The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume II, 1941-56 edited by George Craig, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Dan Gunn and Lois More Overbeck

CUP, pp.791, 30

The die was miscast from the start, more’s the pity. As we reach the halfway point in this massy four-volume edition of the letters of Samuel Beckett, I cannot stifle a small sigh or whimper, of the type exhaled by one of those Beckett characters buried up to their necks. And there is no one to blame but the author of the letters. For it was Beckett himself who in his letter of 18 March, 1985, gave his blessing to Martha Fehsenfeld ‘to edit my correspondence in the sense agreed on, i.e. its reduction to those passages only having bearing on my work’. So the tussle began and continued long after the author’s death four years later.

 What did ‘only having bearing on my work’ mean exactly? Jérôme Lindon, Beckett’s loyal French publisher and his literary executor, maintained that the letters published should be restricted to those which specifically mentioned Beckett’s individual works or his oeuvre. Nothing else was to be included. Even after Lindon died in 2001 and Beckett’s nephew Edward took over as literary executor, the argument went on, and goes on. The editors believe, for example, that Beckett’s frequent, at times obsessive, moanings about his health — his feet, his heart palpitations, his assorted boils and cysts — are of direct relevance to his work. The estate of Samuel Beckett disagrees.

Sam himself would, I fancy, have chuckled a dry chuckle at the thought of his pallbearers wrangling over his pustules. He does say, though, in a letter of 1955 to the young French avant-garde novelist Robert Pinget that ‘I have always been uncompromising and I have sometimes regretted it.’ Might he perhaps have rued his decision on the letters if he had lived to see the trouble it has caused?

‘Reduction’ was the word he used, and reduction is what we get. Only the thinnest ripple of jus sizzles at the bottom of the pan: 40 per cent of all the letters collected (as against 60 per cent in Volume I), and by no means the 40 per cent that most of us would have chosen. Page after page is filled with the minutiae of publishing and theatre business: ‘Dear Mr Bordas, Enclosed are the two contracts duly signed. Sincerely Yours Sam Beckett’ — that sort of thing, and then the same text translated into English if he wrote the original in French, which is more and more the case in this volume. The notes are if anything even more punctilious than the translations. After a letter thanking his Dutch translator for the MS of her version of Wachten op Godot, we are given the full cast list of the first performance in the Netherlands. It may indicate a deplorable lack of curiosity on my part, but my blood does not quicken at the intelligence that Richard Flink played Vladimir and Gerard Hartkamp played Estragon, or possibly vice versa.

And what a lot we lose in exchange: Beckett’s brief wartime messages after he had joined the Resistance (the 1941 in the subtitle is misleading — the first letter here is dated January 1945), for example, and most of his letters to friends, family and lovers, except those in which some passing mention of a new publication or production licenses the editors to include the whole letter. The curious thing is that James Knowlson in his wonderful biography, Damned to Fame, published only seven years after Beckett died and undertaken with his full approval, quotes freely from all of these.

Nothing could be more touching or more revealing of Beckett’s thoughtfulness, fearfulness and capacity for affection than the series of letters he wrote from Dublin, where he was watching his brother Frank die of lung cancer, to Pamela Mitchell, a much younger Vassar graduate with whom he had a brief affair in 1954:

Waiting is not so bad if you can fidget about. This is like waiting tied to a chair … For me things must go on as they are. I have not enough life in me even to want to change them …The notion of happiness has no meaning at all for me now. All I want is to be in the silence. Don’t imagine I don’t feel your misery. I think of it every hour … You will be happy one day and thank me for not involving you any deeper in my horrors.

Hard to argue, I think, that all of this has no bearing upon the plays Beckett is about to write, Endgame, Krapp’s Last Tape and Happy Days. Yet there is none of it in here.

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At times, the news of Beckett’s life that does blow in must be somewhat bewildering to a new reader. He ends one letter:

Right, off to bed. So as not to sleep. To listen to the darkness, the silence, the solitude and the dead. Another glass.

Yet a couple of paragraphs before this glum envoi he slips in the fact that he is about to undertake a 60-kilometre bicycle ride, and he also says that he wants to fix up a tennis doubles game. Elsewhere, this depleted melancholiac can scarcely contain his excitement that he is being taken to the Lord’s Test against the Australians. Beckett was not simply a sports fan; he was an athlete of rare gifts: amazingly light-heavweight champion of Portora Royal School, a useful all-rounder for the university cricket team (on tour in England he played in a couple of first-class matches against Northants and so famously became the only Nobel prizewinner to appear in Wisden). His first love was golf, which he played at Carrickmines and Foxrock with his father or the club pro, the stout-loving Jem Barrett. In his prime Beckett played to a handicap of seven, better than Ian Fleming, not as good as Patrick Hamilton or Malcolm Lowry. He was a dab at chess and bridge too.

That starved hawk with the terrible brow seemed almost bodiless (he had an uncle who was more so and was known as Eyebrows Beckett). When he stopped digging in his garden outside Paris to pose for the camera, it was hard to tell the rake from the gardener. Yet he had seized the world in his day and played ball with it, and not just in his youth either. It is important, I think, to understand the richness of Beckett’s engagement with the physical, because that is what helps to give his abstraction such a powerful intensity.

There is a similar intensity about the way he turns away from English and embraces the French language and France itself. His companion, later wife, Suzanne, spoke almost no English. His plays were written in French and first rehearsed and produced on the French stage. He spoke of ‘the queer kind of English that my queer French deserves’. By the early 1950s he felt that ‘my English is going off noticeably’ — mon anglais pâlissant — and he found it harder and harder to translate his own work into English, although he wouldn’t let anyone else do it. He increasingly reached for the French faux ami: ‘emission’ for ‘broadcast’, ‘seasonable’ for ‘seasonal’, and conversely in French, ‘facilités’ for ‘facultés’.

This gradual frenchifying was deliberate. Beckett was trying to escape the fatal profusion of his native Irish English — ‘horrible language, which I still know too well’ — and to devise for himself a strange, heightened but also impoverished tongue, rather like the alexandrines of Racine, whose tragedies he adored. He offered his German translator what he called a clue: ‘the need to be ill equipped’. A modern restatement really of Théophile Gautier’s assertion that art came out more beautiful when expressed through a difficult medium such as marble, enamel or verse.

This could only be done by leaving Ireland in every sense: ‘for me to be in the streets of Paris is to feel how much I need France and the French way of life and how utterly impossible it would be for me to live in Ireland’ — fragment of a letter which sneaked into a footnote, as so many of his most revealing comments do. At times, one cannot help feeling the oddity of this upstairs-downstairs division in which Beckett’s official literary and theatrical dealings take place in large print while down below in smaller type the human being loves and suffers.

Again and again, he protests his hatred of Ireland, his loathing of the romantic claptrap of the Celtic twilight, his fear of ‘letting myself be sucked in by this exquisite morass’. He recalls to Pamela Mitchell ‘the old Irish slogan “Die in Ireland”. It’s a dangerous place to come back to for any other purpose.’ Yet Ireland is where all the resonances come from. And in the most moving passages scattered through these letters, it is Ireland he goes back to: the running on of Irish talk, the cartwheels on the stony roads of his boyhood, the misery he felt on Killiney Strand.

During a visit to his mother in Foxrock, he writes to his friend Georges Duthuit:

I went with my mother to church last Sunday, a distant church, so that she could find the pillar behind which my father would hide his noddings-off, in the evening, his physical restlessness, his portly man’s refusal to kneel … I keep watching my mother’s eyes, never so blue, so stupefied, so heartrending, eyes of an endless childhood, that of old age. Let us get there rather earlier, while there are still refusals we can make. I think these are the first eyes that I have seen. I have no wish to see any others. I have all I need for loving and weeping.

What could be more romantic, or, for want of a better word, more Irish?

 It is Beckett’s long and eloquent exchanges with Duthuit which are the highpoint of this book (and form a dummy run for Three Dialogues with Georges Duthuit, published in 1949). Duthuit was a memorable figure, an anglophile art critic described by Peter Quennell as

a large handsome man with the chest of a Percheron horse who could seldom resist an invitation to take the floor, the Anglo-Saxon idea of what a Frenchman ought to be — tempestuous, high-spirited, eloquent, irascible, demonstrative.
 

 Beckett was fascinated and part-seduced by Duthuit’s obsession, that Western art had taken a fatal wrong turning as far back as Giotto when painters began to concentrate on accurately representing reality. I am not sure, though, how far this theory of a complete opposition between representation and true art really fits the case of writers like Beckett or Joyce who overwhelm us by the brilliant vivacity of their recollections of the visible and audible world. Modernists of this sort may not set out to represent, but they do re-present. They mince up reality to produce startling new effects, but it has to be the best mince, fresh, and from a quality butcher.
 
 Beckett repeatedly professes to be disgusted by his own work. But he defends it stubbornly against anyone who wants to mangle or vulgarise it or turn it into a romp or a covert religious tract. When Sir Ralph Richardson asks for a curriculum vitae of Pozzo before he joins the cast of Godot, Beckett tells him firmly that ‘all I knew about Pozzo was in the text, that if I had known more, I would have put it in the text’, and, ‘if by Godot I had meant God, I would have said God and not Godot. This seemed to disappoint him greatly.’

Beckett warns too that ‘the farce side is neither to be hurried through nor to be overdone’. The audience should be made to laugh but not all the time and always in a rather nervous or embarrassed way — le rire jaune. This is a warning that could have been taken to heart by some recent productions of Godot.

 In this second volume, the editors rightly tell us that we see Beckett shed much of his earlier bitterness and rancour. He complains less about his own health and about other people and the bad books they write. He begins to blame himself for the things that go wrong. In short, he is well on the way to becoming the wise and saintly hermit to whom the modern age makes its pilgrimage. In the process, we lose some of the zap and tickle that made Murphy one of the funniest novels of the 20th century, but we gain the deeply affecting passages of Happy Days.

Reduced though they may be, these letters give us enough of Beckett’s company to remind us how indomitable and irresistible he was. He was, I suppose, half-talking to himself when he encouraged the struggling young Robert Pinget: ‘Don’t lose heart. Plug yourself into despair and sing it.’ All he needed was to make a space to sing in.  

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book review, Letters, Non-fiction, Samuel beckett, Writers