Enniskillen Pays Tribute to Samuel Beckett

Jenny Cathcart reports on events marking the centenary of the writer's birth

Samuel Beckett was born on Good Friday, April 12, 1906. On Maundy Thursday, April 13, 2006, Enniskillen born poet and critic, Kevin Quinn, delivered a lecture entitled ‘Arsing About: The Novels and Poems of Samuel Beckett’ in the Higher Bridges Gallery at the town's Clinton Centre.

Those of us present experienced a definite sense of occasion. Enniskillen was offering its own tribute to a young man who spent formative years at Portora Royal School and then became one of the most celebrated writers of his time, a Nobel Laureate, the creator of an immense literary legacy, a writer who revolutionised post-war theatre and dazzled critics and readers alike with the minimalist precision of his writing, the wit, satire, innovation and genius of his art.

The youth of shy demeanour photographed with the school Rugby XV 1922-23 on the steps of Portora, in rugby boots, school blazer and cap, his hands behind his back leaning slightly against the porch colonnade became the man whose lined face, photographed by Jane Bown or John Minihan, is now an iconic image.

In the weeks leading up to this centenary event, various activities were organised in Enniskillen. A blue plaque was unveiled at Portora matching the one commemorating Oscar Wilde on the opposite side of the front terrace, and an exhibition organised by the cultural division of the Department of Foreign Affairs of Ireland was staged in the school's assembly hall.

In the county library, the bronze sculpted head of Beckett by Fermanagh artist, Philip Flanagan, is on display together with copies of Beckett's published works. Also on view is a profile of the schoolboy Beckett written in 1990 by Portora's then headmaster, Richard Bennett.

According to this, in 1919, following in the footsteps of his brother Frank, Samuel Beckett was sent by his wealthy parents to what they deemed to be a good Protestant school, also Oscar Wilde's alma mater. Beckett clearly excelled at sport winning the junior swimming championships and the light heavyweight boxing title. On the cricket pitch he was a fine allrounder, a competent left-arm medium-pace bowler and a good left-handed batsman. He played as a back in the first fifteen rugby squad. Beckett was the school librarian for a time and proved he had excellent debating skills.

It seems however, that his academic progress was less noteworthy. He openly detested the maths and science master and hated the subjects. One of his teachers called him ‘Inky Sam’ because his work was untidy. Bennett hints at Beckett's disenchantment with the public school ethos: ‘...his old school may have represented much of what he came increasingly to regret and dislike.’ Although his fellow pupils enjoyed his rye humour and caustic wit, Beckett, it seems, remained generally aloof.

As a prelude to Kevin Quinn's centenary lecture, councillor Stephen Huggett, chairman of Fermanagh District Council, traced the life and career of the man who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1969 but is said to have been so appalled and distressed that he took himself off to Tunisia and donated the prize money to the library at Trinity College.

Beckett was born into an affluent Protestant family in Foxrock, eight miles south of Dublin. Following his days at Portora, Beckett became an undergraduate at Trinity College where he studied English, French and Italian. He won a prestigious scholarship in modern languages at the end of his third year and graduated in 1927, first in his class, recipient of the college's gold medal.

He also played Cricket for the Trinity College team and when he took part in two first-class games against Northamptonshire, he warranted an entry in Wisden, the cricket Bible. Beckett taught for a time at Campbell College in Belfast but soon went to Paris to become a ‘lecteur’ at the Ecole Normale Superieure. Here he met the Irish poet and critic Thomas MacGreevy who became a lifelong friend. In turn, MacGreevy introduced Beckett to the painter JB Yeats and to James Joyce. He helped Joyce with research for his seminal work Finnegan's Wake little knowing that he himself would be hailed as the successor to the likes of Joyce, Proust and Kafka.

A deeply sensitive man, Beckett suffered from anxiety and depression deepened by the loss of his father in 1933 and the premature death in the same year of his cousin Peggy Sinclair, with whom he had been intimate. Beckett attended a course in Jungian Psychotherapy at the Tavistock Clinic in London and was present at a lecture by Carl Jung himself entitled ‘the never properly born’.

He visited the Bethlem Royal Hospital where an old Portora friend, Geoffrey Johnson, worked as a doctor. These visits were used to create the asylum scenes in his novels Murphy and Watt. His mother's death in 1950 and that of his brother Frank in 1954 caused him the same anguish, contributing further to his quest for answers in the works of Descartes, Spinoza and others and deepening his vision of the absurdity of human existence as portrayed in his seminal plays, including Endgame, Waiting for Godot and Krapp's Last Tape.

Kevin Quinn opens his lecture on the first page of Beckett's first novel Murphy which Beckett wrote in London in 1934 when he was almost penniless. The novel begins, ‘The sun shone having no alternative on the nothing new. Murphy sat out of it, as though he were free...’. Quinn highlights the big question that looms large in all Beckett's writing. Are his characters free? Quinn reads the text aloud in a slight Dublin accent and then confirms to us his view that Beckett is one of the most painstaking, finicky of writers, a master of the comma.

Having lived in France since 1939, where he became actively involved in the Resistance movement, and met his future wife Susanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, Beckett began writing in French, a language which suited him for, says Quinn, it is rigorous, logical, plain and systematic. Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnameable were written in Paris from 1947 to 1949.

In excellent French, Quinn reads from the French version of Molloy and then he repeats the same passage in English. Molloy is in his mother's room where he recounts the strange story of how he got there on a bicycle but was knocked down and arrested and is now on crutches. Quinn notes that there are no chapter breaks or paragraph indents in this or the other books in the trilogy, signifying one single voice and the universal human condition, a gradual progress towards silence. The poetry is in the prose; the prose often indistinguishable from poetry.

Quinn refers now to some of Beckett's key poems including ‘The Vulture’ or the sparse lines of ‘Saint Lo 1945’ which appeared as an advert in the columns of the Irish Times on June 24 1946. He briefly considers their meaning and recommends the publisher's notes, for the poems are always difficult to comprehend.

He refers also to the commentaries on Beckett by the author and critic, Vivien Mercer, another Old Portoran. He notes that Beckett's friend, the aforementioned Geoffrey Johnson, recalled sitting under a tree near Portora with Beckett who was memorising his favourite poems by Keats. Quinn finished his lecture by quoting Oscar Wilde: ‘We are all in the gutter - but some of us are looking at the stars’ and the prospect of the two commemorative plaques, one on either side of Portora's elegant facade, held a perfect symmetry.