Ian Sansom

All work, many plays

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

‘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.

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