31 December 2013

Anthony Cronin: Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist (1996)

Anthony Cronin's Samuel Beckett is the first biography of the writer that I've read, and before this I knew very little about him outside his work. I remember studying En Attendant Godot when I was doing my first degree (which was in French) at Leicester University, and the late Dr Peter Fawcett suggesting that Beckett perhaps wasn't all gloom and doom as he'd lived with his wife in sunny Vaucluse in Provence. He didn't appear to be joking, although I've learned through this biography that Beckett only lived in Vaucluse during the war as this was unoccupied France, but the material circumstances in which Beckett and his companion Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil (this being some time before their marriage) were living were pretty dire.

When I first read Beckett the study of literature was under the critical yoke of F. R. Leavis (and may even still be to a certain extent): close study was all-important, and shouldn't be supplemented by extraneous circumstances, such as knowing anything about an author's life, the social conditions under which a book was written, and so on. And if that's an exaggeration it's only a slight one.

All the same, although there's always a danger of reading too much autobiographical detail into a book, it's still worth remembering what I very often note that B. S. Johnson said – that even the three-headed monster of science fiction involves the concepts three, head and monster: this isn't saying that all writing is autobiographical, but that writing isn't sui generis, that it comes from somewhere.

Having said that, it doesn't surprise me that Beckett wasn't a happy-go-lucky guy, nor that (as I'm sure some people have believed) he was playing a literary hoax, refusing to say anything about his work's meaning because there in fact was no meaning. No, Beckett was a serious writer, and not just a major 20th century writer but a major writer tout court.

This is a huge 600-hundred page book that Cronin claims he intended for the general reader, a claim I find a little bizarre, but we'll pass on that for the moment. Beckett wasn't an existentialist – although it pleased some people at the time to lump him into the same bag as Sartre and Camus, etc – but in some respects the Beckett in this book can be seen in an existentialist light. Although it is simply divided into unnamed chapters and with no sections, I can see a quite clear division between the first and the second half of the book, and those two halves don't simply correspond to the unsuccessful and the successful Beckett, it's something deeper than that.

The earlier, largely unpublished Samuel Beckett the man is – put quite simply – an enormous mess. He's painfully shy, hardly talks at all, and leads a rather aimless existence largely subsidised by his mother after his father's death, hopping between Paris, his home in Dublin and relatives in Germany. He suffers from pyschosomatic disorders, such as a cyst on his neck that a doctor lances but which springs up again. Cronin mentions a number of things about Beckett's sex life (such as it was) in the first half but – most probably because there's no information on it (no doubt again partly because there was very little of it) – hardly mentions it in the second half. There are several references to the younger Beckett masturbating, to his occasional use of prostitutes, but also to a big problem he had: his huge reluctance to have sex with anyone he was emotionally involved with.

He had a bit of a 'thing' (difficult to put into a word or phrase) with Peggy Sinclair, although he was content just to look at her face rather than get physical with her. His relationship with the sexually liberated Peggy Guggenheim was troubled too: she claimed that he once had sex with her, but said that on another occasion she couldn't understand why he chose a double hotel room (actually with twin beds) when he wanted to sleep on his own – and when Beckett stated that it was cheaper than two rooms this was beyond her comprehension, and later still she claimed that she thought he was a homosexual. I won't go into another troubled relationship – Beckett and James Joyce's disturbed daughter Lucia.

Beckett first met Suzanne through playing tennis, although they first, er, came together after he'd been stabbed in Paris in the early hours of the morning after an argument with the pimp Robert Jules Prudent. Cronin is somewhat vague about the early stages of the relationship, but they would remain together for over fifty years, although after a few the author does mention that Suzanne described it as celibate, and as a non-drinker (even hating the smell of wine) she didn't take part in Beckett's frequent pub-crawling.

But the habit (a key Beckettian word) of the relationship obviously did him a great deal of good, and – although Beckett was rather apolitical – the commitment to helping in the Resistance saw him moving into very different existential territory: the reader really feels that the second part of Beckett's life, indeed the new Beckett, began in Provence.

But it wasn't until a few years later that Beckett's real professional break came: when Jérôme Lindon, of Les Éditions de minuit, began publishing his books, and the name Samuel Beckett soon became widely known.

Beckett and Suzanne will soon have money, but not that they have any great love of it: Beckett gave much of his £30,000 Nobel Prize for Literature away, and interestingly he is said to have provided a new sports car for another experimental writer: B. S. Johnson, whose work Beckett praised, and who is (lamentably) one of the very few writers of his kind that England has ever had.

Surprisingly, perhaps, there are humorous moments in the second half of the book: Beckett's chaotic driving in central Paris; his ducking and diving to ensure that his lover (if that's the right word) Barbara Bray doesn't run into Suzanne; and his enthusiastic bar crawls, etc. Through this comes a picture of a tender man – Lindon is brimming with praises of his goodness; Beckett makes sure the postman doesn't delivery letters in his mailbox where finches are nesting; and he marries Suzanne (who incidentally died a few months before him) out of concern that she should benefit from his money after his death.

I've mentioned nothing of his work itself, but then Beckett shunned interpretation. A great deal could be said about his novels, his plays, even his one short film ('starring' Buster Keaton and viewable here), but that shall be for other times.

What did I think of this book? Intended for a 'general reader', this is a huge work that also has the appearance of a very scholarly one. In six hundred pages we can expect a few minor errors and we get them, of which one example is 'Vaux-de-Chermay' for Vaux-de-Cernay, and surely the interior monologue influence on Joyce comes not from Valery Larbaud but from Édouard Dujardin's Les Lauriers sont coupés? There are one or two direct, and perhaps two other indirect, negative references to Deirdre Bair's biography of Beckett. I have this book but have not yet read it, but just flicking through it tells me that the textual apparatus looks sound, whereas Cronin's book only has a Bibliography of Beckett's work – not a general Biblography of the material he read or consulted while writing the book; furthermore, Bair does at least use generous endnotes, and marks them in the text: Cronin has a mere twelve pages of endnotes, but leaves no indication of them in the text, meaning that they are virtually useless. But then, this is only for the 'general reader' and I nevertheless found great enjoyment in reading it. But I shall be reading Bair's book in due course and form a better conclusion.

Just another point: one of the plates shows a tree in the Dublin mountains, and the caption suggests that this may have been 'the original tree' in Godot. Ha, well maybe so, but maybe not, but that seems to be a bit of needless space-filling. If Beckett had been alive to read this, I'm not sure if he'd have laughed or cried.

No comments: