Andrew Gibson on Samuel Beckett

George Hunka reviews Gibson's Samuel Beckett
Samuel Beckett in Paris. Photograph: Bob Adelman.

George Hunka takes a look at Andrew Gibson's monograph, Samuel Beckett, and suggests ways of reading his work that diverge from the dominant 'comical' interpretations:
In his recent short biography of the writer, Samuel Beckett, Andrew Gibson makes the essential attempt to restore to the dramatist and his characters the difficult and thankless nobility of the compassionate view. Coming nearly fifteen years after the monumental biographies by Anthony Cronin and James Knowlson, Gibson's 200-page monograph seeks to offer something of a corrective to the academic and cultural hagiography of the writer. "It is impossible to ignore this self-deprecating, reticent, disciplined, conscientious, diligent, implacably well-mannered, dauntingly forbearing person, not least because he appears to have been the origin of the myth of 'Saint Sam' amongst a generation of scholars who made his acquaintance," Gibson writes (and bearing in mind the emphasis on the comedy, not the tragedy, that these scholars found in his work: The subtitle of Ruby Cohn's first book on Beckett was "The Comic Gamut," and Hugh Kenner included him in a study entitled The Stoic Comedians). "Look straight at the works themselves," he continues, "and there is a great deal of material that — even insisting on the detachment of writer from narrator or character — simply does not square with the myth at all: the superciliousness and arrogance perceptible in the early writings, for example; the hysterical rage of the Trilogy; the extreme and sometimes murderous forms of violence from Molloy to All That Fall to How It Is and beyond."

Gibson performs this rescue by balancing Beckett's work between what he calls melancholia ("the conviction that there is 'nothing to be done'") and misericordia (which "assumes that one cannot remain indifferent to the plight of others astray in the labyrinth"). He emphasises that this corrective is not meant to undermine Beckett's clear caritas — "goodness to others" — but to establish the difficulty of maintaining that compassion in a twentieth-century historical culture which encourages quite the opposite. In the eight chapters of his biography, Gibson traces this historical culture and Beckett's response to it in Ireland of the 1920s, Europe of the 1930s (Gibson is very good on the viciousness of fascist governments in suppressing and demonizing Modernism), postwar France, and the more international globalized culture of the Cold War and after. In doing so, Gibson draws upon recent revisionist histories of Vichy France (in which Beckett's career with the resistance formed the background to the great trilogy of novels), Mark Nixon's fine examination of Beckett's German diaries (which were discovered posthumously) over the past ten years or so, and the views of Foucault, Badiou and Adorno towards Beckett's work in an administered society. [Read the article]

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