Some artists’ work is too rarefied to thrive in times of upheaval. James Joyce was reported to have been furious that World War II was distracting the public and critics from the reception of his new novel, Finnegan’s Wake. His confrere, Samuel Beckett, may have refined his voice because of his experiences during the war. Though Beckett wrote novels indicative of his later style (e.g. Murphy) before his time in the French Resistance, it was after the war that he matured into the towering presence that wrote the trilogy—Malloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable—and the “exercise” that became the enormously influential Waiting for Godot.
Beckett participated in the French Resistance as a boite aux lettres (letterbox, where information was collected), distinguishing himself with editing and innovation. Eventually in danger of arrest by the Gestapo occupying Paris, he and his wife-to-be, Suzanne, fled to the French countryside and lived as refugees in the farm town of Roussillon. They stayed there until the end of the war. During that time he wrote the peculiar novel Watt, which I think showed both the strain and routine of his ill-suited rural life and his developing style.
I should say here that Beckett would greatly resent any effort to interpret or place symbolic values on his work. He said that Joyce’s work rewards ongoing analysis and discussion, but not his. That said, one could suppose that Watt shows the mind contained, in distress, reaffirming itself and its boundaries through repetition. It was a book written in part to survive the war, and that makes it difficult to read. The trilogy seemed more a project of confrontation by incarnation.
Beckett wanted his writing to be, not describe, its subject. He wrote, “[This] writing is not about something; it is that something itself.” One critic wrote “The earlier novels are, I believe, ‘about’ the things which Watt and later work succeed in enacting rather than describing.”
Hence the simultaneous bleakness and hilarity of the trilogy. Quoting disservices it; like a round of antibiotics, it must be taken in toto to work. In return for Beckett’s courage and the suffering of those during WWII, there is this thin silver gilt on the clouds of war and pogrom. Not a “testament to the human spirit” or such heartwarming malarkey—the catastrophe of life, meaning and culture in those times is too inexpressible for reduction to saccharine tropes. To represent it without eidetic precision is to do it violence, maybe even to represent it at ALL is violent. Beckett tries to circumvent that with a prose that is the abyss—and the comedy of living in its existence nonetheless. One has to submit to such writing; it cannot be a pleasure without becoming inevitable.