Books: Before and after Godot: two new biographies of Samuel Beckett trace the change from wild youth into stagnant middle years and enduring fame offering oneness, but of un-ness: of negationally and aspiration modern lyricist of the timesouter

Samuel Beckett was the great poet, not of oneness, but of un-ness: of negation and fragmentation; of the unformed and the unnameable; of unhappiness and "unhappenings" and no-can-do. Typically, his characters are poor, bare, forked animals: stripped to (and sometimes beyond) essentials, they contemplate the chaos, pathos and grotesque comedy of their condition. Often, we know almost nothing about them. Sometimes we can barely even see them: they're just a torso, or a mouth, or a voice.

Herein lies the problem for Beckett biographers. Not only was their subject famously reticent, a man who declined invitations to speak about his life and work. He also aspired towards an art of impersonality and minimalism in which biography plays no part. Motive isn't a word in his vocabulary. The plight of his characters isn't to be explained by the circumstances of their life, let alone by the circumstances of their author's life, but simply by the fact that they're human. And this makes any attempt to write about Beckett himself at best naive and at worst irrelevant.

But his celebrity, undimmed in the seven years since his death, makes biography inevitable. Even before Deirdre Bair's Life, now nearly 20 years old, a dubious kind of legend had grown up: that the miserabilist, even futilitarian, tendency of Beckett's work must be a reflection of some private unhappiness. Many friends, actors and drinking cronies testified that, once you got to know him, "Sam" was the gentlest, most courteous man you could hope to meet. Many critics pointed to the comic elements in his work: the love of slapstick, of music hall farce, of Chaplin and Keaton. But the brooding photographs - that emaciated frame, those chiselled cheekbones, the wise-eagle stare - told another story, of a busy agony. And still, the suspicion persists that something in Beckett's nature, or early life, must explain what made him the modern lyricist of pessimism.

Neither James Knowlson's authorised 900-page life of Beckett, nor Anthony Cronin's more intimate and, at 650 pages, rather briefer (hah!) life of his fellow-Irishman "Sam", offers a good deal of support to that theory. Knowlson's Beckett is respectable: scholarly, compassionate and (though childless) a family man. Cronin's Beckett is more of a drinker and chancer, but not a nihilist. Both biographers describe the two years of psychoanalysis Beckett submitted himself to in the 1930s, without themselves resorting to psychoanalytic explanations. They quote him on his mother - "I am what her savage loving has made me" - but don't accept she holds some magic key. They tell his story as best they can but, respectful of his belief that we are doomed to live and die in ignorance, they don't pretend to understand what made him tick.

By all accounts, Beckett's upbringing in Foxrock, a prosperous Dublin suburb, was as solid, conventional and untraumatising as could be. His father was a genial, card-playing Protestant businessman. His mother, May, though strict and sometimes tetchy, liked to garden, keep terriers and hold prudish views. He was not noticeably tormented, bullied or abused by his brother Frank. There was a loquacious Catholic nurse, Bridget, full of sayings and folk-tales, and a nanny, Bibby, who insisted on the use of "btm" instead of "bottom".

It's possible the sensitive young Beckett had some shocks to his system: the time he was made to dive from a high board into the sea at Sandycove; a hedgehog he'd rescued and put in a box turning to "stench" and "mush"; a dog he saw beaten to death; an incident when his mother savagely dismissed an innocent metaphysical enquiry he'd made about the far-offness of the sky. But by the standards of most childhoods, Beckett's looks cosy. The best one can say is that he was rather moody, disengaged and introspective, and showed an odd fascination with stones, which he liked to bring home from the beach and lay on the branches of trees, to keep them safe from harm.

At school, Beckett was never in danger of being a loner. His sportiness saw to that: though lanky and short-sighted, he was a natural ball player. His cricketing feats are well known, and have been exaggerated (when he played for Trinity College in their massive innings defeat against Northants in 1927, he took nought for 47 in 15 overs and was out for four and one). But there was also his prowess at running, boxing, motor-cycling, swimming, tennis and golf: during the holidays, he'd sometimes play four rounds of golf a day. Much later, in Paris, he took up billiards and bought a television to watch rugby internationals, but he was never again so active. It's tempting to think that if he had gone on playing golf (Beckett v Updike over 18 holes would have been an intriguing match), his middle years wouldn't have been so stagnant. But perhaps not even his pleasure in sport could ward off the inner gloom, which gave him a kind of pleasure, too. At Lords, watching England play Australia, a friend ventured that it was "the sort of day that makes you glad to be alive," to which Beckett demurred: "Oh, I don't think I'd go quite so far as that."

A brilliant scholar and linguist, he left Dublin for Paris in 1928, at the age of 22. There he gave lessons, wrote and became friends with James Joyce. It was Joyce who taught him writerly integrity and perseverance (to fail again, fail better), but in other respects the relationship was less nurturing than is popularly imagined. Much of the fiction Beckett wrote in the shadow of Joyce is callow, haughty, lush, narcissistic and mildly obscene: Dylan Thomas, reviewing Murphy, coined the phrase "Sodom and Begorrah". There was also the unhappy entanglement with Joyce's disturbed daughter, Lucia: it's doubtful that Beckett led her on, but she fantasised about their becoming lovers, and his rejection of her made him persona non grata for a time at Joyce's flat.

There were other entanglements and infatuations, as James Knowlson dutifully reveals: with a first cousin, Peggy Sinclair; with the clever but elusive Ethna MacCarthy; with an American visitor to Dublin, Betty Stockton, to whom he wrote an effusive poem, and her friend Mary Manning, to whom he turned, on the rebound, for a "wild affair". Later came the rich, promiscuous Peggy Guggenheim, who seems genuinely to have loved Beckett but who was dropped for the austere, unimpressionable Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil ("I made scenes, she made curtains," Peggy later bitched). This was an intense time for Beckett. Within the space of a few weeks in late 1937 and early 1938, he met and spent a week in bed with Peggy; met and fell in love with Suzanne; suffered humiliation as a witness in a libel case in Dublin; was stabbed and almost killed by a pimp in Paris; and corrected the proofs of his novel Murphy while recovering in hospital.

Beckett's loyalty to Suzanne - whom he stayed with for the rest of his life, and eventually married - didn't preclude affairs; nor did loyalty to his long-standing mistresses, notably the translator and BBC radio producer Barbara Bray, prevent him taking new mistresses. It would seem from Knowlson that he was a shy but determined lover, and had his heart in the right place, finding sex without love like "coffee without brandy". Cronin's Beckett is much more screwed-up: there is talk of masturbation, misogyny, impotence, sadism, repressed homosexuality, and of a potential lover being told to stick to another man because "he can fuck and I can't". Which biographer is closer to the truth? Knowlson has Beckett's own word for what he was like; Cronin uses the fiction to read the life. Neither seems a trustworthy method, but the reminiscences of Beckett's lovers wouldn't be altogether reliable, either. Nothing better illustrates Beckett's belief in human unknowability.

Cronin and Knowlson can't agree about Beckett's political leanings, either. Cronin takes the traditional view that he was largely indifferent to politics; Knowlson sees him as an embattled humanitarian who spoke out against persecution of all kinds. Their disagreement focuses on the year Beckett spent in Germany, in 1936-37: Cronin finds him "strangely unperturbed" by what was going on, and quotes a chilling sentence dismissing "all the usual sentimental bunk about the Nazi persecutions"; Knowlson, drawing on "unknown diaries", finds instead both "genuine concern" and the emergence of the "anti-Nazi credentials" which Beckett would display more fully when working for the resistance movement in France.

Though he later spoke deprecatingly about this resistance work as "boy scout stuff", there is no doubt that it was dangerous: friends in the same Parisian group were betrayed, seized and sent to concentration camps; Beckett and Suzanne themselves only narrowly escaped arrest, and had to flee to the country - where they continued to help resist Hitler.

Knowlson is persuasive and informative about Beckett's wartime efforts, which continued with the Red Cross in 1945. His conclusions are echoed in another recent book, by Lois Gordon (The World of Samuel Beckett, 1906- 46, Yale pounds 19.95). The war, they agree, taught Beckett courage, made him less narcissistic, and helped him find himself as a writer. It's to this that we owe Waiting for Godot, Endgame, Krapp's Last Tape and the rest.

There were other factors, of course. One was his choosing to write all his work in French after the war: he acquired a new spareness and lyricism as a result. There was also the epiphany he experienced in Ireland at the end of the war, when his "folly" was revealed to him: realising that the way forward lay "in subtracting rather than adding", through darkness rather than light, he began "to write the things I feel". The art he forged was revelatory but not self-revealing. As Cronin rightly points out, when Beckett did show something of himself (as in Mercier et Camier and More Pricks than Kicks), the results could be embarrassing. Whereas the tramps, derelicts and unfortunates of his plays have a Shakespearian grandeur and universality.

Waiting for Godot changed everything. It wasn't so much that it made him rich: he'd always had a decent allowance from his family, and when his mother died just before Godot was first staged she left him enough to have a house built in Ussy, south of Paris. But the play did make him famous, even in London, where he'd had to endure years of rejection slips from publishers. (He felt ambivalent about England: when asked once if he was English, he replied: "Au contraire".)

Godot's success kept him in constant demand, mostly for the theatre. Perfectionist and mildly megalomaniac, he insisted on translating much of his own work, and frequently oversaw new productions of his plays. There are many entertaining stories, in Knowlson, of his difficult relations with actors: Ralph Richardson was one of many who gave offence by asking Beckett for the "lowdown, the home address and curriculum vitae" of the character he was supposed to play; even the incomparable Billie Whitelaw had her awkward moments with him.

There are more entertaining thespian stories in theatre critic Mel Gussow's Conversations with (and about) Beckett (Nick Hern pounds 13.99), including the master's verdict on Albert Finney's performance as Krapp: "hopeless; he had as much poetry as an ashtray". But Beckett's life after Godot is less interesting than his life before, and the 500-plus pages given over to it in Knowlson become a slightly dull litany of foreign holidays, meetings with acolytes, and the funerals of relations and friends. Cronin's book is better balanced for being two-thirds over by the time we get to Godot. It was in the wilderness years, after all, that the wilder side of Beckett exhibited itself. He described them as a "period of lostness, of apathy and lethargy". But the years of foundness make drab reading in comparison.

One drama remained in the last phase of growing silence, slow decline and marital coldness: the award of the Nobel Prize in 1969. Suzanne, taking the call in the Tunisian hotel room where they were staying, described the news as "a catastrophe". Beckett agreed, but felt that Sartre had been discourteous in refusing the award and didn't want to follow his example. His solution was to accept, but to miss the ceremony and give away most of the prize-money. Among the congratulatory letters he received was one from a Mr Georges Godot, in Paris, who wrote to apologise for having kept him waiting; not at all, Beckett replied, thanking him for being so prompt.

There is an obvious irony in the disparity between the pared exactitude of Beckett's late fictions and the gigantism of these two biographies. But it's hard to see how they could have been much shorter. James Knowlson's is essential not only for the facts and details it offers, but for emphasising less well-known aspects of Beckett's life: his interest in painting, for example, and how the compositions of Old Masters influenced the postures and gestures of his dramatic characters. The result is such a clear, authoritative, and exhaustively annotated biography that I was ready for the least excuse not to bother with Anthony Cronin's. But I found myself persisting ("you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on"), and didn't regret it. A fluent, even mellifluous, guide to the inner Beckett, Cronin offers insights and ruminations that are just as indispensable as Knowlson's facts. Sad to say, Beckett fans will probably need both.

Or neither: there is always that honourable option. For the truth is that, after 1,500 pages of Beckett's life, readers may know more than they did, and more than they need - and yet feel none the wiser. Which is as the prophet of lessness would have wanted it: "to know you are beyond knowing anything, that is when peace enters in," says Molloy. Beyond knowing, energised by emptiness, Beckett's work remains enclosed and transcendent: a story unto itself.

`Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett' by James Knowlson is published by Bloomsbury at pounds 25

`Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist' by Anthony Cronin is published by HarperCollins pounds 25

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