Review: ‘Samuel Beckett: a biography’

by Deirdre Bair (New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978)


Calvin Israel


Since the announcement by Ms. Bair informally to a group of Beckett scholars during the meeting of the Samuel Beckett Society, MLA, Chicago, 1977, that her book was in the final stages of printing, and following publication late last Spring, it has enjoyed a curious collection of attitudes. In various discussions, Beckett scholars and others sensitive to and knowledgeable about Beckett’s writings have overwhelmingly deprecated Ms. Bair’s product; major critics (e.g., Ellmann, Kenner, etc.) have, in their final summing up for their reviews, ranged from polite approval to wholesale, unmitigated condemnation; the general criticism found in the ‘blurbs’ of popular journals, however, (Time, Newsweek, etc.) has applauded the biography. The book still provokes controversy, and this reviewer has deliberately delayed a final review until this time in order to read and re-read Ms. Bair’s work with the aim of producing a dispassionate critique based upon the evidence presented in the biography.


Let us see what we have here: it is a big book, with 640 pages of text, 83 pages of notes, plus a general name index and illustrations (photos of Beckett from childhood to 1973, photos en famille, with friends, and many production stills from the plays). In a short, four-page ‘Preface,’ Ms. Bair discusses how her biography came about: as a doctoral candidate ‘in search of a dissertation topic,’ she contacted Beckett in 1971 to gain his assistance. Beckett declined entirely as a willing subject, but his generous remark that he would ‘neither help nor hinder’ set Professor Bair energetically researching the biography of her reluctant, yet kind, subject. Although, from her meetings with Beckett, she ‘realized how much pain and embarrassment’ her questions caused him, she persisted. The book is the work of the next six years: some three-hundred interviews, correspondence with another hundred persons, telephone interviews with fifty. Information about Beckett’s childhood and early schooling came from his family members and friends and former teachers: beginning with 1930 and the early writings (London and Paris), Professor Bair depends heavily on the papers of Beckett’s friend, the late Thomas McGreevy, with whom Beckett corresponded frequently until McGreevy’s death in 1967. Much of the personal knowledge, the notes to such references in the text make clear, is dependent upon Beckett’s letters to McGreevy: Ms. Bair’s evidence for the ‘inside’ story, the ‘truth’ about Beckett’s feelings, state of mind, illnesses, etc. is offered in quotations, paraphrases, a précis of the letters from time to time. Thus, the vital part of the biography, Beckett’s years from 1930 to 1967—or approximately four decades of Beckett’s finest artistry—was made possible through the generosity of Elizabeth Ryan and Margaret Farrington, Thomas McGreevy’s literary executors, who kindly allowed Ms. Bair to use the letters as the foundation and structure of her work; in fact, Professor Bair states frankly that it would have been impossible for her to have written the biography without access to Beckett’s letters to McGreevy. Somewhat less worrisome but equally unverifiable are the constant references to informants for the biography who decline to be known, anonymous sources, and even depending upon information derived from an interview conducted by a friend of the biographer. From a scholarly viewpoint, the soundness of the book is suspect on these grounds; the accuracy and integrity of the ‘facts’ remains an open question (and one wonders why Professor Bair did not strive to make a solidly scholarly contribution to Beckett studies by publishing the letters together with an introduction to satisfy her doctorate).


However, it would be hard to fault Ms. Bair’s biography in regard to her effort; her book is a first biography and made more difficult to accomplish since it is an unauthorized one about a great, living writer. It is packed with exciting and wonderful ‘facts’ for both the generally interested reader and serious scholar to contemplate. Since Ms. Bair makes clear her intentions were not to deal with Beckett’s work critically, she can hardly be judged harshly for not doing so; although, as is documented below, she does fail to heed her intentions with speculative interpretations which fail to illuminate. What does offend is serious: she just gets too many of her ‘facts’ wrong, wrong enough for any student of Beckett as man and artist to prepare a ‘laundry list’ of corrections. Despite strong feelings about the province of a reviewer, certain observations and corrections seem called for here. We are given a list of theatres (Abbey, Gate, Queens, Royal, Olympia) which Beckett attended as a young student at Trinity. Since Ms. Bair visited the Beckett archive at the University of Reading, which holds the list of the plays Beckett saw at these and other theatres at that time, would not the titles, at least, of the plays be more illuminating? Should there not be some greater amplification from Ms. Bair than the critical remark that Watt is a ‘curious’ book? Does Ms. Bair truly believe that a biographer should accept what is written and said about her subject—at face value—without questioning the motives and veracity of her informants, without seeking corroboration at every turn? Should it not have given her some pause when some of Beckett’s closest friends (e.g., the Israeli painter Avigdor Arikha and his wife) were adamant in their refusal even to see her? Two examples of Professor Bair’s biographical technique and a few examples of error seem in order. For several pages, Ms. Bair ‘psychoanalyzes’ Beckett’s mental state during his stay in Roussillon (the time of the writing of Watt): ‘Beckett suffered a very real breakdown in Roussillon—probably his most serious—one directly related to the schizophrenic form and content of much of Watt.’ This sentence is followed by a sort of ‘Walter Cronkite—You Are There’ examination of Beckett’s state, interior and exterior. He is referred to as disoriented, scathing, hating; he is said to have ‘followed a bizarre schedule of strange ritualistic tramps through the countryside’; he is characterized, during this time in Roussillon as desperate, bewildered, confused—guilty about his friends who did not escape from the resistance cell Gloria and full of self-hatred. Therefore, we are to understand, Beckett turned to the writing of Watt to maintain some personal control; Watt was therapy. All of this may be so, but Ms. Bair’s lack of documentation makes it quite doubtful. Her notes reveal that all of the ‘psychoanalytic conjecture’ is derived from a remark made by Beckett to Lawrence Harvey concerning Watt: ‘only a game, a means of staying sane, a way to keep my hand in.’ Beckett’s phrasing seems a very sensible statement for a writer who lived through the circumstances of Roussillon. In addition, Ms. Bair talked to three doctors and read R.D. Laing’s work on psychosis, but the telling note is the information given to her by ‘exiles, villagers, and personal friends who have asked to remain anonymous.’ Thus, a critical part of Beckett’s life, the period of exile in which he wrote Watt, is based upon anonymous gossip, unverifiable medical opinion, and Ms. Bair’s speculations and conjectures.


In the area of Beckett as a political person, Professor Bair has much more information, but strangely enough she ignores the evidence by taking Beckett’s personal statements at face value and reaches, therefore, unwarranted conclusions. Some of the facts about Beckett’s political involvements are sharp and clear: when asked by Kay Boyle and others to contribute a statement on the Spanish Civil War, Beckett’s answer was a card on which was printed UPTHEREPUBLIC! He returned to France from the safety of Ireland during World War II because, as he said, ‘I could not stand by with my arms folded.’ He was the central collector of information for Alfred Péron’s resistance cell, Gloria, and for his work Beckett received the Croix de Guerre from Charles de Gaulle in 1945. Although Ms. Bair could not have known this, the ms. of Pour finir encore bears the statement in Beckett’s hand that the first two pages were torn off and sent to be auctioned off for Algerian relief. Professor Bair should have known of Beckett’s work as a dynamitard with the Maquis, also, but one has the feeling that no amount of evidence about Beckett as a political person would have affected Ms. Bair’s conclusions. Beckett is a reticent, modest human being, not given to talk about himself personally but given to denigrate his efforts in human affairs; thus, Ms. Bair accepts Beckett’s seeming political quiescence as the fact, minimizes the contrary evidence, and digs no deeper to uncover the truth about her subject. It is limited biography.


But it is when Professor Bair turns to an evaluation of the relationship between Beckett and his wife that the biography demonstrates a lack of sophistication and understanding, and is, in this important circumstance, at best valueless and at worst tasteless. After all, in one place, Ms. Bair admits that when ‘Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil came into Samuel Beckett’s life . . . [she was] an organizing force of great strength and tranquillity.’ Apart from that one temperate observation, all else is a savage delimiting portrait of this woman whom Ms. Bair has never seen or met, a portrait based, in part, upon the resentful remarks of Peggy Guggenheim (whom Beckett ended his relationship with when Suzanne re-appeared in his life), and seems the envy, misunderstanding, and gossip of others who, in the main, are not identified. Suzanne’s love, support, and dedication—her suffering in the ‘bad days’ and her pride in the present for Beckett’s achievement—are known to many close to Beckett who would not talk about the relationship (or at times, anything else) between Beckett and his wife (e.g., A.J. Leventhal, Anne and Avigdor Arikha, and many Beckett scholars). Well-known are some of the facts of the marriage: that Suzanne worked to keep Beckett free to write, that she acted unstintingly and faithfully as his agent by taking his mss. to publishers for many years in Paris (it was she who brought the mss. of the completed trilogy of novels to Jérôme Lindon at Les Éditions de Minuit with Beckett’s proviso that Lindon could accept all three or nothing). A sophisticated biographer would understand the relationship of two such persons as Suzanne and Beckett: Suzanne has her friends, whom she prefers to some of the friends (and new enthusiastic academics) seen by Beckett. Their outside, social lives remain apart, but Ms. Bair takes the gossip of unknowing persons, the plan of the Becketts’ apartment, and their differing social contacts as proven evidence of coolness in the relationship. Professor Bair even plays the seer by concluding that the marriage is ‘asexual.’ Ms. Bair’s confusion about the Becketts’ marriage and living arrangements stems from her cultural difference; the usual lifestyles of the French and other European upper-middle class intellectuals are rarely found in America. Separate bedrooms and places of privacy such as ‘headache’ rooms, even adjoining apartments, are common occurrences and carry no reflection of the sexual practice in the marriage; thus, anyone familiar with Beckett’s personality and his writings would conclude that the design for living which exists between him and his wife permits him to get his work done. Professor Bair draws no conclusions from the frequency with which Beckett goes alone to his ‘hut on the Marne mud’ in Ussy when he is at work writing, nor has she considered how often and regularly Sam and Suzanne Beckett take vacations together—rarely singly. It is only in the discussion of the lifestyle in Paris that she slips in logic.


Probably the low point of the biography is reached when Ms. Bair quotes from a letter written by Beckett to McGreevy upon the moment of indecision about an ongoing relationship with Suzanne, a passing moment which is a commonplace doubt absent from the minds of few men on the verge of the fact of marriage or a common-law arrangement. Professor Bair weakens the importance of her biography by her limitations of Suzanne Dumesnil’s powerful influence upon the course of Beckett’s life and art—‘she who set it all in motion.’


With all due respect to Ms. Bair’s difficulties in forcing a biography of a major, living artist, when she discovered that she would receive no co-operation from her subject, she must have known that she was setting sail into the waters of great inaccuracy. Another major error is the romantic claptrap about how Suzanne and Samuel Beckett first met, which Ms. Bair reports (as have so many others). Supposedly, in the early hours of January 7, 1938, Beckett, in the company of his friends Alan and Belinda Duncan, was stabbed (and not ‘motivelessly’ as the court records indicate: he knew Prudent) by a pimp. When he fell to the ground . . . (but let us allow Ms. Bair to tell the story): ‘The Duncans, in a state of shock, shouted to the deserted streets for someone to stop the assassin. A young woman [38!] happened by who gave them the calm direction they needed. Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, a piano student, was hurrying home after a late evening concert when she came upon the scene. Quickly she helped to wrap Beckett in Alan Duncan’s overcoat and arranged a makeshift pillow before she called an ambulance.’ It makes a lovely romantic story (if painful for Beckett), and most of it can be found in the court records except for one major flaw: Suzanne was not there. Beckett first met Suzanne eight years before when she attended classes during his teaching stay at L’Ècole Normale Superièure (but not his classes). They knew each other casually and went their separate ways. When Suzanne read a snippet in the newspaper the day after the stabbing incident, and remembered Beckett, she went to visit him in the hospital, and their lasting, forty-year relationship begins from that visit. Of course, if Ms. Bair had been able to ask Beckett the right questions, many such gross (and minor) errors of biographical fact would have been avoided; but Beckett would not have answered. The end result is a distorted biography needing endless correction; what suffers is Beckett scholarship which makes profound interpretations of Beckett’s artistry, as does Ms. Bair, based upon incidents in Beckett’s life which never occurred as stated. Both biography and criticism become fabrication.


Ms. Bair had hoped to carry out two major intentions: to avoid pedantic criticism and to write a factual biography; she succeeded in the first and foundered badly in the latter. The errors mount grievously. Critical statements attributed to Beckett (352) are footnoted as ‘anonymous’; the poem ‘bon bon il est un pays’ may belong to the poems of 1938-39; manuscript evidence exists to suggest that La fin (Suite) was first written in English; page 320 prints footnote 52, but no footnote appears in the notes; to call Beckett’s writing in Molloy a ‘disguise,’ Waiting for Godot an ‘auto-biographical play,’ and The Unnamable a ‘confession’ is feckless criticism; and the dates of Beckett’s relationship with Jake Schwartz, the London bookseller (‘Jake, the extractor’) are wrong. If Ms. Bair had wished to illuminate Beckett’s integrity as an artist, one interview with John Gielgud (and Ralph Richardson) would have been worth one-hundred minor ones with ‘persons who decline to be identified.’ She would have discovered that Beckett, an unknown and poor artist, sacrificed a first English performance of Waiting for Godot with these great actors rather than submit himself to critical and biographical questions. Also missing from her biography is the name Edward T. Hanley, the American businessman who early and single-handedly was responsible for bringing Beckett’s manuscripts to America, especially to Texas and other universities. Other errors creep in: Lawrence Harvey becomes ‘Laurance’; lines are transposed in the text; and, certainly, Ms. Bair must know that Burgess Meredith and Zero Mostel did make a film of Waiting for Godot which is introduced by Barney Rosset, publisher of Grove Press. Many of these are subject to minor correction; much more significant and uncorrectable, for example, is the characterization of so important a figure as Suzanne Beckett as a woman not to be trusted, which is based upon the ‘testimony’ of Peggy Guggenheim.


One final caveat: anyone seriously interested in and sensitive to Beckett as man and artist should keep a watch on blood-pressure if he or she takes up this book—the conjectures, speculations, errors, etc. cause exasperation and annoyance. More as a novel rather than biography it does, however, illuminate some phases of Beckett’s life: ‘if all life is a disease,’ the book describes Beckett’s various physical falterings ad nauseam. If factually correct in all respects, the family relationships in Beckett’s growing-up years and his early love affairs are touching, as also are the lengthy descriptions of his gloom in the years when he was an unknown and virtually unpublished and ignored writer. In the final analysis, however, Beckett is not here; and if that is so, how, then, did the book come about? Rather than being passive with women, as Ms. Bair characterizes Beckett, he is, in fact, delighted by women, and there are dozens of women in whose company he is at ease and finds intellectual enjoyment. I suspect that when Ms. Bair approached Beckett he was delighted by her interest, energy, and vivacity; when he fully discovered what she was about, it was too late. If, as he has said, he had made a little stain upon the ‘mess’ with his own work, what could he do? She was determined; she could not be stopped; a Samuel Beckett would not help, but he would not hinder.