At age seventy-five, Samuel Beckett is unquestionably established as a great writer and equally great presence. Like Gustave Flaubert, Henry James, Franz Kafka, and James Joyce, he personifies the integrity, dignity, and solitude of the profession of letters at its noblest. Like theirs, his is the compulsive ministry of great art, with no concessions to the bustling temptations of commercial life.
As a person, Beckett is reclusive, shy, mysterious, guarding his privacy as jealously as his works guard their essential meanings. Close friends swear to his genius for companionship once he has dropped his reserve. They testify to his wry humor, his remarkable ability to make those around him feel the better for his presence. Beckett’s published photographs, however, show dominant expressions of pain and sorrow: the famous aquiline profile, furrowed forehead, sparrow hawk eyes and cheeks, wide-eyed and anguished stare.
Beckett is an artist of nuance and scruple who is an exquisite stylist in English and French, usually writing each of his works in both languages. Although best known as a playwright and novelist, he has also written poetry, critical essays (on Joyce and Marcel Proust), radio plays, and scripts for films and television.
As a writer, Beckett is a metaphysical pointillist who specializes in rendering humanity’s dark-forest moods. The tone of his work is that of a calm and horrible lucidity which regards the storm of man’s violent rebellion as over, and all illusions of progress and stability as shattered. For him, agonizing chance and disorder rule the world, with man’s reason a ludicrously inadequate instrument for comprehending, let alone controlling it. The entire machinery of existence seems to be grinding to a halt. Words leave his characters’ mouths between pauses and in slow motion, as if each had to be lifted from a safe and smuggled into the light from a sparse stock. His scenery is either fossilized (the bare, gnarled tree of Waiting for Godot), or funereal (the ashcans of Endgame, urns of Play, mound of earth in Happy Days). Man is maimed and buried alive in these props, with Beckett dramatizing the degradation and mutilation of the body as his image for the withering away of the soul.
His plays and even more his fiction are ruminative, static, close-to-immobile. His characters usually lack motivated personalities, professions, social classes, personal histories, and intense passions. He depicts the death of Western civilization’s stock premises: parental and filial devotion, familial cohesion, sexual attraction, marital love, and belief in progress, empirical knowledge, and God’s caring presence. He is beyond (or beneath) any revolt or affirmation, insisting on intoning an elegiac, melancholic ode to Despair.
Beckett’s most recent works have been brief, cryptic, enigmatic—perhaps broken fragments of his apocalyptic vision. They have the effect of posthumous messages from the void. In That Time (1977), for example, the audience / reader of this short play confronts an old man’s head which does nothing but breathe. Three separate recordings of the man’s voice come to him “from both sides and above. They modulate back and forth without any break in general flow except where silence is indicated.” As in the brilliant Krapp’s Last Tape (1958), these are a trio of memorial fountains pouring treasured episodes from his past upon him: the feel of stones, of sunlight on a particular day, of a love, of a last departure. The general tone is...
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