When Samuel Beckett won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969, his longtime companion, Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, described it as "a catastrophe," and the playwright himself refused to show up for the award ceremony. That was typical of this giant of 20th century literature who challenged convention for most of his life, and ended up inspiring an entire generation of artists with his stripped-down vision of humanity's existential struggles a vision that was often as ridiculous as it was bleak. "Nothing is funnier than unhappiness," says one of his characters in the play Endgame, talking from a dustbin.
Born in 1906, Beckett grew up in a Dublin suburb but made Paris his home. He wrote most of his best-known works in French because, he said, it was easier to write "without style." A friend of James Joyce, a devotee of Dante and Proust, Beckett made his international breakthrough with Waiting for Godot, famously described by one critic as a play "in which nothing happens twice."
The Nobel committee said that, in his writing, "the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation," but Beckett summed up his own message better: before his death in 1989, he ordered that his marble tombstone in Montparnasse Cemetery be "any color so long as it's gray."