DAMNED TO FAME
The Life of Samuel Beckett
By James Knowlson
Simon & Schuster, $35
Reviewed by S. E. GONTARSKI
Writing to Barney Rosset of Grove Press in January 1958, Samuel Beckett rejected his American publisher's request for publicity photos: "The only thing I have or wish to offer to the public is my work. All the rest _ photographers included _ is none of its concern." It is no small irony, then, that only a score of years after his death, the door to Samuel Beckett's private life has been breached, finally, to the benefit of his readers.
To mark the 90th anniversary of his birth in 1996, two new telebiographies have been broadcast and no fewer than three new biographies have appeared. James Knowlson's Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett is the only project to which Beckett lent any cooperation.
With his first biographer, Deirdre Bair, Beckett took the path of genteel resistance. He would neither "help nor hinder" her efforts. Bair's 1978 biography was seriously flawed, replete with errors and marred by omissions, yet a remarkable first effort in the face of authorial resistance.
By 1989, sensing the end near, Beckett relented, resigned himself to history and "authorized" a biography, granting Knowlson interviews about matters he had previously considered private, and, more important, allowing him free and exclusive access to close friends and private papers. Six months later, Beckett died.
Knowlson offers a portrait of the artist that is fuller, richer, more conflicted than we had heretofore suspected. Beckett's early drive for literary success is summarized in his own description of his early poems, Echo's Bones: "the work of a very young man who had nothing to say and an itch to make." That "itch to make" was necessitated by his having thrown away at least two careers by age 25: He refused to join the successful family construction business and chose instead to pursue an academic life, only to reject suddenly a position as lecturer in French at Trinity College, Dublin. Both decisions shocked and disappointed his bourgeois, Protestant family, especially since he could give no cogent explanation for his action nor offer any alternative plan. He had simply become the great refuser, a casualty of a rigorous pursuit of personal liberty. Knowlson sees the tension as particularly focused on May Beckett, Sam's mother, describing the familial conflict as, "a fierce tug of war ... between an almost umbilical dependence on and a desire for independence from his mother"
Such personal, familial and professional conflicts, such approach-avoidance to success, to anything that smacked of achievement or attainment, took its toll on the nascent writer producing a recurrent series of "panic attacks" that led to two years of psychoanalysis (which was illegal in Dublin in 1933, so he had to move to London for treatment) after his father's death. This was followed by a two-year Wanderschaft through the Germany of 1936-37, during which he repeatedly confronted the growing Nazi threat to humanity. Knowlson's research of this period is meticulous, much of it based on Beckett's detailed and previously unknown reading notes and diaries.
All the major phases of Beckett's life are elucidated with the benefit of fresh material: his work with the resistance in Paris during the Nazi occupation; his narrow escape from the Gestapo and his subsequent flight to and exile in the south of France for the duration of the war; his return to Paris through the Irish Red Cross after the war; his burst of creativity in French on his return to Paris; and the breakthrough into international recognition and, finally, financial security with the production of Waiting for Godot in 1953.
Beckett's growth as an international artist culminates in the award of the Nobel Prize in 1969, which he neither rejected nor wholly embraced. He sent his publisher to collect the award and promptly gave the prize money away to needy friends.
Knowlson's biography creates a three-dimensional portrait of an artist so committed to the art of failure (as opposed to the failure of art) that he succeeded at becoming one of the 20th century's most significant and influential writers. Elucidating Beckett's life and work with equal dexterity, Knowlson's biography belies Beckett's own assertion to New York Times drama critic Mel Gussow in 1971: "My life is devoid of interest, to put it mildly, and much better left unwritten."
S. E. Gontarski's most recent books are The Theatrical Notebooks of Samuel Beckett, Volume II: "Endgame" and Samuel Beckett: The Complete Short Prose 1929-1989.
At the reading festival
Mel Gussow, author of Conversations With and About Beckett, and S. E. Gontarski, who edited Samuel Beckett's The Complete Short Prose 1929-1989, will discuss Beckett's life and work Nov. 10 at the Times Festival of Reading on the Eckerd College campus. Their session will be held from 1:30-2:30 in Dendy-McNair auditorium.