Samuel Beckett Beckett, Samuel (Vol. 18)

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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Beckett, Samuel 1906–

Beckett is an Irish-born playwright, novelist, poet, critic, essayist, short story writer, and translator who now resides in Paris and writes predominantly in French. He is usually grouped with Pinter, Genet, and Ionesco as a member of the Theatre of the Absurd. Beckett, according to Robert Martin Adams, "has kept open the possibilities of humanity by cutting the throat of literature and forcing his readers to confront naked conditions of mere existence—without sham exhilaration or despair, but coldly, very coldly." His existential, absurdist themes are reinforced by a style that experiments with formlessness and fragmented language, reflecting the influence of James Joyce, to whom Beckett was both secretary and literary colleague. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969. Beckett has had a major influence on contemporary drama. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 10, 11, 14, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Jean-Jacques Mayoux

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[From] his earliest prose Beckett gives himself a persona, a personal representative whom he can know and probe as cosa mentale, yet he presents him at first as engaged in the non-existent external world, and his resource must then be to show the connexion as grotesque, so that the character alternately attempts it and withdraws from it, in burlesque indecision: this is what we may call the Belacqua phase of Beckett.

More Pricks than Kicks (1934) is (as might be guessed from its obscene though unassuming title) marked and annulled by the author's frantic self-consciousness: in these short stories Beckett is never done with torturing the language, which constantly approximates to fine writing and is constantly brought back to the level of jest or parody. The persona here is Belacqua, a character taken straight from Canto IV of the Purgatorio, where Dante sees him as 'more idle than if laziness itself were his sister'. In Dante's poem Belacqua is found among those souls who out of sheer sloth have always postponed repentance in their mortal life, and who are condemned to wait for their admission to Purgatory for a period equivalent to that of their stay on earth. Here we surely have a foretaste of Waiting for Godot. But it is worth noting that while for Dante's Belacqua 'waiting' is a period of expectancy and looking forward, for Beckett's it is a completely negative experience. At any rate in this character Beckett incarnates for the first time his wish for the physical, sentimental and mental immobility that should lead to a near-mystic quiet: such a state is in conflict with the pull of the world, represented by the obstinacy of desire, essentially sexual, and by the insistence of women. (p. 7)

Let us make a proposition: that the subject of each of Beckett's novels is exactly and entirely in its title, and that each represents an avatar of Beckett, who knows that he only exists and signifies to himself. We shall then admit that everything in Watt [1953] deals with aspects of Watt, including Mr Knott. A god-image, yes, of course: Knot, nought, Gott. (p. 13)

As Beckett sets his figures, before us whether Watt or Knott, a certain quite deliberate element of freedom and gratuitousness goes to their ornament and gives them a presence….

[Watt] leans heavily on a philosophical system which it half follows, half mocks and parodies, that of Leibnitz. Mr Knott as keystone of a Leibnitzian world may represent, in opposition to the single actuality effectively retained, the infinite number of possibles held in reserve: this is an idea on which the whole book thrives, since it contains page after page of enumerations arranged with incredible care and precision, of exhaustive and, some readers will say, exhausting series, making … a prose of numbers constructed like silent music. (p. 14)

Beckett's art had become in time more and more of a projection of images generated by his inner pressures; in other words it had become more and more expressionist because more and more oneiric; and because, in its...

(The entire section is 13,431 words.)