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PN Review 276
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This review is taken from PN Review 119, Volume 24 Number 3, January - February 1998.

AUTEUR DRAMATIQUE JAMES KNOWLSON , Damned to Fame. The Life of Samuel Beckett (Bloomsbury) £25(hb) £8.99 (pb)
ANTHONY CRONIN, Samuel Beckett. The Last Modernist (HarperCollins) £25 (hb) £8.99 (pb)

Samuel Beckett is buried in Paris at the Montparnasse cemetery where the inscription on his tombstone misleadingly reads: 'Samuel Beckett 1906-1989. Auteur dramatique'. Godot's legacy has had a firm grip on the public perception of Beckett's work, but these two new biographies will hopefully change all that. Literary biography - biography in general - has been the rising star of the publishing industry: nowadays biographies sell their subjects' books rather than vice versa. It would seem that the public relishes the mixture of salacious gossip, the peppering of exegesis, and the odd anecdote that fill biographies of the famous... in which case, the mixture should be especially potent with Samuel Beckett. Not only was he renowned for his secrecy as much as for the obscurity of his work, but rumours abound of his supposedly numerous affairs.

Anthony Cronin's The Last Modernist satisfies a lot of the gossip-hunters, whilst James Knowlson's Damned to Fame took seven years to write, was 'authorised' by Beckett before his death, and it shows. Every assertion is backed up by thoroughly researched source material; indeed, the final few hundred pages are devoted to footnotes and four different bibliographies. Conversations and chance remarks are attributed, even down to Beckett's own extreme dubiety over the whole biographical project, because he was not at all convinced that it was a worthwhile enterprise:

The irony of writing the biography of someone who holds so firmly and so convincingly to the elusiveness of the past escaped neither Beckett nor myself, as we talked about the memories trawled up in Company. At one moment, we laughed uproariously at the idea of reaching 'truth' in so shifty an area as human life.

Knowlson managed to talk him round with arguments which he set out as a programme in a 1990 article for the French review Critique. In essence, they were inevitability and usefulness. Firstly, because it would happen anyway that someone would write a biography, given the weight of public interest in so widely recognised a writer, why not take control of the inevitable, and avoid the misinterpretation of Deirdre Bair's unsatisfactory 1978 attempt at biography? Secondly, for some time, critics close to Beckett, such as Knowlson himself, were realising how much material contained clear references to emblematic scenes in Beckett's life, material that Beckett himself, when questioned about it, called obsessive. Scenes from childhood, past loves, shifts in artistic perception, all recurred in published texts.

Access to diaries, personal notes and correspondence provides Knowlson with the occasion to lay to rest a number of myths, some surrounding Beckett's war work for the French Resistance, and his political involvements in general, but also revealing his deep-felt relations with fine art and music, through accounts of his previously undocumented year-long trip around Germany, visiting galleries and artists, and lists of his tastes in art and music. Damned to Fame also confirms the already well established links with Joyce, Dante, and most other major landmarks in Western culture, but the key artistic and musical influences are quite new, and fascinating enough for them to have apparently become Knowlson's own area of future research.

Cronin's The Last Modernist allows itself to speculate a little more than Damned to Fame. There is more material on Beckett's private life, his relationships, his feelings. The two books complement each other, with one providing firm scholarly information of more relevance to Beckett's work, and the other giving an emotional perspective. This affective material should really be just as valid as the 'useful' material, especially given that the speculation makes for interesting reading. However, Cronin's lack of sources means that a few quite badly dated anecdotes reappear in The Last Modernist. The story of Harold Pinter's first visit to Paris to meet Beckett, for instance, is a very old and much repeated one: Pinter himself has used it at Beckett memorial celebrations (at the Barbican in 1990), and for television documentaries on Beckett (Bookmark, BBC2, December 1995). But such is the nature of theatrical anecdotes. Disappointingly, there are hints that a number of Cronin's other stories have been synthesised from existent Beckett criticism.

The biographies do not disagree over the general direction of Beckett's life, of course. The senile chestnut of Beckett's enigmatic date of birth appears everywhere. Friday the Thirteenth, Good Friday, who cares? More significant is his education at Portora and Trinity, as Cronin's Irish point of view helps him notice, in that, although both are institutions prescribed within the Protestant establishment, both remain fundamentally Irish institutions: well-to-do Protestant families also sent their sons away to England; the Becketts chose not to. It is this sort of detail that Cronin treats most effectively: re-attribution of an already well-know biographical detail.

Landmarks in Beckett's life are covered in both books: the immense trauma provoked by the sudden death from a heart attack of Beckett's father in 1933, for instance, or the moment of revelation, that had been hinted at in Krapp's Last Tape, where Beckett saw that he could begin writing from imaginative, abstract experience instead of relying on real-life experience. This vision heralded the most intensively productive period of Beckett's lie, the 'frenzy of writing' from 1946 to 1953, as Knowlson's chapter title has it.

Samuel Beckett died in Paris on 22 December 1989, twenty years after having received the Nobel prize for Literature. The inscription on his grave in the cemetery at Montparnasse leaves us with the question: what of Samuel Beckett, novelist? Samuel Beckett, critic? Samuel Beckett, poet?

Beckett's poetry has always been ignored by the public who flock to Godot, and even by the more restricted audience of the Trilogy. The poetry exists in three different periods. Beckett's first published work was a poem: Whoroscope, a biography of Descartes, the title of which plays on the philosopher's fear of a prediction of death. Further Irish-influenced poetry followed (Echo's Bones and Other Precipitates), but petered out during the late 1930s. Beckett then began using poetry as a translation tool, as an exercise in learning German, French or Spanish. He was to return to the form qua poetry one last time with Mirlitonnades in 1978. Knowlson's treatment of the Mirlitonnades is exemplary, and he provides plenty of cleverly-researched new information. The poems were written during a period in which Beckett, now aged and ill, was mourning some of his oldest friends:

His sadness spilled over into numerous little poems called Mirlitonnades that he wrote mostly in 1977 and 1978. He described them himself as 'gloomy French doggerel' [...]. But some of them are beautifully crafted. These 'rimailles', 'rhymeries' or 'versicules', as he first labelled them, were jotted down at odd moments in Ussy, in a hotel room or a bar in Paris, Stuttgart or Tangier on any handy scrap of paper, envelope, beer mat or, in one case, a Johnnie Walker Black Label whisky label. They were often carefully reworked, before being copied into a tiny leather-bound sottisier or commonplace book that he carried around in his jacket pocket.

From the copious material in the rest of Damned to Fame we learn that the practice of keeping notebooks crammed full of quotations was one of Beckett's key working methods, and that he used them so closely in his work that, in some case, he would tick them off as they were inserted in a text. The locations mentioned are either holiday spots, such as Tangier, or work related, such as Stuttgart, where Beckett was directing that year, and Ussy, a village in the Marne, where Beckett had a quiet retreat where he could work undisturbed.

Some of the poems arose out of particular moments or incidents in his life. 'Ne manquez pas à Tanger / le cimetière Saint-André' (Do not miss in Tangier / the Saint-André cemetery) with its bench dedicated 'to the memory of Arthur Keyser' was composed on the first of May in Tangier, following a visit to the cemetery there. On a second visit to the same cemetery in August, he spotted the tombstone of a perpetual optimist: 'Caroline Hay Taylor' ('one who never turned her back but / marched breast forward', read the headstone) who had died in Ireland forty-five years before in August 1932. A parallel 'Mirlitonnade', 'Ne manquez pas à Stuttgart / la longue Rue Neckar', along which Beckett tramped so often and where he sometimes ate at a small Italian restaurant, was written in Stuttgart [...]. This poem is heavily ironic for the long Neckarstrasse in Stuttgart is the kind of dreary, uninspiring city road that, in Klaus Herm's words, 'makes one feel positively homesick'.

We can see the important rôle that real-life experience continued to play in Beckett's work, even after his momentous imaginative revelation. It is clear that as his art matured, he returned to the broadly Modernist principles he had begun with; and as he grew old, memories became an ever greater part of his inspiration, a direction confirmed by the autobiographical content of Company and the rest of his last trilogy of novels, Nohow On, written during the 1980s. But this is not to say that he abandoned the highly literary sources of his inspiration either:

Other little poems were prompted by lines or phrases that had stuck in his mind during his reading: lines from Voltaire's poem about the Lisbon earthquake of 1 November 1755 (All Saints Day), for instance, or Pascal's 'I seek only to know my own nothingness'. Another adopts the phraseology of La Fontaine's sombre fable, 'Le Lièvre et les Grenouilles' ('The Hare and the Frogs') - he had first read La Fontaine at Trinity College, Dublin - taking its parenthetical line 'Que faire en un gîte à moins que l'on ne songe' (What can one do in a den but dream) and making it the focus of a quatrain about a buck-hare ('a bouquin') that leaves its 'gîte'.

In March-April 1977, he thought of perhaps writing a play about the Fates: 'Attempts to get going on something new in vain. Just a few rhymes in French. Wish I could do an Atropos all in black, with her scissors.' Instead, these thoughts inspired two of the Mirlitonnades. In the first, one of the Fates spins out life's thread on her spindle; in the second, the 'noire soeur qui es aux enfers' (black sister who art in hell), waits to cut it; 'qu'est-ce que tu attends' (what are you waiting for), he asks in his final line. The apparent slightness and playfulness of form of these late 1970s 'poèmes courts' (miniature poems) should not disguise the seriousness and, to use Beckett's own word, 'gloom' of their themes. Although they have been largely ignored by critics writing about Beckett's work, they offer startling insights into the darkness of his private moods at this time.

Tellingly, Cronin has nothing to say about the Mirlitonnades, presumably because he did not have access to personal effects (beer mats and whisky labels). But the evidence should be clear by now: authorisation has not meant institutionalisation for Knowlson. In the current climate of Beckett studies, there is however a danger that he might suffer from his slight bias towards the later plays (these were his main area of interest before beginning the biography), losing out to Cronin's more fashionable Irish bias.

For all the qualities of Knowlson's work, the irreparable shame of the whole affair is that it should mark the demise of imagination, of the total freedom to interpret which existed before he provided us with such an exact set of already-traced allusions. The rot set in with Eoin O'Brien's The Beckett Country: Samuel Beckett's Ireland, which managed to track down precisely which postman used to whistle a particular song which is remembered in Watt, as well as a quantity of other such invaluable but desperately limiting predigested interpretations. But such is progress, and regretting the existence of these biographies can only be for the terminally Romantic...


This review is taken from PN Review 119, Volume 24 Number 3, January - February 1998.

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