The Letters of Samuel Beckett 1941-1956, by Samuel Beckett, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, George Craig, Dan Gunn and Lois More Overbeck (eds), Cambridge University Press, 886 pp, £30.00, ISBN: 978-0521867948
The second volume of Beckett’s correspondence, covering the years 1941-1956 which saw his emergence as a writer of stature, comes to us courtesy of Cambridge University Press complete with four pages of praise from the reviews of Volume 1. Variously described as “an elating cultural moment” (New York Times Sunday Book Review), “a heroic achievement by the editors” (The Irish Times) and a “cornucopia” (The Times), most commentators welcomed the scrupulous editorial framework which editors George Craig, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Dan Gunn and Lois More Overbeck have given each letter. Minute annotations are provided, together with careful translation to English of those letters written in French or German. Nothing is left to chance and light is thrown on the recondite allusiveness in which Beckett often cloaked his 1930s correspondence.
The punctilious attention to detail continues in Volume 2, but there are some differences. Instead of including 60 per cent of the extant correspondence as in Volume 1, the editors find space for only 40 per cent. This is partly due to the additional space needed for George Craig’s excellent translations from Beckett’s French since this is famously Beckett’s medium during the “siege in the room” which this volume charts. Beckett’s chief correspondent is no longer Thomas MacGreevy but the art critic Georges Duthuit (1891-1973) with whom Beckett composed “Three Dialogues” and whom he used as a sparring partner for his radical ideas on visual and verbal representation in art and literature.
The tone of the correspondence also differs, with Beckett’s concern for others, his sympathy and generosity (as for example towards the widowed Mania Péron and her two sons Michel and Alexis) being a keynote of the volume, his own complaints, a lugubrious background grouse-against-the-world, tempered by his evident willingness to alleviate the burdens of his friends. And, of course, midway through this volume, his own life fortunes are dramatically transformed with the first production of En attendant Godot at the Théâtre de Babylone, Paris on January 5th, 1953. These are the years when Beckett was “damned to fame”. They also include the trauma of the Occupation, from which almost no correspondence survives; the first letter reproduced here is a card dated Feburary 17th, 1945 addressed to Beckett’s family in Ireland and sent care of the Irish Legation in Paris. There are the privations of the aftermath of war, during which Beckett and his partner, Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, lived in particular penury at their small apartment at 6 rue des Favorites in the 15th arrondissement, but where Beckett enjoyed an intensive period of creativity composing, of course: Molloy, Malone meurt, L’Innommable, En attendant Godot as well as the nouvelles (La Fin, Le Calmant, L’Expulsé and Premier Amour) and Mercier and Camier, Eleuthéria and Textes pour Rien, all in French.
On the biographical plane, three other important events punctuate this volume: the death of Beckett’s mother in August 1950, the death of his elder brother Frank in September 1954 and his increasing tendency to withdraw from Paris and seek refuge in the village of Ussy-sur-Marne where, in 1953, his cottage was completed. Thus these letters are increasingly sent from Ussy rather than rue des Favorites with Beckett variously declaring himself: “not very well”, “feeble”, “uncomfortable”, “in a bad way”, “green and rotten”, “spineless” or “dismal” according to his mood. Indeed what Beckett later called “the fearful symptoms” (Ohio Impromptu) are evoked more than once in his letters from Ussy. Concluding a letter to Mania Péron on August 28th, 1951, Beckett writes: “Right, off to bed. So as not to sleep. To listen to the darkness, the silence, the solitude and the dead” while an earlier letter to Georges Duthuit (July 20th, 1951) refers to “the images that insomnia brings – no, I prefer nightmares”. Beckett the haunted insomniac, familiar from Volume 1, dwells in this volume too and just as Beckett enumerated his physical and mental symptoms to MacGreevy in Volume 1, here he reiterates his “unrelieved wretchedness” to his closest correspondents.
Now that we have reached the halfway point in this monumental four-volume selection of the letters (out of 15,000 in total), it may be worth reflecting on what has and will be accomplished in this undertaking. It is probably fair to say that the trajectory of Beckett’s life is too well known and the extant letters too widely quoted in James Knowlson’s authoritative biography for new revelations to be forthcoming. Indeed, in some ways, Knowlson was granted a freer hand than the editors of this volume since he quotes from letters written between 1945 and 1956 which do not appear here. The false distinction drawn up by Beckett’s executors between what has relevance to his work and what is extraneous and personal has handicapped the Beckett letters project from the outset. Thus, much of his “business” correspondence with Jérôme Lindon and other publishers, translators and directors is reproduced, some of it revealing, much of it dispensable. Meanwhile, some beautifully revealing letters, freely available courtesy of Knowlson, are omitted, such as much of Beckett’s correspondence with his American lover, Pamela Mitchell. For example, the following excerpt from a letter dated August 6th, 1954 is partially quoted as a footnote, but the full letter from which this quotation comes is not reproduced:
Soon the leaves will be turning, it’ll be winter before I’m home. And then? It’ll have to be very easy whatever it is. I can’t face any more difficulties, and I can’t bear the thought of giving any more pain, make what sense you can of that, it’s all old age and weakness, why will you not believe me?
To say that this is “not relevant” to Beckett’s work, in its humane, tender and stoic tone and content is not consistent with any realistic view of the relationship between life and work. Similarly, Beckett’s vigil over his brother’s deathbed, which is related candidly to Mitchell in this period (summer 1954) and clearly conveyed in Knowlson’s biography, is only patchily conveyed here. Indeed the link which Knowlson persuasively makes, thanks to the letters to Mitchell he quotes, between the death of Beckett’s brother and the genesis of Endgame is not so evident in this selection because of the editorial policy. Therefore, what we have is a truncated volume of letters with many crucial omissions, omissions which are perhaps more regrettable than in Volume 1, where important cuts were also made.
If Philip Hensher, writing in The Guardian (December 9th, 2011) is able to claim that “whatever their relative status as writers, Beckett’s published letters so far have a tenth the interest and value of Evelyn Waugh’s”, it is partly because of this misguided editorial policy and also because the “business” side of Beckett’s life, which so many of these letters are drawn from, has little of the personal candour and compassion which he reveals elsewhere, notwithstanding his richly diverse dealings with Lindon and others. It is true that his letters to Georges Duthuit, in particular, are both personal and pertinent to the work. But what is one to make of the following, written in July 1951 to Duthuit, which mixes gardening chores, philosophy, biology, nature and personal grief in an entirely tangled and unsystematic way:
Behind the wheelbarrow, painted by Suzanne in red, I do not think of Pascal, ever since the article by the biologist Rostand in the Table Ronde. Never seen so many butterflies in such worm-state, this little central cylinder, the only flesh, is the worm. First flights of the young swallows, the parents who feed them on the wing. Yesterday, about 2p.m., a year ago my mother was dying, not even capable of forgetting that, or of thinking of it too late.
Such is the nature of letter-writing: it is an unsystematic art which blends, necessarily, the personal and the quotidian with the literary and the philosophical. Trying to draw a dividing line between these across a lifetime of correspondence is not possible. Although the editors claim that their “selection has been more straightforward” than with Volume 1, owing to “an abundance of work-related letters” and that “there remain only a very few letters which the editors would have included but which were not approved” by the Estate, this begins to look somewhat questionable once Knowlson’s coverage of the same period is compared with this selection.
However regrettable these lacunae may be, there still remains much to be grateful for in this second volume. The letters to Duthuit match those to MacGreevy in Volume 1 as a kind of intellectual fencing match in which art is the occasion to express the impossibility or futility of expression. The epistemological uncertainty of Beckett’s prose and the philosophical paradoxes of “Three Dialogues” are articulated more fully here as, for example, Beckett to Duthuit in August 1948:
I shall never know clearly enough how far space and time are unutterable, and me caught up somewhere in there […] One may as well dare to be plain and say that not knowing is not only not knowing what one is, but also where one is, and what change to wait for, and how to get out of wherever one is, and how to know, when it seems as if something is moving, which apparently was not moving before, what it is that is moving, that was not moving before, and so on.
In this, and similar passages, one hears the thoughts of Molloy as he speculates on the “extreme complexity” (Molloy) of the astral movements he witnesses at Lousses’s house. Instead of advancing a little further along what Beckett in “Three Dialogues” calls “a certain order on the plane of the feasible”, Beckett postulates another axis of being, perception and creation which turns away from conventional expression “weary of its puny exploits” to express a kind of radical will-lessness or abulia even in the act of writing or painting. The phraseology of ‘Three Dialogues’ is echoed in Beckett’s letters to Duthuit and one can easily see how Beckett “wrote up” the Dialogues for publication in transition in December 1949:
Not to have to express oneself, nor get involved with whatever kind of maximum, in one’s numberless, valueless, achievementless world; that is a game worth trying all the same, a necessity worth trying, and one which will never work, if that works.
Beckett’s love of the paradox and the self-cancelling doubt which is the signature of his mature prose is fully articulated to Duthuit and we can understand, reading these letters, why when he finally found a publisher (Éditions de Minuit) prepared to publish his three novels (Molloy, Malone meurt and L’Innommable), it was for the last of the three which he waited impatiently to appear.
Perhaps the most important of these letters to Duthuit has already appeared in print, notably in the 2006 book Beckett After Beckett (ed SE Gontarski and A Uhlmann, University of Florida Press). Dated March 9th, 1949, it is one of the key letters in the collection where Beckett spells out how he finds, in Bram van Velde’s painting, “the absence of relations of whatever kind”. Just as in his 1931 monograph on Proust, or in his comments to MacGreevy on Jack B Yeats or Cézanne, Beckett is most revealing about himself when the “occasion” for expression is something or someone other than himself. As he writes to Duthuit:
And I shall tend irresistibly to pull Bram’s case over towards my own, since that is the condition of being in it and talking about it […] We have waited a long time for an artist who is brave enough, is at ease enough with the great tornadoes of intuition, to grasp that the break with the outside world entails the break with the inside world, that there are no replacement relations for naïve relations, that what are called outside and inside are one and the same.
We see here perhaps a mature formulation of “the breakdown of the object” and “rupture of the lines of communication” already postulated in Beckett’s 1934 review of “Recent Irish Poetry”. Such a rupture is, as Beckett gleefully suggests in “Three Dialogues”, barely sustainable, putting the subject in “an unenviable situation, familiar to psychiatrists”. As Beckett’s post-Trilogy prose suggests, there is no easy way to “go on” in this predicament.
There is, we may suggest, a certain heroism in this position which also constitutes the paradoxical dynamic of Beckett’s prose. The “onwardness” found there inhabits a plane of indigence which Beckett has written himself into, “illogically”, beyond the “plane of the feasible”. If anyone doubts the sincerity of what Disjecta calls Beckett’s “Words About Painters”, we find the following letter of December 1951 written to Bram van Velde and his partner Marthe Arnaud-Kuntz:
Above all, let Bram not get the idea that I’m moving away from him. The very reverse. The farther I sink down, the more I feel right beside him, feel how much, in spite of the differences, our ventures come together, in the unthought and the harrowing. And if there had to be for me a soul-mate, I make bold to say that it would be his soul and no other […] Bram is my great familiar. In work and in the impossibility of working.
As one reads these letters, one is struck as much by certain continuities in Beckett’s career as by the very obvious discontinuities. There are indeed important turning points: Beckett’s resignation from Trinity in 1931, his abandonment of Ireland in 1937, his wartime experiences in the Resistance and the flagrant success of En attendant Godot in 1953. Equally, Beckett’s writings show an uneven and unpredictable line of development. There is a gulf between More Pricks Than Kicks (1934) and the more achieved prose of Murphy (1938) and similarly between these and the wartime novel Watt and the Trilogy and post-Trilogy prose. Having said this, it is apparent that philosophical positions laid out, often in obscure publications, in the 1930s, hold good for the mature writer. By the same token, Beckett was a loyal and tenacious friend and correspondent so that when he re-emerges after the war, he picks up with his old network of associates and friends – George Reavey, the van Veldes, Con Leventhal, Ethna McCarthy as well as with George Belmont/Pelorson, whose wartime record contrasted with that of Beckett – in a way which demonstrates Beckett’s well-known generosity of spirit, sometimes absent in Volume 1 of the Letters. At the same time, this volume shows Beckett developing a new network of friends – publishers like Jérôme Lindon and Barney Rosset, actors like Roger Blin, translators like Richard Seaver and Elmar Tophoven – whom Beckett trusted to interpret, publish and promote his work. The period 1945-1956 charts this re-emergence (with 1945 being the real starting date of the book), which is also a period of prodigious professional growth and artistic achievement.
Nonetheless, as letter after letter testifies, for Beckett “the essential doesn’t change” and a deeply ingrained pessimism, tempered by sympathy and loyalty, pervades these pages, as one would perhaps expect it to.
So much for Beckett the man, but do these letters reveal new things about Beckett the writer during this, the most fertile period of his career? Undoubtedly the exchanges with Duthuit will provide scholars with illuminating background to Beckett’s major novels in French. By contrast, he speaks with less intellectual freedom to other correspondents. In line with his admonition in Watt, “no symbols where none intended”, Beckett cautioned more than one theatre director against reading too much into his plays. Thus writing to German director Carlheinz Caspari in July 1953, he states:
If my play contains expressionist elements, it is without my knowledge […] Nor is it, for me, a symbolist play, I cannot stress that too much. First and foremost, it is a question of something that happens, almost a routine, and it is this dailiness and this materiality, in my view, that need to be brought out. That at any moment Symbols, Ideas, Forms might show up, this is for me secondary.
From the outset of Godot’s popularity, therefore, Beckett discouraged actors and directors from asking the inevitable questions: Who is Godot? Who are Pozzo and Lucky? What are these four characters doing on stage? Beckett’s consistent response was to deny all privileged insight and to claim that if he knew the answers to these questions, he would have answered them in the play. Towards the end of Volume 2, we see the beginnings of his revealing correspondence with his American director Alan Schneider already accessible from Maurice Harmon’s edition No Author Better Served published in 1998.
Beckett’s famous reticence and his reluctance to grant interviews was not always consistent so that, on occasion, he would drop hints or provide skeletal background information about himself to curious individuals. Hence, amid many uninspiring letters concerning contracts, proofs, translations and productions, we find a few unexpected gems. Among these one could include some notes on Godot written in January 1952 to one Michel Polac of Radiodiffusion Française for broadcast with a radio excerpt of that play in which Beckett claims, somewhat disingenuously: “I have no ideas about the theatre. I know nothing about it. I do not go to it.” Beckett was also happy to correct the misapprehensions of a German translator, Hans Naumann, in a letter of February 17th, 1954:
Since 1945 I have written only in French. Why this change? It was not deliberate. It was in order to change, to see, nothing more complicated than that, in appearance at least […] You may put me in the dismal category of those who, if they had to act in full awareness of what they were doing, would never act. Which does not preclude there being urgent reasons, for this change.
Such morsels as this remind us of Beckett’s cryptic ways of helping, or at least not hindering, those who contacted him about his work, especially if they were introduced via Jérôme Lindon or another trusted friend. We can take note, for example, of Beckett’s cheerful assistance to Niall Montgomery, an old Dublin acquaintance, in a letter dated December 2nd, 1953, for an article he was writing about Beckett’s work. Equally, we find Beckett dispensing liberal advice to his translators and complaining that his “queer French” will not “go” into English. Indeed, such were the demands on Beckett after the initial success of Godot in 1953, that we frequently find him overwhelmed by the “wastes” of (self-)translation which his scrupulous nature led him to undertake. Beckett’s sense of obligation extended, not just to the people around him, but to the works themselves and his interventions in theatre productions and in the translations of his work stemmed from an evident protectiveness he felt about what he had created.
For the interested reader or Sunday afternoon Beckettian, Knowlson’s biography remains the fullest source of information about Beckett’s life during this period. The Letters of Samuel Beckett 1941-1956 helpfully sets out many important and revealing letters, expertly translated and annotated. Nonetheless, one must regret the unspoken missed opportunity this volume represents in terms of reproducing a complete range of Beckett’s correspondence for these years. However, even if the editors “fail again” or even “fail better” with Volumes 3 and 4, they will still have accomplished a Herculean labour for which all of us will be grateful.
Benjamin Keatinge is Head of English at the South East European University, Tetovo, Macedonia where he teaches English literature. He holds a doctorate on Samuel Beckett from Trinity College Dublin and he has published articles on Beckett in the Irish University Review, the Journal of Modern Literature and in edited essay collections. He has published (as co-editor) a volume of critical essays on poet Brian Coffey titled Other Edens: The Life and Work of Brian Coffey (Irish Academic Press, 2010). He has also contributed essays on poets Richard Murphy, Pearse Hutchinson and Harry Clifton to edited volumes as well as regular reviews to Poetry Ireland Review, the Irish University Review, the European English Messenger and The Beckett Circle. He currently lives in Skopje, Macedonia.