For someone born on Good Friday, April 13th it was not surprising that such double luck might suggest something special was to be expected. So, Beckett, who was born in Foxrock, Co Dublin in 1906, went on to become one of the most important writers of the 20th century and an inspiration to dramatists like Vaclav Havel, Tom Stoppard and Harold Pinter. His influence on the Beat Generation and their ‘experimental writing’ was vital for Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and many others.
Beckett’s father William, who traced his lineage back to the Huguenots, was a quantity surveyor and successful property developer and had the family house Cooldrinagh built in 1903. His wife Mary Jones Roe was a nurse and they had married in 1901 and Frank, their first son was born the following year. The local woods and open fields of the surrounding countryside were an area where the young Sam often walked with his father, and he often referenced them used them in his writing.
He attended junior school in Dublin before going as a boarder to Portora Royal School (1919-1923) in Enniskillen where Oscar Wilde had once been a pupil. He returned to Dublin and entered Dublin University (Trinity College) where he studied Modern Languages from 1923-1927. He was a bright student and a competitive athlete, excelling at tennis and cricket. Playing as a left-handed batsman he took to the field in two first-class matches against Northamptonshire and, as such, has the unique distinction of being the only Nobel laureate (Awarded in 1969) to be mentioned in Wisden Cricketers’ Almanac – cricket’s ‘bible’.
He graduated first in his class and briefly lectured at Campbell College, Belfast. He soon tired of this and with his college first behind him he was invited to be a reader in English at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris in 1928. There he met James Joyce, who was basking in the glory of having written Ulysses in 1922, the controversial, modern novel that made his name. Beckett was invited to join Joyce’s inner circle and helped him in carrying out research for his next project – Finnegans Wake.
In 1930 he returned to Ireland to take up a post as lecturer in French at Trinity College, but he left in December 1931 after only four terms. This was his final fling with teaching and he went off on an extended tour of the Continent. He did odd jobs and wrote short stories, poems to earn money and filled many notebooks with notes about places and people that would provide inspiration in the following years. He hated the cruelty of the Nazi regime that he had seen in Germany and in 1937 finally decided to settle in Paris. Before that he returned to Dublin where Murphy was published the following year. Then he fell out with his mother who he was more like than his father and returned to Paris, and did not see her again until after the war.
The Samuel Beckett Bridge (on the Liffey) 2009
Back in Paris Beckett almost died when he was stabbed in the chest by a pimp after he had refused his solicitations. The knife missed his heart by inches and it was during his stay in hospital that he met Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnuil who was to become his life-long companion and greatest supporter. She was in Paris studying piano and they had met once before at a social gathering, but after this they became lovers and eventually married in a secret wedding in Folkestone, Kent in March 1961.
During World War II, Beckett’s Irish citizenship allowed him to remain in Paris as a citizen of a neutral country. He joined the Resistance movement but he and Suzanne fled Paris when some members of their group were arrested by the Gestapo in 1942. They spent weeks making their way, on foot, to Roussillon, in south east France, where they worked as farm labourers until late 1944. After the war, Beckett was awarded the Croix de Guerre for bravery during his time in the French Resistance. He, however, was typically understated at his efforts referring them to them as ‘boy scouts stuff’. His most famous work Waiting for Godot has been described as “a metaphor for the long walk to safety, when Beckett and Suzanne slept in haystacks during the day and walked and talked by night.”
He returned to Dublin in 1946 and stayed with his mother for a while. And it was here that he had a revelation that would direct his writing from that moment. Fearful of remaining in Joyce’s shadow he was prompted to change direction and find his own path. ‘I realized that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, of being in control of one’s material. He was always adding to it; you only have to look at his proofs to see that. I realized that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than in adding.’
Beckett’s most famous work
He and Suzanne returned to their pre-war apartment in Paris where he had his most prolific period as a writer. In five years, he wrote Eleutheria, Waiting for Godot, Endgame, the novels Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable, and Mercier et Camier, two books of short stories and a book of criticism. Although he was a native English speaker, he wrote in French because, as he reasoned, it was easier for him to write ‘without style’.
Having completed Godot he was unhappy with the lack of response from publishers and it was Suzanne who badgered them until Beckett’s work was recognised. Godot was written between 9 October 1948 and 29 January 1949 and had its premiere on 5 January 1953 in the Théâtre de Babylone, Paris and ran for over 400 performances. This brought Beckett international recognition and the English language version was premiered in London in 1955. In a poll conducted by the British Royal National Theatre it was voted the ‘most significant English language play of the 20th century’.
Beckett focuses on the essential elements of the human condition in dark humorous ways in a style that was called ‘Theater of the Absurd’. His plays focus on human despair and the determination to survive in a hopeless world that offers no help in understanding.
Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969 and died on 22nd December 1989. He is buried with Suzanne, who had died five months earlier, in Montparnasse Cemetery and they share a simple granite gravestone that follows his instruction that it should be ‘any colour, so long as it’s grey’.
Grave in Montparnasse Cemetery