Magazine: World Literature Today; June 1997
WORLD LITERATURE IN REVIEW: ENGLISH
James Knowlson. Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett. New York. Simon & Schuster. 1996. 800 pages + 32 plates. $35. ISBN 0-684-80872-2.
"To biography of me by you its Yes," Samuel Beckett wrote in 1989 to his friend James Knowlson, founder of the Beckett Archive (now the International Beckett Foundation) at the University of Reading. The long-awaited result is the sole authorized biography of Beckett--an exhaustively researched and meticulously annotated volume that provides access to hundreds of letters, notes, appointment books, and diaries that were unknown heretofore, correcting in many ways the pioneering but controversial and flawed biography by Deirdre Bair published in 1978, the preparation of which he said he would neither help nor hinder (a decision that he is said to have subsequently regretted, as it yielded a volume by which he was reportedly much pained--though Knowlson decorously avoids discussing the matter). For five months during the final year of his life, Beckett granted Knowlson weekly interviews and provided letters of support as well as names and addresses of vital sources of information; he stipulated only that he did not want the book published during his lifetime or that of his wife, "because it will give you more freedom."
Although Beckett's increasingly austere works would at first seem to have little to do with his life, the separation between them (which Beckett himself often alleged) is not as great as it seems, as Knowlson rightly contends. Certain images from his Irish boyhood recur throughout, for example, and the image of Beckett's domineering mother (who was recently defended in Lois Gordon's adulatory The World of Samuel Beckett, 1906-1947 [1996; see WLT 71:1, p. 162]) has long been a subject of critical speculation. When Knowlson cited a number of such images, Beckett admitted "They're obsessional" and added several more--though the unsurpassed resource on these remains Eoin O'Brien's magnificent volume The Beckett Country, published in 1986. Although Beckett's later works have "often been treated as if he were a cold formalist dealing in abstractions," as his texts become "self-referential or even, in some cases it would seem, virtually self-generating," fragments of the life glimmer, even through the "dimmost dim."
"The interests of Beckett that have been least explored in the past forty years of Beckett criticism are music and art," Knowlson remarks in his preface, and the biography does much to remedy that deficit. Beckett "was a passionate connoisseur of painting and sculpture, and his startling post-modern images appear to have been influenced by his love of the work of the Old Masters: Durer, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Mantegna, Antonello, Giorgione, Blake, Jack B. Yeats"--though the actual mechanism of such intertexts in Beckett's works (and many others') has been more fully explored in Guy Davenport's Every Force Evolves a Form (1987; see especially "The Critic as Artist"). The image of Beckett as "an arch-'miserablist' ... seems to me to be a misrepresentation of the man and a distortion of his work," Knowlson argues, noting that the "Beckett whom his friends knew extremely well [was] a witty, resilient man whose reflex response to adversity was often humor and the determination to go on, ... giving his understanding and undivided attention to his many friends, ... complex, genuinely intellectual yet dismissive of pretentiousness, self-critical yet tolerant of others, and capable of inspiring deep affection in his friends and admirers." Nevertheless, the chronicles of his many physical maladies and psychological sufferings make him as a modern-day (and modernist) counterpart of Job, whose worldview from the dunghill and whose radical unknowingness (if not whose faith) many of his characters share. Earth-entrapped Winnie eloquently summarizes it best in Happy Days, uttering the quintessential line from any of his plays: "How better can one magnify the Almighty than by sniggering with him at his little jokes, particularly the poorer ones?" Like human existence.
The biography's biggest surprise, however, is the extent of Beckett's extramarital love life. His fifty-two-year companionship with Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil is well known; he married her in 1961, for purposes having to do with his estate under French law--much as James Joyce had done in marrying Nora. Newly revealed, however, are the facts about Beckett's relationship with the critic and translator Barbara Bray, which began in 1958 and continued "in parallel with that with Suzanne, for the rest of his life." There was also an affair in the late 1950s with an American woman, Pamela Mitchell, to whom he wrote sixty-one letters over seventeen years, the most interesting of which have to do with the writing of Endgame and chronicle his reading at the time as well as the impact of the death of his brother. The urn-bound adulterous triangle of Play (written in English in 1962-63, first produced in German in 1963) looks quite differently meaningful after the disclosure of these details, and one now wishes for a separate biography of Suzanne comparable to Brenda Maddox's volume on Nora Joyce. A few weeks before his death, Beckett remarked that he owed everything to Suzanne. Indeed, she spent years shopping his manuscripts around to publishers when he was a totally unknown writer, and she encouraged him endlessly; in later years, when fame was well established, she often stood in for him at gatherings, including the premieres of his plays, which he declined to attend. She remains entirely too silent a figure in this biography--and is now more fascinating than ever.
Comparisons to Richard Ellmann's biography of Joyce and Leon Edel's biography of Henry James seem entirely appropriate; Damned to Fame may well join them among the foremost literary biographies of the twentieth century. Although the forthcoming multivolume selection of Beckett's letters will undoubtedly provide additional details, and although a biography of his wife is needed now more than ever, James Knowlson's monumental study seems as nearly definitive as a biography can get.