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The World of Samuel Beckett,
In the past two decades, Pablo Picasso, J.D. Salinger, John Lennon, T.S. Eliot, Philip Larkin, and Jackson Pollack have been deemed by their biographers to be the scum of the earth—or, at least, no-talent wretches. In The World of Samuel Beckett, Lois Gordon puts the opposite spin on this trend. While yielding to no one in her admiration for the man who wrote Waiting for Godot, she is highly uncomfortable with the idea that his famously painful and lugubrious works issued from his personal torments. Gordon goes to great lengths to advance the rather unlikely theory that Beckett was in fact a regular sunny Jim who derived the pain of his works not from inner conflicts but from those of the outside world.
The author makes clear in her introduction that her primary mission is to refute the work of Deirdre Bair, Beckett’s first full-length biographer. Bair’s Samuel Beckett appeared in 1978, to instant notoriety. Richard Ellman, biographer of Beckett’s friend and mentor James Joyce, mounted a full-dress offensive against it. (This attack was perhaps spurred by the book’s less than reverential account of Ellman himself.) And to this day it’s rare to read a piece about Beckett that doesn’t take a potshot at Bair.
Many of the objections come from people who were close to Beckett and understandably feel that Bair’s unflinching account of his emotional and psychological turmoil, especially in his younger years, goes beyond impertinence. Sometimes the biographer is even accused of having a Freudian agenda, due to the weight she places on the writer’s relationship to his mother, May. Anyone reading Beckett’s novel Molloy, however, cannot fail to suppose that the man did have some rocky feelings about his mom. Whatever the Beckett careerists might think, Bair’s book strikes the unbiased general reader as a thorough and conscientious account of sometimes distressing facts.
For her part, Gordon takes special exception to Bair’s documented notions about Beckett and his mother. Bair says that the relationship was troubled to the point of psychosis; Gordon insists that May Beckett was not a demanding harridan but a loving and nurturing sort who earned the devotion of her younger son. Yet Gordon doesn’t have much to say about the catatonia and the outbreaks of boils that coincided with the young Beckett’s conflicts with May; neither does she account for the fact that Beckett fled his native Ireland for London and Paris, putting distance between himself and May’s expectations for his future either in the family business or in academe.
Gordon’s idea is that outside influences provided Beckett with the anxiety, dread, and aimlessness that make Godot and the other works so forbidding, beautiful, and funny. She contends that the author derived his ideas from World War I, the Irish Troubles, Hitler’s rise to power in the ’30s, and such lesser sociocultural phenomena as the Surrealist ferment of Paris in the ’20s and ’30s. Beckett’s own unhappiness, Gordon suggests, had nothing to do with his themes.
Beckett, though, maintained that he was not interested in politics. He said he joined the French Resistance in World War II not out of ab-
stract principle but because, in effect, the Nazis were messing with his friends. Gordon cites such statements only to dismiss them as further manifestations of Beckett’s modesty, returning again and again to her thesis that the plays and novels are a kind of expressionist journalism meant to dramatize the injustices of our century. Her biography ends with Beckett at age 40, on the verge of producing his mature works.
Bair and Gordon have at least this much in common: They both see Beckett as a superb man, a loyal and generous friend, and a humble hero. Even those closest to him didn’t know he was decorated by the French for his courage in the Resistance. But while Bair sees it as possible and likely that a man as fine as Beckett could also experience fearsome, lifelong inner conflicts, Gordon doesn’t. In limning Beckett’s “world,” she gives short shrift to his psychological state and instead analyzes the contents of newspapers that Beckett might have read during key periods. She never explores why millions of people read these same newspapers yet never wrote The Unnamable.
What Gordon has come up with, then, is perhaps a whole new way for a biographer to impose her own biases on her subject, the better to genuflect before him. It’s perfectly obvious that Gordon is a staunch liberal humanist who thinks the Nazis were very bad people indeed. It’s equally obvious that Samuel Beckett was a man riven by personal anxiety and fear, which he managed triumphantly to transmute into the rare gold of great literature. Since there appears to be no room in Gordon’s ideals for any such rampant self-absorption, she not-so-magically transmutes Beckett into someone who would share her own predilections.CP