Other Literary Forms (Critical Survey of Poetry)
Samuel Beckett is far better known for his fiction and plays than for his poetry, even though it was as a poet that he began his writing career. In fact, Beckett explored almost every literary form, writing in English and in French. His early fiction, the collection of stories More Pricks than Kicks (1934) and the novels Murphy (1938) and Watt (1953), was written originally in English, but his best-known fictions, including the trilogy of Molloy (1951; English translation, 1955), Malone meurt (1951; Malone Dies, 1956), and L’Innomable (1953; The Unnamable, 1958), and Comment c’est (1961; How It Is, 1964) and Le Dèpeupleur (1971; The Lost Ones, 1972) were written and published originally in French. From the beginning, Beckett’s greatest strength was as an innovator, writing prose works which do not seem to fit easily into traditional categories but which extend the possibilities of contemporary fiction and which have had a profound influence on the writers who have followed him.
Beckett was also a writer of plays, and, when his name is mentioned, most people think of En attendant Godot (pb. 1952; Waiting for Godot, 1954). This difficult theatrical work met with astounding success...
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Achievements (Critical Survey of Poetry)
When the Swedish Academy selected Samuel Beckett to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1969, the award only confirmed what critics and readers had known for some time: that he is one of the most important literary figures of the late twentieth century. Few authors in the history of literature have attracted as much critical attention as Beckett, and with good reason; he is both an important figure in his own right and a transitional thinker whose writings mark the end of modernism and the beginning of a new sensibility, postmodernism. The modernists of the early twentieth century—James Joyce, W. H. Auden, Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, and others—were stunned by the absurdity of their world. Previous generations had filled that world with philosophical, religious, and political meanings, but their orderly vision of reality no longer seemed to apply to life in the early 1900’s. The modernists lacked the faith of their forebears; they had experienced the chaos of the modern world with its potential for global war and the destruction of civilization, and they believed that the order of reality was a fiction, that life was unknowable. In response to their doubts, they turned literature in upon itself, separating it from life, creating an art for its own sake. These writers trusted in language to create new meanings, new knowledge, and a separate, artistic human universe.
As a young man, Beckett also experienced this sense of absurdity and...
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Other Literary Forms (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Although Samuel Beckett began to write for publication in the pre-World War II period, he had little success until after the war. His first worldwide acclaim came as a dramatist, with the production of the play En attendant Godot (Waiting for Godot) first in Paris in 1952, in French, then in 1954 in London, in English. His ultimate reputation was to rest primarily on his plays, but he was also a novelist, again of major importance. His three novels Molloy (1951; English translation, 1955), Malone meurt (1951; Malone Dies, 1956), and L’Innommable (1953; The Unnamable, 1958) can be read separately but are, in fact, usually published under the title Trilogy and are his best work in that medium. He is also an interesting literary critic and something of a poet, but his greatest contributions have been to drama and the novel.
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Achievements (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Samuel Beckett is the unchallenged master of “absurd” literature, not only in English but also in French, which he often used as the original language for his work. He is, for many critics, the great novelist, and, at the same time, the great dramatist of the second half of the twentieth century, despite the fact that he is not a popular writer; his work is often difficult to read, pays very little attention to pleasing the reader or the audience, and is generally pessimistic and often repetitious.
Despite his late recognition and the lack of much published material in his later years, Beckett was a prolific writer in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and his occasional works after that time, usually in the form of short fictions (which were sometimes cheekily called “novels”), were always received with great interest. There is a large critical industry providing comment upon his work, not only because of its artistic quality or experimental daring but also because of its themes and attitude, which are recognized as authentically, if disturbingly, accurate in representing the relentlessly despairing sensibility of much of the post-World War II intelligentsia, particularly in Europe. His work in general, even when it seems eccentrically ambiguous, has a ring of credibility that mirrors the angst and helplessness of late twentieth century life in the face of worldwide unrest and violence. He has made art out of human beings’ failure to find meaning in a...
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Other Literary Forms (Critical Survey of Drama, Second Revised Edition)
Samuel Beckett worked in literary forms other than drama. Although his radio plays, film script, and teleplays may be viewed as dramas that differ only in their use of various media, they nevertheless indicate his versatile and experimental approach to literary form. In prose fiction, he wrote both novels and short stories. The trilogy of novels, Molloy (1951; English translation, 1955), Malone meurt (1951; Malone Dies, 1956), and L’Innommable (1953; The Unnamable, 1958), written in French between 1947 and 1949, constitutes a major accomplishment in the genre. These works, like the earlier novel Murphy (1938), developed a monologue style of unique tone, with which Beckett had first begun to experiment in his short stories, collected as More Pricks than Kicks (1934). His first published literary work, however, was a poem on time and René Descartes, Whoroscope (1930), which won for him a prize; this work was followed by a collection of poems entitled Echo’s Bones and Other Precipitates (1935). Beckett also turned to translations of Spanish poetry with Octavio Paz’s An Anthology of Mexican Poetry in 1958. In addition, he distinguished himself with his several translations of his own work, from English into French (such as Murphy) and French into English (such as Malone meurt); Beckett continued this practice throughout his career as dramatist, notably with...
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Achievements (Critical Survey of Drama, Second Revised Edition)
Samuel Beckett is famous for his fiction and drama, which he wrote both in French and in English. Waiting for Godot established the Irish Beckett as a unique writer because he elected the French language as his primary means of composition and English as his secondary one. The success of Endgame and Krapp’s Last Tape, as well as his trilogy of French novels, led to Trinity College’s awarding Beckett an honorary doctorate in 1959. Beckett also explored radio, cinema, and television for his art. So conscious was he of style that people disappeared into mere voices, mere echoes, and his plays could be called, as one was, ironically, simply Play, performed in 1963 at about the same time as his screenplay, Film, was being made. In 1961, Beckett received the International Publishers’ Prize with Jorge Luis Borges, and in 1970, he was awarded the Nobel Prizein Literature for artistic achievements that define the ironic stance of modern reactions to an increasingly meaningless existence.
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Other literary forms (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
Samuel Beckett produced work in every literary genre. His first book, published in 1931, was the critical study Proust, and during the next fifteen years, Beckett published a number of essays and book reviews that have yet to be collected in book form. After struggling with an unpublished play titled Eleutheria in the late 1940’s (which was eventually published in 1995), he began publication of the series of plays that are as important as his novels to his current literary reputation. These include, notably, En attendant Godot (pb. 1952; Waiting for Godot, 1954),“Fin de partie,” suivi de “Acte sans paroles” (pr., pb. 1957; music by John Beckett;“Endgame: A Play in One Act,” Followed by “Act Without Words: A Mime for One Player,” 1958), Krapp’s Last Tape (pr., pb. 1958), Happy Days (pr., pb. 1961), and many short pieces for the stage, including mimes. In addition to these works for the stage, he wrote scripts for television, such as Eh Joe (1966; Dis Joe, 1967); scripts for radio, such as All That Fall (1957; revised 1968); and one film script, titled Film (1965). Most, but not all, of Beckett’s many short stories are gathered in various collections, including More Pricks than Kicks (1934), Nouvelles et textes pour rien (1955; Stories and Texts for Nothing, 1967), No’s Knife: Collected Shorter Prose,...
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Achievements (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
Samuel Beckett did not begin to write his most important works until he was forty years of age, and he had to wait some time beyond that for widespread recognition of his literary achievements. By the time he received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1969, however, he had established a solid reputation as one of the most important and demanding authors of plays and novels in the twentieth century.
In the 1930’s, when he began to write, Beckett seemed destined for the sort of footnote fame that has overtaken most of his English and Irish literary companions of that decade. His work appeared to be highly derivative of the avant-garde coterie associated with Transition magazine and especially of the novels of James Joyce, who as an elder Irish expatriate in Paris befriended and encouraged the young Beckett. By the time Beckett was forty years old and trying to salvage a literary career disrupted by World War II, his anonymity was such that his own French translation of his first novel, Murphy, had sold exactly six copies. At the same time he presented his skeptical Paris publisher with another manuscript.
Nevertheless, it was at that time—the late 1940’s—that Beckett blossomed as a writer. He withdrew into a voluntary solitude he himself referred to as “the siege in the room,” began to compose his works in French rather than in English, and shed many of the mannerisms of his earlier work. The immediate result was the...
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Discussion Topics (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
What might be the reasons for Samuel Beckett’s dismissing his anti-Nazi activities as “Boy Scout stuff”?
Is Waiting for Godot political? Explain the basis of your conclusion.
The word “endgame” is taken from chess but pertains to the stage of a game before a decision is actually reached. What implications does this word have as the title of Beckett’s play?
To what extent are Beckett’s puns and jokes important in his mature novels and plays?
English is considered a large and resourceful language, but Beckett often wrote in French. What characteristics of English seem to be contrary to his writing habits?
In Molloy, there is a scene about sucking pebbles. Does it have reference to the story of Demosthenes, who thereby developed his oratorical powers, or is it about a man trying to solve a problem of rotation, or is it something else entirely?
Does James Joyce’s influence continue to pervade Beckett’s mature work, or has he by this time succeeded in overcoming that influence?
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Bibliography (Critical Survey of Poetry)
Acheson, James. Samuel Beckett’s Artistic Theory and Practice: Criticism, Drama, and Early Fiction. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. An examination of Beckett’s literary viewpoint as it expressed itself in his drama and early fiction. Bibliography and index.
Alvarez, Alfred. Beckett. 2d ed. London: Fontana, 1992. A short, lively, and sometimes opinionated discussion of Beckett by a critic who does not altogether trust the author and who knows how to argue not only for his strengths but also against his limitations. Contains a good short discussion of the intellectual climate that precipitated absurd literature.
Bair, Deirdre. Samuel Beckett: A Biography. 1978. Reprint. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993. Although Beckett was often reluctant to talk about himself, he cooperated with Bair. It is the fullest, most helpful version of his life in print, and to know his life is to understand his art. Contains good illustrations. The criticism of the specific texts is often limited, but Bair is very good at putting the work in conjunction with his very odd life.
Beckett, Samuel. Comment C’est, How It Is and/et L’image: A Critical-Genetic Edition. Edited by Edouard Magessa O’Reilly. New York: RoutledgeFalmer, 2001. The English and French language versions of the works, side-by- side, plus Beckett’s own appendices and O’Reilly’s editorial assistance to the reader of these difficult...
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