Understanding Samuel Beckett

Her husband might be the Barbican’s new Hamlet, but Mrs Cumberbatch, a.k.a Sophie Hunter, has also been making waves in the theatre world – and not for the first time. A past recipient of the Samuel Beckett Award for her imaginative work, Sophie’s Phaedra has just finished its stint at the Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival in Northern Ireland, where it received critically acclaimed reviews.

The Festival, which began in 2012, is the world’s first annual festival to celebrate the work of Nobel Prize-winning writer Samuel Beckett. It takes place in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, where Beckett attended the Portora Royal School and spent much of his formative years.

Beckett/Beckett by Vivian Mercier

Vivian Mercier also attended the same school and university as Beckett. He would go on to publish the most authoritative study of Beckett, Beckett/Beckett, which, even today, has not been surpassed in its understanding of one of the world’s greatest modern writers.


Originally published in 1977, Beckett/Beckett is still praised today for its refreshingly personal approach to a writer who has too often been put on a pedestal beyond criticism.

“Beckett is unique, as we all are, but he has not descended from another planet” – Vivian Mercier

Mercier understood Beckett from the shared knowledge of a similar background, and used this to analyse the many contrasts and contradictions in his work – gentleman/tramp, intellect/emotion, Ireland/the World/, eye/ear, man/woman.

Beckett/Beckett, with its wealth of knowledge lightly dispensed, not only gives us a fresh appreciation of the man and his work, but also entices us to read and re-read with enlightened eyes.

“This highly personal book remains one of the key books on Beckett – and one of the most readable… The book has been written in such a lively fashion that it is difficult to put down.”
‘Camden New Journal’

Beckett/Beckett by Vivian Mercier (ISBN: 9780285630109, £12)

Beckett before Beckett by Brigitte Le Juez

In one of the least well known periods of his life, Beckett lectured and taught modern French Literature at Trinity College, Dublin from 1930-1931. He had just returned from Paris, where he had met James Joyce, but had not yet written his first novel.

beckett before beckett cover

In 1930, nineteen-year-old Rachel Burrows studied French at Trinity College, and her notes of Beckett’s lectures have recently been found in the archives of Trinity College. Brigitte Le Juez is the first writer to fully study and translate these lectures, the most complete record of Beckett the young intellectual, and a valuable guide to the inspirations behind his work and concept of literature.

“As I conducted my research in the Old Library of Trinity College, Dublin, I happened upon a notebook that had belonged to one of Beckett’s students when he taught French Literature there from 1930-1931. Like a hidden treasure, this document could only be reached at the end of a maze of corridors and staircases crossing the Long Room. […] This manuscript gave me a new insight into Beckett. It revealed not only Beckett the admirer of Flaubert whom I had desperately been seeking, but also a Beckett with very definite opinions on French Literature, a Beckett who would never reveal himself in this manner again during his lifetime.” – Brigitte Le Juez

So, how did he define the modern novel of his day? What should literature strive to achieve, or more properly, what should it not be?

Beckett before Beckett reveals Beckett’s own history of French literature and his understanding of the origins of the modern literature of his time.

“We owe a debt of gratitude to Brigitte Le Juez for revealing this previously unknown dimension to one of the giants of 20th-century literature.”
‘Irish Times’

“The young Samuel Beckett’s lectures on literature offer a perspective on 19th century writing that remains fresh – and shows the roots of his own art… At last we can see the genesis of what would turn out to be one of the most extraordinary literary expressions of the 20th century.”

Beckett before Beckett by Brigitte Le Juez (ISBN: 9780285638624, £10)

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