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James Knowlson, Damned to Fame

11:00 PM, Dec 8, 1996 • By MICHAEL VALDEZ MOSES
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Samuel Beckett has long occupied a central place in the often ferocious disputes that have raged over the ethical and political significance of art in this century. Not long after international celebrity status was thrust upon him following the premiere of his revolutionary play Waiting for Godot in 1953, Beckett's work became the subject of acrimonious debates between some of the leading Marxist thinkers of the day.

Georg Lukacs, the Hungarian critic, insisted that Beckett's nihilistic works embodied the worst excesses of Western bourgeois decadence. Theodor Adorno countered that Beckett's writings, particularly Godot and the 1957 drama Endgame, were laudable examples of the way avant-garde art could serve as a challenge to the very economic structures and ideological assumptions all Marxists condemned. In the years following the Lukacs-Adorno exchange, the controversy over the political significance of postmodern art has raged unabated.

In his compelling biography, Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett, James Knowlson both does justice to the revolutionary aesthetic achievements of his subject and manages as well to convey how Beckett's achievement emerges organically out of a life often immersed in the great political changes and catastrophes of the century.

Born outside Dublin in 1906, Samuel Barclay Beckett was the second son of a prosperous Anglo-Irish Protestant family. Educated initially by tutors and at local private schools, Beckett spent the tumultuous years of the Anglo-Irish and Irish civil wars in the safe confines of a boarding school, where he excelled as both an athlete and student. Beckett subsequently went on to a distinguished university career at Trinity College in Dublin, and intended to pursue an academic life. In 1927, he was awarded a prestigious lectureship in Paris and there made the acquaintance of James Joyce, who would become his friend and mentor.

He returned to teach in Dublin but yearned for the bohemian life of the writer embodied by Joyce, and precipitously resigned his post in 1931, shocking and disappointing his family, friends, and colleagues. The '30s proved a desperate and dispiriting time for Beckett. As he struggled to find his voice as a writer, the former teetotaler took up drinking in a serious way and roamed Europe. By 1938, Beckett had settled permanently in Paris, but found his emergent literary career derailed by the outbreak of World War II. A scant 750 unbound copies of his first published novel, Murphy, had been sold to a bookseller before paper shortages during the war forced Beckett's British publisher to cease printing it -- and most of those 750 copies seem to have been destroyed in German bombing raids before they could even be purchased by customers.

When the war ended, Beckett entered what he was later to call a "frenzy of writing." In less than four years he wrote several major stories, two plays (among them Godot), and four novels, including his most substantial and enduring works of fiction, Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable. His dramas of the late 1950s, Endgame and Krapp's Last Tape, were both critical and commercial successes, and

Beckett's international reputation continued to grow exponentially, culminating in 1969 with the Nobel prize for literature. Beckett had become a canonical literary figure in his own lifetime, and in the world's eyes he came to seem like a Beckett character: a solitary man made inhuman and detached by his struggles with the most basic questions of human existence, a cold abstract intelligence uncomfortable in the role of conventional playwright and novelist. How could it be otherwise for a writer who increasingly came to favor one- and two-character plays, the protagonists of which must cope with the most abnegating circumstances imaginable -- two figures living in garbage cans in Endgame, a woman mired in a mound of dirt prattling cheerfully as it slowly rises to engulf her in Happy Days?

But it was otherwise. Knowlson interviewed Beckett several times before his death in 1989 at the age of 83 and had exclusive access to a mass of Beckett's unpublished correspondence and private diaries. As a result, Knowlson's Damned to Fame offers a far more balanced and moving portrait of the "reclusive" author than any we have seen, and it succeeds brilliantly in altering three widely shared assumptions about Beckett's life, work, and character.