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The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1941-1956, edited by George Craig, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Dan Gunn and Lois More Overbeck.  Cambridge University Press, 2011. 791 pp.

The temptation to snoop overtakes all of us by moments, and unsought-after opportunity suddenly finds our eyes riveted to letters not meant for us.  There have been figures in literary history fully prepared to forgive the intrusion: Madame de Sévigné eventually heard that her letters were being handed around among her admirers but never stopped dashing off her acute and fluent observations about life at the Sun King’s court or in the provinces.  We wouldn’t remember the eighteenth-century figure Horace Walpole except for his letters, texts composed with the sort of regard, witty phrasing, and visual detail found only among those who write with one eye towards posterity. Aside from ecclesiastical epistles, collections of letters were not often published before the nineteenth century.  During the twentieth, they appeared much more often, with the interval between the author’s death and eventual publication of a selected correspondence steadily narrowing.  The three-volume edition of Virginia Woolf’s letters was probably the first such collection to reach a wide audience, but author letters now amount to a reliable niche in contemporary publishing.  Because of changes in society and the frank disclosures of modern biography, we’ve become more tolerant of personal failings in our star literary figures. We can listen to them in their off hours, their fits of pique, their bawdy moments, and not be shocked—or, if we are, take it in stride.  Meanwhile, the autobiographical, engaged aspect of contemporary poetry could also be described as “epistolary,” even if the poem isn’t addressed to any single individual. Qualities such as narrative economy, informality, or comic irony are standard for our “letters to the world” (one description Dickinson applied to her poems), and those same qualities are prominent in actual letters.

This book is the second volume in the Cambridge University Press edition of Beckett’s selected letters, the first covering the period 1929 to 1940. Though Beckett’s will stipulated that only that part of the correspondence having to do with his writing should be published after his death, the editors have interpreted the criterion broadly.  Personal letters that never mention his fiction or theatrical works are included, and it’s a good editorial decision.  Authors’ writing selves are never walled off from private concerns or obsessions.  All of it goes into the hopper, as careful reader-critics will eventually come to see, even though the connection may be stylistic only.  Consider this sentence from one of Beckett’s personal letters: “I had a glimpse of Brian over to bury his father looking very married and tired.”  (To Gwynedd Reavey, May 1945.)   Beckett’s thumbnail sketch of Brian Coffey arriving for a Dublin funeral exemplifies characteristic virtues: sharp economy, agile prose rhythm, and unsavage irony. We sense that the son is in imminent danger of following on his father’s heels as he trudges onward under the married condition. In any case, it’s a sentence worth putting in a poem, though we don’t find it in any of Beckett’s. The sometime poet was more memorable in his prose works than the actual poems, as he himself must have realized fairly soon in his development.

The title of this volume is a little misleading in that it gives us only one letter from 1941 and none subsequent until 1945.  As a citizen of the neutral Irish Republic, Beckett was allowed to remain in France during the German Occupation. Abjuring neutral status, he soon went underground and participated in Résistance operations, serving as a courier among several other agents. When one of them was captured and interrogated, the cell of resisters Beckett belonged to had to scatter. He and his companion Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil fled south to Free France, setting up in the little village of Roussillon. Only at the Liberation did he return to the post office and re-establish contact with his friends.

When he did, his correspondents can’t have failed to notice a change in his tone.  The first volume of letters gave us a Beckett often disgruntled and sneering, anxious about money, pleased to be drinking so much, and eager to publish, but rarely managing the trick.  Professional writers will find a perverse reassurance in observing this god of twentieth-century literature, this Nobel laureate, scrambling around from magazine to publishing house like any green careerist, and more often than not swallowing bluntly phrased rejections. But in the long run the record of this early phase makes for uncomfortable reading, even if the ambitious letter-writer’s style is acute and engaging.  Events Beckett had witnessed during the war, or only heard about, seem to have permanently shifted his perspective.  His post-war letters are generally quieter, more patient, perhaps more humane, than those in the earlier volume.  There is also the fact that he began by the late 1940s to have some success as an author, his novels appearing with the new publishing house Les Editions de Minuit. The name means “midnight publications,” and indeed the new house had begun during the Résistance, organized as an underground operation by its founder Jérôme Lindon.  Editorial taste at Les Editions de Minuit gravitated towards French avant-garde fiction, its list eventually including leading figures of the French nouveau roman like Robbe-Grillet. Judging from the letters Beckett wrote to him, Lindon became rather more than his publisher, in fact, something like a close friend.

Readers should be forewarned that more than half the letters included here were written in French. Editor George Craig provides good translations, along with notes alerting us to mistakes in usage or spelling. Beckett’s written French was very good, and not at all the stiff classroom version you might expect from a non-native speaker. He writes a fluent, satiric, slangy idiom that sounds as though it was picked up in the Montparnasse cafés he frequented, like La Coupole or Le Dôme. Also, because his wife didn’t know much English, French was the language the couple used at home, a running conversation that gave Beckett special access to the contemporary language. Occasionally he stumbles over words that look like cognates but actually aren’t; for example, “fastidieux,” which he uses to mean “fastidious,” though the French only apply that adjective to festal celebrations, those involving pomp and display.  His letters often quote tags from classic poems, and for these George Craig chooses extant versions rather than providing new ones of his own. In one instance, when Beckett is quoting Baudelaire’s “Réversibilité,” his footnote cites Richard Howard’s rendering of the poem, which translates “dévouement” as “disgust,” whereas the word actually means “devotion.” Howard no doubt had his reasons for translating with a free hand, but scholarly notes keep to a different standard and should have avoided this inaccuracy.

To regard Beckett’s French-language letters as spring training for the works he later composed in the language is plausible, yet his style in the letters is much more florid than in the novels. Beckett typically develops long sentences freighted with subordinate clauses, and sometimes resorts to a syntax based on the comma splice.  You see these tendencies at their most hectic in the letters to George Duthuit, an art critic and essayist who for a time served as contributing editor to Transition magazine.  Whenever Beckett writes to him, the style is so torrential, so metaphoric, so satiric, you begin to feel he was trying to show off his mastery of French as much as his overall authorial competence. Did Beckett not know that the French prefer a more restrained approach, with short, concentrated sentences rationally composed, subordinate clauses meanwhile kept to a minimum? If he did, he shrugged off the standard and wrote his helter-skelter blue streaks without any detectable qualms.

Beckett finally achieved fame with his play En attendant Godot, which opened at Paris’s Théâtre de Babylone in 1953. It was written in French and only later translated. This volume’s letters track the run-up to the first production, its première, and the gathering groundswell of fame that developed after reviews began appearing.  The alchemical action of publicity transformed Beckett’s life and consciousness just as thoroughly as the disaster of war had done.  Good news for the published and performed writer was not, all things considered, equally good for the letters.  More and more they are written to strangers as he handles business details connected to translation and publication of his work abroad. It’s something I’ve observed before in other collections of author’s letters.  The young and unfamous aspirant most often writes to friends, having both the time and energy for long, detailed, witty updates or closely argued esthetic manifestoes. The mature celebrity, though, has been drained by all the business to be dealt with in correspondence and can’t find the energy or the will to write at length to his friends.  Enjoying widespread recognition, he no longer needs to prove anything by drafting flamboyant displays of intelligence, impressive feats of observation, or polished phrasing.  He saves the best for the work he expects to publish. Not immediately after Godot, but toward the late 1950s Beckett begins to write less vividly.  It is the earlier letters in this collection that most reward attention. To give an example: after Godot opened, Beckettt’s wife attended an early performance without him and noticed that in Act II Roger Blin, the actor playing Pozzo, was gripping his loose, unbelted trousers rather than allowing them to fall down around his ankles, in keeping with stage directions.  This prompted a letter to Blin, in which Beckett insisted that the stage direction should be followed.  His reason for demanding maximum humiliation for the character was this: “The spirit of the play, in so far as it has one, is that nothing is more grotesque than the tragic, and that must be put across right to the end, and particularly at the end.”  In Beckett’s vision, human tragedy is not accorded the grandeur of, say, Sophocles’s Oedipus or Racine’s Andromaque: it unfolds in a series of grotesque situations and actions, so that we laugh and wince simultaneously.

They grow sparse, but Beckett’s letters to personal friends like George Reavey, Mania Perón, and Thomas MacGreevy continue in the volume, providing human relief from the impersonal business correspondence. A special case is the group of letters to Pamela Mitchell, a young American with whom he began a love affair not long after she arrived in Paris to negotiate for USA rights to Godot.  (We aren’t told whether the affair unfolded with or without Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil’s permission.)  After Mitchell’s return home, Beckett sends a number of letters to her, always with an affectionate regard and lightness of touch.  Here is an excerpt from one he composed in March of 1955 at his country retreat near Ussy in the Île de France: “Trees surviving, even the two shy apples showing signs of life.  Shall soon have to buy a mechanical scyther-mower, never get round the grass otherwise. Visited by partridges now daily, about midday. Queer birds. They hop, listen, hop, listen, never seem to eat. Wretched letter, forgive me. Hope you can read it all the same.”  Years pass, the two aren’t reunited, and Beckett gently lets Mitchell down. But the brief idyll gives us a sense of Beckett as lover, and the impression, despite the relationship’s unconventional context, has a graceful appeal.  After all, Pamela Mitchell knew that he was married right at the start.  Eventually fame takes its toll, (as all fulfilled dreams must), and the later Beckett settles into the psychological armchair he found most comfortable, that is, despairing negation.  One letter to Mitchell puts it this way: “The notion of happiness has no meaning at all for me now. All I want is to be in the silence.”

To her he also wrote,“Pen drying up too, like myself.” And,“Wish I could discover why my cursed prose won’t go into English.”  It’s a comment that makes us want to ask, “But why did you write it in French to begin with?” Beckett gave several answers, one delivered in private to a friend: “To get myself noticed.” But that must, at least in part, be a joke. To interviewers, he answered that French was an escape from English, which he knew too well to achieve the bare-bones stylistic effects he desired.  Another way he put it was, “à fin d’avoir moins de style” [in order to have less style].  We can see that it would be inconsistent to write about destitution and despair in an abundant, luxuriant idiom. What he needed was a blunt instrument, and colloquial, unliterary French gave him that.

Yet we still want to go back a step further and uncover the forces in his experience that drove him to prefer near-absolute negativity as his essential perspective on experience.  A list of possible explanations might include the absence of any sort of religious consolation; lasting effect of years of poverty and neglect; exile from a homeland he detested yet also missed; the death of parents and friends; knowledge of horrific things that had happened during the war; the loss of youth, health, and any expectation that human love might be redemptive for him.  All of these are perfectly plausible. Yet there are purely artistic explanations as well.  His close association with Joyce must have demonstrated to him that nothing more in the direction of excess, linguistic fireworks, and elaborate construction could be done. Joyce had got there first, and Beckett wasn’t so full of confidence as to compete with him on the turf the older Irishman had made his own.  Instead, Beckett turned 180 degrees, charting a course in the direction of austerity, of stylistic minimalism.  It’s also apposite to consider a citation from Francesco De Sancis that Beckett included in his brief study of Proust: “Chi non ha la forza di uccidere la realtá non ha la forza di crearla.” [Whoever lacks the strength to murder reality will not have the strength to create it.] In order to write, Beckett first had to wipe the slate clean and wipe out conventional notions about the nature of human reality. Doing so he was able to transform pessimism into a creative source, a nay-saying Muse who guided him to his masterworks. Yet he had to wait a long time before the letter announcing acceptance and acclaim arrived; and by then it was too late.