Literary biographies probably do least harm where it proves most difficult to reduce the work to the life. Further, the reticence of complex authors can breed bizarre myths. Of one newspaper profile Samuel Beckett asked angrily: "What does this have to do with it?"
Even in these poststructuralist times, readers not only believe what writers say about themselves, but also over-interpret what they do not say. James Knowlson and Anthony Cronin must be congratulated on laying to rest much nonsense about Beckett, including the impressions of his mental state put into currency by Deirdre Bair's 1978 biography. By finely sifting the data of Beckett's daily life and relationships through a multiplicity of contexts, they displace unduly psychiatric approaches, sometimes derived from the "fragmented" state of his dramatis personae. With rather different emphases, both biographers present Beckett as a fully historical figure.
At the same time, Knowlson and Cronin do not follow the crudely revisionist path exemplified by Lois Gordon's The World of Samuel Beckett. We may deplore the stereotype of Beckett, the reclusive apolitical Irish melancholic, without desiring to substitute Gordon's can-do optimist whose literary project in 1946 chimes with the spirit of postwar reconstruction. Gordon coarsens the threads that run between self and society, and confuses them with the weave of literature. She takes a generalised context like "Ireland" or Paris in the 1920s, summarises her background reading, and sprinkles on "Beckett": "When Beckett arrived in Paris, he plunged into the magical world before him and began his lifelong commitment to the city." From Knowlson and Cronin, in contrast, we get the gradual story of Beckett's involvement with French culture. At Trinity College, Dublin his mentor T. B. Rudmose-Brown presided over an unusually original bunch of students, including Ethna MacCarthy, whom Beckett loved unrequitedly, and "Con" Leventhal. Beckett began his friendship with Alfred Peron, who recruited him for the French resistance and was destined to die in a concentration camp, when Peron came to Trinity as a lecteur in 1926. The intricacies of Beckett's reading, whether at home or abroad, also break down the antithesis which, in American accounts of Joyce and Beckett, too often sets Ireland against "Europe". Knowlson indicates the formative influence of Balzac (by opposition), Racine, Stendhal and Diderot, all absorbed at Trinity. As for Gordon's version of Ireland: without irony, she links Padraic Pearse's doctrine of blood sacrifice with the Resistance ("steadfast and dedicated heroes ... 'hearts with one purpose alone'") and the mantra "To every man his little cross" in Waiting for Godot. Gordon, by default, proves the need for Knowlson and Cronin; just as Bair's book may have led Beckett, in the last year of his life, to tell Knowlson: "To biography of me by you it's Yes."
The aesthetic dimension of these biographies continues the process whereby Beckett's art is being detached from such abstract zones as "international modernism", existentialism and absurdism. In 1961 Louis MacNeice was exceptional in calling Beckett "an Irish writer, far closer to Synge than to Sartre". Now Knowlson reports: "When I asked him who he himself felt had influenced his own theatre most of all, he suggested only ... Synge." It is Gordon who appears old-fashioned when she paraphrases George Steiner to the effect that Beckett aims at "Barthes's ecriture divorced not only from Irish speech patterns, landscape, and personal ideals but also from any values of the past, regardless of whether one were sympathetic or unsympathetic to them". These erasures are compatible with reading the Easter Rising into Godot, while ignoring, for instance, Beckett's dialectic with his Irish Protestant background. The latter underlies the different theologies of language in Beckett and Joyce. Not that Beckett should or can be claimed exclusively for Ireland - his Nobel prize excited less patriotic fervour than did Seamus Heaney's. But if his speakers suspect origins, they equally suspect destinations: "Figment dawn dispeller of figments and the other called dusk" (Lessness).
The flow of figments, conceptual and unconscious, that make up Beckett's writings is tracked by both biographers, who often situate a textual image in his subjective topography. Knowlson summarises the deepest stratum: "The County Dublin coastline with its lighthouses, harbours, viaduct and islands permeated his imagination and pervaded his work. These recurrent images were, to use his own word, 'obsessional'." Beckett/ Malone/ Lemuel muses: "It was there somewhere he was born, in a fine house, of loving parents. (The) slopes are covered with ling and furze, its hot yellow bells, better known as gorse. The hammers of the stone-cutters ring all day like bells." Cronin, well acquainted with Foxrock and the Dublin mountains, stresses the indelible mark of Beckett's walks with his father: "Even when Sam was quite small they would set out hand in hand up the Glencullen Road with the sea behind them gradually coming into view, the Three Rock mountain ahead to the left and the equally rocky eminence known as Prince William's Seat ... In much of his work the abiding image is of an old man and a boy walking the mountain roads." After his father's death (in 1933) Beckett wrote: "I can only walk the fields and climb the ditches after him". This was a period of grief and guilt (over having disappointed his father's hopes by resigning his lectureship at Trinity). Psychoanalysis - theory as much as practice - helped Beckett to negotiate his father's memory and his mother's "savage loving": a phrase which suggests their conflict-in-likeness. He slowly discovered personal and literary antidotes to the temptations of solipsism.
These biographies rescue Beckett's family history and early social environment from the ignorance of posterity regarding southern Irish Protestants - now a smaller but not wholly changed community. Cronin sets out its gradations: "Though Willie Beckett's professional or semiprofessional qualification and May's descent from landowners freed them from the opprobrium of being in trade, it was the business class to which the Becketts really belonged. Anglo-Irish is a misnomer also because ... the Protestant Dublin middle classes looked to England less often and with less social anxieties than did their landed co-religionists." Cronin also records the familiar apartheid whereby "Protestant business people" sought to employ fellow Protestants. But for sectarianism, indeed, Samuel Beckett would never have existed, since his father first desired to marry the daughter of the Catholic magnate William Martin Murphy, who forbade the match. Not "looking to England" explains Beckett's being sent to Portora Royal, a small Protestant boarding-school in Co. Fermanagh which dared not speak the name of past pupil Oscar Wilde. Nonetheless, Portora provided outlets for Beckett's notable athletic prowess (cricket, rugby, running), without bruising other potentialities. Knowlson even credits the school with laying the foundations of Beckett's "old-style politeness" in later life, his "honesty, integrity and loyalty".
Yet Knowlson reserves more judgements than Cronin, whose research became "a journey into my own past as well as Beckett's". Cronin's intimacy with aspects of Beckett's milieu makes his narrative less academic, nearer to oral history: we seem to hear a chorus of Irish voices debating "Sam". The occasional disadvantage is special pleading. Knowlson writes cautiously about Beckett's decision to leave Ireland after a quarrel with his mother; whereas Cronin establishes a fuller context: "personal freedom would play a part, as would opportunity and, finally, creative fulfilment; but thousands of other Irish people, Catholic and Protestant, including many who were not anglophile or francophile and did not write books, went for much the same reasons ". Yet this exodus itself raises questions. Cronin may be right to regard Beckett's remarks about "theocracy, censorship of books" as partly retrospective; but it does not accord with his intellectual scruple, his incapacity for hypocrisy, to remark: "Censorship was scarcely likely to be much of a real worry to a writer whose latest book was in the process of being rejected by 13 publishers."
What emerges is truly a portrait of the artist. Beckett's "loving parents" and "happy" childhood coexisted with a sense of separateness which exfoliated into immense aesthetic and metaphysical complexity. Both books stress Beckett's involvement with the other arts. Friendships and love affairs, although they could induce agonies of conscience, clearly took second place to the quest for form. He was unhappy when unable to create. Like his fictional surrogates, he had to produce the inventory that manifested "the need to see life stoically through". Knowlson connects this need with Beckett's Protestantism, and it can certainly be read in religious terms. During his crisis of the mid-1930s, Beckett asked Thomas MacGreevy: "Is one to insist on a crucifixion for which there is no demand?" As it turned out, there was a surprisingly large demand for his "little cross".
Edna Longley is professor of English literature, Queen's University, Belfast.
Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist
Author - Anthony Cronin
ISBN - 0 246 13769 X
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £25.00
Pages - 645