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Samuel Beckett – Less Is More

Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett

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

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

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

Grave in Montparnasse Cemetery

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Samuel Beckett – Less is Less!

Samuel Beckett in Trinity College

Samuel Beckett in Trinity College

For someone born on Friday 13th especially as it was also Good Friday (in 1906), something special could be expected. So it’s no surprise that Beckett, who was born in Foxrock, Co Dublin, 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 was educated originally in Dublin before attending Portora Royal School in Enniskillen (Oscar Wilde had once been a pupil) and then entering   Dublin University (Trinity College). He was a bright a student and an excellent athlete, excelling at cricket. He played two first-class matches against Northamptonshire and, as such, has the unique distinction of being the only Nobel laureate (1969) to be mentioned in Wisden Cricketers’ Almanac – cricket’s ‘bible’.

College Park - Beckett played cricket

College Park – Beckett played cricket

He went to Paris in 1927 to teach English and was soon introduced to James Joyce. Over the next two years, and with Joyce’s failing eyesight, he did much research on what would become Joyce’s last work Finnegans Wake. He was greatly impressed with the older man, and his first published work was a critical essay in support of Joyce.
After a short return to Dublin he went back to Paris when WWII began. He helped the French Resistance and in 1942 was lucky to escape capture by the Gestapo. His commitment was recognised after the war, when he was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French Government.
This was Beckett’s most productive period, highlighted by the completion in January 1949 of his play Waiting for Godot. This play is considered by many as one of the greatest works of the century and, like all masterpieces, has any number of interpretations. The critic Vivian Mercier commented that ‘Beckett has achieved a theoretical impossibility—a play in which nothing happens, that yet keeps audiences glued to their seats. What’s more, since the second act is a subtly different reprise of the first, he has written a play in which nothing happens, twice.’ Or more succinctly – less is less!

Gate Theatre - long relationship with  Beckett

Gate Theatre – long relationship with Beckett

 

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James Joyce – A Native Son

41, Brighton Square

41, Brighton Square

Although his native city features in all his writing, the relationship between the two was not easy. Joyce left Dublin when he was twenty-two years old and only returned for a few short visits. He lived in Trieste, Paris and died in Switzerland in 1941, aged fifty-nine, recognised as one of the major writers of the twentieth century. His influence on Modern writing is undeniable, and his native city is at the centre of his work.

He was born on 2nd February 1882 in 41, Brighton Square, Rathgar, which at the time was a recently laid out middle-class suburb. Joyce was the eldest of ten siblings born to John Stanislaus Joyce and Mary Jane Murray from whom he inherited his musical love and good voice, as she was an accomplished   pianist. His father frittered away his inheritance on different business ventures, and over the years the family sank into poverty making many late night departures from one house to another. The nomadic life was something Joyce understood, and during the years on the Continent moving house happened often.

JJ in St Stephen's Green

JJ in St Stephen’s Green

Joyce found the conservative religious atmosphere and the changing political landscape in Ireland too oppressive for creative thinking, and left for Paris. In this most cosmopolitan city, a place of tolerance in all areas, Joyce could grow as a writer and human being and encounter ‘the reality of experience’. It was the environment he needed, and even though his financial position did not noticeably improve, the freedom to think and write was paramount.

It is interesting that Joyce, although ‘exiled’ from the city that he disliked for its shortcomings and conservative mindset, still chose to use it as the canvas on which he wrote. From his earliest work Dubliners (1914), the hugely popular collection of short stories to his most famous works, Ulysses (1922) and Finnegans Wake (1939), the city is a ’character’ in its own right, adding to the colour, sound and feel of the stories. He said that if the city was destroyed it could be rebuilt, brick by brick, using Ulysses as a model. He may, indeed, have left Dublin but it certainly never left him.

Martello Tower, Sandycove - Ulysses begins

Martello Tower, Sandycove – Ulysses begins

 

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Christ Church Cathedral – Living History

The old phrase about being ‘steeped in history’ certainly applies to Christ Church Cathedral like no other building in Dublin. When you realise that its foundation took place less than twenty years after the Battle of Clontarf, then that is almost a thousand years of history. Where to begin?

Christ Church Cathedral - in all its glory

Christ Church Cathedral – in all its glory

The original wooden building was rebuilt by Strongbow and other Norman knights after their arrival in 1169. Laurence O’Toole was the then Bishop of Dublin who later became the city’s patron saint. He died in 1180 in Eu, Normandy and his heart was returned to Christ Church where it remained as an item of veneration. However, it was stolen from its casket on 3rd March 2012, and sadly has not been seen since.

Curved Footbridge over Winetavern Street

Curved Footbridge over Winetavern Street

Over the centuries various refurbishments have been carried out with the iconic, curved footbridge added in the 1870s.  A number of small chapels with wonderful stained windows looked great as they were bathed in strong sunlight. And the colourful, tiled floor across which so much history has occurred was a constant reminder of the church’s unique history.

The famous choir began in 1493 and its members took part in the first performance of Frederic Handel’s oratorio Messiah on 13th April 1742 in nearby Fishamble Street. On another musical note a cat and rat were discovered in one of the organ pipes when it was refurbished. The two animals had died and became mummified in the 1850s, and are preserved, under glass, in the Crypt. James Joyce incorrectly referred to them as ‘that cat to that mouse in that tube of that Christchurch organ’ in Finnegans Wake. Joyce, however, had bad eyesight and this proves it! Also in the Crypt, the city’s oldest surviving structure, are numerous, fabulous gold items, statues, stocks, the Crypt Café and costumes from the TV series The Tudors.

The rat and the cat - in the Crypt

The rat and the cat – in the Crypt

And, lastly, up the narrow stairs in the belfry, are the bells that we have all become familiar with as they ring in the New Year, and long may they continue to do so.

Great view from outside the belfry

Great view from outside the belfry

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