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Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett Paperback – April 30, 2004

4.5 out of 5 stars 15 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Samuel Beckett, a talent so exceptional that he created masterpieces in both French and English, shied away from the limelight for much of his life. However James Knowlson, in this amazing biography, shows Beckett wasn't entirely hesitant to talk about himself; the book relies heavily on interviews with Beckett to reconstruct the writer's dizzying career. Knowlson fills the pages with exhaustive detail--some major, some minor. In addition, he analyzes the influences on and evolution of Beckett's work. Through it all a larger picture emerges, one of the artist at work and in life. Damned to Fame is a necessary addition to any study of Beckett. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers 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.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 832 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press (April 30, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802141250
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802141255
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #518,255 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
The review below by Tepi distorts Knowlson's accomplishment and misguides readers to Bair's biography, which relies heavily on supposition and is flat out wrong on the details of Beckett's life in almost countless cases. Tepi expects Knowlson to track Beckett's mother's effect on him throughout the entire piece, but this isn't a psycho-biography; it's a biography that considers the man as a whole, not the man as formed by his mother.

This is the standard biography of Beckett because Knowlson has access to more first-hand information than any other. Doesn't hurt to have Beckett's authorization and good graces, either. It is true that the amount of information here is overwhelming, but this makes it the piece that a student of Beckett needs to have, something that one can consult for the rest of one's life. If one wants idle and sensationalistic speculation on Beckett's complexes, then you should waste your money on Bair. The choice shouldn't be hard.
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Format: Hardcover
With access to previously unseen letters and documentation, as well as lengthy interviews with family, friends and peers, Knowlson offers the Beckett fan a well-rounded portrait of the late Irish writer that succeeds on a number of points. Firstly, it is a chronological narrative of a life that weaves in social, political, and personal threads without resorting to the psychologizing and speculation of much modern biography. Secondly, it traces Beckett's development as a writer of essays, fiction, poetry and plays without becoming bogged down in lengthy analysis of the writing itself, which is well enough done in a large body of existing critical work. Thirdly, in rendering explicit Beckett's principled political actions, starting with his Resistance work in France, and his open emotional and financial support of friends in the arts community worldwide, it humanizes a man whose myth has tended to foster the persona of hermit or misanthrope.
Knowlson is quite upfront about his own twenty-odd year working relationship with Beckett. He is the founder of the Beckett Archive at the University of Reading, has contributed to the critical canon, and had the good fortune to interview his subject at length over a period of many months prior to his death in 1989. Yet this does not come across as an acolyte's toadying; rather, it resonates as a sincere appreciation of a man and his work.
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Format: Hardcover
It is too easy, I think, to criticize an authorized biography as being hagiography. I did not find that Damned to Fame suffered from particular whitewashing, but then I was not reading it with a particular need to see SB picked apart in a personally critical way.

Knowlson was a close personal friend of Beckett's-- a fact which he does not try to hide in his treatment. And as such he has access to letters and papers of which other would-be Beckett biographers could only dream. And as a friend, I found that he left the focus in the place that Beckett would have wanted it-- on the work itself, on the vision, on the *writing*.

Which is not to say that he neglects Beckett as a person. But Beckett was a deeply private person and I found that Knowlson did an excellent job of balancing the privacy so dear to the subject with discussing what the reader needs to know to understand the artist.

For a casual reader, Damned to Fame might even be *too* exhaustive. I appreciated it, however. Particularly appreciated all the references to what Beckett was reading at various points in his life and I as well appreciated the copious notes and bibliography provided at the end of the book.
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Format: Paperback
James Knowlson is both a preeminent Beckett scholar, and cherisher of Beckett's friendship and memory. There is thus in his biography a degree of caring, and perhaps too a degree of personal protection. Nonetheless it provides any student of Beckett with a wealth of new information to enhance our knowledge of a great writer, but not solve completely the mystery and meaning of his greatness.

Joyce , Beckett's boss, and great inspiration , taught him the meaning of total dedication to the craft. But Joyce also gave him the key negative example. The feary father was greedy, and always added on and made more words than any other maker could possibly contend with . So Beckett chose a contradictory technique and became the great minimizer, the great substractor, the master of 'Less is More'.

One reviewer on the Amazon site(Tepi)excoriates Knowlson for playing down the emotional and psychological drama and difficulty of Beckett's life, of underestimating the role the cold mother played on her creator son. The criticism too of the biography is that it does not come to life in providing real portraits of the real people in Beckett's life, including the companion of twenty - years Susan.

Nonetheless I believe in general we search for the good in the book, value what it gives us. And this book does give us much new detail about a master in the art of making meaning out of what is smaller.

My own reading of Beckett goes back a long way in misunderstanding and appreciation. I in reading years ago the trilogy of novels felt that Beckett comprehended a basic aspect of human experience, in old age and dying, in a way no one else had. He made into 'Literature' kinds of experience which had not been made into Literature before.
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