Samuel Beckett Samuel Beckett World Literature Analysis

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Samuel Beckett World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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“I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” Those last words of L’Innommable (1953; The Unnamable, 1958), the final volume of The Trilogy, tend to summarize the author’s mature output both in prose fiction and in drama, in which human life and aspirations are reduced to bare essentials; in the short novel Comment c’est (1961; How It Is, 1964), two characters, presumably the last remnant of the human species, crawl toward each other through mud, subsisting on a diet of canned sardines left behind by a now-vanished civilization. In the memorable “Fin de partie,” suivi de “Acte sans paroles” (pr., pb. 1957; Endgame: A Play in One Act; Followed by Act Without Words: A Mime for One Player, 1958), a Beckettian mime tries all possible human options, including suicide, only to end in apathy, waiting—for what? It is perhaps no accident that Beckett’s creative “breakthrough” came in midlife with the first performances (in Paris) of Waiting for Godot, a visible illustration, three-dimensional when staged, of the “waiting” that, in Beckett’s developing vision, was characteristic of all human life. Is all of humanity, as one of his characters would later say in Endgame, waiting for “it,” meaning life, to end? If not, then what is humankind awaiting?

Born with the verbal instincts of the traditional Irish poet, Beckett defined himself early in life as a writer and apprenticed himself to James Joyce, arguably the outstanding Irish writer of his own time or any other and a leading exponent of high modernism. Unfortunately, Beckett’s early work remains not only hopelessly derivative of Joyce but also quite immature in its convoluted jokes, puns, and mannerisms. Indeed, it was not until after World War II, when Beckett began writing originally in French, that he would discover and assert a truly original talent that would forever distance him from Joyce’s direct influence.

When asked, the normally reticent, even taciturn Beckett would give various cryptic explanations for his choice of writing idiom, perhaps the best-remembered of which is that it was easier for him to write “without style” in French. At the very least, the works composed originally in French are notably spare and deceptively simple, refreshingly free of the mannerisms that had marred Beckett’s early works in English. Significantly, the new spareness of style would carry over into Beckett’s own English versions of his works, as well as into those few later efforts, most notably Krapp’s Last Tape, composed originally in English. Arguably, the evolution of Beckett’s mature style had as much to do with his wartime experiences as with his change of language. Waiting for Godot, although set at no specific time, was assumed by many early commentators to be taking place in France during the Nazi occupation; indeed, the moral and psychological landscape of his late work suggests the “ground zero” of a world laid waste by postatomic war.

At once simple and complex, Beckett’s plays and novels of the 1950’s attracted many would-be interpreters; by the time Beckett won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1969, his work had spawned a major academic industry, with dozens of books and articles already in print and dozens more to follow. Not infrequently, the various readings of Beckett tended to contradict one another; Beckett himself, maintaining a nearly reclusive silence that may or may not have been a pose, refused most requests to discuss or to explain his work, allowing critics of all persuasions to interpret his texts however they chose. By his middle sixties, Beckett, renowned as the creator of antiheroes for the stage, had himself become an anticelebrity of sorts, rarely seen, heard, or photographed yet assured that even the slightest of his new publications would attract enthusiastic attention. By the time of his death at eighty-three, only twenty years after he had received the Nobel Prize, Beckett’s work and the legend generated by his reputation had...

(The entire section is 3,775 words.)