Staff Pick:


Harcourt Brace & Co., 1978
ISBN: 0156792419 (Trade)
736 pages

Every biography is an account of the journey of someone’s life. Deirdre Bair’s Samuel Beckett, however, is nearly a dramatization of one playwright’s journey with the creative process. Through its haunting sense of loneliness, encounter, and loss, and through its careful use of spare language to show, in the fashion of Aristotle, events of Beckett’s life "as they were or are," Ms. Bair’s biography convinces the reader to believe in each Beckett situation. It satisfies the reader’s need to know and understand. Like an Aristotelian tragedy, Samuel Beckett is an "imitation of an action that is complete, and whole, and of a certain magnitude." It is a rendition of Beckett’s life and art.
         Bair nonjudgmentally covers Beckett’s growth as an artist beginning with his early childhood in Dublin. At first, he was a typical child passing summer afternoons painting with his brother and mother, taking piano lessons, and having more boisterous times with his father. In his late childhood, Beckett, the only one in his family who loved books, began a careful keeping of them in his own uncluttered section of his shared bedroom. As a young man at Trinity, Beckett majored in Romance languages and contemporary literature, and disliking crowds, he entered a self-imposed period of isolation.
         Beckett’s friendships with James, Nora, and Lucia Joyce are covered throughout most of the book, as are Beckett’s nervous breakdowns and depressions. The first twenty writing years of Beckett’s adult life, years of writing mostly unsuccessful poetry and prose, are portrayed as ones filled with poverty, debt, and a troubled relationship with his possessive mother. But from this bleakness comes his writing–the people he knows, the streets he walks, the lack of light in his life (this lack of light in his later years was caused by cataracts, and only after his cataract operation did Beckett realize how dark his world had been compared to everyone else’s), his obsession with parts of the human face (mouth, ear, and eye) twist into his days spent lying in bed, where he mulled over a few lines, emotionally unable to rise and leave his dwelling. Beckett began finding himself eventually in Jung’s central creative theory: characters are unrecognized sections of the writer living their own lives. This appealing theory caused Beckett to begin curbing his sloppiness, alcoholism, filth, and hours and hours of sleeping in the fetal position. He cut free of his emotionally-suffocating mother (whom he visited frequently to assuage feelings of guilt) and went to Paris. "To relieve myself of the awful depression the prose led me into," Beckett turned to writing plays. Finally his breakthrough came in his early forties (after World War II, people were ready for a new vision in literature) with international recognition for Waiting for Godot.
         Beckett’s professional relationships with actors and directors are interestingly probed along with his intellectual (and sexual) relationship with Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil. Sam eventually married Suzanne when she was 61 and he was 55 so she could be his heir and executor. Despite Beckett’s aversion to the invasion of his privacy, Bair adheres closely, in the last third of the book, to the accustomed routine of a solitary and well-known playwright, a Nobel Prize for Literature winner, and a representative intellectual of the twentieth century.
         The complex use to which Beckett applied his life’s experiences to his art is tangibly–rather than intellectually–felt by the reader. This is due to the actual snippets of Beckett conversation (interspersed throughout the biography) which found their way into his works. Allow me to cite some examples:
         "For her nightwalks," said Beckett, "[my mother] removed the carpets from her bedroom floor because… she must hear the feet, however faint they fall." This auditory childhood memory appears in Footfalls and is spoken by May.
         "This thing called love, there’s none of it, you know, it’s only fucking," said Beckett. "That’s all there is, just fucking." But Beckett’s despair is tinged more with sadness than with hostility, for in Krapp’s Last Tape, Beckett achingly remembers when he was 23 years old and in love with Peggy Sinclair one summer near the Baltic Sea. "I asked her to look at me… and after a few moments she did… Let me in… We drifted in among the flags and stuck… I lay down across her with my face in her breasts… We lay there without moving… But under us all moved, and moved us, up and down, and from side to side," Beckett reflected, and entered his reflection, too, in Krapp. "Perhaps my best years are gone. When there was a chance of happiness… But I wouldn’t want them back. Not with the fire in me now."
         Beckett was the first postwar playwright to write dialogue in everyday café French, to apply conversation from his personal life directly to his plays. In Godot, Vladimir and Estragon use the same cajoling and pleading dialogue that Beckett and Suzanne used with each other on their trek into Roussillon from Paris during World War II.

        (Beckett) Vladimir: Come here till I embrace you.
        (Suzanne) Estragon: Don’t touch me!
        (Beckett) Vladimir: Do you want me to go away?
        (Suzanne) Estragon: Don’t touch me! Don’t question me! Don’t speak to me! Stay with me!

         Especially appealing in this biography are the small stories of actors and their attempts to deliver Beckett material. My favorite story was of Jessica Tandy’s delivery of her role of the mouth in Not I. Tandy was strapped against a backdrop so there would be no movement on stage against her mouth. She was black all over, and only her mouth showed. She played the role standing and clung to two iron bars at her sides for stability and was to speak her lines as fast as possible and so appeal to the audience’s emotions rather than their intellects. Too, this story highlights Beckett’s preference for the double use of drama as language and visual image. Beckett’s awareness of the visual dimension of drama stemming from language was a favorite topic about which he and Joyce discoursed.
         Samuel Beckett is a lengthy work. Each chapter is supplemented by an abundance of end notes which enhance the serious reader’s pleasure. Certainly Samuel Beckett is not for everyone. But it is required reading for anyone who loves Beckett theater and wishes to learn of both the horrendous and the admirable qualities of Beckett’s life. Like Aristotle’s Poetics, Bair’s biography should be read slowly and savored as "an aid to reflection."