TLS review of The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume One: 1929-1940
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The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume One: 1929-1940

From The Times Literary Supplement
March 11, 2009

Letters from Beckett

Great as a playwright, novelist and poet, Samuel Beckett also wrote letters of enduring worth

by Gabriel Josipovici

The letters of some of the greatest artists of their day, of Wordsworth and Cézanne, Proust and Eliot, for example, though occasionally moving and of interest because of who they were, would never figure in anyone’s list of the ten or twenty greatest books of their time. The letters of Keats and van Gogh, Kafka and Wallace Stevens certainly would. And so, on the evidence of this volume, would those of Samuel Beckett.

Beckett was a prolific letter-writer. The editors have transcribed more than 15,000 letters, written in the course of sixty years from 1929, when Beckett was twenty-three, until his death in 1989. Of these they plan to give us some 2,500 complete and to quote in the notes from a further 5,000. Some we might have found significant or moving we shall probably never see, for when Beckett gave his blessing in principle to the idea of publishing his letters he specified that he only wished to have published those which would “have a bearing on [his] work”. One can surmise from their introduction that the editors have had to fight long and hard with Beckett’s executors to make their sense of what has a bearing on the work prevail. This suggests that we will never read, even if they exist, the equivalent of Kafka’s Letters to Milena and Letters to Felice.

But we still have plenty to be getting on with. And though many of these letters have been in the public domain for years (some of the letters to Tom McGreevy, for example, already quoted by Deirdre Bair in her Samuel Beckett of 1978), the effect of reading them all together is completely different from reading extracts embedded in a biography. For biography, no matter how tactfully it is written, has the effect Sartre described years ago, of imposing a false teleology on its subject, of giving a shape and meaning to the life which it did not have for the one who was living it. Letters, on the other hand, are so moving because we live each moment with their author and time takes on the dimension it has in our own lives: of being more like a well into which we are perpetually falling at a deceptively slow pace than like a well-lit road along which we travel, our destination clearly visible ahead.

In 1929 Beckett had already spent some time in Italy and in Germany, where he had relatives, and, after a dazzling career as a student of French and Italian at Trinity College Dublin, had just settled into a two-year post as exchange lecteur at the École Normale Supérieure where McGreevy, a much older Irishman, had been his predecessor. McGreevy, still living in Paris, had introduced Beckett to many of his friends, including James Joyce and Richard Aldington. The decade that followed was, for Beckett, restless in the extreme. He returned to Dublin, took up and then renounced an academic job at Trinity; wrote a little book on Proust, a great many poems, some of which were published, some stories, including the masterpiece “Dante and the Lobster”, which appeared under the title More Pricks than Kicks, and two novels, the first of which, Dream of Fair to Middling Women, failed to find a publisher, and the second, Murphy, was published as the decade came to an end; tried to settle in London and underwent pyschoanalysis with Wilfred Bion; experienced the death of his beloved father and of a favourite dog; tried again to settle in Dublin; undertook a six-month trip to Germany to study the art in its great museums; and finally settled in Paris, where he met and started living with Suzanne Descheveaux-Dumesnil. Almost at once, war broke out, and in June 1940, along with a large part of the population of Paris, the pair headed south in the face of the oncoming German army. If, at the start of the decade, Beckett was known in Dublin circles as a highly promising academic with an illustrious career ahead of him, by the end of it he was known to a small coterie of Irish and French intellectuals as a bohemian writer of obscure verse and almost equally obscure fiction, a shy, hard-drinking man of remarkable learning and a savage and witty turn of phrase. Had the war engulfed him as it engulfed so many of his contemporaries it is doubtful if we would now be reading his collected letters.

But that makes the letters of these years all the more precious. Beckett, by all accounts, was the most courteous of men, and it seems that even at the height of his fame he still tried to answer as courteously as he could the hundreds of letters he received. But the sixty-year-old smiling (or, more often, in the photos we have of him, scowling) public man now knew exactly where his priorities lay: after spending the mornings on his correspondence he would devote the afternoons to his own writing. In the 1930s, however, there was no public man, and we have to see the letters as merely one of many ways in which an ambitious, confused and tormented young writer attempted to discover who he was and what it was he wanted out of life and art. These early letters, in other words, are, like the early poems and stories, in the strict sense essais, the trying out of a voice, a tone, even, at times, another language.

There are, of course, quite a few letters to publishers and agents, but even these are hardly run-of-the-mill. Having been informed that an American publisher had shown interest in Murphy but wanted him to cut it, he first of all responded as authors always do, by saying that he had already cut it to the bone and that nothing further could be done. Some months later, though, he writes to his agent: “Is there no further news about Quigley, I mean Murphy? . . . The last I remember is my readiness to cut down the work to its title. I am now prepared to go further, and change the title, if it gives offence, to Quigley, Trompetenschleim, Eliot, or any other name that the publishers fancy”. In the first letter to McGreevy, in the summer of 1929, from Kassel, where Beckett was staying with his father’s sister Frances (Cissie), her Jewish husband Abraham Sinclair and their children Peggy and Morris, we catch the authentic Beckettian tone and sense that we are going to enjoy ourselves. The subject, as will so often be the case in the years to come, is the placing of a piece of writing:

My dear McGreevy, The abominable old bap Russell duly returned my MSS with an economic note in the 3rd person, the whole in a considerably understamped envelope. I feel slightly paralysed by the courtesy of this gesture. I would like to get rid of the damn thing anyhow, anywhere (with the notable exception of “transition”), but I have no acquaintance with the less squeamish literary garbage buckets. I can’t imagine Eliot touching it - certainly not the verse. Perhaps Seumas O’Sullivan’s rag would take it? If you think of an address I would be grateful to know it.

This might remind readers of two other ambitious and irreverent young men writing to each other for support and to try out their literary skills: Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin. But what follows certainly will not. After quoting two lines of Dante in Italian to make the point that his sunburn makes sleep impossible, Beckett goes on to comment on Proust, whom he was reading with a view to fulfilling a commission to write a short book on him:

I have read the first volume of “Du Côté de chez Swann”, and find it strangely uneven. There are incomparable things - Bloch, Françoise, Tante Léonie, Legrandin, and then passages that are offensively fastidious, artificial and almost dishonest . . . . His loquacity is certainly more interesting and cleverly done than Moore’s, but no less profuse, a maudlin false-teeth gobble-gobble discharge from a colic-afflicted belly. He drank too much tilleul. And to think that I have to contemplate him at stool for 16 volumes!

This ability to tear into what he dislikes but not let it blind him to what is admirable in a work or artist would remain typical of Beckett. In a letter to Morris Sinclair in which he is trying out his French, he writes: “Je n’ai jamais pu me réconcilier avec la Symphonie Pastorale où j’ai l’impression que Beethoven a versé tout ce qu’il y avait de vulgaire, de facile et d’enfantin (et c'était beaucoup), pour en finir avec une fois pour toutes”. Yet immediately afterwards he is pressing his cousin to listen to Beethoven’s String Quartet Opus 130, especially to the Cavatina, and in the great letter he wrote to Axel Kaun, a friend he had made on his German trip in 1936-7, he talked with passion about the Seventh Symphony, about how its “sound surface . . . is devoured by huge black pauses” - a response to the work that he clearly felt touched on something vital, for it reappears, in almost identical form, in Dream of Fair to Middling Women.

The same fierce individuality is evident in his response to literature: “Am reading [Balzac’s] Cousine Bette. The bathos of style & thought is so enormous that I wonder is he writing seriously or in parody”. “Read Cecil’s Life of Cowper . . . . Very bad. But what a life! It depressed & terrified me. How did he ever manage to write such bad poetry?” “So I was reduced to finishing [Mauriac’s] Le Désert de l’Amour, which I most decidedly do not like. A patient, tenuous snivel that one longs to see projected noisily into a handkerchief.” “I’m reading the ‘Possédés’ in a foul translation. Even so it must be very carelessly & badly written in the Russian, full of clichés & journalese: but the movement, the transitions! No one moves about like Dostoievski. No one ever caught the insanity of dialogue like he did.” The letters reveal how hard Beckett worked to educate himself once he had decided the academic life was not for him. He reads Descartes and his disciple Geulincx (in Latin), Leibniz and Spinoza, Kant (in German) and Schopenhauer (a great favourite) as well as Ariosto, Tasso, Schiller, Goethe, Fielding, Jane Austen, George Eliot, and any number of minor writers in French, Italian, German and English. But “educate himself” is hardly the right phrase. Beckett read avidly, passionately, looking for what could stimulate his own work, and finding it in places that might surprise us. Jane Austen, he tells McGreevy, “has much to teach me”; he is enchanted with Joseph Andrews (Jacques le fataliste and The Vicar of Wakefield rolled into one, he thinks), and he picks out for comment “the ironical replies and giving the show away pari passu with the show”, while “the very short chapters are an idea”.

At some point in the 1930s Beckett toyed with the idea of becoming an art dealer. His comments on works of art are therefore slightly different from those on music and literature. He spends hours in the National Gallery in Dublin, relaying to McGreevy (who was himself to become, in time, Director of that gallery) what the new Director has done with the rehang and commenting in detail, especially on his beloved Dutch and Flemish masters. In London it is the same with the National Gallery, and in Paris he often drops into the Louvre to examine this or that work or artist he has grown interested in, duly reporting his impressions back to McGreevy. Among the most surprising and fascinating letters are those Beckett sent back to family and friends when he undertook a six-month trip to Germany, from September 1936 to April 1937, specifically in order to study the art on view there. He travelled from Hamburg to Berlin via Hanover and Brunswick, to Leipzig, Dresden and on to Munich via Bamberg and Nuremberg. Everywhere he went he tried to see all that was on show and much that wasn’t, for under the Nazis much art was starting to be withdrawn as “decadent”. Beckett badgered directors to give him access to these pictures in the vaults, and made friends with (usually Jewish) patrons and collectors, who invited him to their houses and introduced him to some of the banned artists. The weather was bitter; Beckett was depressed both by his health and by what he saw happening to Germany; finally, exhausted, abandoning plans to visit Stuttgart and Frankfurt, he flew home. The letters not only tell us a great deal about Beckett, but form an invaluable record of the state of German museums and art galleries in the 1930s, and include descriptions of paintings, by artists from Signorelli to Van Gogh, which have since disappeared, the victims of Nazi looting or Allied bombing.

By the end of the decade friends were showing him pictures they had purchased with queries about provenance and authentification. But Beckett could no more become an art dealer than he could become a lecturer in French, a commercial pilot, a student of Eisenstein or any of the other careers he briefly toyed with but either resigned from when they became a reality, or simply left to drift in the realm of possibility. For there was really only one thing Beckett wanted to do, and that was to write. Even the letters about art are in the main concerned with the same thing as the letters about music, philosophy and literature: the attempt to understand what he hoped to achieve and how the art in question could help him. Hence his passion for the unlikely trio of Watteau, Cézanne and Jack B. Yeats.

On August 14, 1937, he wrote to his aunt Cissie Sinclair about Jack Yeats, whom over the years in Dublin he had come to know and like, and whose painting “Morning” he bought when he could ill afford it and treasured ever after:

The way he puts down a man’s head & a woman’s head side by side, or face to face, is terrifying, two irreducible singlenesses & the impassable immensity between. I suppose that is what gives the stillness to his pictures, as though the convention were suddenly suspended . . . . A kind of petrified insight into one’s ultimate hard irreducible organic singleness.

Three years before, he had written to McGreevy from London, struggling to articulate something that was buried very deep within him:

What I feel in Cézanne is precisely the absence of a rapport that was all right for Rosa or Ruysdael for whom the animising mode was valid, but would have been false for him, because he had the sense of his incommensurability not only with life of such a different order as landscape but even with life of his own order, even with the life - one feels looking at the self-portrait in the Tate, not the Cézanne chauve but with the big hat - operative in himself.

He struggles a little longer to express his feelings, but ends lamely: “Comprends pas”. And not surprisingly. He would never understand - no one can ever understand - his incommensurability with himself, his sense of himself as a suffering, feeling individual and as part of a larger order, quite unconcerned with individual feelings.

In the work that came so naturally after the war, from Waiting for Godot and the trilogy of novels through Happy Days to the last great plays, Footfalls and Rockaby, he would discover how to embody it. At this point, though, little came naturally. In 1930 he wrote to Charles Prentice at Chatto and Windus, who had been enthusiastic about his Proust book and to whom he had promised a few additional pages: “I have added nothing to Proust. I can’t do anything here - neither read nor think nor write . . . . I must apologise for the absurdity of the entire proceeding. I expected more generous rifts in the paralysis”. To McGreevy from London, two years later: “I haven’t tried to write. The idea itself of writing seems somehow ludicrous”. When a poem or story does come, it seems to be unrelated to himself or his will: “I’m enclosing the only bit of writing that has happened to me since Paris and that does me no particular credit as far as I can judge”.

What he loathes is the arbitrariness, the lack of necessity, and therefore the meaninglessness of it all. In a wonderful letter to McGreevy of October 18, 1932, which deserves to stand with Hofmannsthal’s fictional Lord Chandos Letter of 1901 in its plangency and lucidity, he writes: “I’m in mourning for the integrity of the pendu’s emission of semen, what I find in Homer & Dante & Racine & sometimes Rimbaud, the integrity of the eyelids coming down before the brain knows of grit in the wind”. Lacking that, what is writing but ridiculous self-indulgence? Yet he cannot stop himself: “I dribble malgré moi and knowing I do & oughtn’t to is no help”. And, six months later: “This writing is a bloody awful grind. I did two more ‘short stories’, bottled climates, comme ça, sans conviction, because one has to do something or perish with ennui”. In January 1934, in French, to Morris Sinclair: “I have not the leisure, even if I had the desire, to do anything whatever in the way of literature. And perhaps that too is as it should be. I’ve already done far too much, little and yet too much, never having had any idea about anything”. And yet he admits to McGreevy: “I get frightened sometimes at the idea that the itch to write is cured”.

This whole complex and tormenting web of contradictory urges is very reminiscent of Kafka. And the parallels go further. Like Kafka, Beckett is always complaining of his body, as though the failure to write as he would like has a direct physical effect: his teeth are bad, his neck hurts, he has pleurisy, his feet are giving him hell. Like Kafka he is paralysed and bored. Acedia hangs heavily over him. And as Kafka blamed Prague, so Beckett blames Dublin: “This tired abstract anger - inarticulate passive opposition - always the same thing in Dublin”. Kafka went to see Rudolf Steiner and Martin Buber, but the sages were no help; Beckett is psychoanalysed in London by Bion, and feels better for it, but soon confesses that it has changed nothing. Kafka travelled to Italy, Germany and France and dreamed of one day settling in Palestine, all to get away from his father; with his father dead, Beckett’s mother grows more and more possessive, and getting away from Dublin becomes getting away from Mother. The years of these letters are not just years of literary apprenticeship, but years in which we see Beckett constantly attempting to escape, coming back with his tail between his legs (even, occasionally, with relief) to the horrors and boredom of Dublin, where neither his mother nor his brother Frank understands what he is up to but where at least he has his own room and does not have to struggle every day to make ends meet.

Towards the end of the decade, though, he could view his relationship with his mother a little more dispassionately: “I don’t wish her anything at all, neither good nor ill, I am what her savage loving has made me, and it is good that one of us should accept that finally”. Yet one wonders, as with Kafka’s letter to his father, whether the acceptance is not an illusion: “It is like after a long forenoon of the thumb screws being commanded by the bourreau to play his favourite song without words or feeling”. As with Kafka, everything hinges on writing: what he is doing may be rubbish, it may be pure self-indulgence, no one may be interested in reading it, but it is the only thing he is absolutely sure he has to do:

Frank came back from his 10 days in Donegal last Tuesday . . . . When he heard Heinemann had turned down [Murphy] he said: “Why can’t you write the way people want”, when I replied that I could only write the one way, i.e. as best I could (not the right answer, by the way, not at all the right answer), he said it was a good thing for him he did not feel obliged to implement such a spirit in 6 St. Clare St [his office].

But if that is not the right answer, what is? In the letter to Axel Kaun, Beckett tried to find an explanation:

It is indeed getting more and more difficult, even pointless, for me to write in formal English. And more and more my language appears to me like a veil which one has to tear apart in order to get to those things (or the nothingness) lying behind it. Grammar and style! To me they seem to have become as irrelevant as a Biedermeier bathing suit or the imperturbability of a gentleman. A mask. It is to be hoped the time will come, thank God, in some circles it already has, when language is best used when most efficiently abused . . . . Or is literature alone to be left behind on that old, foul road long ago abandoned by music and painting? Is there something paralysingly sacred contained within the unnature of the word that does not belong to the elements of the other arts? Is there any reason why that terrifyingly arbitrary materiality of the word surface should not be dissolved, as, for example, the sound surface of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony is devoured by huge black pauses, so that for pages on end we cannot perceive it as other than a dizzying path of sounds connecting unfathomable chasms of silence? An answer is requested.

We do not know if an answer came from Kaun, for Beckett did not keep the letters he received. But an answer did come, years later, from Beckett himself, not in the form of a philosophical or aesthetic tract, but of fiction and plays, in an abundance which would have astonished the thirty-one-year-old author of this letter. What Beckett was to learn in the decade that followed was the very lesson Proust could have taught him had he been prepared at the time to learn, that what he grumbled about to McGreevy and others were not things that had to be resolved before he could begin to write properly but, precisely, what he had to write about. How he came to understand this is presumably what the next volume of letters will reveal.

In many of the letters in this volume, especially those to Nuala Costello, with whom he seems to have thought himself in love, Beckett is often brilliant, nearly always funny, but we feel, as we do with many of the early stories and poems, that he is trying too hard, that he is simultaneously showing off and protecting himself. Now and then, we hear a voice we recognize as the authentic Beckett. This happens either when he trusts his interlocutor (as he does McGreevy) and so is prepared to confess his confusions, or when he writes in a language not his own, as in the letters to Morris Sinclair and Axel Kaun, or when suffering breaks down the barriers, as at the end of the letter to McGreevy announcing his father’s death: “I can’t write about him. I can only walk the fields and climb the ditches after him”.

I doubt if Kafka could have written that sentence. There is, in the end, a kind of confidence about Beckett which was quite absent in Kafka. Things might be going badly with his writing or his body, but he could still feel that, at some deep level, language was not the enemy but his best friend, and - does it spring from the same source? - he could still respond to landscape. Cycling and walking in the Dublin countryside were nearly always a pleasure and, here and there, we get a glimpse of the gentle and considerate (if desperately shy) man behind the verbal fireworks. Apart from the miracle of his transformation from a minor avant-garde artist into probably the greatest writer of the second half of the twentieth century, what later volumes will no doubt show is how he managed to preserve these qualities even in his years of fame.

A word in conclusion about this edition. One cannot but be grateful to Martha Dow Fehsenfeld and Lois More Overbeck, and to the associate editors George Craig and Dan Gunn, for persevering with their project in the face of what must at times have seemed like dispiriting opposition from the executors, understandably concerned to protect Beckett’s privacy. But one must question their method. Though they describe their annotations as light, there appear to be as many pages of notes as there are of letters, and since the notes are in small print there must be double the number of words. Why was it necessary to gloss Beckett’s passing mention of Hardy: “Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)”? Are there any other Hardys? Do we need to be told that A. A. Milne was Alan Alexander Milne and Elgar a “British” composer? And is it really necessary, when Beckett reports that he went to an uninteresting concert, to have ten packed lines giving us every item played, complete with the full names of the composers and the precise opus numbers? This is not just neutral: it gets in the way of the letters and makes for an unwieldy volume. The Beckett who lives with such intensity in the letters risks being entombed in the annotations. On the other hand the decision to quote in the notes from the acceptance and rejection letters Beckett received reminds us of the acumen and courage of those, like Charles Prentice at Chatto and T. M. Ragg at Routledge, who took on and encouraged Beckett while others were turning him away. And the notes would be worthwhile just for the sensitive and tactful unpacking, by George Craig, of Beckett’s games with French expressions. I doubt if I would have worked out that “fuck the field” is Beckett’s literal translation of the dead French metaphor for making a quick exit, or that “Dear Reavey, Herewith 2 Prépuscules d’un Gueux” is Beckett’s little joke with the French for “Twilight of the Gods”, “Crépuscule des dieux”, and thus means: “Herewith two little foreskins [prépuces] of a beggar (with a nod to Wagner)”.

What we now need is the other three volumes to appear as quickly as possible and then for CUP to issue a selection of the most interesting letters, with absolutely minimum annotation, in a one-volume paperback. Because, be in no doubt about it, if Godot and Molloy lit up the dreary landscape of writing in the immediate post-war era, these letters are set to do the same for the new century.

Martha Dow Fehsenfeld and Lois More Overbeck, editors; George Craig and Dan Gunn, associate editors
Volume One: 1929-1940
782pp. Cambridge University Press. 30 (US $50).
978 0 521 86793 1


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