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.
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.
Beckett was a behind-the-scenes supporter of those who criticized the conduct of the French government and military during the Algerian war for independence in the late 1950s and 1960s. He steadfastly refused to allow his works to be performed in South Africa except before racially integrated audiences. And when the Spanish playwright Fernando Arrabal was imprisoned by the Franco regime on charges of blasphemy and treason, Beckett wrote a letter of protest and agreed to testify before a tribunal in his defense.
Knowlson considers Beckett to have been "basically left-wing and anti- establishment," but he dutifully and admiringly recounts Beckett's profound interest in and support of liberation movements in Eastern Europe. Beckett gave financial support to the Polish dissident Antoni Libera, and with Beckett's tacit understanding, some of his monies were used to fund underground publishing houses critical of the Communist regime in Poland. When martial law was declared there in 1981, Beckett signed a public manifesto protesting the curtailment of civil liberties. In 1982, Beckett dedicated his play Catastrophe to the imprisoned dissident writer Vaclav Havel. It concerns a Protagonist, a silent figure who stands on stage responding passively to the orders given by the despotic Director, who inhumanely molds the abject posture of the Protagonist for public display. At the play's conclusion, the apparently will-less Protagonist defiantly raises his illuminated head to face the audience, directly challenging the Director's command that it remain bowed When critics suggested that the political message of the play was ambiguous, Beckett fumed: "There's no ambiguity there at all. . . . He's saying: You bastards, you haven't finished me yet!" After his release from prison, Havel expressed his gratitude by dedicating his own play, The Mistake, to Beckett.
One of the deepest and most pervasive concerns in Beckett's work is his lifelong obsession with and search for unlimited freedom At times, that quest might take the form of a metaphysical exploration of the meaning of freedom, while at others it centers on artistic, psychological, and even political efforts to attain the maximum degree of individual autonomy. Beckett's intellectual mentor and champion at Trinity College, Thomas Rudmose-Brown, took a liking to the young Beckett not only because of the demonstrable brilliance of his protege, but also because the professor saw in his student a fellow "free spirit." Beckett would never forget one of Rudmose-Brown's pithiest aphorisms: The best government was the one "that charges you the least blackmail for leaving you alone."
Beckett, as both man and writer, devoted his life to subverting all forms of authority -- religious, intellectual, cultural, and political -- that presumed to restrict the freedom of the individual. Though his works bespeak a lifelong meditation on the failing light of reason, they also represent an equally powerful engagement with the struggle to expand and explore the utmost possibilities of human emancipation. Perhaps it is fitting, then, that Beckett's last major play to be published, written in the 1940s but appearing only posthumously, should bear the title Eleutheria -- the Greek word for freedom.
Michael Valdez Moses is professor of English at Duke University.