‘The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume 1, 1929-1940’ edited by Martha Dow Fehsenfeld and Lois More Overbeck
Death’s shadow frequently sends literary reputation into critical eclipse.
Not so the Nobel laureate Samuel Beckett, who has seemed to rise further in our esteem with every year that has passed since his death in 1989 at the age of 83. Of the great Modernists, in fact, it’s Beckett who continues to speak most directly and freshly to our own experience of the world -- and that includes his great friend and literary mentor, James Joyce, though saying so feels curiously like apostasy.
Our renewed appreciation of this strange, wounded writer -- a relentless artist and kindly man -- has been abetted by a stream of extraordinary publications. There’s Hugh Kenner’s foundational criticism, of course, and two excellent, relatively recent biographies, James Knowlson’s magisterial “Damned to Fame” and Anthony Cronin’s very Irish “Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist.” Three years ago, on the centenary of Beckett’s birth, came Grove Press’ magnificent four-volume set of Beckett’s all-but-complete works, plus a dual-language edition of “Waiting for Godot.” Read together, these books are a revelation, even to those who thought they’d already worked through this material.
Now we have the most surprising addition of all to the Beckett canon, “The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume 1: 1929-1940,” the first of four projected volumes selected from the author’s astonishing, astonishingly vast correspondence. This is an extraordinary work of scholarship on the part of its main editors, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld and Lois More Overbeck. So far, more than 15,000 Beckett letters have come to light; the taciturn youth who became an artist of studied silences turns out to have been an inveterate letter writer -- and, what’s more, a fine one, which can’t be said for many authors. (Kafka and Cezanne come to mind as artists of similar stature who also were masters of correspondence.) Just to complicate things, Beckett had what one manuscript specialist described to the editors as “the worst handwriting of any 20th century author” and composed his letters not only in English but also in French and German.
Finally, there are restrictions Beckett set up before his death, limiting the selection to letters bearing on his work. Thus nothing, for example, of his fraught relationship with Joyce’s mad daughter, Lucia, whose unrequited affection for Beckett ultimately cast a chill over his relationship with her parents. In 1937, Beckett writes of spending 15 hours laboring over the pre-publication proofs of “Finnegans Wake” for Joyce. The perennially strapped Joyce paid Beckett just 250 French francs but threw in one of his old overcoats and five used ties. “I did not refuse,” Beckett writes. “It is so much simpler to be hurt than to hurt.”
Beckett also forbade the editors any commentary, and they have -- perhaps -- overcompensated with “contextual” notes that sometimes are helpful and, sometimes, simply become a rather creaky documentary apparatus. That’s a quibble that does not rise to the level of criticism, though. What Fehsenfeld and Overbeck have produced is a revelatory triumph.
The correspondent who so frequently signs himself “Sam” emerges from these letters a fully fleshed human being, by turns arrogant and kindly, depressed and determined. Most of all there is a profound seriousness of purpose, a drive -- despite the writer’s frequent disparaging comments about his lassitude -- to read seriously, listen to music and look at paintings in a serious, systematic way. Two things emerge from this process: One is a wonderful and, often surprisingly, convincing independence of judgment. (Who would have guessed that the playwright responsible for “Krapp’s Last Tape” was enthralled with Jane Austen?); the other is a truly deep learning -- languages, art, philosophy, literature -- and a contempt for pedantry.
The latter takes on a decided edge when it intersects Beckett’s wickedly biting sense of humor. One of his last acts before abandoning what promised to be a dazzling academic career at Trinity was to deliver a lecture to Dublin’s Modern Language Society on an avant- garde French poet and his school, both of which Beckett had invented. He particularly enjoyed the subsequent discussion in which members referred to their own familiarity with the imaginary poet and his circle.
Later in life, Beckett occasionally would torment conventional scholars hoping to discover precisely what had inspired him to write “Waiting for Godot.” The playwright told more than one of them that, during the years covered by these letters, he’d spent a great deal of time in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris reading Augustine -- in Latin -- and had been struck by the theologian’s admonition concerning the two criminals crucified on either side of Christ: “Do not despair, one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume, one of the thieves was damned.”
As the Augustine scholar James J. O’Donnell has pointed out, however, “Thinking of Vladimir and Estragon as the two thieves crucified with Jesus is intriguing, to say the least, and it is wonderfully Beckett-like that the particular passage cannot be found anywhere in the surviving writings of Augustine . . . for all that the language and tenor are quite perfectly Augustinian.” (Beckett once confided to Susan Sontag the more plausible “explanation” that “Godot’s” inspiration was located in the seemingly endless waits he endured while working as a courier with the French Resistance during World War II. Sometimes the person you were intended to meet showed up; sometimes they didn’t -- and all around were death and the anxiety of death. Though he later dismissed his service as “boy scout work,” Beckett was awarded the Croix de Guerre.)
As Knowlson points out in his biography -- and it makes a useful companion to read alongside these letters -- Beckett abandoned Trinity first of all, because he felt a corrosive contempt for this students and a distaste for his colleagues’ culture: “Scholarly wit and sarcasm sounded all too often like exhibitionism, bitchiness and character assassination.” Moreover, Beckett would write, “How can one write here, when every day vulgarizes one’s hostility and turns anger into irritation and petulance?”
In these reactions and in Beckett’s letters from the period, we glimpse the beginning of a profound transformation in which, as Knowlson says, “the arrogant, disturbed, narcissistic young man . . . evolved into someone who was noted later for his extraordinary kindness, courtesy, concern, generosity and almost saintly ‘good works.’ ” (Beckett donated his cash award for the 1969 Nobel Prize to charity and struggling writers.)
The years covered by these letters also are the ones in which Beckett would lay the intellectual and experiential foundations for the great leap into the new that his writing would make in the 1940s. Writing to his great friend, poet and art historian Tom McGreevy, in the fall of 1932, he says: “I’m in mourning for the integrity . . . I find in Homer & Dante & Racine & sometimes Rimbaud, the integrity of the eyelids coming down before the brain knows of grit in the wind.”
In this letter to German editor and translator Axel Kaun, we catch an intimation of what is to come: “It is indeed getting more and more difficult 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?”
Here the stage is set for what Beckett would later call “the siege in the room,” the four years from 1946 to 1950, when he worked in solitude, abandoned English composition for French and stripped his work of every ornament and stylistic device to become the writer we now esteem. It marked his fundamental departure out of the shadow of Joyce
If those years also produced an inner chronicle of revealing correspondence, then the second volume in this series will be valuable, indeed.
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