By Francesca Panseri
Peggy Guggenheim met Samuel Beckett (1906–89) in Paris on the day after Christmas in 1937. He was a tall and lanky man, very polite and a little awkward, indolent but intellectually very active. On Beckett’s initiative, the two started a relationship that would last, between ups and downs, just over a year.
I was happy to be with Beckett, who really was an ideal companion as he loved to see beautiful things. It was a pleasure to visit the museums with him.
Peggy Guggenheim, Out of This Century (London: Andre Deutsch, 1979), p. 179.
Who is Samuel Beckett?
Guggenheim met Beckett early in his literary career. He would make a mark in the history of twentieth-century literature and be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969. An Irishman, he spent most of his life in France, writing plays, novels, poems and critical essays. He was restless, an omnivorous reader, and a passionate admirer of James Joyce. He loved his father, women and alcohol, but suffered from a difficult relationship with his mother, a strict and rigorous Irish Protestant, who did not approve of his disorderly lifestyle. In his debut novel, Murphy (1938), and in one of his first dramatic works, Eleutheria (1947), he parodied the narrative techniques of nineteenth-century novels and the naturalistic conventions of bourgeois plays. He understood that modernity needed to be conveyed through a new ‘form.’ In this phase of experimentation he wrote poetry, later published in the collection Echo’s Bones and other Precipitates (1935), and a very acute essay on Marcel Proust (1930). Late in the 1930s he met an old acquaintance, Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, who would become his lifelong companion. Together they joined the French Resistance.
In 1945 Beckett changed the course of his writing and decided to abandon the English language in order “to move away from the exercise of linguistic virtuosity, the intellectual and baroque invention, and the more sophisticated play on words,” which he had implemented until that moment under the influence of Joyce (Samuel Beckett, Teatro, edited by Paolo Bertinetti [Torino: Einaudi, 2002,] p. XV). He decided that French was more consonant with his ‘mature’ narrative intent, due to its logic, rigor, and clarity. He began a process of purification, distillation, and chiseling of his language, that led him to elaborate clear and essential texts, especially in his theater plays. Words would have “a splendid weight, a density that would gradually become more mysterious and untranslatable.” (Samuel Beckett, Teatro completo, edited by Carlo Fruttero and Paolo Bertinetti [Torino: Einaudi, 1994], p. XIV.) His major works belong to this period: the narrative trilogy of Molloy (1951), Malone meurt (1951; Malone Dies, 1956), and L’innommable (1953; The Unnamable, 1958); and the plays En attendant Godot (1952; Waiting for Godot, 1954), and Fin de partie (1957; Endgame, 1957). These works elaborated on Beckett’s major topics: the tragedy of existence, the darkness of the human condition, and the absence of meaning in life itself. They also offered echoes of Leopardi and Schopenauer. Beckett was “not so much concerned with people as social and political creatures as with the human condition in a metaphysical sense.” His abandoned humans are generally isolated in a timeless imaginary space, torturing and consoling each other, and asking questions they cannot answer. (Oscar Brockett, History of the Theater [Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1968], p. 512.) Beckett’s pessimism forces us to reflect on the ultimate meaning of existence, to reconsider it and to proceed on our quest. He delves into the unveiling of literary-theatrical pretense, with conscious narrators and performers, and the progressive, relentless and inevitable impoverishment of the communicative and motor skills of humanity.
In around 1955 Beckett resumed writing in English, a language that from then on he used in theatrical productions, while he maintained French for fiction. For the theater he wrote, among others works, Krapp’s Last Tape (1958), Happy Days (1961), Play (1964), Not I (1973), That Time (1976), and the “dramaticules,” and for fiction Comment c’est (1961; How It Is, 1964), Le Dépeupleur (1970; The Lost Ones, 1971), Mal vu mal dit (1981; Ill Seen Ill Said, 1982). He also ventured into the creation of radio plays, scripts and the screenplay for a film, demonstrating a marked ability to understand the textual, sound and rhythmic needs of the various media. In his late plays, he made the striking choice of making the pièce originate not from a situation, but from “an image that dazzled his imagination and that he transferred into the theatrical form” (Bertinetti, ed., Teatro, 2002, p. XX.) Moreover with the “dramaticules,” Beckett’s neologism, he constructed short plays “around a single image or situation that lends its expressive possibilities within a few minutes: the scene is abstract, the movement is denied or reduced to a minimum, characters in the common sense of the word do not exist. Yet the result is high, albeit minimal, theatricality.” (Bertinetti, ed., Teatro, 2002, p. XXIV.) Here he reached the pinnacle of his quest for the ‘distillation’ of writing. Beckett continued to work until his death in 1989.