Champion of ambiguity
The misinterpretations of Beckett's work on his 100th anniversary would not have pleased him
Samuel Beckett was an artist with so jaundiced a vision of human existence that he managed to be born not only on Friday the 13th, but on one that coincided with Good Friday. Later, he would allude to the day of Christ's death in an immortal quip in Waiting for Godot: "One of the [Calvary] thieves was saved. It's a reasonable percentage." This year's calendar to celebrate Beckett's 100th anniversary is crammed with literary events celebrating the life of the modern age's most lovable pessimist, most of them, one imagines, awash with talk of the timeless human condition portrayed in his work. Nothing could be further from the truth. For one thing, Beckett treated such portentous interpretations of his work with typical Irish debunkery. "No symbol where none intended," he once reminded the critics. For another, he was not some timeless spirit but a southern Irish Protestant, part of a besieged minority of cultural aliens caught uneasily within a triumphalistic Catholic Free State. As Anglo-Irish Big Houses were burnt by Republicans during the war of independence, many Protestants fled to the Home Counties. The paranoia, chronic insecurity and self-conscious marginality of Beckett's work make a good deal more sense in this light. So does the stark, stripped quality of his writing, with its Protestant aversion to frippery and excess. If he abandoned Ireland soon enough for Paris, it was partly because one might as well be homeless abroad as at home. As with his friend James Joyce, another Irish literary nomad, internal exile turned quickly into literal emigration. The alienation of the Irish artist could be translated easily enough into European modernist angst.Beckett was far from ashamed of being Irish. His famous riposte to a French journalist who innocently inquired whether he was English was "au contraire". His black humour and satirical wit are cultural as well as personal traits. But he could find no foothold within an introverted Gaelic state, and the austere minimalism of his art is, among other things, a critique of bloated nationalist rhetoric. Yet there is also a distinctively Irish quality to Beckett's deflation of the florid and high-flown, just as there is something recognisably Irish about those starved, stagnant landscapes where, like colonial victims, you do nothing but sit and wait for deliverance.
It isn't surprising, then, that this maestro of the art of the dispossessed should have found himself in 1941 fighting with the French Resistance. Living in German-occupied Paris, he joined a cell that was part of British Special Operations and turned his literary skills to typing and translating secret information. When the cell's cover was blown, many of his comrades were deported to concentration camps. Beckett and his wife, Suzanne, escaped arrest by 10 minutes or so.
They finally took refuge in a small village near Paris, where Beckett worked in the fields and took up once again with the Resistance. This time his tasks included lying in ambush for the Germans and picking up supplies parachuted in by the RAF. In Paris after the war, he and Suzanne went cold and hungry like the rest of the city, and his fingers were often blue with cold as he gripped his pen. He was later to receive the Croix de Guerre in honour of his underground exploits.
Unusually among modernist artists, this supposed purveyor of nihilism was a militant of the left rather than the right. A champion of the ambiguous and indeterminate, his fragmentary, provisional art is supremely anti-totalitarian. It is also an art born in the shadow of Auschwitz, which keeps faith with silence and terror by paring its language, characters and narrative almost to vanishing point. It is the writing of a man who understood that sober, bleak-eyed realism serves the cause of human emancipation more faithfully than starry-eyed utopia.
· Terry Eagleton is professor of cultural theory at Manchester University