Lloyd Evans Lloyd Evans

‘Enemy of obviousness’

Lloyd Evans on the life and work of Samuel Beckett, who was born 100 years ago

‘Quelle catastrophe.’ Thus Samuel Beckett on hearing that he had won the Nobel Prize in 1969. He would doubtless have been similarly disdainful of the events arranged to mark his centenary, which falls on 13 April. A disregard for fame and success, and even for his followers, was one of Beckett’s artistic hallmarks and it stems from his extraordinarily painful and prolonged emergence as an author. Why care about his reputation or his readers? For half of his life he had none.

He was born in 1906, to prosperous Dublin Protestants, and educated at Portora, the same school as Oscar Wilde. He was an all-rounder. A brilliant linguist and a gifted cricketer (the only Nobel laureate to merit a namecheck in Wisden), he rejected the option of an academic career and moved to Paris in his early twenties. He survived on family hand-outs and sporadic commissions from literary magazines. In 1928, he published a collection of quirky short stories, More Pricks Than Kicks. The style is fresh, erudite, acrobatic, Pythonesque. The main character Belacqua is a hard-drinking and highly intelligent drifter with ‘a strong weakness for oxymorons’ who conducts a doomed affair with a girl who spells her name Thelma bboggs. The book failed. Beckett’s next work, Murphy, opens with one of his best-known lines. ‘The sun, having no alternative, shone down on the nothing new.’ He struggled to find a publisher, and when the novel finally came out in 1938 it made virtually no impression. One of the few reviews was written by the 24-year-old Dylan Thomas, who called the author ‘a great leg-puller and enemy of obviousness.’ Murphy is dazzling and infuriating, a blend of exuberant silliness and morbid philosophy. There are shafts of brilliant wit but the author is so contemptuous of all narrative conventions that the text is very hard to wade through.

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