Though he’s best known for his spare, absurdist tragicomedy, Waiting for Godot, playwright, poet, and novelist Samuel Beckett wrote what might be his most-quoted line at the end of The Unnamable, the third book in a hypnotic trilogy that begins with Molloy and continues with Malone Dies: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”
These novels, and the original Godot, were all written in French, then translated into English by Beckett himself. But Beckett was an Irish writer, who—like his contemporary, hero, countryman, and almost-father-in-law James Joyce—lived most of his life in voluntary exile. Like Joyce, Beckett wrote about Irish characters, and his “theme,” noted a 1958 New York Times reviewer of The Unnamable, “is the very Irish one in this century: the identity of opposites.”
Nothing in Beckett encapsulates this idea more concisely than the seven-word concluding line of The Unnamable. It’s a sentence that sums up so much of Beckett—his elliptical aphorisms; his dry, acerbic wit; and his unwavering stare into the abyss. As one contemporary of his suggested, Beckett will remain relevant “as long as people still die.” His primary subject is indeed one of the few truly universal themes.
But to only think of Beckett as morbid is not to read Beckett or see his work performed. While he can be unrelentingly grim, he is also never not in control of the dry humor of his voice. In his animated School of Life introduction to Beckett above, Alain de Botton begins with an anecdote about Beckett at a much-anticipated cricket match. Observing the perfect weather, a companion of his remarked, “This is the sort of day that would make you glad to be alive.” To which Beckett replied, “I wouldn’t go as far as that.”
The story, de Botton, says, “nicely encompasses two aspects of Samuel Beckett: his famously bleak view of life, and his mordant sense of humor.” They are qualities that for Beckett have the status of philosophical principles—though the author himself had a very fraught, almost allergic, relationship to philosophy. He gave up teaching early in his career, as we learn in the video, because “he felt he could not teach to others what he did not know himself.” When a version of Waiting for Godot debuted in 1952, Beckett sent a note to be read in his place. He wrote, in part:
All I knew I showed. It’s not much, but it’s enough for me, by a wide margin. I’ll even say that I would have been satisfied with less. As for wanting to find in all that a broader, loftier meaning to carry away from the performance, along with the program and the Eskimo pie, I cannot see the point of it. But it must be possible …
The necessity of the pointless exercise; the richness in the poverty of existence—stripped of its pretense and grand, self-important narratives…. These ideas arise from “the themes of failure that so dominate his work,” says de Botton. Though Beckett resisted interpretation in his own writing, he wrote an early study of Marcel Proust that interpreted the French author’s work as a philosophy of life which rests “on the making and appreciation of art.” Given that this is a School of Life video, this interpretation becomes the favored way to read Beckett. There are many others. But as the title of a 1994 Samuel Beckett reader—I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On—suggests, every approach to Beckett must somehow try to account for the stubborn intensity of his contradictions.