‘Proust’ by Samuel Beckett

The only writer to appear in my list twice. Beckett wrote this essay in Paris during the summer of 1930, at the age of twenty-five. James Knowlson describes him working “feverishly in the Ecole Normale library or in his room, sometimes until dawn.” And Knowlson goes on to detail the rash (the “barber’s itch”) which surfaced onto his face – and about which Beckett felt acutely self-conscious – when he handed in the manuscript to Chatto and Prentice in London. What follows – an eighty-page response to In Search of Lost Time (he’d just read Proust’s megalith twice!) – bears some of the unruly flashiness of youth: it’s abstruse and trickily allusive but it’s also a sweeping and unguarded work. The preoccupations which Beckett would loop back to for the next sixty years are all here: his dissatisfaction with “literary conventions” and “geometry”; his distrust of neatly packaged intellectual systems (the “primacy of instinctive perception”, “the free play of every faculty”) alongside expansive – florid, excitable and ireful too – commentaries on what would become the taut through-lines of his later plays and prose: selfhood, memory, and “the poisonous ingenuity of Time”.

First published by Chatto & Windus, 1931, and by John Calder, 1999

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