Samuel Beckett Is 100. Why You Should Care

One of Samuel Beckett's favorite things about himself—and this depression-prone man probably didn't have many—was that he'd been born on a Good Friday that was also Friday the 13th. That was in 1906, and Thursday is his centennial. (He died in 1989.)

His very name was a byword for bleakness. Of course most people who've actually read Beckett also find his work deeply emotional and wildly funny—but that's never added up to a lot of people, if you leave aside those who got assigned "Waiting for Godot" in high school. Beckett was a marginal, expatriate Irish writer who'd given up on English and wrote in French, and that play transformed him virtually overnight into a celebrity, from a no-hoper struggling with what may have seemed to him a long, unpublishable manuscript. This was his trilogy of novels—"Molloy," "Malone Dies" and "The Unnamable"—his greatest achievement. (He wrote "Godot" to give himself some R&R before "The Unnamable," the 20th century's most relentless novel.) Beckett called this period, from 1946 to 1950, "the siege in the room." It's a wonder that this black hole of energy didn't cause power blackouts all over Paris.

As you'd expect, his centennial is the occasion for festschrifts, festivals ("Beckett festival" no longer sounds oxymoronic) and reminscences from friends and acquaintances who hadn't already weighed in, and from some who had. New productions of the plays. Scholarly conferences. Why run it all down when you're going to skip it anyway? If you care, Google "Beckett centennial" and I'm sure some of the 171,000 hits will fill you in. But one tribute is indispensable: Grove Press's hardbound, four-volume set of Beckett's work—novels, plays, poems and essays—with an additional volume devoted to a bilingual "Godot" (the original French and Beckett's own English translation). The editor, novelist Paul Auster, left out a couple of long pieces Beckett chose not to publish during his lifetime—when he could have published his grocery lists if he'd wanted. You can argue this decision convincingly either way, but I'm with Auster: keep it canonical. Anyhow, the novel, "A Dream of Fair to Middling Women," and the play "Eleutheria" were still in print the last time I looked. Auster had the sense to put "First Love" with the three similar and contemporaneous short stories which had always been published separately. And he's assigned introductory essays to Salman Rushdie, Edward Albee, Colm Toibin and J. M. Coetzee. They may be useful (some more than others), but I think this was a bad call: such an enterprise should be a monument, not an opportunity for other writers' self-display, however reverent. Still, you're perfectly free to skip them. (If you're going to read Rushdie's piece, by the way, start a few pages in, when he's done talking about himself.) Perhaps the best thing Auster did was to let a decent copy editor—if he didn't spit on his hands and do it himself—clean up the annoying and depressing misprints that have persisted through edition after edition of the trilogy. It shouldn't have taken Beckett's publisher all these years to start taking proper care of him. I'm hardcore when it comes to Beckett, and I was disappointed to see that a punctuation decision in "Molloy" that's always bothered me remains as it was; but there may simply not have been enough justification (in the manuscript, say) for making what seems like a logical change. On the other hand, I still prefer the old hypermodern covers Grove used for the '60s paperbacks—those stark, almost violent, typefaces and broken abstract images. The new books look more conventional, less scary, with silhouettes of "Godot"'s leafless tree, the wheel of Molloy's bicycle and, thankfully, a variant of the broken circle on the old cover of "Watt." Still, the black spines and endpapers help give the impression that you're entering a dark and special country. If you haven't read many—or any—of the pieces in these handsome, sober volumes, I can't take you by the collar and march you into a bookstore. It's 24 bucks a volume, and $22 for the bilingual "Godot," which, if your French is as shot as mine, is just going to sit there. You could buy a fancy meal with a good bottle of wine for that kind of money. So, up to you. Auster calls reading Beckett "an experience unequaled anywhere in the universe of words." I say, Beckett's the man. Don't you want to check it out, if only so you can write in and say we're both crazy? Correction: Beckett received the Nobel prize for literature in 1969, not 1988, as this article previously reported.