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Shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize First published in 1996, this definitive biography received extensive rave reviews
James Knowlson is Emeritus Professor of French at the University of Reading where he founded the Beckett Archive (now the Beckett International Foundation). He was a friend of Samuel Beckett for twenty years and is his authorised biographer, publishing Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett with Bloomsbury in 1996. He has written or edited many other books and essays on Beckett and modern drama, including most recently Images of Beckett with theatre photographer John Haynes.
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 Václav 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"
'A landmark in scholarly criticism... Knowlson is the world's largest Beckett scholar. His life is right up there with George Painter's Proust and Richard Ellmann's Joyce in sensitivity and fascination' Daily Telegraph 'Essential, not only for the fact and details it offers, but for emphasising less well-known aspects of Beckett's life... the result is a clear, authoritative and exhaustively annotated biography' Independent on Sunday 'A triumph of scholarship and sympathy... James Knowlson presents us here with a tremendous act of elucidation and synthesis, ballasted with hitherto unseen diaries and underpinned by the bonus of Beckett's own plain reminiscences... Its amplitude, its oceanic research and tireless intelligence, its pacing and verve and critical acuity mark it as one of the great post-war biographies. Whatever celestial or infernal zone he currently occupies, Beckett must be permitting himself a brief wintry smile at last' Independent 'It is hard to imagine a fuller portrait of the man who gave our age some of the myths by which it lives' Evening Standard
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.)