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More gossip with less art?

The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1929-40, Volume I, edited by Martha Dow Fehsenfeld and Lois More Overbeck

25 February 2009

12:00 AM

25 February 2009

12:00 AM

The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1929-40, Volume I Martha Dow Fehsenfeld and Lois More Overbeck

CUP, pp.781, 30

To say that this first volume of Samuel Beckett’s collected letters is a puzzle and a disappointment is to suggest that one might have had specific expectations of it. Where did this cryptic and poetic writer come from? What did so very affectless an author sound like when he was talking in his own voice to his intimates? And, considering the remote relationship most of his writing bears to the world, how did he look at it? Added to this specific anticipation is the knowledge that Beckett, in tthe Thirties, had an exceptionally interesting life. He was an intimate of the Joyce household, trusted by all members of it. He played an important role in the composition and development of Finnegans Wake. He travelled in Germany in the historically crucial years of 1937 and 1938; his subsequent war record in the French Resistance might lead one to suppose that he would have something decisive to say about the Third Reich on the ground. And, perhaps quite trivially but certainly of human interest, he was a surprisingly accomplished cricketer — famously the only Nobel prize-winner to appear in Wisden. The letters, so far, disappoint on every one of these grounds. There is only one letter to Joyce here, a formal and respectful one of no great interest. There are only passing references to Finnegans Wake, and to the difficulties the Joyce family faced in the 1930s, particularly concerning Lucia Joyce’s mental illness. Amazingly, the detailed letters relating to his German travels are almost entirely about paintings he has seen — often acute comments, but the silence on other subjects is positively deafening. And there is nothing whatsoever about cricket. The lack of gossip, of healthy human interest, makes the first volume of these letters rather heavy-going. There is a possibility, however, that some odd requirements placed on the editors have excluded some interesting material. Beckett, towards the end of his life, stipulated that the only letters to be published should be those that illuminated his work. After his death, his literary executor, Jerome Lindon, interpreted this to mean that only letters which referred to his published work should be included. Subsequent to Lindon’s own death, Beckett’s nephew has interpreted the strictures more loosely, in discussion with the editors. Nevertheless, there are some undesirable restrictions in place here. They begin exactly at the point at which Beckett starts to publish, with nothing from his childhood or youth (and nothing, to harp on somewhat, regarding his brief first-class cricketing career). Have letters which merely pass on observation, human information or gossip been omitted because of Beckett’s peculiar strictures? It is possible, but I doubt it. When human beings enter these letters, even considerable human events, they do so shyly, in passing. We never find out what the immense row was which led Beckett’s mother to leave the house, and her son to declare he didn’t mind if he never spoke to her again. When Beckett’s future wife appears, we don’t learn the circumstances; she is just ‘a French girl also whom I am fond of’ — she was 39, and Beckett was being gallant. I don’t believe he was the sort of person to pass on personal information about others, even to his most regular and familiar correspondents. So what do we get here? There is an immense amount, particularly to his friend and regular correspondent, Thomas McGreevy, about painting and literature. At first, this is the familiar style of the highly clever and polyglot young man, showing off and exulting in his cleverness. The ruddy Vico seems to be a dead end. If I could merely listen to him talking philosophy or Motin & the precieux, things would be easy. But all his old anti-isms are flourishing and I am tired of them: you know what they are — priests and soldiers & the Romantics — mainly. And then the enduring & unendurable QUIP, far worse than the Giraudoux astuce. A few hundred pages of this make for tough-going, though I dare say there are some nuggets here for the gigantic Beckett industry to feast on. More amusing for the ordinary reader are some really unnecessarily extensive disquisitions about his health. It is odd that the man who was shy about saying anything about his girlfriend could happily write to Mary Manning Howe that ‘a large lump [has] suddenly come between wind & water, where the soil was so fertile that only two endurable positions remained, both fully recumbent.’ Any writer, too, will enjoy Beckett’s vituperation against the publishers who kept turning down Murphy, though it must be said that he doesn’t seem to have needed publication to make a substantial reputation. When he was stabbed in the street by a stranger in 1938, with nothing but More Pricks than Kicks to his name, newspapers in Paris and Dublin still mysteriously described him as a well-known Irish writer. What one really hoped for from the letters of the young Beckett were, first, some kind of intimation of the huge wit and gusto which make Murphy and Watt so irresistible — a ‘riot of highbrow fun’, as an early reviewer very truly put it. That, I’m afraid, just isn’t here, and you have to conclude that Beckett was not one of those writers, like Waugh, whose comic invention was perpetually spilling over into all he wrote. Secondly, one hoped for some kind of anticipation of the later masterpieces, and here, with some ingenuity, there are traces to be found — a pair of American women with ‘foreskin hats’, or this: ‘Through the wall come female Danish voices, two Jutland tarts in colloquy. Pure chirping. They should be on a funeral urn.’ There, for once, speaks the future author of Not I. For the rest of it, we read the blurb’s assertion that Beckett was ‘the only writer who can sum up the agonies and ecstasies of the 20th century’ with some amazement. On this beautifully edited and annotated evidence, he had very little to say about it.


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