Friday, March 13, 2009

The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume One: 1929–1940

At long last, Beckett's letters are being published - or at least those that bear on his work, as he requested before he died. The Times Online reviews the book.

Beckett is one of my favorite playwrights and novelists, so I am looking forward to seeing this book.

Letters from Beckett

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


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.

Read the rest of the review.


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