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The Last Ditch

Anthony Roche

The Letters of Samuel Beckett Volume IV: 1966-1989, eds George Craig, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Dan Gunn and Lois More Overbeck, Cambridge University Press, 837 pp., £29.99 (hardback), ISBN 978-0521867962

On April 27th, 1974, Samuel Beckett wrote to a correspondent: “I am opposed to the publication of private letters.” A decade later, perhaps with an eye to his advancing age and the claims of posterity, he appears to have relented and agreed to an edited collection of his letters. This change of heart emerges in a letter to the American actor, director and theatre scholar Martha Dow Fehsenfeld: “I do have confidence in you & know I can rely on you to edit my correspondence”; and in a later letter of 1988 he reiterated: “you [are] my choice for this unspeakable job”. Lois More Overbeck, then editor of The Beckett Circle and a textual scholar of Beckett’s work, was brought on board as co-editor. One stipulation had been that they wait until after the death of Beckett and his wife, Suzanne (both died in 1989, only a few months apart, with Suzanne predeceasing her husband). The first volume of a proposed four was not published until 2009, however, a full twenty years later. A further two editors were appointed to the task, Dan Gunn, professor of Comparative Literature and English at The American University of Paris, and George Craig, who handled the translations from French into English (a good many of the letters from Beckett are written in French). The pace of publication accelerated: Volume II appeared in 2011, Volume III in 2014, and now in 2016 we have the fourth and final volume, covering the last twenty-three years of Beckett’s life from sixty until his death on December 22nd, 1989 at the age of eighty-three. (Beckett had been born on Good Friday, April 13th, 1906, and like an inverted Christ had nearly managed to die on Christmas Day.)

Evidence of the extensive editorial work that had been undertaken in the twenty-plus years since Beckett appointed Fehsenfeld as founding editor emerges in the extensive and detailed footnotes to the collection. In as many cases as possible, the editors have clearly been in personal contact with the original recipients and have sought illuminating commentaries on their exchanges. Thus, Beckett writes to Irish painters Louis Le Brocquy and Anne Madden on May 20th, 1981 to thank them for an aquatint of Beckett’s head, one of a series of heads of Irish writers on which Le Brocquy was then engaged: “Thanks for yrs of May 7 and many for aquatint safely received. Very moving in its ghostliness. That’s my pineal eye on its way out.” Le Brocquy glossed the last line to Fehsenfeld and Overbeck as follows: “[the painting was made by] impressions of my hand on the forehead [from which] something like an eye chanced to appear. Hence ‘my pineal eye’.” Le Brocquy himself died in 2012 at the age of ninety-six; the communication about the aquatint dates from January 14th, 1999. Other communiqués from Beckett’s correspondence are as recent as 2014 and 2015 and there is a reference to the 2016 publication of Charles Gannon’s biography of John Beckett, his cousin the musician and conductor. The editors have accomplished an extraordinary feat of editorial work to make the letters an enriching and informative read.

A huge part of their task has been deciding what to do when confronted with this fourth and final volume of Beckett’s letters. The file of correspondence covering the twenty three-year period amounted to a daunting total of “some 9,000 pages, though fewer and fewer of the letters themselves stretch to more than a few lines on the page”. At one end of the spectrum is the purely routine, such as fixing a time to meet in Paris. When the English theatre academic and director Katharine Worth misses an appointment, she writes seeking clarification about the time; and Beckett’s reply, where he apologises for mixing up a.m.and p.m., is footnoted as follows: “This card to Worth is one of hundreds of similar cards SB sent to arrange a meeting at 11 a.m. at the café opposite his apartment.” In one letter, Beckett emphatically declares that he has nothing to say about his work; and this must likewise be taken to stand for the dozens and dozens of letters he wrote politely but firmly turning down requests to submit to interview or to speak about his writing. At the other end of the spectrum, when it comes to substantial letters to close friends and working colleagues, the editorial choice about what to include or exclude is more complicated. It is rendered even more so by the injunction Beckett laid upon Martha Fehsenfeld when he chose her to edit his correspondence. As that 1985 letter put it: “[I] know I can rely on you to edit my correspondence in the sense agreed on […], i.e. its reduction to those passages only having bearing on my work.” Beckett’s original executor, Jérôme Lindon, was extremely strict in his interpretation of this directive, as Fehsenfeld makes clear in her introduction to Volume One: “[he] understood Beckett’s ‘work’ to mean only the published oeuvre” When Beckett’s nephew Edward took over as executor, he expanded the term to cover “jettisoned as well as published writing” and Beckett’s interest in art and music (there are more letters in this volume to painters than to writers). With Edward Beckett’s agreement that the edition could and should include whole letters rather than extracts, much of what we read in an individual letter is a mixture of the personal and the professional. And as the editors write here: “the line between work and life, never clear, becomes less and less discernible”. Finally, the Beckett estate has accepted in its entirety the selection they have made. Despite the good face the editors put on it, however, there is a sense in the extensive introductory material to this volume of their chafing under Beckett’s constraint.

As the editors point out, no one correspondent dominates this collection, as Thomas MacGreevy did the first and Barbara Bray the third. Irish poet MacGreevy, to whom the majority of the letters in Volume One are addressed, scarcely makes it into Volume IV. Having returned to Dublin in 1950 to become director of the National Gallery of Ireland, MacGreevy resigned from the position in 1963. There is a lengthy letter to him here dated February 16th, 1966, full of Irish and art gossip. And Beckett saw MacGreevy when he visited Ireland later that same year for the funeral of his sister-in-law, Jean Wright Beckett. On March 31st, 1967 he writes to one of his oldest of friends, playwright Mary Manning, resident in Boston for many years: “Tom MacGreevy died in Dublin a fortnight ago [on March 16th, 1967, of a heart attack]. He had been very ill with heart trouble for years.” The footnotes quote from a letter to fellow Irish poet Brian Coffey which recalls MacGreevy more personally: “In his last letter he quoted Jack Yeats’s ‘Old age is not amusing’ and added he’d be damned if he didn’t make his amusing. He had had a pretty awful time – between pain and excruciating precautions – for many years. Always & very dear.” It is one of the strengths of these volumes that, in addition to the full letters printed, the footnotes contain relevant extracts from other letters to other correspondents which illuminatingly gloss some or all of the contents of the main letter, as here on the death of MacGreevy. Given Beckett’s advancing age in the years covered, many of the letters are responding to news of the deaths of various family members, friends and fellow artists. One of the very first, from January 1966, responds to this morbid and depressing fact as follows: “Giacometti dead. George Devine [of London’s Royal Court Theatre] dead. Yes, drive me to Père Lachaise and go straight through the red lights.” And yet the sheer gusto of the writing here suggests that its writer had many years left in him, as was to prove the case.

The letters from Barbara Bray, which so dominated Volume III, maintain a central presence and importance here throughout. Bray was a producer, translator and critic who worked for BBC Radio in London. She and Beckett had an affair, though the editors in their profile of her in Volume III never quite manage to say that: “his connection with Bray, while unfailingly and productively professional, went well beyond that” since she was “an unambiguously warm and attractive woman” and so forth. In the Introduction to Volume IV, the editors defend themselves from the charge of not having quoted from Beckett’s love letters because they were personal and did not have to do with the work: “if there are no ‘real love letters’ (as was remarked by one commentator on the contents of Volume III, which none the less contained many letters to Beckett’s lover, Barbara Bray), then this is not because these have been excised but simply because Beckett did not write such letters (or, as is infinitely less probable, because his several female intimates did not keep or choose to share them)”. What is clear is that Beckett’s friendship with Bray long survived their physical relationship and deepened over the years (Beckett is rather like WB Yeats in this regard). She is the one with whom he shared his most private feelings about his creative work, and not just finished work but work in progress. Nothing better illustrates this in Volume IV than the letter Beckett writes Bray when he has the first inkling of what was to become Not I, his first major play in almost ten years: “Vague image for a short play of a lit face [mouth] with ? to say and a cloaked hooded figure […] listening and watching. […] Might produce 10 min. strangeness if text found.” In addition to MacGreevy and Bray, Volume IV contains many letters to “figures familiar from earlier volumes”: Avigdor Arikha and Anne Atik, Edward Beckett, John Beckett, Kay Boyle, John Calder, Ruby Cohn, Jocelyn Herbert, Con Leventhal, Jack MacGowran, Patrick Magee, Mary Manning, Stuart Maguinness, Robert Pinget, Harold Pinter (about his own work and his direction of Joyce’s Exiles), Barney Rosset, Alan Schneider, Siegfried Unseld, Jacoba van Velde and many more. There is also a sheaf of hitherto unavailable correspondence with the artist Henri Hayden and his wife, Josette, the first written from Beckett’s mother’s house in 1947, returned to Ireland from the war, the last from March 1964, which announces the death of Brendan Behan. But as the editors point out, Volume IV contains a wide range of new correspondents: “the painters Jasper Johns and Louis le Brocquy; the actors Rick Cluchey, David Warrilow and Billie Whitelaw; the theatre and television directors Walter Asmus, Joseph Chaikin and Reinhart Muller-Freienfels; the critic and biographer James Knowlson”. Towards the end of his life, the number of Beckett’s Irish-based correspondents increases: Seán Ó Mórdha, who was to direct the RTÉ documentary on Beckett, Silence to Silence; Dr Eoin O’Brien, author of The Beckett Country; actor Barry McGovern and Gate Theatre director Michael Colgan, who was to stage all of the plays in 1991; poet Desmond Egan; and a resurfacing of his old friend Mary Manning, whose “cheery” letters provoke some of Beckett’s saltiest replies in his very last years.

Two major events in Beckett’s life and career stand out in the twenty-three years covered by this volume. The first is the Nobel Prize for Literature, which he was awarded on October 23rd, 1969. He was first alerted to the possibility by a letter in December 1966 from his old Trinity College, Dublin friend and classmate Stuart Maguinness, then head of the Department of Classics at King’s College London: “I am deeply moved by what you tell me. I have no idea of how the Nobel works, simply know that there has been talk of me for it these past three or four years. Frankly I have no ambitions in that direction. It is difficult to regard it as a[n] honour, even supposing an appetite for honour, and as for the money I have enough for my dwindling needs. But that you should feel like that about me goes to the old heart.”

On April 21st, 1969 he informs Siegfried Unseld, his German publisher, that he does not wish to receive the prize but does so with the usual Beckett mix of ambiguity and contradiction: “I want no part in this award […]. If in spite of that, they do give it to me, I shall not make my case worse by refusing it, but I shall not make the trip to receive it.” The Swedish Academy did indeed persist and the Nobel Prize for Literature for 1969 was awarded to Beckett and accepted in his absence by Jérôme Lindon, his French publisher and a close confidant. Beckett and Suzanne had already planned a holiday in the sun and sea but also in the isolation and anonymity supplied by Algiers. If the odd foreigner recognised him, he was polite and cordial; but they eluded the paparazzi, thanks to “the Arabs who are marvellous, director, reception and entire hotel staff in league to protect me”. What there was no escaping was the deluge of congratulatory correspondence that descended in the wake of the Nobel announcement. Like the late Brian Friel, Beckett always felt compelled to reply to every single letter he received, no matter how brief and formal the reply. On November 19th, he writes to Barbara Bray: “In the last 3 weeks I have written approx. 500 cards, notes & letters of acknowledgement [making this, as his editors note, the 501st]. […] Until all this is out of the way, if it ever is, I can’t work, which I know is of little importance, but to me the most important.” One reason he appears to have relented is the money that came with the prize. As he said at the outset of the negotiations: “as for the money I have enough for my dwindling needs”. But what these letters reveal is Samuel Beckett’s extraordinary generosity in terms of offering an ongoing measure of financial support to a wide range of family and friends; this is where the most of the Nobel Prize money goes.

The second major development of note in the years covered by this volume is the extraordinary late second flowering of his writing, both in relation to his drama and prose fiction. The editors scarcely comment upon this, merely remarking that the works in various genres “continue to appear”. But the first six years of this volume of letters, from 1966 to 1972, covers a particularly barren stretch. The writing has dwindled to a great deal of self-translation (from English into French with the earlier works and vice versa with the later) and a minimum of original prose works, often self-professed fragments from abandoned works. With drama, Beckett manages to supply Kenneth Tynan in 1969 with (in his own words) “a forty second piece entitled BREATH”, which he promptly withdrew when Tynan festooned the prescribed mound of rubbish with naked female bodies for Oh. Calcutta! For Beckett, throughout this period in particular, “work” means the direction of his own plays, which he increasingly undertook, particularly in Germany (Berlin and Stuttgart). For such an isolated man, he clearly enjoys the sociability that the theatre confers and loves the company of actors. But equally he complains to various close correspondents that he is spending too much time revisiting his earlier plays in the rehearsal room and too little time at the primary and absolutely necessary task of writing.

But from 1972 well into the 1980s Beckett produced an extraordinary succession of new dramatic and prose masterpieces: Not IFootfallsThat TimeRockabyCatastrophe and other works for the theatre; and in prose the wonderful second trilogy of novellas, CompanyIll Seen, Ill Said and Worstward Ho. He also ventured into the new and challenging terrain of writing works for television. What is so striking about all of these new works is not only the continued experimentation (of course) but their formal completeness: each, however brief, is beautifully shaped. What caused this second flowering? Hard to say, but the awarding of the Nobel Prize may have helped. Beckett had worried to Stuart Maguinness in November 1969: “I hope the work will forgive me and let me near it again.” But when the Nobel correspondence cleared so too did Beckett’s vision. The visual image in Not I of the Listener, a person of indeterminate gender wearing a loose back djellaba with a hood, had come to him in Tangiers immediately after the announcement of the prize. At the very end of his life, Beckett repeated in letters to Mary Manning what his father had said to him after leaving school: “Wish often I had gone into Guinness’s, as Father proposed when I left Portora.” But at least in the immediate wake of the Nobel Prize the parental voices were quietened and he felt something like vindication in his vocation as writer.

Finally, to the matter of Ireland. These letters reveal, as never before, the extraordinary emotional complexity and conflict in Samuel Beckett’s relationship with and attitude to his home place. There are only two visits to Ireland during this period, both in the late 1960s, both for family funerals. On the second of them, he computes that his period of residence in Ireland for the past ten years has been precisely three weeks. Each time he visits he vows it will be the last time; but in 1968 Beckett also predicts that he will be “[b]ack soon for Jim’s funeral no doubt [his uncle Jim Beckett]. […] Legless, blind, almost deaf, interested in all, glad to be still in it. Apparently.” When Jim Beckett dies in Dublin on March 13th, 1971, his nephew does not return, thus breaking the habit of a lifetime, and resolutely refuses to visit Ireland again. And yet the letters he writes and the images they contain from his two visits to Ireland are among the most beautiful and evocative in the book: “What’s left of the old lovely familiar through the mist. Saw the beaten silver last night. Heard waking in the night that sea again.” “Mountains & sea looking marvellous. Glad to get away from them.” It is simply too much for him: Ireland is best recreated in memory and imagination, through the act of writing, as he so memorably was to do in the autobiographical and evocative Company. Late in life, Beckett relaxes his usual rules and talks about his work. Most revealing are the comments on why he switched from writing in English (referred to on page 44 of this volume as “the mother tongue”) to writing in French: “Escape from mother Anglo-Irish exuberance & automatisms. From ex[c]ess to lack of colour. Distance from the writing from which clearer to assess it.” “Distance” seems to me the key word here; but distance does not mean that the home place, his mother, father, family and friends, are not kept firmly in view.

Of Irish theatre and Irish productions of his work, he is unequivocally condemnatory, at least initially. In its first year (1967) the new Peacock had staged a production of Play. Beckett writes to Mary Manning when he is in Dublin in March of 1968: “Abbey massacred PLAY in a big way. Have just refused them GODOT. They don’t seem to have a clue.” How can Beckett know this? He has not seen the production and there is no correspondent credited with reporting on it; though he may have received first-hand reports while in Dublin. The Abbey went ahead with its production of Godot in December 1969. Because Beckett had won the Nobel Prize less than six weeks previously and because the production was to feature Peter O’Toole (then in his movie star prime) as Vladimir, the production was moved to the Abbey main stage. When Beckett heard that his London agents Curtis Brown had given the Abbey permission after all, despite his earlier refusal, he declared his intention of shutting down the production, writing to his London prose publisher, John Calder: “I ask you to support me in this and ensure compliance with my wishes. The decision is absolutely final.” And yet the Abbey production of Godot went ahead. (I’m very glad it did, since it was the first Beckett I saw, and I very much enjoyed it). Why did it do so? Again, the Beckettian contradiction. Writing to Barbara Bray on November 26th, 1969, he explains: “Tried to stop it & of course could have but rehearsals already in full swing.” How different he is about proposed Dublin productions of his work two decades later. The Gate Theatre production of Godot for the Dublin Millennium celebrations in 1988 is immediately approved and in a letter he hopes Barry McGovern will be in it. (He was.) Writing to Mary Manning in April 1986, Beckett notes the change in his attitude: “I see the odd young Dubliner here, RTÉ & lately Gate. An improvement on our old lot if I remember right.” He mentions this again in his reply to a message from Bertie Ahern (then lord mayor of Dublin), in which he not only echoes Ahern’s words in agreeing it is “indeed with pleasure that I note the growth of interest in my work among the younger generation of my countrymen” but going on to add: “and with gratitude for the contacts it affords me of which I have so long felt the want.” Irish actors he had always loved, Jack MacGowran and Patrick Magee in particular. On March 10th, 1975, he writes to Magee: “None ever rendered my moans and groans like you.” When Magee is fired by the Royal Court for drunkenness (ironically, in a production of Beckett’s Endgame as Hamm in the course of which he fell asleep on stage), Beckett wrote to him what I find the most moving letter in the entire collection, a real measure of the man: “do try & put the whole thing from your mind. It overcame you, some very acute & complex it, as it does us all, some time or another, one way or another, violently or gradually. […] My feeling for you is what it has not ceased to be, all these years, one of true affection and esteem.”

These extraordinary letters will be of value not just to people interested in Beckett but to an even larger general audience. They will have, as I have sought to show, a whole extra layer of meaning and interest for an Irish audience. In reading them, I felt (to paraphrase what Beckett wrote in one of his prose fictions) such pleasure that pleasure was not the word.


Anthony Roche’s most recent publication is The Irish Dramatic Revival 1899-1939 (Bloomsbury, 2015).

Space to Think, an anthology bringing together more than fifty of the best pieces to have appeared in the Dublin Review of Books since its foundation ten years ago, was published in October. Selling in the shops at €25, it is also available to order online at a special price of €20 (to collect in Dublin) or €20 + post and packing charges as appropriate for shipping to addresses in Ireland and internationally. To buy online, follow the steps from the home page of our website.

One piece featured in Space to Think is “Much the Same”, Benjamin Keatinge’s review from 2012 of the second volume of Beckett’s letters. Here is an extract:

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: MolloyMalone meurtL’InnommableEn attendant Godot as well as the nouvelles (La FinLe CalmantL’Expulsé and Premier Amour) and Mercier and CamierEleuthéria 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.



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