Samuel Beckett 1906-1989
(Full name Samuel Barclay Beckett) Irish-born French short-story writer, dramatist, novelist, scriptwriter, poet, essayist, and translator.
The following entry provides criticism on Beckett's short fiction from 1991 through 2002. See also Samuel Beckett Literary Criticism (Introduction), and Volumes 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 11, 18.
One of the most celebrated writers in twentieth-century literature, Beckett is known for his significant impact on the development of the short story and novel forms as well as on contemporary drama. His works expound a philosophy of negation through characters who face a meaningless and absurd existence without the comforts of religion, myth, or philosophical absolutes. Often described as fragments rather than stories, his short fiction in particular evidences his use of sparse, economical language and stark images of alienation and absurdity to present truths that are free of rhetorical embellishment.
Beckett was born on April 13, 1906, and raised in Foxrock, near Dublin, Ireland. In 1927 he received his B.A. in French and Italian from Trinity College in Dublin. Beckett taught French for a short period in Belfast before receiving a fellowship to the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. There he met James Joyce, who had a profound influence on Beckett's early writing. Beckett returned to Trinity College in 1930 for his M.A., after which he accepted a position as a French instructor at the college. In 1932 he resigned his post at Trinity to move back to Paris and concentrate on his writing. When World War II began, he worked for the French Resistance and was forced to flee Paris when the Nazis discovered his activities. After the war, Beckett began writing almost exclusively in French and translating his work into English, beginning his most prolific and, according to many commentators, his most artistically complex period. In 1969 Beckett received the Nobel Prize for literature. He died in Paris in 1989.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Beckett published More Pricks than Kicks, his first collection of short stories, in 1934. A series of related episodes describing the adventures of a fictional Irishman named Belacqua Shuah, More Pricks than Kicks derived in part from Beckett's unpublished novel Dream of Fair to Middling Women (1992). In the collection, Beckett used an elaborate prose style and language derivative of Joyce. Most of Beckett's subsequent works of short fiction were originally written in French and translated into English by Beckett. Nouvelles et texts pour rien (1955; Stories and Texts for Nothing) consists of three stories and thirteen prose fragments. The three stories feature protagonists whose lives are desolate and at the same time highly comic. The prose fragments are rhetorically formalized vignettes with minimal narrative characterization. Beckett's style reached the extremes of minimalism in the 1960s and 1970s when he abandoned both conventional plot and conventional syntax, stripping his language down to fragmented phrases and one-word expressions to mirror what he considered the difficulty, if not impossibility, of human communication. Imagination morte imaginez (1965; Imagination Dead Imagine) takes place in an abstract rotunda, “all white in the whiteness,” where two bodies reside in a state of minimal existence. Bing (1966; Ping) uses depersonalized, machine-like language to describe a box containing a faceless and nameless figure. In Assez (1966; Enough), Beckett returned to a more traditional prose style. The first person monologue combines romantic and scientific language to describe a lost relationship. Sans (1969; Lessness) is perhaps the most extreme example of Beckett's experimentation with language in his short fiction. Beckett wrote sixty sentences, placed each in one of six groups containing ten sentences, and drew sentences randomly to create a work of art ordered by chance. Le dépeupleur (1970; The Lost Ones) examines the possibility that those who stop struggling against hopelessness will be the most content. Companie (1979; Company) depicts the thoughts of an individual lying in bed alone in the dark.
Initial response to More Pricks than Kicks was mixed. While the book received positive reviews outside of Ireland, Irish commentators found its ornate style distasteful. Several commentators have investigated the influence of Joyce's Dubliners on the collection. Beckett's later short works fared better with critics as the critical schools of Post-structuralism and Deconstruction complemented his linguistic experimentation. Some commentators have applied the linguistic theory of Jacques Derrida to Beckett's work and have explored the role of theology in his shorter texts. Recent criticism has focused on his short story “First Love” and its significance in Beckett's short fiction oeuvre. While generally not as highly regarded as his novels—particularly the trilogy Molloy (1951), Malone meurt (1951; Malone Dies), and L'innommable (1953; The Unnamable), considered his masterpiece—Beckett's short fiction is acclaimed for its verbal experimentation and artistic formalism. Although some commentators have debated the genre of some of his short prose works—classifying them alternatively as dramatic fragments, poetry, or short stories—most recognize the immense value of Beckett's short fiction and view him as a distinctive and innovative short-story writer.