Samuel Beckett: an introduction

By Stephen Colbourn

Samuel Beckett wrote many of his works in French then re-worked them into English; meaning he re-expressed rather than translated them. Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) made a similar claim, that he wrote two separate texts of his books - one in Russian and one in English - and both men came to prefer their second or adopted tongue, as did Joseph Conrad (1857-1924). These writers lived in exile. So did James Joyce (1882-1941) who was a major influence on Beckett. They were polyglot Europeans whose works were not limited to or by English.


Beckett wanted to strip language to its naked elements in search of meaning. Working in French he believed he avoided a concern with elegance of style and came closer to saying what he meant without worrying overmuch how he said it. To Joyce, whom Beckett greatly admired, language was a game. They both attempted to stretch the limits of language - Joyce at the upper and Beckett at the lower end - and their work in the literary playing fields is not without humour as distinct from mirth.

Both are difficult writers. Both were exceedingly even obsessively well-read. Beckett had a fearsome reputation as a growling intellectual who preferred silence (on the part of others) to conversation for the sake of something to say. He took Wittgenstein's dictum exactly: Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen. (Whereof one cannot speak, thereof must one be silent). He feared that we are able to say very little except to make sounds that fill a social void. An awareness of that absurdity runs throughout his works.

He was an ascetic who attempted to live simply and rigorously. In an earlier age he might be imagined as an eremite who, having delved all the books of divinity, goes into the wilderness to wrestle with devils and the angst of existence - into the wasteland that mirrors the mind as locus horrendae et vastae solitudinis.

Beckett came from a well-to-do family and attended Trinity College Dublin, where he studied French and Italian, graduating in 1927. He moved to Paris and worked as a teacher for three years during which time he joined the group of admirers surrounding James Joyce whose eyesight was impaired. Although he assisted in taking dictation, he did not become Joyce's secretary as has been claimed. He did, however, make notes on Finnegan's Wake which Joyce termed 'Work in Progress' (the opening section was previewed in 1924) and turned them into an essay. His first published literary work was a short poem with footnotes called 'Whoroscope' in 1930.

After returning to Dublin to take his MA degree in 1931 he taught French for a year. On the death of his father he received an inheritance which enabled him to become a full-time writer. He moved to London where he met and lived with a music student Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil whom he eventually married.

They returned to Paris together at the outbreak of war in 1939 then lived in a village after the fall of France. At this time James Joyce left Paris for Zurich where he died in early 1941. (Irish Free State citizens were neutrals during World War II and able to travel in Europe). Beckett worked as a farm labourer until the Liberation in 1944. From this point onward he wrote largely in French, so the titles of his works are sometimes given in both languages with the date of their French or their English publication - Malone Meurt (1949) Malone Dies; L'Innommable (1949) The Unnameable; Fin de Partie (1957) Endgame etc. This has caused confusion when there is a gap of several years between the original French publication and the appearance of the work in English. Watt was his last fictive work in English, completed in 1943 but not published until 1953.

The dramatic work that became best known was En Attendant Godot (1949) Waiting For Godot, which was first performed in 1953 and appeared in English in 1954. It gained attention for its verbal play and absence of plot. Two men Vladimir and Estragon (are they tramps?) wait for Godot who never comes. Pozzo and Lucky pass through. Much has been said by critics about what is not said in the two-act play and the significance of the names has been argued over.

A literary tag applied to Godot was that it represented Theatre of the Absurd - a label also stamped on the works of the Romanian Eugène Ionesco (1909-1994) who was elected to the French Academy. It arose from an essay by Albert Camus (1913-1960) Le Mythe de Sisyphe, essai sur l'absurde published in 1942. Camus received the Nobel Prize in 1957.

Beckett's rise to fame dates from the first performance of Godot at the tiny Théatre de Babylone in January 1953. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969 but declined to attend the ceremony as he wished to avoid all personal publicity: though he accepted the prize money and distributed it to needy artists in Paris where he lived for the remainder of his life, working mainly in a farmhouse outside the city.

Beckett's reputation has not diminished in the years since his death at the age of 83. He continued writing until the end of his life and, like his literary master James Joyce, keeps scholars guessing.

© Stephen Colbourn, September 2006

Stephen Colbourn is a contributor to The Essentials of Literature in English Post-1914. Hodder Arnold. 2005

See also: British and Irish drama on film >

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