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James Knowlson, Damned to Fame

11:00 PM, Dec 8, 1996 • By MICHAEL VALDEZ MOSES
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Beckett earned his reputation as a misanthrope and "arch-miserabilist" because he found it necessary to guard his privacy following the success of Godot so that he would have time to write. As a result, the press and his public thought him aloof, inaccessible, and morbidly incommunicative. But in truth, Beckett was an immensely witty, humorous, irreverent, generous, and passionate man much loved by friends and family, in whom he inspired lifelong respect, devotion, and love. With considerable tact and honesty, Knowlson reveals Beckett in all his complexity -- at once the ascetic and sober devotee of his art and a truly free-spirited bohemian whose passions included hard drinking, sport (from cricket to tennis to boxing), and women. The story of Beckett's love affairs paints a far more human portrait of an artist deeply attached to the world of the flesh, even while his work seemed poised on the ill-lighted threshold of the world of the dead.

Beckett remained for most of his life an inveterate and unrepentant atheist, but Knowlson suggests that his ethical conduct remained deeply informed by the morals instilled in him by his Protestant mother and his boarding school: "loyalty, honor, integrity, politeness, and respect for others." Most conspicuously, Beckett's life exemplified the virtue of charity. Beckett was willing, even compulsively eager, to offer to those in need whatever money, time, support, and sympathy he had at his disposal. He was generous to a fault even before he had reaped the reward of commercial success. During the grim postwar years in economically devastated France, a malnourished Beckett sometimes gave away what little food he could secure to less fortunate friends.

Later, Beckett acquired a reputation among his increasingly protective friends and relatives as the softest of soft touches. In the mid-1950s, in a Montparnasse cafe, Beckett was approached by a penniless vagabond who said to him, "My word, that's a fine jacket you're wearing, a lovely jacket." Without emptying his coat pockets, Beckett slipped off the jacket and gave it to the man. Damned to Fame abounds with such testaments to Beckett's character (though Knowlson notably leaves marital fidelity off the lists of Beckett's virtues, since his love affairs continued long after he was settled into his 50-year relationship with Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, the woman who became his wife).

Knowlson also demonstrates that, contrary to critical opinion, Beckett was influenced as much by the great tradition of Western painting and classical music as he was by Western literature and philosophy. Take just two examples: Knowlson finds in Caspar David Friedrich's 1819 painting Two Men Observing the Moon the image from Godot of its two protagonists staring at a flimsy stage version of the moon, while in the radio play Words and Music, which dates from the early 1960s, Beckett pioneered the revolutionary concept of assigning to pure music the role of an autonomous member of the cast.

Finally, and perhaps most important, Knowlson corrects the notion of Beckett as an apolitical artist. An early essay called "Censorship in the Saorstat" (the word puns on the Gaelic for Irish Free State but might be translated "the nation of sows") was a hilarious and vicious attack on the 1929 law that banned immoral and irreligious literature in Ireland. When World War II began, Beckett was visiting his family in Ireland, but he rushed back to Paris even as the German invasion of Europe was underway. An Irish subject, Beckett was legally classified as a "neutral" in the conflict, but in 1941 he joined the French Resistance and played a key role in one of the most important cells operating out of Paris. Beckett was responsible for translating and editing a vast array of intelligence reports on German activities gathered by members of the Resistance, and he personally delivered the transcripts to his contact, who transferred the information to microfilm before it was sent on to British intelligence in England. Knowlson provides a thrilling account of how Beckett and Suzanne (also a member of the Resistance) managed to escape from Paris after a double agent turned over the names of their cell's members to German counterintelligence. Many of Beckett's closest friends were not so lucky, languishing or dying in concentration camps. Spending the remainder of the war in a small village in "unoccupied" France, Beckett was to join yet another Resistance cell that assisted Allied troops in driving out German forces in the waning days of the conflict.