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Samuel Beckett: A Biography by Deirdre Bair
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Samuel Beckett: A Biography

by Deirdre Bair

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Bearing the Absolute Aloneness of One's Solitary Spirit.: SAMUEL BECKETT: A Biography. By Deirdre Bair. 736 pages. New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978. ISBN 0-15-179256-9 (hbk).In 1971, while casting about for a dissertation topic, Deirdre Bair wrote to Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) to ask if she could write his biography. He replied that, while he was not prepared to help her, he wouldn't hinder her either. As things turned out, he did help her to some extent, as did many others, and the result is this well-written, well-researched, and extremely illuminating account which covers the story of Beckett's life up to 1973. Although it has since been superseded by the fuller biography, 'Damned to Fame,' by Beckett's personal friend and official biographer, James Knowlson, which appeared in 1996 and which covers the whole of Beckett's life, Bair's book seems to me to be still well worth reading. The fact that she was not a personal friend had both disadvantages and advantages. Although it meant that certain things were closed off to her, at the same time it left her a certain freedom, the freedom to say things a friend might be disinclined to say. Briefly Bair sees Beckett's mother as the key factor in his formation - a cold, frigid, and neurotic woman dominated by notions of class and respectability, and determined to mold him into an ideal son who would be respected by Protestant and materialistic upper middle class Dublin society. Beckett rebelled against this treatment from an early age, and the regular campaigns of psychological torture which his mother launched whenever things didn't go her way were to lead to his years of misery, repeated bouts of serious physical illness, and eventually to the full-blown psychosis which is evident in certain of his works. With a more balanced and loving mother, and one sensitive to her son's aesthetic nature, Beckett might have led a normal and happier life, though it is doubtful he would have arrived at the shattering insights into human nature and reality that helped make him one of the greatest writers of the age. The story of Beckett's life and his extreme sufferings and spiritual anguish, as told by Deirdre Bair, is both horrifying and fascinating, and she does seem to have done her best to present it as objectively as possible, though she does allow her distaste for certain of his views to peek through at times. From her account, which covers far more than his devastating love-hate relationship with his mother, and which I can't even begin to do justice to here, we come away with an enhanced understanding of Beckett that should help anyone to better understand and appreciate his somber and often difficult works. It's true that as a mere graduate student she could hardly be expected to have a grasp of Beckett's works as extensive as that of a seasoned professor such as Knowlson. It's also true that there appear to be a number of errors and misunderstandings in her work, possibly because of her limited access to materials. But her less unctuous attitude to her subject leads me to feel that we are perhaps getting a more objective portrait of Beckett, though one that in some respects is not as detailed as that provided by Knowlson, and the serious student will want to read them both.
  iayork | Aug 9, 2009 |
Richard Ellmann – “Deirdre Bair has managed a scoop which in literary history is like that of Bernstein and Woodward in political history.”

C.P. Snow, Financial Times – “[She] has produced what is certain to remain the most thorough record of Samuel Beckett’s life.”
This review has been flagged by multiple users as abuse of the terms of service and is no longer displayed (show).
  yoursources | Feb 7, 2009 |
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