The word become spirit
Gerry Dukes on two biographical versions of Samuel Beckett
Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett
by James Knowlson
Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist
by Anthony Cronin
Book Reviews: Beckett turned from the glass door of the Petit Café at the PLM and stepped towards me, saying, "It's too crowded and noisy. There's a quieter place down the street." He missed his footing on the shallow steps down into the lobby and fell forward into my arms. I braced my slightness for the shock but there was none. He was like thistledown - the word become spirit again.
It had not always been so. The man in my arms had been a light heavyweight boxer and junior long swim champion at Portora Royal School; he had been an early order batsman for the Trinity XI, rugby player, intrepid motorcyclist, tennis partner for the luckless Alfred Péron, casual gardener in Foxrock, Killiney and Ussy-sur-Marne, farm labourer, vendangeur and toter of rifles, ammunition and explosives in the Vaucluse, carrier and counter of sacks of supplies in Saint Lô. He had done and been much else besides, and despite his apparent uxoriousness, he had been the lover of quite a few women.
You will glean the facts above and many more from these two big and handsome biographies. There are some fifteen hundred pages, over six hundred thousand words, bibliographies that will keep you going for years, indices, photographs and enough sunken footnotes to make the most dedicated divers delirious. Beckett's privacy, which he struggled for many years to maintain, is now in flitters, as he foreknew it would be. Moved by that knowledge (and, no doubt, by some rueful responses to the 1978 biography by Deirdre Bair) he invited Professor Knowlson to write the "authorised" biography, with the proviso that it should appear after the subject's death and so allow his biographer more freedom.
Young Beckett seems to have had a talent for unhappiness and aggravation. He was born to loving parents, raised in the lap of luxury (Irish Free State style), expensively educated, reasonably indulged and somewhat spoilt; nevertheless he contrived to be moody, alienated and prodigiously gifted, though many years were to elapse before he understood or knew how to harness his gifts. His first sojourn in Paris, where Tom MacGreevy (who was to remain a lifelong friend) introduced him to Joyce, gave him his taste for the typical vices - smoking, drinking and whoring - eminently affordable for one exchanging his sterling for weak francs.
His first Paris experience comprehensively disrupted his career expectations. Lecturing at Trinity failed to engage his interest or commitment and he wrote to MacGreevy that he longed to be back in Paris where an "approximation of something reasonable" was possible. Yet a short time later he wrote that he had no intention of returning to Paris because it had "too many Frenchmen in the wrong streets".
His disenchantment with where he happened to be is symptomatic not only of Beckett's deracinated condition but of the fact that deep down he was metaphorically "unhoused". Among the first fruits of his transfer to the French language was a novella called L'Expulse/The Expelled and the play Eleutheria (now available in an excellent English version by Barbara Wright from Faber & Faber) whose central character has withdrawn from family life. Twenty five years after the letters to MacGreevy cited above, there is another to Mary Manning responding to the suggestion that he move back to Ireland. He wrote: "I have no intention of going home, it's not home, there is none". This letter is addressed from the stark little house in Ussy which he had built in 1953 and which was to become more of a refuge than a writer's retreat. It was there in the silence and increasing solitude that, revolving it all, he created and encoded in apposite words the ghostly characters that haunt the contemporary imagination.
Equipped with Beckett's authorisation, Professor Knowlson has had unparalleled access to documentary sources in both institutional and private hands, to notebooks, journals, diaries and appointment books held by the Beckett Estate. He conducted lengthy interviews with the subject himself, visited the principal sites of his life (and not a few of the casual ones) and interviewed friends, lovers and acquaintances. Knowlson has assembled the huge mass of information into a coherent and engrossing narrative, rich in detail. Like many contempo- rary biographers, however, Professor Knowlson is not a man of few words and leaves himself open to charges of overexplicitness and "herrdoktoring" - charges that Beckett himself levelled at other academics.
For example, Knowlson expends quite a deal of space in definitively identifying the real people upon which Beckett based the grotesque characters of his early fictions. Three women who were, in their separate ways, important to Beckett are named and profiled. But to know who the models were in no way helps the reader to penetrate the mysterious processes whereby the raw data of experience are significantly transformed into literary works. What Knowlson's findings reveal is that the creative imagination "bloweth where it listeth" and in so blowing it can be hurtful, spiteful and cruel. It should not escape us either that a deal of this cruelty is directed at the fictional version of the writer himself. Young Beckett the writer was not exclusively misogynistic; he was promiscuously misanthropic.
Anthony Cronin's book is more modest in its ambitions, in the reach and depth of its research and in the rigour of its scholarship. Cronin's biographical procedures are such that the works rather than the life are brought into sharper focus. His comments on the poetry seem not only just but accurate, and his commentary on the great postwar trilogy of novels is among the most lucid and uncluttered criticism that these great texts have so far elicited. He sees the three novels as a set of nesting narratives, organised as a series of subsidences in which the successive characters are collapsed into more primitive, anterior versions. The particular virtue of this reading is that it suggests that the forms of the postwar fictions reflect or enact the perceptions of personality and self that Beckett derived from the therapeutic sessions he underwent with the analyst Bion in the thirties. Cronin's book is exemplary in that it consistently interrogates the life in the interests of illuminating the work and it does this in a style charged with grace, understanding and wisdom.
The simultaneous and concurrent appearance of these two biographies permits us to regard the definite article in Knowlson's subtitle - The Life of Samuel Beckett - as a Boswellian impertinence: in plain words, Beckett had as many lives as he will have biographers. The reader who likes to "surf" the indices will make curious discoveries about Beckett and about biographical method. Knowlson lists three women by the name of Mitchell: Margaret, author of Gone with the Wind (a book Beckett may have read during the war); Joan, who is given a "walk-on" as a drinker in a Montparnasse bar, and Pamela, an American with whom Beckett had a brief affair in 1953/54. Beckett ended that affair rather abruptly and the relationship dwindled (if that is the word) into what Mitchell herself called an "amitié amoureuse". Cronin lists only Joan Mitchell, whom he promotes from walk-on to principal. In his account Mitchell is an American painter living in Paris with the French-Canadian painter Jean Paul Riopelle and, coincidentally, she had been married to Beckett's American publisher, Barney Rosset. Beckett and she got along fine, so well in fact that Riopelle made some jealous scenes. Again, Beckett terminated the relationship and is reported to have advised her to "stick to Riopelle, he can fuck and I can't". Cronin cites the painter Anne Madden as the source for his interesting remark.
If the reported admission of an intimate disability is true, then both biographers and their many readers have the hard task of reinterpreting Beckett's relationships with numerous women. After the initial disaster of his liaison with his cousin Peggy Sinclair - so obscurely but comprehensively documented as fiction in Dream Of Fair to Middling Women and More Pricks than Kicks - it would appear that Beckett gravitated towards women whom the French would describe as femmes reposantes, women with whom it is possible to relax, who make no irritable or irritating demands, sexual or otherwise. What is certain is that Beckett would have wanted his readers to be more interested in what he did with his pen than with his penis.
The two Becketts delivered in these pages overlap substantially but not totally. The biographers' dream of definitiveness is as elusive as ever but they have both achieved indispensability. So strengthen your bookshelves and buy both.
Gerry Dukes is an academic and critic
Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett by James KnowlsonBloomsbury872pp, £25 in UK
Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist by Anthony CroninHarperCollins645pp, £25 in UK