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Shedding light on a dark and droll Irish master

By Mark Harman, 12/08/96

The novels and plays of Samuel Beckett appear to equate life itself with aimless loitering and unending decrepitude. Yet Beckett's own life, as narrated by James Knowlson in this engaging biography, was more adventurous and gregarious than his bleak vision of the human lot might lead one to suspect. For many years Beckett struggled with his depressive temperament. Then, at age 39, he had a revelation in his mother's house in Foxrock, near Dublin, and came to accept "the dark'' in himself as the commanding side of his personality. All of a sudden, Beckett, who had been only sporadically productive until then, turned into a highly energetic, protean artist.

Born in 1906, he came from a well-to-do Irish Protestant family, remotely descended on his father's side from French Huguenots. Not surprisingly, he soon grew to loathe the puritanical Catholic ethos of the newly independent Irish Free State and began to contemplate a future for himself outside Ireland, where the public seemed to him hopelessly philistine. However, unlike that other great Irish exile, James Joyce, he had difficulty making a definitive break with Dublin. Even after giving up a lectureship in French at Trinity College and eventually settling in Paris, he kept returning, incapable of separating himself completely from his pious mother and her "savage loving.''

A two-year course of therapy that he underwent in the mid-'30s at the Tavistock Clinic in London was as pivotal in Beckett's development as were Hermann Hesse's sessions with his Jungian analyst in Switzerland. It not only halted the palpitations from which Beckett (like the hero of his first novel, "Murphy'') suffered but helped him counter his self-absorbtion with a solicitude for friends, family and individual victims of oppression. Later in occupied France, he and his longtime companion and eventual wife, Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, worked for an underground French cell supplying strategic information to British intelligence. Narrowly escaping the Gestapo, the two spent the remainder of the war years masquerading as peasants in the small village of Roussillon, where Beckett wrote his last English-language novel, "Watt.'' After the war he switched to writing almost exclusively in French, a decision that enabled him to ditch the trappings of naturalistic fiction and forge a spartan prose devoid of the quasi-Joycean displays of erudition that mark -- and occasionally mar -- his earlier work.

Various legends have grown up around Beckett, who was notoriously jealous about his privacy. Writing with commendable tact, Knowlson, a leading British Beckett scholar, rebuts numerous unfounded but nonetheless influential assertions made by Deirdre Bair in her controversial 1978 biography of Beckett. The dispatching of old canards begins with Beckett's date of birth. Although his birth certificate gives the date as May 13, 1906, Beckett always claimed that he was born on Good Friday, April 13. Bair went so far as to suggest that Beckett was guilty of deliberate misrepresentation, even though the practice of registering births late was fairly common in Ireland then. Knowlson, however, has unearthed a birth notice in The Irish Times of April 16, 1906, indicating that Beckett was indeed most likely born on Good Friday -- an aptly symbolic date for a writer who, though an agnostic, viewed life as a sort of protracted crucifixion.

Beckett always insisted that his life and work ought to be kept separate. Yet as Knowlson shows, a biographical reading of his cryptic work can bring out its rich allusiveness, especially since Beckett's synthetic genius lay in the ability to weave disparate material into an apparently seamless whole. Take "Waiting for Godot,'' for instance. That play is often seen as a disembodied parable. Yet the sense of aimless waiting at its core was undoubtedly inspired in part by Beckett's experiences "on the run'' from the Gestapo. In his first draft, Beckett even gave one of the tramps the Jewish name Levy, and in the French original, there are specific references to the region of France where he hid from the Nazis. At the same time, Beckett's vagabonds are linguistically truncated descendants of the eloquent tramps in the plays of J. M. Synge, which Beckett saw in Dublin's Abbey Theater.

Many Beckett critics, including Knowlson himself on occasion, have ignored or downplayed the covertly Irish intonation of Beckett's texts, which is audible even in French. Fortunately, in this book, Knowlson acknowledges the continuing resonance of Beckett's memories of his sheltered Irish childhood and his protracted, rebellious adolescence. The stark landscape of the Dublin mountains and the rhythms of Irish English never lost their hold on his imagination. What sets Beckett apart from the linguistically exuberant Irish tradition, however, is his radical mistrust of language and his belief that "in the face of disaster the slightest eloquence becomes unbearable.''

This quietly authoritative, fluently written biography is bound to alter the widespread perception of Beckett as a misanthropic recluse whose writing was inspired predominantly by his own neuroses. In puncturing the myth about Beckett's indifference to politics, Knowlson draws on unpublished diaries, written during a stay in prewar Germany, in which Beckett makes no secret of his contempt for the Nazis, notes the soporific effect of Hitler's "interminable harangues'' and deplores the treatment of Jews. He also demonstrates how Beckett's obsession with the work of a wide range of visual artists shaped his theatrical images.

Humor was also important to Beckett; contrary to popular legend, he was not a purveyor of relentless gloom. As in the case of Kafka, the humor between the lines is best appreciated when Beckett is read aloud. But once, when an Irish actor celebrated for his one-man Beckett shows asked the author how much laughter he should expect from the audience, Beckett responded: "As much as you can get.''

Copyright 2002 Boston Globe Electronic Publishing Inc.

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