Irish-born novelist, playwright, and poet, winner of the 1969 Nobel Prize in literature. He is regarded as a pioneer of the "new novel" and of the "theater of the absurd." Both forms reject traditional literary techniques as being too remote from the essentials of human experience.
Beckett was born Apr. 13, 1906, in Dublin, Ireland. He received the M.A. degree from Trinity College in 1931 and after a year of teaching turned to literature. He settled permanently in Paris in 1937. His early works, written in English, were not successful: Whoroscope (1930), a booklength poem; Proust (1931), a critical study; More Pricks Than Kicks (1934), a volume of short stories; Echo's Bones (1935), a collection of poetry; and Murphy (1938), a novel. He was closely associated with James Joyce for many years and may have been influenced by Joyce's bold experiments with language. Beckett came into his own after World War II, when he abandoned his native language and began writing in French. The novel Mercier et Camier (written in 1946 but not published until 1970; English translation, 1975) presents two individuals who voluntarily choose to live as exiles, and in their exiled existence they are vagabonds journeying in an endless quest. In 1951 Beckett published Molloy, which was immediately hailed as one of the most original of modern novels. Molloy is the first in Beckett's series of characters who are progressively stripped of all nonessential aspects. Immobilized in his bed, Molloy relates (or invents) earlier travels on a bicycle, when he was already half paralyzed. Beckett's next novel, Malone meurt (1951; Malone Dies), carries its protagonist to a moribund state. L'Innomable (1953; The Unnamable) leaves the hero completely limbless. In Comment c'est (1961; How It Is), existence is reduced to a primeval state, wherein living things, barely recognizable as human, crawl, eat, and pathetically strive for communication. All that finally remains of these crippled beings, usually described as lying prone, is the voice of the narrator, spinning an unending monologue. Le Depeupleur (1971; The Lost Ones, 1972), a brief, compressed novel, presents a universe of lost bodies roaming the niches and crevices of a large cylinder. Probably the finest distillation of Beckett's "reductionism" is his short novel Company (1980), in which a speechless man hears a voice recite the story of his life. But even his voice is reducible to the act of imagination necessary for the man to understand his situation, an act finally understood as the "voice" he and the reader have been listening to.
At the age of five, Beckett attended a local playschool, where he started to learn music, and then moved to Earlsfort House School in the city centre near Harcourt Street. In 1919, Beckett went to Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh (which Oscar Wilde had also attended). A natural athlete, Beckett excelled at cricket as a left-handed batsman and a left-arm medium-pace bowler. Later, he was to play for Dublin University and played two first-class games against Northamptonshire. As a result, he became the only Nobel laureate to have an entry in Wisden Cricketers' Almanack, the "bible" of cricket.
Beckett studied French, Italian, and English at Trinity College, Dublin from 1923 to 1927 (one of his tutors was the eminent Berkeley scholar A. A. Luce). Beckett graduated with a BA, and—after teaching briefly at Campbell College in Belfast—took up the post of lecteur d'anglais in the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. While there, he was introduced to renowned Irish author James Joyce by Thomas MacGreevy, a poet and close confidant of Beckett who also worked there. This meeting had a profound effect on the young man. Beckett assisted Joyce in various ways, one of which was research towards the book that became Finnegans Wake.
Beckett's career as a writer can be roughly divided into three periods: his early works, up until the end of World War II in 1945; his middle period, stretching from 1945 until the early 1960s, during which period he wrote what are probably his best-known works; and his late period, from the early 1960s until Beckett's death in 1989, during which his works tended to become shorter and his style more minimalist.
Beckett's earliest works are generally considered to have been strongly influenced by the work of his friend James Joyce. They are erudite and seem to display the author's learning merely for its own sake, resulting in several obscure passages. The opening phrases of the short-story collection More Pricks than Kicks (1934) affords a representative sample of this style:
The passage makes reference to Dante's Commedia, which can serve to confuse readers not familiar with that work. It also anticipates aspects of Beckett's later work: the physical inactivity of the character Belacqua; the character's immersion in his own head and thoughts; the somewhat irreverent comedy of the final sentence.
Similar elements are present in Beckett's first published novel, Murphy (1938), which also explores the themes of insanity and chess (both of which would be recurrent elements in Beckett's later works). The novel's opening sentence hints at the somewhat pessimistic undertones and black humour that animate many of Beckett's works: "The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new". Watt, written while Beckett was in hiding in Roussillon during World War II, is similar in terms of themes but less exuberant in its style. It explores human movement as if it were a mathematical permutation, presaging Beckett's later preoccupation—in both his novels and dramatic works—with precise movement.
Beckett's 1930 essay Proust was strongly influenced by Schopenhauer's pessimism and laudatory descriptions of saintly asceticism. At this time Beckett began to write creatively in the French language. In the late 1930s, he wrote a number of short poems in that language and their sparseness—in contrast to the density of his English poems of roughly the same period, collected in Echo's Bones and Other Precipitates (1935)—seems to show that Beckett, albeit through the medium of another language, was in process of simplifying his style, a change also evidenced in Watt.