Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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The Nobel Prize

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In 1969, Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for his writing in new forms for the novel and drama in which the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation.” Five years earlier Jean-Paul Sartre had turned down the prize. Beckett, a courteous and gentle man, would have found that response ungracious, no doubt. However, in keeping with his distaste for publicity and ceremonial occasions, he didn’t go to Stockholm to receive his prize but was represented by his publisher, Jérôme Lindon.

Alfred Nobel had stipulated in his will that the prize should go to “uplifting” literary works. The secretary of the Swedish Academy explained its choice this way: “The degradation of humanity is a recurrent theme in Beckett’s writing, and to this extent his philosophy, simply accentuated by elements of the grotesque and of tragic farce, can be said to be a negativism that knows no haven.” But, he continued, “the perception of human degradation is not possible if human values are denied. This is the source of inner cleansing, the life force in spite of everything, in Beckett’s pessimism.” And he concluded, “the writing of Samuel Beckett rises like a miserere from all mankind, its muffled minor key sounding liberation to the oppressed and comfort to those in need.”

Following the award of the Nobel Prize, Beckett was pressured to make a new work available for publication. Finally, and almost à contrecoeur, he turned over to Les Editions de Minuit a story—“Premier Amour”—which he had written in 1946 but had withheld from publication. It came out in 1970, and Beckett worked slowly and with little satisfaction at an English translation—“First Love”—which was not published in England until 1973 and in America until 1974.