I Was a Teenage Samuel Beckett: Or, My Literary Biography Problem

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Samuel Beckett

(Lev Grossman writes about books here on Wednesdays. Subscribe to his RSS feed.)

I got my first whiff of what big-time adult literature was all about when I was in 8th grade. I got it from Mark Linn-Baker. You know — the guy from Perfect Strangers.

Books-wise I was already a goner, from when I was about 7. C.S. Lewis took care of that. (And J.R.R. Tolkien, Anne McCaffrey, Ursula Le Guin, Fritz Leiber, Lloyd Alexander, Piers Anthony, T.H. White, etc.) But when I was 14 my parents for some reason took me to see a production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Mark Linn-Baker was Vladimir. It was incredible.

Godot isn’t exactly an uplifting play (and it’s pretty clear in retrospect that I was already working on the mild clinical depression that would go full-blown in the years to come) but the point is: I realized for the first time that there were things going on in the world that nobody else was talking about, and that I didn’t think you could talk about – but Beckett was talking about them. And that’s what literature was. As Emily Dickinson put it: I felt physically as if the top of my head were taken off.

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The same theater (it was the ART in Cambridge, MA) put on Endgame the next year, and the same thing happened. But then something different happened. I became obsessed, not with Beckett’s work, but with his life.

Somehow I got ahold of Deirdre Bair’s biography of Beckett — which isn’t even definitive now, because it was written while Beckett was still alive — and I spent the next four years reading it over and over and over again. When I got to the end, I went back to the beginning. It was on a loop.

Beckett was Irish, obviously. His childhood was happy. His mother was apparently pretty overbearing, but basically he had it good: he was upper-middle-class, he was smart, and he was really good-looking. But somewhere after college he went totally off the rails.

He got nowhere with his writing. He had a lot of opportunities, and he blew them all. He couldn’t work and he didn’t know why. He had fits of inspiration and long bouts of inactivity. He wandered from apartment to apartment, Ireland to France to England, unable to put a career together. Basically Beckett was pissed off and depressed for no particular reason. And he drank too much. There’s a quintessentially Beckettian story about Beckett leaving a bar by a revolving door, but then being too drunk to successfully operate said revolving door. “Round and round he whirled,” Bair writes, “while tourists pointed at the poet of nothingness and despair.”

As a 15-year-old, I was blown away when I read this. Hey, I was angry and depressed for no particular reason too! I didn’t know there were other people like this. In my complete adolescent self-absorption Beckett was less a human being than a character in a thinly-veiled roman a clef about me. In 1932 a friend (Walter Lowenfels) asked Beckett, “You sit there saying nothing while the world is going to pieces. What do you want? What do you want to do?” It was just like that Twisted Sister video! Beckett, according to Bair, “crossed his legs and drawled: ‘Walter, all I want to do is sit on my ass and fart and think of Dante.’”

I wanted that too. Except I was probably going to think of Orson Scott Card.

I tried to read Beckett’s novels and bounced off – they were way too difficult and hermetic (except for his first, Murphy) — but Beckett’s life: that was the turn-on. It was a wish-fulfillment fantasy: this wasn’t the real me, this was a me who was tall and handsome, and who was a genius, and who had found a brilliant mentoring father-figure (James Joyce), and who I knew, even if he didn’t yet, was destined for fame and glory.

I had discovered a weird fact, which is that sometimes a writer’s life can be as important to you as his or her work. I went on to read literary biographies the way tweens read dystopian science-fiction-romances. I crawled through all five volumes of Michael Reynolds’ biography of Hemingway and both volumes of Brian Boyd’s magnificent biography of Vladimir Nabokov. I became obsessed with biographies of Sylvia Plath, and then Virginia Woolf, and then Evelyn Waugh. These were serious scholarly works, but to me they were porn for a wannabe novelist. (Plath’s life is pure incandescent ecstasy and agony. I’ve never been clear on whether or not it’s apocryphal, but there’s an unforgettable story about the first time she met Ted Hughes: it was at a party, and they danced, and then she bit him so hard on the cheek that she broke the skin. Then she went home with somebody else.)

Though it’s not always that simple. Some writers it’s not so easy to identify with. James Joyce and Charles Dickens for example: sometimes genius is just too extreme and other-worldly to be relatable. (Though Claire Tomalin’s recent biography of Dickens is excellent. There’s a new biography of Joyce coming in June; maybe I’ll give it a go.) Likewise Tracy Daugherty’s 2009 life of Donald Barthelme is accomplished, but the man at its center remains a cipher: I never quite got where all that weird brilliance came from. (Daugherty works hard: he published a biography of Joseph Heller in 2011, which was also great — possibly better than most of Heller’s novels.)

One of the perils of literary biography is discovering that the literature you love was written by somebody you don’t especially like. Last year I read Charles J. Shields’ biography of Kurt Vonnegut, who was abrasive and difficult and unfaithful — he tried to keep people at a distance, and he succeeded. Though you do feel for him once in a while. In 1965 he was teaching at Iowa, still largely unsuccessful at 43, looked down upon by his colleagues as science fiction writer who never graduated college. One day one of his students mentioned John Keats. Vonnegut had never heard of him. Everybody laughed. Vonnegut threw a book at the wall and walked out of the class.

Likewise I wanted to love Robert Lowell, but you can’t feel the same about him, or read him the same way, once you know that he broke Jean Stafford’s nose, not once but twice. I still love Invisible Man, but after Arnold Rampersad’s 2007 biography of Ralph Ellison, in which Ellison comes off as proud and prickly, I no longer fantasize about having dinner with him. As for Roald Dahl, the less said the better. Reading Jeremy Treglown’s biography of Dahl was pretty much the end of my childhood.

Unsurprisingly, I never met Samuel Beckett, who died in 1989. We remained perfect strangers. But I did get one degree of separation away from him. My father was friends with the writer Richard Howard, and it came out once over dinner — I was in high school at the time — that Howard was working on a translation of Beckett, and was in fact flying to Paris to see Beckett the next day.

Howard kindly asked me if I’d like him to tell Beckett anything. I froze. I couldn’t think of a single thing to say.

I’ve always regretted that. But I’d like to think Beckett would have understood.

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