Samuel Beckett: A Short Biography

Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave digger puts on the forceps. We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries.

— Waiting for Godot

NPG x31097; Samuel Beckett by Hugo Jehle
Samuel Beckett

Samuel Barclay Beckett was born without difficulty at Cooldrinach in Foxrock, County Dublin, on 13 April 1906, but grew old enough to fill the air with many different cries. He was the second of two sons of a middle-class Protestant couple (his father managed a surveying firm) and grew up away from the rebellion waged nearby. Though quite energetic, he enjoyed even as a small boy the quiet of solitude. He studied at Earlsfort House in Dublin, and then at Portora Royal School in Enniskillen (where Oscar Wilde had gone) where he first began to learn French, one of the two languages in which he would write. A well-rounded athlete, Beckett excelled especially in cricket, tennis, and boxing in his school days.

Though he continued with sports, his attention turned increasingly to academics when at 17 he entered Trinity College, choosing French and Italian as his subjects. Beckett enjoyed the vibrant theater scene of post-independence Dublin, preferring revivals of J.M. Synge plays. Moreover, he had the opportunity to watch American films and discover the silent comedies of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin that would crucially influence his interest in the vaudevillian tramp.

James Joyce
James Joyce

After graduation, Beckett traveled to Paris where he first met the fellow Dubliner who would become a seminal influence and close friend, James Joyce. In addition to acting as one of Joyce’s favored assistants in the construction of the Work in Progress (later to be titled Finnegans Wake), Beckett began writing himself, inspired by the vibrant Parisian literary circle. In 1930, he published his first poem, “Whoroscope,” winning a reward of ten pounds in a poetry competition. Shortly after, he published his brief but groundbreaking Proust, a study of the recently deceased author whom Beckett admired so much; the work at once illuminated its subject but also helped the fledgling and unsure artist shape his own aesthetic. When he returned to Dublin later that year to lecture at Trinity, Beckett was writing his first stories- which would later comprise More Pricks Than Kicks (1934).

Beckett was restless in his teaching posts, and his reluctance to settle down in a respectable career worried his family, especially his mother from whom he became estranged for several years. Returning to Paris in 1932, he wrote his first novel, Dream of Fair to Middling Women. While reminiscent in its digressive tendencies of Fielding and Sterne, Dream was also highly autobiographical, a powerful indication that Beckett was emerging from Joyce’s shadow and developing his own voice. Out of money, he went back to Dublin and then moved temporarily to London where he worked on much of his next novel, Murphy. Still without a steady source of income (his works were not selling, and Murphy, which had been turned down by dozens of publishers, would not appear until 1938), he moved constantly for the next few years before settling permanently in Paris in 1937.

Walking home late one night with some friends, Beckett was nearly killed when he was stabbed by a “pimp.” In hospital, Joyce looked after his young friend, paying his expenses and bringing around numerous visitors. Recuperating, Beckett also received attention from a French acquaintance, Suzanne Deschevaux-Dusmesnil, who would soon become his life companion (and wife, though not until 1961).

When Paris was invaded in 1941, Beckett and Suzanne joined the Resistance. Later they were forced to flee when their cell was betrayed, leaving their apartment only hours before the Gestapo arrived.

When Paris was invaded in 1941, Beckett and Suzanne joined the Resistance. Later they were forced to flee when their cell was betrayed, leaving their apartment only hours before the Gestapo arrived. They took refuge in Rousillion, in the south of France, where Beckett worked on a farm in exchange for room and board. There he continued work on a novel he had begun in Paris, Watt. After the Germans were defeated and the couple returned to Paris in 1945, Beckett travelled to Ireland to visit his mother. He claimed to have had while sitting in her room an artistic revelation: “I became aware of my own folly. Only then did I begin to write the things I feel.” And only then did Beckett began to write primarily in French, finding greater linguistic possibilities in a language that he famously said had no style. In his second language, he enjoyed a period (1947-1950) that is certainly his most prolific and that many consider his finest. His first French novel, Mercier et Camier–which, with its wandering duo, minimalist style, and insistence on repetition, predicts the concerns and form of Waiting for Godot–, was not published until years later. In this time, he also wrote his famous novel trilogy (Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable). Also, in 1947, he wrote his first play, Eleutheria, which he would not allow to be published during his lifetime and which, after his death, became a cause of great controversy when Beckett’s American publisher, Barney Rosset, released an English translation against the wishes of the Beckett estate. In 1948-49, he also wrote Waiting for Godot. Its production in Paris in January 1953, by the director and actor Roger Blin (with whom Beckett would develop a lifelong friendship), brought the artist his first real public success both in and outside of France.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Beckett’s playwriting continued with a series of masterpieces, including Endgame, Krapp’s Last Tape, and Happy Days. He involved himself in various productions of his plays across Europe and in the United States, wrote his first radio plays, and created remarkably innovative prose fiction, including the epic How It Is (1961) and the haunting The Lost Ones (1970). Worldwide appreciation of his work growing, he received in 1969 the Nobel Prize (the third Irishman of the century to be so honored). Characteristically, he was unhappy with the increased public attention that accompanied the prize and in response to a demand for a new work chose instead to release the still unpublished Mercier and Camier. At this time, he also underwent successful operations on his eyes to correct the cataracts that had been plaguing him for years.

The 1970s were a less prolific period, though he managed some new projects, including television plays for the BBC, and continued to interest himself in producions of his theatrical works. In 1977 he began the autobiographical Company and in the early 1980s crafted more prose pieces (including Ill Seen Ill Said and Worstward Ho) as well as more plays (including Rockaby and Ohio Impromptu). His last major work, the prose fiction Stirrings Still, was written in 1986.

In the same year, Beckett began to suffer from onsetting emphysema. After his first hospitilization, he wrote in bed his final work, the poem ‘What is the Word’. Moved into a nursing home, Le Tiers Temps, his deteriorating health prevented him from writing, and his efforts were given instead to translation of his works. Suzanne died on 17 July 1989, and Beckett followed her on 22 December. He is buried in Montparnasse Cemetary in Paris.

 — Benjamin Strong

Biographical Texts

Texts entirely on Beckett

  • Atik, Anne. How It Was: A Memoir of Samuel Beckett. London: Faber & Faber, 2001.
  • Bair, Deirdre. Samuel Beckett: A Biography. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.
  • Bernold, Andre. L’amitié de Beckett, 1979-1989. Paris: Hermann, 1992.
  • Brater, Enoch. The Essential Samuel Beckett: An Illustrated Biography. London: Thames and Hudson, 2003.
  • Brater, Enoch. Why Beckett. London: Thames and Hudson, 1989.
  • Cronin, Anthony. Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist. London: Harper Collins, 1996.
  • Gordon, Lois. The World of Samuel Beckett. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.
  • Gussow, Mel. Conversations With and About Beckett. New York: Grove Press, 1996.
  • Juliet, Charles. Conversations with Samuel Beckett and Bram van Velde. Leiden, Netherlands: Academic Press, 1996.
  • Juliet, Charles. Recontre avec Samuel Beckett. Paris: Fata Morgana, 1996.
  • Knowlson, James. Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996.

Texts in-part on Beckett

  • Whitelaw, Billie. Billie Whitelaw…Who He? New York: St. Martins Press, 1996.
Advertisements