“I don’t find solitude agonizing, on the contrary. Holes in paper open and take me fathoms from anywhere.” So wrote Samuel Beckett to Nancy Cunard on 26 January 1959. That land—“fathoms from anywhere” is like no other land in literature. It is consistent from work to work, as are the people who inhabit it. But within the homogeneity of background, of character, of theme, are subtle shadings of approach, of definition, of presentation that open up for the reader—or, in Beckett’s plays, the viewer—vistas as varied as the range of human emotions. Hence the variety of responses to his work. For some, Beckett is one of the great comic writers of all time. For others, his is a tragic world, “bleak,” “grim,” even “unbearable.” And for still others, he is a religious writer, his works a witness to the indomitable spirit of the Godhead-in-man.
In doing honor to the man and the work on the occasion of the centennial of Beckett’s birth (on 13 April 1906), however one may define them, it would seem pointless to push claims, to struggle with rankings or to make sweeping historical assays. Most contemporary critics, here and abroad, would agree, however, that Samuel Beckett has given us, in English and in French, the most original work of our time. If, to many, that adds up to his being the greatest writer of the twentieth century, so be it.
This centennial web exhibition is derived substantially from the catalogue published in conjunction with a Beckett exhibition mounted at the Ransom Center in 1984 as part of a major conference, “Beckett Translating/Translating Beckett.” Titled No Symbols Where None Intended (a line from Beckett’s Watt), that exhibition was curated and catalogue written by Carlton Lake with the assistance of Linda Eichhorn [Ashton] and Sally Leach. Some changes to the original text have been made, necessitated by the demands of the virtual world and the need to bring the story up to date. Beckett was still alive when that exhibition opened.
The exhibition was not then and is not now intended to be a year-by-year survey of Samuel Beckett’s life or a definitive catalogue of his work. Rather, it attempts to trace, as coherently as possible, the development, the progression—really, le perpétual devenir—of this great and original work. The result, we hope, will be to light up rather than to obscure the sources of the pleasure of reading, of hearing, of seeing Samuel Beckett.