Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett


Damned to Fame is the brilliant and insightful portrait of Nobel Prize-winning author Samuel Beckett, mysterious and reclusive master of twentieth-century literature. Professor James Knowlson, Beckett's chosen biographer and a leading authority on Beckett, vividly recreates Beckett's life from his birth in a rural suburb of Dublin in 1906 to his death in Paris in 1989, revealing the real man behind the literary giant. Scrupulously researched and filled with previously unknown information garnered from interviews...
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Damned to Fame: the Life of Samuel Beckett

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Damned to Fame is the brilliant and insightful portrait of Nobel Prize-winning author Samuel Beckett, mysterious and reclusive master of twentieth-century literature. Professor James Knowlson, Beckett's chosen biographer and a leading authority on Beckett, vividly recreates Beckett's life from his birth in a rural suburb of Dublin in 1906 to his death in Paris in 1989, revealing the real man behind the literary giant. Scrupulously researched and filled with previously unknown information garnered from interviews with the author and his friends, family, and contemporaries, Knowlson's unparalleled work is the definitive Beckett biography of our time.

Nearing the end of his life, Samuel Beckett chose James Knowlson to be his biographer because he "knows my work best." One of the world's leading authorities on Beckett, Knowlson has drawn on his twenty-year friendship with the Nobel Prize winner, more than one hundred interviews, and research in dozens of archival collections-many previously untapped by scholars-to produce this definitive biography of one of hte century's leading writers in both English and French.

Damned to Fame follows teh reclusive literary giant's life from his birth in Foxrock, a rural suburb of Dublin, in 1906 to his death in Paris in 1989. Knowlson brilliantly re-creates Beckett's early years as a struggling author in Paris, his travels through Germany in 1936-37 as the Nazis were consolidating their power, his service in the French Resistance during World War II, and the years of literary fame and financial success that followed the first performance of his controversial Waiting For Godot (1953).

Paris between the wars was a city vibrant with experimentation, both in the arts and in personal lifestyle, and Knowlson introduces us to the writers and painters who, along with the young Beckett, populated his bohemian community. Most notable was James Joyce, a fellow Irishman who became Beckett's friend and mentor and influenced him to devote his life to writing. We also meet the women in Beckett's life-his domineering mother, May; his cousin Peggy Sinclair, who died at a tragically young age; Ethna McCarthy, his first love, whom he immortalized in his poetry and prose; Peggy Guggenheim, the American heiress and patron of the arts; and the strong and independent Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, whom he met in the late 1930s and married in 1961.
Beyond recounting many previously unknown aspects of the writer's life, including his strong support for human rights and other political causes, Knowlson explores in fascinating detail teh roots of Beckett's works. He shows not only how the relationship between Beckett's own experiences and his work became more oblique over time, but also how his startling postmodern images were inspired by the paintings of the Old Masters, such as Antonello da Messina, Durer, Rembrandt, and Caravaggio.

Perhaps most striking of all is Knowlson's portrait of Beckett's complex personality. Although Beckett is often depicted as melancholic, self-critical, and intensely preoccupied with his work, his own letters reveal him to have been also a witty, resilient, and compassionate man who could respond to adversity with humor and who inspired deep affection in his friends.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In his preface, Knowlson alerts readers that Beckett had notified his British publisher that this work was to be "his sole authorized biography." And Knowlson, the author or editor of 10 previous books on Beckett, leaves no stone unturned in his intricate biography of the Irish writer. Beckett was born in Dublin on April 13, 1906, a Good Friday. He grew up in the affluent suburb of Foxrock, where he enjoyed a loving though sometimes rigid Protestant childhood. Away at boarding school for much of the Irish Uprising, he returned to Dublin in 1923 to enter Trinity College, excelling in English Literature and French. On a visit to Paris he met James Joyce and became his companion and secretary. Back in Dublin in 1930 he became a lecturer in French at Trinity, but found the academic life not to his liking. He left his position and began a 10-year period of drifting as he tried to become a writer. Knowlson probes Beckett's romantic entanglements, including his platonic relationship with Joyce's daughter Lucia, an affair with his first cousin and his long relationship with his eventual wife, Suzanne. During the war Beckett was a member of the French resistance, using his expertise in language to translate documents for the British government. He fled Paris just before the Gestapo closed in on him. With the end of the war came his most productive period. Between 1946 and 1953 he wrote his trilogy of novels, plus Waiting for Godot. Knowlson goes on to look at Beckett's growing fame as his plays were produced around the world; examines his relationship with the likes of painter Jack B. Yeats (the poet's brother) and Irish actor Jack MacGowran, the foremost Beckett actor. Also examined are Beckett's work with Amnesty International, his refusal to allow his plays to be staged in South Africa because of apartheid and the philosophical underpinnings to Beckett's extraordinary art. Knowlson has compiled a meticulously annotated and valuable biography that belongs in the library of every Beckett aficionado. (Oct.)
Library Journal
Dissatisfied with previous portrayals of Beckett (for example, Deirdre Bair's controversial first biography, Samuel Beckett, LJ 6/15/78), scholars of the Irish novelist, playwright, and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969 will be champing at the bit for this fondly painstaking sift through Beckett's life and work. Chosen by Beckett as his biographer because of a critical grounding in his writing, Knowlson, the founder of the Beckett Archive in Reading, England, was able to meet with the writer over several months before he died, at age 83, in 1989. Knowlson also recouped a windfall of material from Beckett's family and friends, such as the "unknown diaries 1937-38," in which Beckett recorded his art tour of Germany. Knowlson concentrates on three somewhat unscrutinized facets of the playwright's life: his studied passion for art and music; his later support of those oppressed or imprisoned, such as Vclav Havel; and his iron loyalty to friends and respected colleagues. If Knowlson errs, it's on the side of understatement. An immensely sympathetic portrait emerges of a deeply erudite, fiercely dedicated artist bewildered by all the fuss over him. An essential work for all libraries.Amy Boaz, "Library Journal"
Kirkus Reviews
The long-awaited authorized biography of the reclusive Nobel laureate, written by Knowlson (French/Univ. of Reading, England), who was not only a friend of Beckett's and his choice to do the book, but is also a noted Beckett scholar.

This volume—based on access to Beckett's correspondence, papers, friends and colleagues, and most important, five months of interviews with the subject himself—will stand as definitive for the foreseeable future. Knowlson traces the familiar trajectory of Beckett's career in minute detail, from his comfortable, middle-class childhood in Dublin through his difficult period of shuttling between France, Germany, and his parents' home and his abandonment of an academic career. After settling in France more or less permanently, Beckett would become actively involved with the Resistance; one of the great strengths of this volume is the attention paid to Beckett's political views and activities, which were more extensive than generally imagined. In the aftermath of the war and its privations, Beckett underwent a burst of writing activity that included the play that would make him a famous if misunderstood name, Waiting for Godot. Knowlson is preoccupied with relating events and settings to the writings, something that few Beckett observers have troubled to do in such copious detail, and the result is that the first third of the book has a jagged, discontinuous feeling. But once Beckett's career takes off in the postwar period, Knowlson's narrative flows more graciously. He is an astute commentator on the later writings in particular, explaining how Beckett's love of painting and music inspired much of his work, showing how the passing of an entire generation of Beckett's friends and family inflected the darkening vision of his later works.

Above all, Knowlson offers a convincing picture of a man who was better-rounded and better-adjusted than the bleak universe he depicted: a man of surpassing wit, generosity, and kindness, deserving not only of the kudos he garnered over his long life but of a well-rounded portrait, which this most definitely is.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802141255
  • Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
  • Publication date: 5/10/2004
  • Series: Groves Great Lives Series
  • Pages: 832
  • Sales rank: 626,414
  • Product dimensions: 5.98 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.69 (d)

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