Review: ‘Samuel Beckett: a biography’

by Deirdre Bair (Jonathan Cape, 1978)


John Calder


There can have been few occasions in literary history when the biography of a writer, warts and all, was published while he was still alive and professionally active. The biographer’s difficulties can be considerable, even 25 years or more after his subject’s death, because the embarrassment he may occasion to relatives, descendants and intimate friends still alive is a major problem, and there is in addition a natural desire on their part to conceal from posterity anything that can detract from the subject’s reputation, whether as artist or as human being. The reason that publication of the present biography of Samuel Beckett has been possible can be found in the nature of the man himself. The book could be actionable, but it is well known that Beckett would never undergo the trauma of facing the courts, and such are his views on freedom of expression and censorship, he would never deny anyone, however extreme the case, the right to publish what he or she wished, whatever pain it might inflict, and he has been unwise enough to tell the author so.


This biography can and already has inflicted pain. The American reviewers, and most notably Richard Ellmann, have made the obvious points: that it is inaccurate, that it draws major conclusions on scanty or dubious evidence, that the author’s industrious muck-raking is in no way counter-balanced by literary scholarship and that the whole is in extremely bad taste. There is little evidence anywhere that Deirdre Bair either knows, understands or has much sympathy with the works themselves, a corpus of novels, plays, poems and other writing that does not fill many shelves, but is of astonishing density and concentration, and has become the target of more critical study than the works of any twentieth-century writer, excepting possibly Joyce. It was obviously the intense academic interest in the work, coupled with the known reluctance of Mr. Beckett to give information about his private life, and the consequent curiosity about it, that spurred this former police reporter to undertake a massive job of research which has kept her travelling from one country to another and one person to another since 1971, following the trail of her subject from childhood in Ireland to present residence in France in his early seventies. Beckett tried to discourage her, politely but unequivocally let her know that he did not want a biography attempted and would not assist, but under pressure admitted that he could not stop her and would not take measures to hinder or prevent publication. In the past Mr. Beckett has stoically endured a Serbian ‘sequel’ to Waiting for Godot, an American musical based on Endgame, clumsy dramatizations of non-dramatic texts and other distortions of his work, without public complaint or legal redress, on the grounds that everyone has the right to his own expression and that even work that used or plagiarised his own was ‘nothing to do with me.’ He has taken the same attitude over this biography.


Deirdre Bair has had a great deal of frustration in getting people to talk to her. Persons close to Beckett were reluctant to give her information about him except in general terms, but she has been remarkably successful in many cases in breaking down that reluctance, and indeed, a number of ‘deep throats’ were willing to tell much, providing their anonymity was guaranteed. In other cases she has adopted the negative interview approach, putting a point of view or a hypothesis to her interviewee and taking lack of comment or disagreement as assent. Much of the book is based on this technique. Nevertheless, it would be a skimpy biography had she not struck treasure in the form of a large collection of letters written by Samuel Beckett to Thomas McGreevy, his close friend and confidant for many years, which were made available to her after his death. These letters give the same kind of insight into Beckett’s thoughts, physical sufferings and mental anguish over the years that the Heiligenstadt testament, and the other contents of Beethoven’s drawers, gave to Schindler and later biographers after his death. They are very moving, but it is impossible to read them in the lifetime of their author without great embarrassment. Mrs. Bair admits that she has not avoided warts, claiming they are necessary to understand the subject and his work. Undoubtedly they do perform that function, even if it is the wrong time for it, but this biographer is no critic and it is obvious enough that she has needed help to understand the work and to relate it to her findings concerning Beckett’s life, life-style and inner consciousness.


The book exploits an obvious vacuum and a large world interest in the man himself, an interest intensified by his dislike for personal publicity. Deirdre Bair’s major point, and it is made with much relish, is that his avoidance of journalists, his frequent reluctance to let much of his work get into print, his refusal to explain meaning or help with interpretation, and his withdrawal from the limelight, are basically a pose, a carefully planned method of building his reputation and creating interest, thereby bringing a mythology into being that enables him to hide from awkward situations and unfriendly critical exposure, while feeding tantalising hints of deeper meaning to the outside world through his inner circle which includes many academics, and artists in other fields, as well as a very few highly regarded fellow writers. I do not believe that this thesis is true, nor do I know anyone who knows Beckett well who thinks so either, but it is impossible to disprove. Other points made by Mrs. Bair are also neither provable nor disprovable unless Mr. Beckett would comment himself, which is highly unlikely, and even if he did he would lay himself open to not being believed: there are many points made on casual observation that can be countered by other casual observations, or based on unfounded gossip, or on circumstantial events that are illogical as we all have illogicalities imposed on our lives. She claims that he deliberately falsified his birthdate from May 13 1906 to April 13 of that year and that his reason for doing so was to enable interesting conclusions to be drawn later from his birth on a Good Friday (the earlier date). Ellmann has already commented that births are often registered late in Ireland and consequently many mistakes made, so there is no reason why Beckett should not be right and the register (which DB has consulted) wrong. Most people would prefer to believe the writer than the register, especially as he had always been consistent about his birth date from long before he could have expected his present fame.


Then Mrs. Bair claims that Beckett’s marriage, made late in life to the lady he had lived with for more than twenty years and with whom he spent the war years in hiding, is not really a marriage, citing separate Paris apartments and differences over money as evidence. But Beckett can only work when alone and the two small apartments are in fact next to each other in the same building; besides, now that he has at last begun to enjoy taking holidays, his wife always goes with him. And what couple does not disagree occasionally about money?


The book abounds in general, badly-founded conclusions, that can only be proved or disproved by their subject. Certainly the author is unreliable in describing events; on the one or two occasions mentioned where I was personally present, the description given is inaccurate, often telescoping two widely differing evenings into one, or totally misunderstanding and misrepresenting Beckett’s behaviour. It makes much of the book biographically suspect, and the mistakes that abound in little matters that could have easily been checked make the scholarship even more doubtful.


That said, it must be admitted that the book is fascinating in many ways and is particulary interesting in its depiction of Samuel Beckett as child, adolescent and young man at Trinity, and in the portrait it gives of his mother, a dominating strong-willed Edwardian figure, who, in spite of her affection and interest in his development, tortured him by her inability to understand his sensitive young talent, or to see any spark of the genius that already burned in him. The two short chapters on the war, with his career in the French Resistance, for which he was awarded the Croix de Guerre with gold star (DB is the first to have discovered the existence of the decoration with its citation to Beckett as ‘a man of great courage,’ he himself having never mentioned it either to friends or family), the flight to Vichy with Suzanne, largely on foot, and then the long wait for the war to finish, in Roussillon in the Vaucluse, where Watt was written and Waiting for Godot and the early French novels have genesis, are good as far as they go, and for once, doubtless because of lack of other information, are not tasteless or embarrassing although I have noticed endless inaccuracies. But they disappoint all the same. It was here that the talented young writer, now 34, with an unusual novel and a collection of short stories, as well as a miscellaneous body of verse and criticism behind him, none of which had caused more than the slightest ripple in either Dublin, London or Paris, emerged as what he was to become, a force that would sweep through all the barriers of style and content as it had existed up to the war in mainstream literature, break totally away from Joyce’s world of language, as well as from the didacticism and political commitment of the surrealists and expressionists, and marry together a poetic, highly-organised use of language, based more on musical notation than on any literary ancestor, with subject matter such as has never before been permissible in serious writing, although Joyce had shown the way.


When he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1969, it was for poetically extending the boundaries of compassion and helping the world to understand its own suffering. The exact words (or any words) of the citation are not quoted by Deirdre Bair. Her only interest in his literary achievement is to connect it to episodes in his life and to people he knew. Inevitably every writer’s experience emerges in his work and biographical sources are usually not difficult to spot, but they are mostly irrelevant. I was amazed less at Deirdre Bair’s pointing out of the obvious than at her inability to see other things of greater importance, the sources of Beckett’s savagery and humour, especially in those works that were incubating during his two and a half year stay at Rousillon, during the last half of the war. The main purpose her book may finally service is to enable others to perceive what she has missed.


For when she talks of the novels and plays she is totally out of her depth, and never does more than give the most cursory and ill-informed account of the plots. The examples she quotes are mostly trite and obvious, and they become sparser towards the end of the book, because connections are more difficult to make. She gives a useful account of the critical reception of the early plays and to some extent of the other writings, but her knowledge of the author’s reactions is mostly from far-distant hearsay, and she is far too prone to construct imaginary scenes. For instance, Beckett on Christmas Eve 1965 suffering from failing eyesight and prior to what was to be a successful operation, is colourfully depicted:


            Through an open window he could hear the prisoners in the Santé, like

            wounded beasts. He raised his eyes to the Val de grâce, and the Panthéon

            beyond, illuminated and shining brightly on this holiest of nights. He

            wondered fearfully how much longer he would be allowed to see it.


The paragraph has a footnote referring to a letter to McGreevy, a quotation from which it evidently is not, although the phraseology may be Beckett’s. Elsewhere pen portraits of Beckett, often lying or pacing in a room on his own, are given, with footnotes (which do not give quotes) referring to conversations with a variety of interviewers. For instance, Beckett’s reaction to the Nobel Prize, which was announced when he was alone in North Africa with Suzanne, who undoubtedly has not said one word to Deirdre Bair (and is most unflatteringly depicted on that account), is described in detail, with a footnote mentioning a large number of informants, ten, including myself, cited by name. In other words, from a number of different conversations, in which Mrs. Bair tried to determine whether in our several opinions Beckett was pleased or otherwise to receive the prize, she has synthesized a description of the Prize Winner striding up and down his room in Tunisia ‘in long loping strides, not knowing whether to be thrilled or frightened.’


In her 26 chapters, 640 pages of text and copious notes, Deirdre Bair has produced a picture of Samuel Beckett that few people who know him would recognise, more like one of his creations than himself, rather like Molloy in particular. The American dust jacket had an unfortunate artist’s impression of Beckett, with the two most striking features of the face, the laser eyes and great aquiline nose, totally missing, but it fitted this strange hatchet-job better than the haunted photograph that adorns the Cape cover. Mrs. Bair obviously does not understand more than the superficialities of Beckett’s work and there seems little evidence that she has read any of the better-informed critical books. Unnecessary as these undoubtedly are to the unacademic reader or playgoer, they can add greatly to the pleasures of returning afresh to the novels and plays; but Mrs. Bair has read so little that she misses the obvious things known to most Beckett scholars and available in print; for instance, in Endgame, the four characters and their relationship to each other is summed up in their names: Hamm (Hammer) and Clov, Nagg and Nell (French, German and English corruptions of Nail); so that the situation is one of a hammer and three nails. Mrs. Bair in her rather clumsy description of this important work, not only does not know this, but totally misses the whole point of the play and what it says about the connection between human ties and death. Admittedly the book is not a critical study, but it seems pointless, except perhaps in purely commercial terms, to undertake a biography where you have so little understanding or knowledge of the work, even more so when you obviously do not even like it much. All it does is give a picture of a man that is more like his own creations than himself, which, considering the author’s lack of sympathy with them, is a strange literary paradox. She does not even try to get involved in his later work, the short concentrated prose pieces, meticulously boiled down from longer texts, but simply gives the history of their publication, quoting Time’s judgement that from any other author ‘they would seem slight to the point of frippery.’


The English edition is a photocopy of the American and this brings additional problems. The editions cited are nearly always the American ones, and it is, for instance, the American experience of the later plays, where they have been less understood than in Britain, that the book gives us in the final chapter, as also the American, most unfavourable, reception of the Fizzles (For to end yet again).


Although there are a large number of very competent Beckett specialists at American universities, they seldom review for the larger circulation review media, and critical judgements are often surprisingly shallow and ill-informed. None the less in spite of its inaccuracies, its misjudgement, its fudged picture of Beckett as a person, the embarrassingly bad taste in the wealth of intimate private detail revealed—in spite of all that—no future biographer can afford to ignore this book, and it does make fascinating, if infuriating reading. Various non-literary friends of mine, casually glancing at a few pages, all wanted to borrow my copy, and Mrs. Bair is unlikely to regret the audacity, perseverance and hard work that has led to a bestseller. But in future I hope she will choose a subject either less contemporary or less vulnerable, and requiring a lower level of scholarship and aesthetic understanding. She writes well but carelessly with that ability to inflate the trivial over the essential that I associate with the more sensational popular press. It is to a hero of the tabloids that she might one day do justice.