b. 13 May 1906, d. 22 December 1989. Always maintained he was born 13 April 1906, Good Friday. Painful Existentialist comedic writer, best known for his groundbreaking plays which are bitter, funny, repetitive works which attempt to flay humanity bare with absurdity and death. Also wrote straight fiction, which is less known but quite powerful.
An incident in 1938 defines his life to some extent. On his way home at night with some friends, a pimp went and stabbed him in the chest for no apparent reason. The slice missed his heart, but punctured a lung. His attacker, named Prudent of course, was brought to trial and said politely that he did not know why he had done it, and that he was quite sorry. Of course.
Beckett grew up in a Protestant Anglo-Irish family, and graduated Trinity College in Dublin with a degree in Italian and French. A part of James Joyce's circle in Paris in 1928, Beckett would eventually settle down to write in Paris. P_I reminds me that during this time, Beckett was a secretary of sorts for Joyce. He helped transcribe some of what would later become Finnegans Wake. Not recognized in his own right until the premiere of Waiting for Godot, he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1969.
The opening sentence of Murphy (1938):
The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.
Ach, what a string of words! Fatalism, the lack of change in life...
An interesting twist: after a return visit to Dublin in 1946, Beckett decided to write all further works in French. He claimed that "it is easier to write without style". This may be because he wanted to escape his tendency to write in an Irish Gothic voice, which he felt "plagued" his early works. Later, he would translate many of these works himself to English. See the masterful coherency of Waiting for Godot in both languages.
It wasn't until the fifties, when Beckett felt he had mined the immersive narrative until "disintegration", that he became known for his dramas. His ploy here was to counter the linear language with circular motifs and structure.
The landmark How It Is (1961) once again uses the trilogy form to reflect circularity. It tells the story, in phases, of a figure crawling through the muckheap with a sack of canned food. The text is without capitalization, without many of the common parts of sentences:
...but all this business of voices yes quaqua yes of other worlds yes of someone in another world yes whose kind of dream I am yes said to be yes... all balls.
After How It Is (which you should read, if you don't mind the large demands...) Beckett wrote no more novel-form fiction. He called his following experimental, short, minimal pieces "capua mortua", "fiascos", and "residua".
Beckett found it harder and harder to write, and retired to translate some of his works. He died in Paris in 1989.
Writing in a minimal vein did not prevent Beckett from producing a large body of work. (P.S. Dates are coming, publishers may be impossible due to too many reprints.)
- Dream of Fair to Middling Women (1932, Arcade Publishing, 1993)
- Murphy (1938, Grove Press, 1970)
- Watt (1943, Grove Press, 1953)
- Mercier and Camier (1946, Grove Press, 1991)
- Molloy (1951, Everyman's Library)
- Malone Dies (1951, "")
- The Unnamable (1954, "")
- How It Is (1961, Grove Press, 1998) * Fitch's Pick
- Company (1980, Grove Press, 1995)
- Ill Seen Ill Said (1982, Grove Press, 1995)
- Worstward Ho (1983, Grove Press, 1995)
Factual information from Encyclopedia Brittanica and http://www.themodernword.com/beckett/beckett_biography.html