's characters and narrators can be either external or internal, and the resultant form and content of the novel are largely determined by that object. Viewed chronologically, each of his narratives moves progressively away from plot as its key ingredient and toward a growing concern with the acrobatics of language and consciousness within the narrative act itself. Hence, the initial act of perception in Beckett's novels is usually of the self at work, telling stories, creating fictions: stories and fictions about the self at work, telling stories, creating fictions.
In Murphy and Watt, his characters are distinguished by the tight, behavorial grip which they compulsively maintain on themselves and on their personal environments…. Each man turns the world of...
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J. D. O'Hara
In English the Irish are the great sentimentalists. The dour Scots, the babbling Welsh, and the destiny-laden English are not in it for sheer heart-wringing sentiment, the chuckle that stops short in a sob, the tear in the sparkling eye. Pause now for an ad hoc definition: sentimentality emphasizes not the racking passions—snarling hatred, implacable resentment, love that makes the heart leap in its bone-cage—no, not those, but the retrospective melancholy of sweet love lost, life's intensity cooled, chances missed and the road not taken, the living backwards with one's wet eye fixed on what might have been, with the absurd conviction that what can never come again was unutterably valuable … ah there! and ah then! Paradise lost, in short, with the addition offered by Samuel Beckett, that the only true paradise is the paradise that has been lost.
In art, especially in Irish art, as in life, the signs of sentimentality are easy to read: the dying fall and the fragmented speech; the gesture halfhearted and abortive, as when the arms that reached out briefly toward another return to hug the self; the tale set in the past and told with the brevity of a foreknown defeat, reaching no climax, fizzling out…. No one recently has chronicled this post-Finnegan fall better than Samuel Beckett.
There is no intention here to sell sentimentality short. Not only is it a valid basis for grasping at life's fleeting...
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Robert Martin Adams
Beckett is Irish as was Joyce; but there is no sign that the politics of Irish independence ever disturbed Beckett as they did the writer who was eighteen years his senior…. Beckett makes only vague, distant, and occasional allusions to Ireland in his fiction. Names of characters apart, a couple of hundred words deleted from his four-hundred-page trilogy would efface every recognizable vestige of Ireland and the Irish. Irish folklore and Irish humor hardly exist in Beckett's world, even for purposes of parody or sardonic comment…. Beckett could much more properly, be described as a Parisian who was born in Ireland…. (pp. 90-1)
Beckett is … [close] to wholly mythless man; the philosophical problem which preoccupies him is the relation or non-relation between the mind and exterior reality, and to this problem ecclesiasticism, with all its trappings, is wholly irrelevant. Joyce sees through the exterior tegument of the world to a meaning hidden behind its physical texture; Beckett, in traditional Protestant fashion, hears inner voices. They do not seem to say the traditional things to him or to his characters, but they guide both along that quest or pilgrimage which is the oldest and most traditional of Protestant metaphors for the spiritual life. In their different unbelieving ways, both Joyce and Beckett are haunted by the doubt that the God in whom they disbelieve may exist, probably as a secret, malignant force concerned...
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Though the originality and durability of Beckett's novels and plays assure his reputation as a major writer of our time, his work as poet has attracted far less sympathetic attention. All the while expanding that "gallery of moribunds" he has made so authentically his own, Beckett has been writing poems on the sly…. Distilled from the hardy irregularities of Joycean rhetoric, Beckett's voice in verse has the same haunting cadence, the same "dour questing," the same "dread nay" we recognize from his drama and prose. Like some "death-mask of unrivalled beauty," Beckett's poetry offers us a very unexpected detour into the formalities of lyrical structure.
Beckett's lyricism will come as no surprise to audiences accustomed to his skillful transformation of the prosaic into the poetic. Even in Waiting for Godot, where two tramps mark time in an almost empty eternity where all certainty is provisional, the playwright presents us with a drama of indirect action reminiscent of Chekhov's stage lyricism….
Beckett's voice can be most vigorously poetic when he is not writing specifically in poetry. Some of his most lyrical statements take place when we are least likely to expect them. Crawling in the mud, buried up to the waist in a mound of earth, listening all alone to a tape recorder roll on to silence, or making "immaculate" love in a garbage dump, Beckett's dramatic and fictional characters forever impress us...
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Perhaps because his father was not religious, Beckett seems to have felt no anguish in turning away from the Anglican beliefs of his youth; his mother, on the other hand, was deeply religious in a rather narrow evangelical way. Loss of faith, however, clearly has not prevented him from exploiting his Protestant heritage, any more than it prevented James Joyce from exploiting his Catholic one….
A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man has made millions of readers aware of the thoroughness of Joyce's Catholic education under the Jesuits. It is not generally known, however, that Beckett's Anglican training was almost as thorough. The religious education he received at his mother's knee is vividly dramatized by the famous photograph of him kneeling to pray there at an early age. His years from four to nearly fourteen doubtless saw little slackening in that training, and the ensuing three-and-a-half years as a boarder at Portora Royal School, Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, unquestionably subjected him to a sternly evangelical regime. Founded by none other than the King James I of England who gave his "special command" for the famous Bible translation, Portora has usually had a Church of Ireland clergyman as Headmaster. (p. 266)
One could argue that all his Portora religious training was wasted on Beckett because he lost his faith soon after leaving the school. I believe, on the contrary, that it reinforced his...
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Anthony S. Brennan
Most of Beckett's characters have, to put it mildly, come down in the world. From the heroic heights of freewheeling movement that some of them achieve on bicycles, they journey backwards down the evolutionary ladder to a reptilian crawling in mud, or even to the vegetable condition of Winnie in Happy Days…. Virtually all of the quotations Winnie uses come from literature that is concerned with confronting death or with despair at the limited amount of time we have on earth. Beckett knows how many writers have charted this territory before him. But Winnie tosses off these deeply troubled moments as though they were jingles…. Beckett chooses his quotations with great care and they are all more deeply relevant to Winnie's condition than she realizes. (pp. 205-06)
Beckett is not the kind of writer who could say with Eliot of his literary allusions "These fragments I have shored against my ruins." His use of great literature is as self-consciously deliberate and as ironical as Eliot's, but it is not shaped by nostalgia nor directed by a conservative temper. Eliot wishes to remind us how far we have fallen away from the standards of the earlier aristocratic cultures of the western tradition. He offers literary allusions and parodies as touchstones by which we may recognize the hideous banality of the modern world and thereby return to higher spiritual values. Beckett's purpose is entirely opposite, for he relentlessly asserts...
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