Alec Reid, ‘Master of style in two languages’, in The Irish Times, 24 Oct. 1969)

Note: Published on announcement that Beckett was to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

A. J. Leventhal, who probably knows more about Beckett than anyone else, once described him as a great European in the same sense as Byron and Wilde are great Europeans. Beckett has won recognition as a master stylist in two languages, English and French, which he uses with equal precision but for different purposes.

His earlier writings, critical studies, poems, short stories, and a novel were in Enlgish, but since the war he has composed all his novels – the the work on which, according to the most professional critics and students of literature, his fame will rest - in French, while his plays, apart from the first two, En Attendant Godot and Fin de Partie, have been composed in English. He has himself turned Godot into Italian and Play into German and had translated an anthology of Mexican poetry from the Spanish.

But there is far more to it than a mere linguistic virtuosity. Beckett has chosen to cast his novels in French because that language enables him to write with greater freedom from irrelevant associations, an essential advantage in the kind of novel of ideas which he has been evolving; his plays are in English because that is how he hears them, and the English he hears, as Alan Simpson has pointed out, has the unmistakeable cadence and flavour of south Co. Dublin.

Whatever language Beckett works in, he contrives to catch the doubts, the uncertainties, the anguish of unreasoning non-knowingness which seemes to be the spirit of our time. Godot has been performed with great success in more than 20 countries, from Finland to Argentine, and in at least 15 different languages including Turkish, Serbo-Croat and demotic Greek. The piece has no special message – as Vivien Mercier says: “Nothing happens – twice” – but it establishes immediate rapport with audiences from every walk of life, from long-term convicts in California, to farmers in Co. Dublin.

Beckett’s other plays, notably Endgame and the mime Act Without Words, have become strong favourites not only with audiences in Britain but with college and university groups. Yet the appeal is not to the egg-head; it goes much wider, because, as Beckett himself has said in one of his very rare comments on his own work, “they deal with distress.”

Despite this universal appeal and the fact that he has lived outside Ireland for 30 years, Beckett remains unquestionably Irish. His system of thought is profoundly influenced by Bishop Berkeley, his strange mixture of deep compassion and disgust with mankind recalls Jonathan Swift.

He retains a deep affection for Trinity, shown in many ways, not least by making over one year’s American royalities on Krapp’s Last Tape to the fund for the new library, and subsequently presenting it with some unpublished manuscripts.

The award of the Nobel Prize will make no difference to his austere, selfless way of life; he will go on writing as he must because he must, since he is that rarest of all things, a totally free, a totally uncommitted man.

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