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Samuel Beckett’s letters reveal a fiercely private workoholic

The fourth and final volume of Beckett’s letter – 1966-1989

1 October 2016

9:00 AM

1 October 2016

9:00 AM

The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume 4, 1966–1989 Samuel Beckett. Edited by George Craig, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Dan Gunn and Lois More Overbeck

Cambridge University Press, pp.944, £29.99

‘Krapping away here to no little avail,’ writes Beckett to the actor Patrick Magee in September 1969. To ‘no little avail’, note, not to ‘little or no’: there is a difference. It’s the difference that Beckett makes — I can’t go on, I’ll go on, and all that. This final volume of Beckett’s letters contains much krapping away to both no little and little or no avail. ‘Perhaps my best years are gone,’ remarks Krapp in the play, ‘But I wouldn’t want them back.’

Well, here they are, like it not: 9,000 pages of letters whittled down to just under 800 pages of text by a quartet of editors — George Craig, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Dan Gunn, Lois More Overbeck — who have devoted the past goodness knows how many years to the task of putting together volumes 1 (1929–1940), 2 (1941–1956), 3 (1957–1965) and now 4 (1966–1989) of a lifetime’s correspondence that stands as a necessary complement to Beckett’s published work.

We already know from previous volumes exactly what Beckett thought of these sorts of efforts. To the theatre director Alan Schneider: ‘I do not like publication of letters.’ To his American publisher Barney Rosset: ‘I dislike the ventilation of private documents. These throw no light on my work.’ Ah, but they do, of course they do, and he didn’t actually dislike it that much, agreeing in fact to the publication of letters ‘having bearing on my work’, which has certainly given the editors plenty of leeway. As in previous volumes there are gaps: there is barely a mention of — never mind so much as a postcard to — his wife Suzanne Déchevaux-Dumesnil. But as in previous volumes we learn a lot about his work and his ideas. In volume 1 there were the revealing letters to the poet Tom MacGreevy, in volume 2 to the art critic Georges Duthuit, and in volume 3 to his collaborator and lover Barbara Bray. There’s perhaps nothing and no one quite as important in this volume, but if there’s not as much having direct bearing on his work, there’s still plenty about him bearing up and bearing his work.


He remains hectically, miserably busy. ‘Forgive delay in answering yours of Jan 18,’ he writes to Alan Schneider in February 1966. ‘Have been up to my eyes since Xmas. Preparing and shooting here film of Play, then London for Eh Joe with Jack and a record and poetry reading with same. Back now finishing film and rehearsing new show at Odéon. Play, Come & Go, Pinget’s Hypothèse and two Ionesco shorts — Délire à Deux & La Lacune.’ When he’s not working he’s busy refusing work: declining Harvard over something or other, refusing to write an article for Esquire about the Democratic convention in Chicago, putting off Polanski from doing a film of Godot and generally ‘Fighting off TV louts on various fronts — successfully so far.’ The humiliations, the embarrassments and the frustrations never cease. ‘Abbey massacred PLAY in a big way. Have just refused them Godot. They don’t seem to have a clue.’ When he learns that the critic Richard Ellmann is ‘teaching’ Murphy at Yale he writes to a correspondent, ‘Keep off me, Dick, keep off me.’

Too late: the Dicks are all over him. These are the years when he is showered with honours: invitations to appear here, there and everywhere; enquiries and entreaties from scholars and academics; obligations to direct and oversee productions all over the world; and of course the Nobel. News of the award — which he did his best to refuse — reaches him while he’s on holiday in Tunisia and having trouble with his dentures (‘threatens to collapse any moment which would make plate unwearable and an end of speech & mastication’). ‘Should get on with translation but too overcome by mail to answer,’ he writes to Barbara Bray. ‘And by the effort now & then to look pleased.’

He doesn’t try too hard to look pleased. In a letter in reply to the critic Raymond Federman asking for an interview he writes, ‘No views to inter. Forgive.’ In another, to someone asking about the influence of Strindberg on his work, ‘Merci de votre lettre. Je connais mal le théâtre de Strindberg et ne pense pas en avoir été influencé.’ To Kenneth J.H. Reid from Toronto — who apparently ‘cultivated famous persons with Irish backgrounds’, note the editors, nicely — he replies, ‘I am sorry to disappoint you, but I have nothing of interest to say on the subject of bikes and their place in the social life of Dublin at that time.’ And to the critic James Knowlson, who has sent him a six-page questionnaire, which Beckett dutifully fills in, he warns, ‘I simply know next to nothing about my work in this way, as little as a plumber in the history of hydraulics.’

Nonetheless, the sources of his power are still here and apparent — and always under threat. His modest country house and writing retreat at Ussy, where the tranquillity is threatened first by burglars and then by a proposed motorway. The occasional trips back to Ireland: ‘The short stay in Ireland was very moving. Wicklow more beautiful than ever. I understood even better than before the need to stay, the need to return, and was glad to get out.’ And the dogged determination simply to work: ‘Work hard labour & not much comfort, but a great deadener. Hate the thought and sight of it but must keep it going.’

In Malone Dies, Malone wonders ‘what my last words will be, written, the others do not endure, but vanish, into thin air.’ Well, now we know, alas, more or less. The last letter included in this volume is from 19 November 1989, a month before his death, to a filmmaker working on a script of Murphy. Beckett replies to the enquiry:

I am ill and cannot help. Forgive.
So go ahead without me.
Best wishes to you & all concerned.
Sam Beckett

Swear to God I shed a tear.

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