Damned to Fame
Biographer James Knowlson, whom Samuel Beckett described as 'the one who knows my work best', prepares to read in Enniskillen
In the run up to the Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival, Damned to Fame, the authorised biography of Samuel Beckett by Professor James Knowlson, is required reading. Beckett recognised Knowlson as 'the one who knows my work best'.
Beckett befriended Knowlson, a French scholar and university lecturer who set up the Beckett International Archive at Reading University, in the early 1970s, and the two met regularly until Beckett's death in 1989.
On his 79th birthday, Knowlson was pleased to share his memories of the man he describes as ‘one of the stars of 20th century literature’. It is easy to understand why Beckett trusted the amiable academic. 'If you did not let Beckett down, he would not let you down,' affirms Knowlson.
During the six years it took to research and write the biography, Knowlson visited the key locations in Beckett's life. Cooldrinagh, the Tudor-style house in Foxrock, County Dublin, where he was ‘born dead of night sun long sunk behind the larches, new needles turning green’.
As a boarder at Portora Royal school in Enniskillen, Beckett and his friend, Geoffrey Thompson, sat under a tree memorising 'Ode to a Nightingale' by Keats. Here too Beckett excelled at sport, especially cricket and rugby, swam in the Erne and discovered his life long passion for chess.
At Trinity College Dublin he was an extremely bright student of French, Italian and English. 'Just imagine teaching someone like that who was so very intelligent and who knew it,' comments Knowlson.
Self involved and narcissistic, Beckett was often withdrawn and introspective as a young man, and was already preoccupied with ‘the constant agitation of man’s existence'. On the wall of his rooms at Trinity, he pinned a poster with the stark words, PAIN PAIN PAIN.
The first signs of depression were emerging and with it the physical ailments that so plagued Beckett for most of his life: mouth ulcers, fistulas and cysts, and ‘the old heart knocking hell out of me nightly and like an old stone in the day’.
Perhaps Beckett was often malnourished? Knowlson describes him as a 'sparse but not an unappreciative eater'. He enjoyed Jameson whiskey and good wines, often drinking and smoking too much, especially in his middle years.
Still a student, Beckett began to feel trapped in Dublin. His Protestant middle class father, and more especially his mother, expected him to find a steady job at the Guinness brewery, or to stay on at Trinity as a lecturer. He taught briefly at TCD and at Campbell College in Belfast but soon shunned that profession.
When his father died suddenly of a heart attack in 1933, Beckett wrote disconsolately, ‘must it be it must be it must be’. The death of loved ones and friends was especially painful. That of his mother in 1950 was traumatic. When, four years later, his only brother Frank was dying of cancer, he told a friend, ‘It’s like the tide going out.’
Geoffrey Thompson, then a doctor, persuaded Beckett to undergo a two year programme of analysis in London with the psychotherapist, Wilfred Bion. The ‘savage love’ of his mother and his powerful love-hate bond with her are mentioned in Knowlson's biography as being key to his malaise. Knowlson writes: 'Psychotherapy was a major factor in revealing Beckett to himself, what he was like as a person and how important it was to escape from himself.'
While undergoing therapy, he rented a modest flat in Chelsea where he read avidly, enjoyed theatre and ballet performances and walked all over the city taking notes for this future novel, Murphy.
During an extended trip to Germany, and with only limited funds, Beckett visited art galleries and met with artists and writers. Knowlson acknowledges that there was not a trace of self doubt in the 29-years-old’s judgements on music, literature or art.
Beckett could spend an hour in front of a single painting, absorbing its minutest detail. He found Schubert to be the most spiritual of composers but Brahms was ‘that old piddler! Pissicatoing himself off in the best of all possible worlds’. In letters to his friend Tom MacGreevy, Beckett could be scathing in his comments about writers he thought were second rate.
When Beckett finally settled in Paris in the 1930s he taught at the Ecole Normale and befriended James Joyce who was ‘kindness itself’, especially when Beckett was stabbed close to his heart in a Paris street. Beckett also met his future wife, Suzanne Deschevaux Dumesnil.
During the Second World war, he joined the French resistance as a translator and typist and then worked with the Irish Red Cross at a hospital in Saint Lo in Normandy, where the post-war devastation and suffering changed his whole outlook. The experience mollified him, rendered him more humane, caring and compassionate and forced him to focus less on his own problems and more on those of others.
Just after the war, while Beckett was visiting his mother in Foxrock, he had what he termed a revelation. He realised that he needed to strip back the content of his writing rather than add to it as Joyce had done. He later likened himself to the great Florentine sculptor Benvenuto Cellini, chipping away at his art works.
He had moved with Suzanne into a larger 7th floor apartment in the Boulevard Saint Jacques and built a modest house at Ussy in the Marne valley, where he could escape what he termed ‘the siege fever of Paris’. Here, in the absurd beauty of being alone, he plumbed the depths of the human psyche.
In fact Beckett was in his 40s before he achieved any real success as a writer. His early novel, Murphy had been rejected by over 40 publishers before Routledge took it on. Suzanne later contacted Jerome Lindon at Les Editions de Minuit, who subsequently published Beckett's novels Molloy and Malone Dies and became a reliable ally and friend.
In the early 1950s, Beckett had already begun writing Waiting for Godot in French. Adopting the French language allowed him to write with greater simplicity and left him free to concentrate on the music of the language, its sounds and rhythms. Ultimately it offered a way of escaping the influence of Joyce, to whom he was often compared.
In 1953, Peter Hall, who directed the first production of the play in English said, 'Godot provided a tree and two characters who survived: you imagined the rest.' Critic Robert Morley wrote, 'The success of Waiting for Godot meant the end of British theatre as we know it.' It also brought financial stability for Beckett, though, generous to a fault, he spent most of his life giving his money away.
What saved Beckett from being wholly pessimistic was his sense of humour. For Knowlson, 'Far from being the legendary hermit, he was quite sociable and could be extremely witty. It was a delight to spend an evening with him.
'Yet he was sometimes depressed and ill really. His hand would go to the forehead and he would sigh deeply. It was difficult to understand quite how deep this depression went. You always felt you were dealing with someone who faced up to everything that life could throw at him with stoicism.'
In order to ensure that she would benefit from his estate should she survive him, Beckett married Suzanne in secret in a registry office in Folkestone in 1961. By then, however, the couple were living as Suzanne herself said, like two celibataires.
Knowlson feels that Beckett may never have discovered love as we know it: after all, Beckett did have unsatisfactory affairs with other women. ‘They came and always the same,’ Beckett wrote. His regret at his infidelities was so deep that when Suzanne died in July 1989, he was filled with remorse.
Intolerant of any publicity, Beckett wrote to Knowlson that he was 'damned to fame', using a term from Alexander Pope’s Dunciad. In 1969, while he and Suzanne remained on holiday in Tunisia, Jerome Lindon collected the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969 on his behalf. When a major festival was organised to mark his 75th birthday in Paris, Beckett said he wished he could crouch behind the Great Wall of China till the coast was clear.
Knowlson's biography charts Beckett’s direction of his own plays, for the stage and for television, in many European capitals and in New York. It does not neglect his humanitarian concerns. Beckett, for example, supported Amnesty International and Oxfam and banned his plays from being performed in South Africa except if the audience was multi-racial. He dedicated his play Catastrophe to Vaclav Havel.
Paradoxically, Beckett, who abandoned orthodox religion, was deeply spiritual and steeped in the bible. When Knowlson visited him in the nursing home where he died, Beckett sat back in his chair and sang, 'Abide With Me'.
Another abiding memory for Knowlson is of watching Beckett take crumbs from his dressing gown pocket, and, frail as he was, kneel down to feed the pigeons. This was the tender, compassionate side of a man of genius. His friend, the painter Avigdor Arikha, said such a man comes along only every 300 years.
Knowlson will read from Damed to Fame as part of the Happy Days Beckett Festival. Introducing Samuel Beckett with Beckett's Biographer takes place on Friday, August 24 at 1.10pm at the Town Hall Committee Room in Enniskillen.