Savage Loving

Date: November 24, 1996, Late Edition - Final
Byline:By J. D. O'Hara

The Life of Samuel Beckett.
By James Knowlson.
Illustrated. 800 pp. New York:
Simon & Schuster. $35.

IN 1986 a leading scholar of Samuel Beckett's writing said, ''I have found biography to be of little help in understanding the works of Samuel Beckett.'' Three years later Beckett asked this doubter, James Knowlson, to write his biography.


''Damned to Fame'' is not the first life of Beckett, of course. Notably, there was Deirdre Bair's 1978 biography, which drew on many letters she had discovered from Beckett to his friend Tom MacGreevy. They dispel the notion of Beckett as a philosophical recluse and show him as a man whose troubles shaped his writing. Mr. Knowlson has had full access to the MacGreevy letters, unlike Ms. Bair, and to six notebooks reporting Beckett's mind-altering trip through Germany in 1936-37. He added dozens of other
sources. Beckett died six months after Mr. Knowlson began his work (he retired as a professor of French at the University of Reading in England to take it on). For five months, in brief visits, they discussed his life. Mr. Knowlson's presentation of these materials is academically invaluable. Much more important, he has composed a remarkable portrait of an impressive man. ''Damned to Fame'' is a magnificent biography.

Beckett's writings hold their audience because they are emotionally intense and disturbing. They are also richly allusive, evocative of literature, art, music, philosophy and psychology. Mr. Knowlson speaks authoritatively about these matters, without ostentation. He gives credit unstintingly; he even mentions me once.

The biography, though sadly shortened from the manuscript, is enlivened by suggestive details. Examples: Beckett's maternal grandmother rebuked a granddaughter who loved chocolates. ''You shouldn't love something to eat, my dear. You should only love God.'' His uncle Gerald Beckett, rather different, called life ''a disease of matter.'' When Beckett's father died, Gerald comforted the widow: ''Well, May, he's got it over. What is it all about, in the end, for us all, from the cry go, but get it over?''

Such anecdotes bring alive decades of Beckett's public accomplishments and private doubts, regrets and illness. Mr. Knowlson modestly claims to have found new materials in three areas: ''music and art,'' Beckett's political activities and Beckett's character. Readers will find much more.

Beckett's lifelong absorption in classical music (he was a competent pianist) and his concern for the verbal music of his own writings are matched by his knowledge of art: ''He could spend as much as an hour in front of a single painting . . . savoring its forms and its colors, reading it, absorbing its minutest detail.'' Mr. Knowlson also shows how Beckett's dramatic scenes, figures, gestures and lighting echo these artworks.

The German diaries record Beckett's many meetings with painters, and discussions of paintings. They also convey his distaste for Germany's increasing anti-Semitism and censorship and Hitler's long, shrill speeches.

That topic prepares us for Beckett's activities with a French Resistance group and with the Irish Red Cross in France after World War II. In this grim work he displayed ''astonishing powers of concentration, a meticulous attention to detail,'' Mr. Knowlson says; he could ''organize, reduce and sift very diffuse material so as to make it succinct and intelligible.'' Those qualities recur in his writings. Additionally, ''sheer obstinacy . . . was, he commented himself, a constant trait in his character.''

That difficult, variable character is Mr. Knowlson's major theme. He describes a model of upper-class Protestant gentility: the 4-year-old praying; the youth playing golf, tennis, rugby and cricket, swimming, boxing, running track and racing motorcycles; and the college student who neither smoked nor drank.

But higher education puts at risk conventional faiths and values: ''On the key issue of pain, suffering and death . . . Beckett's religious faith faltered and quickly foundered.'' A sermon in which a Canon Dobbs said that the only thing he could tell the suffering, dying and bereaved was, ''The Crucifixion was only the beginning. You must contribute to the kitty,'' shook Beckett. So did Dobbs's advice to the unhappy: ''When it's morning, wish for evening. When it's evening, wish for morning.'' Adding Baudelaire, Beckett sharpened that idea in ''Endgame'': ''You cried for night; it falls: now cry in darkness.''

Beckett discovered Dante and recent French writers at Trinity College, Dublin. He won an appointment to the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, met James Joyce and published a monograph on Proust. His career was under way. But this flawed summary evades the harshness of his writings.

Here Mr. Knowlson is especially valuable, providing persuasive detail. The young Beckett was an arrogant and withdrawn brat: ''He confessed later to feelings of superiority and contempt, which led to a depression that came to seem . . . 'morbid.' '' Teaching at Trinity, he met his like among colleagues. ''Scholarly wit and sarcasm,'' Mr. Knowlson says, ''sounded all too often like exhibitionism, bitchiness and character assassination.'' As for creativity: ''How can one write here,'' Beckett complained, ''when every day vulgarizes one's hostility and turns anger into irritation and petulance?''

Those perceptions, and psychosomatic illnesses, led to painful psychological insight. Beckett abandoned teaching and entered therapy after his father's death in 1933. Mr. Knowlson is eloquent about the effects of that death. The therapy lasted about six months, Beckett told him. (He once told me three.) ''In reality his treatment lasted nearly two years,'' Mr. Knowlson says.

What Beckett would not tell him he had written to MacGreevy. In March 1935, after some 150 sessions, he wrote an amazing letter. With bitterness and detachment he summarized what he now knew about his illness. Mr. Knowlson specifies its causes: ''the intensity of his mother's attachment to him and his powerful love-hate bond with her.'' Later, fleeing his mother and Ireland after a dreadful quarrel, Beckett offered MacGreevy a memorable phrase: ''I am what her savage loving has made me.''

Accurate analysis is not therapy. The relationship and its effects continued. Even in his last months, Mr. Knowlson says, ''Beckett's feelings of love for his mother and remorse at having, as he saw it, let her down so frequently, struck me as still intense, almost volcanic.'' About his remarkable wife, Suzanne, who died some months earlier than he, he suffered similar guilt and remorse.

But that hard-won knowledge of his psyche had altered him. Mr. Knowlson describes his letter of self-analysis as ''the first convincing explanation of how the arrogant, disturbed, narcissistic young man . . . evolved into someone who was noted later for his extraordinary kindness, courtesy, concern, generosity and almost saintly 'good works.' ''

Beckett's outer world is not neglected, although space limitations restrict discussion of the trilogy of novels, ''almost certainly the most enduring works that Beckett wrote.'' Mr. Knowlson is insightful about the plays and detailed about their performances. A playwright gives hostages to fortune. We hear of many misfortunes and some near misses, especially with ''Godot.'' Imagine Buster Keaton as Vladimir and Marlon Brando as Estragon.

The inner world persists. Beckett remains painfully aware of his faults, unable to mend them and struggling to compensate for them, as Mr. Knowlson guides us through the powerful writings in which he dramatized the blackness in his psyche.

Beckett becomes his own finest character. Mr. Knowlson is with him to the final curtain, unblinking: ''Beckett became frailer and thinner. His hands were now noticeably distorted. . . . Greeting him with a fond embrace, you noticed how prominent his shoulder blades felt . . . and how thin his wrists and forearms had become.'' Born on Good Friday, April 13, 1906, he died on Friday, Dec. 22, 1989.

What is the meaning of this complicated life? Mr. Knowlson reports discussing with Beckett his brief autobiographical novel ''Company'': ''We laughed uproariously at the idea of reaching 'truth' in so shifty an area as a human life.'' Weeks before he died, William Butler Yeats wrote: ''When I try to put it all into a phrase I say, 'Man can embody truth but he cannot know it.' I must embody it in the completion of my life.'' ''Damned to Fame'' splendidly preserves the truths embodied in Beckett's life.

Originally posted here by the Times on Aug. 3, 1997, but an "Archive Error" soon after that and ever since.

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