The life of Samuel Beckett, told through five pieces of literary and biographical trivia
1. The ominous date of his birth amused him. Born on Good Friday, 13 April, 1906, Samuel Barclay Beckett enjoyed the irony of being born on a date ripe with religious connotations – not least because, as well as being Good Friday, it was a date ripe with different, superstitious associations: Friday the 13th.
2. He worked as James Joyce’s amanuensis – until the two writers fell out. A young Beckett spent several years in Paris helping Joyce to write his final novel, Finnegans Wake (Joyce was nearly blind towards the end of his life, and needed help with the actual writing down of the book). Their friendship and working relationship came to an end, however, when Beckett rejected the advances of Joyce’s daughter, Lucia, who was smitten with the young writer.
3. Samuel Beckett drove a young André the Giant to school. In 1953, Beckett built a farm to the north of Paris, with the help of a farmer named Boris Rousimoff. Rousimoff’s son was unusually large for his age, and Beckett – who owned a big truck – offered to drive the young André (who would later become a famous wrestler) to school every day. The two of them bonded over cricket – reportedly, the only thing they talked about during the school run. Which leads us nicely on to the fourth of our Samuel Beckett facts…
4. He was a talented cricketer. When asked if he was English Beckett replied, ‘Au contraire’; he was in fact a curious mixture of Irish, English, and French (that is, he was born in Ireland to Irish parents, and wrote in both English and French and later lived in France). He would write many of his novels and plays in French first, and then translate them into English himself. For instance, Waiting for Godot (1953), his most famous play, was originally En attendant Godot (1949). His curious mixture of ‘Englishness’ and Irishness is nicely exemplified by his love of cricket, that most English of sports, though he played for an Irish side. His Wisden profile records that he played two first-class games against Northamptonshire for the University of Dublin in 1925-26. He is the only Nobel Literature laureate to have played first-class cricket (though Conan Doyle, another literary great albeit one who never got the Nobel Prize, was also a pretty good cricketer).
5. In 1938, he was stabbed on the streets of Paris and nearly died. After he rejected the solicitations of a pimp who went by the name of Prudent, the man attacked Beckett with a knife. The wound was serious – Beckett ended up with a perforated lung – but he later dropped the charges against Prudent, partly because he liked the man’s response when Beckett asked him why he had stabbed him: ‘Je ne sais pas, Monsieur. Je m’excuse’ (i.e. ‘I do not know, sir. I’m sorry’). Beckett found such an answer fascinating and it arguably feeds into the later existential flavour of his work, which probes the seeming purposelessness of existence. Why are we here? What’s the point in living? What is the purpose of anything? This is exemplified in Waiting for Godot, where neither Vladimir nor Estragon appears to know quite why they are waiting for the titular character (who – spoiler alert! – never arrives, leading to the amusing graffiti once daubed on the wall of a theatre toilet: ‘BACK SOON – GODOT’).
Beckett was lucky to survive the knife attack. Thankfully for him, and for the literary world, he did survive and lived for a further 51 years, dying in December 1989, having been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 20 years earlier. Had he lived to see his next birthday in 1990, he would have turned 84 on, of all days, Friday the 13th – the ominous date on which he had arrived in the world. This date, 13 April 1990, was also another Good Friday – a fact which would probably have amused him.
If you enjoyed these Samuel Beckett facts, more information is available in this post by Kenneth Hickey, In Search of Samuel Beckett.
Image: Caricature of Samuel Beckett by Edmund S. Valtman, 1969, Wikimedia Commons (public domain).