James Knowlson, chair of French at the University of Reading, England, and the official biographer and long-time friend of Beckett, retraces in great detail and with an evident understanding of Beckett’s foibles and strengths, idiosyncrasies and philosophy, the path that led him to be celebrated as one of this century’s greatest writers.
Samuel Beckett was the second of two sons born to May Roe and Bill Beckett in Foxrock, County Dublin, on April 13, 1906. The Becketts were descended from Huguenots who emigrated to Ireland from France in the eighteenth century. Samuel’s mother, a strict and demanding figure, possessed a rather rebellious nature and stubborn streak which Samuel was to inherit. His father, a member of a successful quantity surveying firm, was a lover of the outdoors and instilled this joy in his son, who had inherited the athletic prowess of his father’s family.
At the age of thirteen, Beckett was enrolled in Portora Royal School, where, withdrawn, moody, and introspective, at first, he did not fit easily into the schoolboy community. His violent temper and skills in self-defense, as well as his qualities as a witty companion, characterized his adolescent social demeanor. Beckett was an excellent pupil in Latin and French, and was an avid reader of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories and those of the humorist Stephen Leacock. The latter’s wit, parodies, wordplay, and interest in unusual words appealed to Beckett’s intelligence. Generally, Beckett ended up adapting well to school life. This was greatly facilitated by his abilities as an all-around athlete. Rugby, rowing, swimming, cricket, and boxing were Beckett’s preferred sports, activities in which he excelled. The formative years spent at Portora Royal School encouraged Beckett to become aware of his strengths and limitations. During this time, Beckett came to form a set of demanding standards to which his somewhat puritanical nature aspired.
When, at the age of seventeen, Beckett entered Dublin’s Trinity College in 1923, he was a shy, retiring undergraduate intending to study for an arts degree. Still involved in sports, it was his passion for words, literature, and art that was to develop most dramatically at Trinity College. Thomas Rudmose-Brown, professor of Romance languages, exerted significant influence over Beckett, both in the context of his academic formation—reading and discussing literature—and in reinforcing the ideal of individual freedom. Rudmose-Brown, keenly interested in modern French literature, and in poetry in particular, was admired by Beckett because of his knowledge of the Paris literary scene of the time. It was he who introduced Beckett to the work of the poet Jean-Pierre Jouve, as well as to the works of Surrealists such as Paul Éluard, André Breton, and René Crevel. Later, Beckett would translate some of the works of these poets. During this period, Beckett developed a deep love for French and Italian, which were his honors subjects, and for theater, cinema, and art.
In the summer of 1928, on his return to Dublin from a year teaching French and English at Campbell College in Belfast, Beckett met his young first cousin, Peggy Sinclair, with whom he developed a romance. Beckett’s parents were violently opposed to such a relationship, and when Peggy enrolled in a program of study at a school of music, dance, and movement in Austria, Beckett visited her, contrary to the wishes of his parents. The affair eventually ended because of Beckett’s unwillingness to have a physical relationship with Sinclair.
Following his stay in Vienna, Beckett took up a position as lecteur d’anglais at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in Paris. Here Beckett made the acquaintance of James Joyce whose works—Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, and various poems—he greatly admired. Both men had degrees in French and Italian. Both shared a fervent anticlericalism, a passionate love of Dante and of words—sounds, rhythms, etymologies. They also shared a keen interest in the work of Franz Schubert, Paul Cézanne, and the films of Charlie Chaplin. Beckett became a part of the Joyce circle, celebrating family birthdays, attending receptions at the Joyce apartment, and developing a friendship with Joyce’s daughter, Lucia. When Lucia Joyce realized that Beckett did not have any romantic interest in her, partially because of her wild and disturbing mood fluctuations that would later become more acute, Beckett became persona non grata at the Joyce apartment. Joyce’s wife blamed Beckett for leading Lucia on; Joyce played the role of outraged father and banished Beckett from the household. Beckett was devastated by his rift with Joyce, which was eventually repaired when Joyce came to recognize how ill his daughter was.
Paris was a revelation to Beckett. Far...
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