Biography

Winner of the Nobel Prize in literature in 1969, Samuel Beckett was thus officially acknowledged as one of the greatest writers of his time. Though there is some controversy as to the exact date of his birth, according to his birth certificate he began life on May 13th, 1906, in Forock, County Dublin, Ireland. His family, which included an older brother, was middle-class, Protestant and otherwise unremarkable, his mother a nurse and his father the manager of a firm of surveyors. After early studies he entered Trinity College at the age of 17 where he distinguished himself in his studies of French, Italian and English.

In order to take up a teaching job, Beckett moved to Paris in 1927 and shortly thereafter met James Joyce whose influence on his writing was to be profound and whose personal secretary he for a short time became. Indeed, his first published work (1929) was an essay defending Joyce’s writings. The same year saw the publication of his first work of fiction, a short story entitled “Assumption.” The following year he won a minor literary prize for his poem “Whoroscope,” which principally dealt with the philosopher René Descartes.

Returning to Trinity College as a lecturer in 1930, he nevertheless continued his work as writer. After less than two years, however, he left and began to wander throughout Europe. In London in 1931, he had published a monograph on Marcel Proust.

After his father’s death in 1933, and his frequent bouts with depression and a variety of lesser illnesses that have been characterized as psychosomatic (i.e., severe constipation), he underwent a two year course of Jungian psychoanalysis with the well-known Jungian analyst, Dr. Wilfred Bion. The depression, however, continued to haunt him for the rest of his life and be mirrored in much of his writing. His first published novel (1933), More Pricks than Kicks was a reworking of his earlier attempt at a novel that had been called Dream of Fair to Middling Women.

By 1936 he travelled extensively throughout Germany, acquiring there a deep distaste for the Nazi regime and its savage tactics. The next year he returned briefly to Ireland where he had a quarrel with his mother and decided to move to Paris and make Montparnasse his permanent home. In December of that year he had an altercation with a street pimp and received a serious stab wound. In the hospital recovering, he met Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil who was to become his life-long companion, and, in 1961, in order to satisfy French inheritance laws, his wife. Out of hospital after a close brush with death, he continued to write, and his heavily Joycean comic novel Murphy was published to little acclaim in 1938, first in English, then the following year in French in his own translation.

Though in Dublin when World War II broke out, he returned quickly to Paris, exclaiming that he “preferred France at war to Ireland at peace.” Following the Nazi victory and the occupation of France in 1940, he joined the French resistance movement, narrowly avoiding arrest by the Gestapo on two occasions. After his resistance unit was signaled to the Germans by a former Catholic priest, Beckett and Suzanne travelled clandestinely to the South of France and settled in the village of Roussillon. It was there, while in hiding and continuing his activities in the Resistance that he wrote his novel Watt, later completed in 1945. In recognition of his participation in the resistance, he was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille de la Résistance by the French government.

It was from 1947 on that Beckett’s writing reached the apogee of his work. Writing initially in French then translating most of his works into English himself, he went on to create that body of work which assured his fame: Molloy (in French in 1951); Malone Dies (1948 in French, in English, 1956); The Unnamable (in French, 1953, English, 1957), and, of course, the play which was to become the most widely known drama of the 20th Century En Attendant Godot, Waiting for Godot (1947). In spite of the lukewarm critical reaction to that play, or perhaps because of it, other theatre pieces such as Krapp’s Last Tape and Endgame followed, as well as many plays written expressly for radio or television.

When awarded the Nobel in 1969, there was little doubt in the literary world the globe over that it had been richly earned. Following his death in Paris on December 22, 1989 he was buried in the Cimetière du Montparnasse alongside the grave of his wife, Suzanne. A lone tree is the sole décor on the stage of Waiting for Godot. A lone tree stands at the end of their joint grave.