Samuel Beckett: ‘Why can't you write the way people want?’

The life and literary legacy of Samuel Beckett

Few figures cast such a formidable shadow in the world of literature as Samuel Beckett. His influence still permeates the arts—inspiring and challenging artists and authors—while his plays, poetry, and prose are studied and performed in institutions around the world. Long before his death even Beckett’s genius was accepted and people argued not about his greatness but whether he was one of the greatest modernists or one of the greatest post-modernists of all time. But what was it that made him so great?

Born to a wealthy family in Foxrock in 1906, Beckett’s early life was marked by financial ease, musical accomplishment, and sporting achievement. At the age of 17 he went to Trinity College where he studied French, English, and Italian. As with Mark Twain, Ernest Hemmingway, and a variety of other writers, this love for foreign languages proved instrumental in Beckett’s life and work.

By the time of Beckett’s graduation in 1927 France, and Paris in particular, had become the premier destination for artists and writers from around the globe. Joining the exodus to ‘The City of Light’ Beckett took up the position of lecturer in English in the École Normale Supérieure. This proved a formative time for the young author as he immersed himself in Parisian literary circles. Probably the most important meeting, however, was his introduction to fellow Irishman, and giant of literature, James Joyce.

One of the captains of the modernist movement Joyce took Beckett under his wing, enlisting the younger man to help with what would become ‘Finnegan’s Wake’. While this relationship with Joyce certainly had a profound influence on the young Beckett it was only one point in many in his development as a writer and artist. By the end of the ‘20s the relationship between master and student had cooled and Beckett returned to Ireland. Joyce’s influence had, however, been astronomical. The great man had been the centre of Beckett’s first published work and the young author’s early voice was that of a modernist.

His return to Ireland was short lived, as was his academic career at Trinity College, and by 1931 Beckett was again wandering Europe and Britain. In 1937 he returned again to oversee the publication of his first novel, ‘Murphy’, but this would be one of his last prolonged stays in his native land. Family strife and wanderlust called him back to the continent and his adoptive home in France. Even when war finally broke Beckett refused to come home, preferring ‘France at home to Ireland at peace’.

The decision to stay in France during the Second World War had a profound impact on Beckett. As the BEF fled and France capitulated to the advancing Nazi war machine Beckett joined the French Resistance. The following years were spent aiding the partisan fight in Paris until betrayal forced Beckett and his partner Suzanne to flee to the countryside. From here they continued to help fight fascism and eventually witnessed the liberation of Europe from the inside.

The Second World War, like so many conflicts before it, ushered in new eras of artistic and cultural movements. For many who had survived the horrors of Hitler’s totalitarian regime and the complicity of Vichy France there was a sore need to break with the past and find new purpose. In cinema, theatre, music, and art people were trying to find a new voice with which to express themselves.

For Beckett this dictated a break with the modernism of his mentor Joyce. While figures like Sartre and de Beauvoir turned to philosophy, self-reflection, and debate Beckett looked to the absurd for meaning. Drawing on his Irish heritage as well as his experiences across Europe Beckett created darkly comic tales of reflection and suffering where characters exist in a seemingly meaningless world. In this way Beckett began to carve out his own true literary legacy.

This change in style brought Beckett great fame and success. In 1953 he published his greatest known work, ‘Waiting for Godot’, to great critical acclaim and three years later he received his first commission from the BBC. Though he would spend a great deal of time working as a theatre director and in media Beckett remained a prolific artist. In the wake of ‘Godot’ he produced numerous plays, poems, stories, and novels all in his absurd post-modern style.

By the time of his death in 1989 Samuel Beckett had established himself as one of the leading literary figures of the 20th century. Drawing on the legacy of modernism he paved the way for the post-modernist movement with his theatre of the absurd. Through both the written and spoken word Samuel Beckett challenged and changed how we engage with language, media, and our very existence. In 1969, in recognition of his great work, the Swedish Academy awarded Beckett the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Yet behind this legend of the avant-garde was a man like any other. In celebration of his genius this episode of ‘Talking Books’ is dedicated entirely to Samuel Beckett. Listen back as we look back on the life and legacy of this literary giant. Was Beckett one of the first post-modernists or among the last modernists? Why did censorship irk him so much? And why was he still so worried about failing and his public perception after winning the Nobel Prize? What was the man behind the pen really like?