I regularly write here about Samuel Beckett and Arthur Schopenhauer, but not only to air my own perspective. It is my hope that my readers themselves will also be drawn to seek out their writings. But as always, I don’t know what happens on the other side of this connection, and I will try to offer some encouragement and direction to their work briefly here.
I am assisted in this by the fact that both Schopenhauer and Beckett wrote for what used to be called “the common reader” rather than a coterie or academic audience: to those readers who may find an affinity with their art regardless of cultural or educational background. This was not the case at first: Schopenhauer’s first book, On the Fourfold Root of Sufficient Reason, was a doctoral dissertation written in pursuit of an academic degree and position; Beckett’s early audience was in part academic and in part the community of readers that surrounded Joyce. This renders their early work somewhat opaque to the newcomer. But both writers, not too much later in their careers, abandoned these academic and coterie readerships and addressed, it seemed, anyone who cared to pick up their books. They remain rich in reference, but the new reader ignorant of their references may still be profoundly moved by this work. Current reputation and the sheer number of their books still make these volumes formidable and forbidding. There’s no reason this should be the case. Herewith, a few roads in for my own common readers:
Schopenhauer’s masterwork is The World as Will and Representation, but again, its 600 pages of the first volume alone, followed by another 700 of volume two, may put off the reader new to him. Fortunately there is Penguin Classics’ Essays and Aphorisms, edited by R.J. Hollingdale, which collects several pieces from Schopenhauer’s late Parerga and Paralipomena in a trim and highly readable 240 pages. While the anthology includes no excerpts from WWR, Hollingdale’s introduction places these essays in the context of Schopenhauer’s wider thought, and the book provides a taste of Schopenhauer’s sprightly and lyrical style. With luck, the reader will then be drawn to the first volume of WWR, which is available in three good recent translations: E.F.J. Payne’s (until recently the standard English translation), Richard Aquila and David Carus’, and the new translation in the Cambridge series (which will likely become the new standard English version). Payne’s is the least expensive and most secondary literature in English refers to it.
In 1976 Grove Press published Richard Seaver’s anthology of Beckett’s early- and mid-period work I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On. Although obviously lacking anything from the final and perhaps most brilliant decade of Beckett’s career, I Can’t Go On … does offer samples of a variety of Beckett’s work, including his poetry and criticism; many of the longer works are here in excerpted form, but the complete texts of Waiting for Godot and Krapp’s Last Tape are included, along with shorter prose and dramatic texts. Seaver’s introduction and his headnotes to each of the selections are illuminating and helpful to the Beckett newcomer. After this, and before tackling the Three Novels of the late 1940s, the reader might wish to read the three early stories in Stories and Texts for Nothing, which predate and introduce the style and concerns of the “trilogy.” The three late novels collected in Nohow On, finally, are essential to a full understanding of Beckett’s project.
The secondary literature for both these writers is voluminous, and those who feel that they’d like to get their feet wet before confronting Schopenhauer and Beckett themselves can choose from a range of introductory texts. Christopher Janaway’s Schopenhauer: A Very Short Introduction from Oxford University Press is, at a mere 137 pages, an excellent and nicely illustrated precis of Schopenhauer’s work addressed to the newcomer. While David Cartwright’s 2010 biography is a fine read (my review is here), the more concise and less expensive Arthur Schopenhauer by Peter B. Lewis will be published soon in Reaktion Books’ series of short biographies (and will be reviewed here in due course). This gives me the opportunity to note Janaway’s insightful note on Schopenhauer and may give the reader a clue as to how to approach WWR once ready to do so:
Many have found Schopenhauer’s philosophy impossible to accept as a single, consistent metaphysical scheme. But it does have great strength and coherence as a narrative and in the dynamic interplay between its different conceptions of the world and the self. … Thomas Mann likened Schopenhauer’s book to a great symphony in four movements, and it is helpful to approach it in something of this spirit, seeking contrasts of mood and unities of theme amid a wealth of variations. Certainly there have been few philosophers who have equalled Schopenhauer’s grasp of literary architecture and pacing, and few whose prose style is so eloquent. (8; emphasis mine)
While James Knowlson’s biography of Beckett is indispensable, it is also very long. Those seeking a shorter, if more idiosyncratic, introduction to his life will find Andrew Gibson’s 2009 life in Reaktion Books’ Critical Lives series quite enlightening (my review is here). There are few short introductions to Beckett’s work as good as Janaway’s on Schopenhauer; John Calder’s monograph The Philosophy of Samuel Beckett captures both the man and the writer quite well. Calder was, for decades, the publisher of Beckett’s prose work in Great Britain and a close confidant of the writer’s. It is worth seeking out.