A Critic at Large
Samuel Beckett’s life in letters.
by Anthony Lane
March 30, 2009 TNY
Beckett thought about escaping the writing life and becoming a pilot or a filmmaker.
;“The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume I: 1929-1940” (Cambridge; $50)
;Martha Dow Fehsenfeld
;Lois More Overbeck
At the end of January, 1958, the first American production of Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame” opened, at the Cherry Lane Theatre. The idea of Beckett playing on Commerce Street is rich in irony, and the director, Alan Schneider, and his cast would have been all too aware of the fate that had befallen “Waiting for Godot” when that play received its national première, two years earlier. Advertised, perhaps unwisely, as “the laugh sensation of two continents,” “Godot” had opened at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, in Miami, and closed after two weeks, having led some viewers to inquire if one of the continents in question had been Antarctica. Beckett himself had been not just stoical but positively braced, as was made clear in a letter to Schneider:
Success and failure on the public level never mattered much to me, in fact I feel much more at home with the latter, having breathed deep of its vivifying air all my writing life up to the last couple of years.
Such can be the privilege of a poet and prose writer, especially one with ambitions as fearsome and uningratiating as Beckett’s; but it is small comfort to anyone in the theatre business, and Schneider was determined that the first-night fiasco of “Godot” was not to be repeated. With that in mind, he sent queries to the author about various cruces in the text, to which Beckett responded in detail; his replies covered everything from pre-Socratic philosophers to brands of dog biscuit. Thus equipped, Schneider prepared an article on “Endgame,” to be printed in the Times on the weekend before the opening. The idea was to soften the ground for nervous newcomers, and incorporate some of Beckett’s advisory comments, from his correspondence with Schneider. The author was not pleased. “I do not like publication of letters,” he wrote Schneider. (The Times never ran the piece.) Later that year, Beckett toughened his position: “I prefer those letters not to be republished and quite frankly, dear Alan, I do not want any of my letters to anyone to be published anywhere, either in the petit pendant or the long après.” And here we are, more than half a century after the dog biscuits, with the petit pendant—the little now—dead and gone, and the long thereafter in full swing, and what do we find? Seven hundred pages of Beckett’s letters, nearly three pounds in weight, with another three bricks to come.
For a man of few words, Beckett wrote an awful lot of them. To date, some fifteen thousand letters have been found, and, from that trove, the more pertinent have now been plucked. The question is, to what do they pertain? First came “No Author Better Served: The Correspondence of Samuel Beckett and Alan Schneider,” published in 1998, nine years after the author’s death, and revolving mostly around the staging of the plays. This month, we have “The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume I: 1929-1940” (Cambridge; $50), edited by Martha Dow Fehsenfeld and Lois More Overbeck, who, in an introduction, give us the lowdown: “The four volumes of selected letters will present about 2,500 letters with another 5,000 quoted in the annotations.” As for the criteria by which that selection has been arrived at, it was Beckett himself who laid the trail, in 1985. Reasoning, perhaps, that if it were done then ’twere well it were done by those who take trouble, he reconsidered his stubborn stance of the nineteen-fifties and authorized an edition of his correspondence. The editing, he explained, would involve “its reduction to those passages only having bearing on my work.” That sounds so simple, but the ambiguity is fiendish enough to keep the hounds confused. How, for instance, does the following bear on his work?
When I’ve posted this I’ll go & have a Turkish bath & stupefy my nerves in sweaty duration. My person is developing dirty habits.
The editors’ footnote to this letter of 1931 is hygienically exact: “At this time, Trinity College Dublin did not have bathing facilities; the Turkish bath on Lincoln Place and another on Leinster Street were the two nearest to TCD.” That is good to know, but, still, where does “my person” end and the business of writing begin? Should we adhere to a Cartesian division of the two, or is it not more honest to admit that the making of literature, at the nib’s end, is not so much a noble calling as one of the “dirty habits” to which an author is compelled, no more or less mysterious than the call of the bathroom or the temptations of the fridge? When the letter was written, Beckett was twenty-four, in the first stirrings of his creative prose, and about to plunge into “Dream of Fair to Middling Women,” the headlong novel that he completed the following year. Its hero, Belacqua, who reappeared in “More Pricks Than Kicks,” Beckett’s 1934 collection of linked tales, is a fetid fellow: “He sat not looking, his head sunk, plucking vaguely at his filthy old trousers.” He is, in short, a precursor of those who populate the books of Beckett’s maturity: the encased, the unwashed, the mendicant, and all those curled up as if against the onset of a kicking. So, yes, maybe that “sweaty duration” of 1931 is of scholarly interest after all.
In which case, why start this volume in 1929? There are no reports here from Beckett’s boyhood; nothing from his well-to-do rearing in a middle-class Protestant home in Dublin, or his attendance at Portora Royal School, a boarding school in County Fermanagh, where he excelled not just academically but in sports, too—rugby, swimming, boxing, and cricket. In 1923, he moved on to Trinity College Dublin. From there, too, one imagines, he would have written letters home: to his mother, May, his father, William, or his beloved brother, Frank. But, if they have survived, they are not in this book; is it really an impertinence to wish that they were? The events, or the peaceful non-events, of a writer’s first two decades can do more than the impress of adult life to forge and brand the published work, and Beckett is no exception—as someone who wrote a study of Proust, in 1931, he was well versed in the unearthing of a buried young self. Much of his later work harks back to earlier years, even if the harking is riven with pain or regret; “Company,” for instance, from 1980, recasts a fitful set of incidents from Beckett’s farthest past, as he confessed to his authorized biographer, James Knowlson. Even one letter from that time, as plain as can be, would have been invaluable—a godsend, you might say, although Beckett would have disputed the existence of the sender. He was once asked, when testifying in a libel case, whether he was a Christian, a Jew, or an atheist. “None of the three,” he replied.
As it is, our story begins in 1929. It is a peripatetic one: Beckett, having triumphed in examinations and graduated from Trinity College Dublin, at the end of 1927, taught first in a Belfast school and then in Paris as a lecturer in English at the École Normale Supérieure, which is far more superior than normal. He also met Joyce, reading aloud to him in his gathering blindness, and contributing to a book of essays on “Finnegans Wake.” In 1930, Beckett returned to Trinity as a lecturer in French; his parents would have been as proud of this prestigious appointment as they were aghast when he resigned from it, in January, 1932, slipping the moorings of a regular profession in favor of more uncertain waters. Henceforth, his time was split largely between Dublin, Paris, and London, with a spell in Germany from the fall of 1936 to the spring of the following year. The year 1938 was notable for the publication of his first novel, “Murphy,” and for a French pimp by the misleading name of Prudent, who stabbed Beckett in the street, just missing the heart. “I don’t know why, sir, I’m sorry,” he said, when his victim inquired about a motive. When war was declared, on September 3, 1939, Beckett was with his mother in Ireland, which was and would remain a neutral country. The next day, he returned to France.
Laid upon this bare outline, in the course of the letters, is a palimpsest of all the other things that Beckett could have done, or sought to do, but never did. He put in for lectureships at Cape Town and Milan, though with little expectation, or even hope, of success. “Now that I have assembled testimonials,” he wrote of the South African plan, in 1937, “I am in a position to abstain from applying.” He also toyed with the notion of becoming an airline pilot. How any of his passengers could have been confident of reaching their destination, or indeed of taking off in the first place, is open to grave debate, but Beckett was bent on flying:
I hope I am not too old to take it up seriously, nor too stupid about machines to qualify as a commercial pilot. I do not feel like spending the rest of my life writing books that no one will read. It is not as though I wanted to write them.
Three months beforehand, in March, 1936, he had written—and this is hard to believe, even as one reads it—to Sergei Eisenstein, in Moscow, confessing to an interest in “the scenario and editing end” of cinema. “I am anxious to make contact with your mastery of these, and beg you to consider me a serious cinéaste worthy of admission to your school,” he added. There was no reply, and we are left to ponder what unholy offspring might have resulted from their collaboration, and what the director of “Battleship Potemkin” would have made of Beckett’s hope that “the industrial film will become so completely naturalistic, in stereoscopic colour and gramophonic sound, that a back water may be created for the two-dimensional silent film that had barely emerged from its rudiments when it was swamped.”
As has been documented elsewhere, Beckett also devoted extensive thought and reading to a play about Dr. Johnson; in particular, about his long companionship with Hester Thrale and the fracture between them caused by her being widowed and remarried—“she had none of that need to suffer, or necessity of suffering, that he had,” Beckett remarks in a letter of 1937. He filled three notebooks with preparations for the play, “Human Wishes,” of which fewer than twelve pages were eventually composed. But it was not time wasted, because the modern melancholic had found a kindred low spirit, someone equally mortified by the ease with which life could waste away. The Johnson to whom he was drawn was not the “snappy or wisecracky” Doctor who emerged, he thought, from the “wit and wisdom machine” of Boswell but the “tragic figure” that we find in the more private reckonings: “there can hardly have been many so completely at sea in their solitude as he was or so horrifiedly aware of it,” Beckett writes to his great friend Thomas McGreevy, adding, “Read the Prayers & Meditations if you don’t believe me.” Do what Beckett says, and you come upon passages like this: “A kind of strange oblivion has overspread me, so that I know not what has become of the last year; and perceive that incidents and intelligence pass over me without leaving any impression.” That is Johnson, in 1764, and the young Irishman of 1937, who in the same letter to McGreevy writes that “I am really indifferent about where I go or what I do, since I don’t seem able to or want to write any more,” has clearly stumbled along the same road of lassitude, and found himself in the same slough of self-disgust.
Johnson, though, whatever his terrors, had confidence in the language that he used to articulate them, whereas Beckett, coming after Joyce, was prey to a further fear—namely, the suspicion that the currency of common language was devalued, and thus no longer adequate to meet the case of his distress. “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,” he wrote in 1937. He would have to forge something new, or dig into old hoards, as in this plaint from the year before: “I can’t imagine anything worse than the mental marasmus, in which I totter & sweat.” “Marasmus,” which Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary of 1755 defines as “a consumption, in which persons waste much of their substance,” joins company in these letters with “quiptificates,” “faex,” “gress,” and “desquamation”—Beckett was fond of the Latinate and the technical—as well as with more gracious inventions, such as “eyedew” for tears, or “daymare” for his waking life. He was also, even more than Joyce, an unrepenting scatologist, and we are treated to an endless, often tiresome flow of fecal puns, some of them embedded in prose too deeply mired in private nudges and expostulations to be enjoyable:
My friends here esquivent the Bones for the more part, which means the bolus has gone home. What shall they say, my not even enemies. May it stick in their anus. “I am sure you were not born with a pop.” But am I not sparkling? Then how should the birth be still? Sois calme, ô mon soûleur. Andersen was the byblow of a Frenchman from the Marne. Ça explique Dieu.
There are lighter equivalents elsewhere, but they are scarcely easier to fathom:
Saw A. and B. last night. Napoleon Danton and Louis quatorzes red heels! Dining with Nancy tomorrow. She says Little Red Riddensnood is selling, but I don’t believe her.
The editors try to soothe us with news that the Riddensnood refers to “Whoroscope,” Beckett’s prize-winning poem of 1930, but somehow that doesn’t help. At moments like these, even hardened Beckettians may feel their thoughts drift toward the peerless parody of a typical writer’s letter, as devised by James Thurber: “B— dropped in yesterday (Icky was out at the time) and gave some sort of report on Neddy but I am afraid I didn’t listen (ut ediendam aut debendo!). He and Liddy are in Venice, I think I gathered, or Newport. What in the world do you suppose came over Buppa that Great Night? ? ?” Thurber even supplied some matching explanatory footnotes, such as “Probably Harry Boynton or his brother Norton.” The first volume of the Beckett correspondence can do better than that: “It may have been Douglass ffrench-Mullen (1893-1943) who was boarding with Cissie Beckett in Moyne Road, Rathgar; Mt. Venus, near Woodtown, Co. Dublin, is a cromlech.” You bet it is.
How, then, does one start to recommend this dense agglomeration of ire and indecision? Beckett was no Byron; nobody could maintain that the letters brim with a zest that exceeds the range of the printed works. A day spent with “Murphy” will give you a sharper, funnier portrait of the artist as a young man. Still, if you want to trace the tributaries of that book’s mournful wit to their source, the letters are invaluable; the beautiful kite-flying scene that ends the novel—“the ludicrous fever of toys struggling skyward, the sky itself more and more remote, the wind tearing the awning of cloud to tatters”—is lifted from the elderly Londoners whom Beckett saw at the Round Pond in Kensington Gardens, doing much the same. He reported his vision to McGreevy in 1935: “They fly them almost out of sight, yesterday it was over the trees to the south, into an absolutely cloudless viridescent evening sky.” The correspondent’s phrasing has a natural, gusty soar to it, but the novel takes it higher.
This happens time and again in the letters, sometimes pointing to a leap of many years. When Beckett calls someone a morpion—originally a crab louse, and thus a term of irritated scorn—we are spirited ahead to Act II of “Godot,” in which Estragon flicks the word at Vladimir. Likewise, we have always known that when Winnie, sifting through scraps of memory in “Happy Days,” plucks out the words “beechen green,” she is quoting Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale”; but now we know that, three decades before, the playwright was admitting to McGreevy that “I like that crouching brooding quality in Keats—squatting on the moss, crushing a petal, licking his lips & rubbing his hands.” The attraction, he added, lay in the “thick soft damp green richness” of the poems. These connections matter not just because they will excite the herds of hunter-gatherers who cluster, rather too zealously, around the field of Beckett studies but because, to any reader who can spare a little sweat, the prospect of “Word-storming in the name of beauty,” as Beckett labels it here, is enough to quicken the heart—or, at any rate, what Hamm, in “Endgame,” calls the “heart in my head.”
What we have here is not historically uncommon: the early progress of an intensely clever, emotionally febrile figure, whose worries are further chafed by his dismay at seeing how directionless that progress feels. When Beckett turns to Schopenhauer (again, a traditional path), in 1930, it is for the philosopher’s “intellectual justification of unhappiness—the greatest that has ever been attempted.” There is more than a tinge of Goethe’s Young Werther, who would have been lost without his sorrows; except that his were triggered by frustrated love, whereas the Beckett who stalks through these letters seems almost indecently loveless. True, there are fleeting mentions of his cousin Peggy Sinclair, to whom he had been close in the late nineteen-twenties. In “Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett,” James Knowlson claims that she had “initiated, then led, their sexual explorations,” and that Beckett’s urge to explore further, with other women, is confirmed by “the less discreet parts” of his correspondence, but, if so, these have been filed away by the finer discretion of the editors. “I had a nice friendly postcard from Peggy from the North Sea” is about as stormy as we get. She died, of tuberculosis, less than three years later, earning a frighteningly austere tribute from Beckett to McGreevy: “It appears that she and her fiancé had lately been indulging in regular paroxysms of plans of what they would do when they were married. She has been cremated.” The fiancé is said to be “inconsolable,” although whether Beckett himself required consoling, or whether he was striving to present himself as someone with no such needs, is impossible to gauge.
The Beckett who appears before us, in other words, in his middle to late twenties is already fully formed in his froideurs: another reason for one’s annoyance at the starting date of this edition, for one would dearly like to know if there was ever a time when his narrow-eyed distrust of worldly conventions—and what many of us would embrace as conventional pleasures—was not in place. “This life is terrible and I dont understand how it can be endured,” he writes to McGreevy in 1930. “Quip—that most foul malady—Scandal & KINDNESS.” Unpacked, this means two things. First, he was encountering the gossipy, keen-witted backchat of the Common Room at Trinity; and, second, he was living at home, in the Dublin suburb of Foxrock, while he taught. There are worse things than a family trying to be decent and encouraging toward its brilliant son, but, for Beckett, what he endured at Cooldrinagh—the family home, with its summerhouse, servants, and tennis court—was purgatorial.
What lit the flame, and never ceased to fuel it, was Beckett’s relationship with his mother, May. All we glimpse here is the occasional flare; there is not a single letter addressed to her, but whether that absence is by editorial decree, or because the pages were lost or destroyed, there is no way of telling. One thing seems certain: without his mother’s influence, some of Beckett’s most consuming contributions to literature, including “Happy Days,” “Company,” and the short plays “Rockaby” and “Footfalls” (which has a character named May), would not exist. You do not have to construe all storytelling as memoir to be startled by the immediacy of “From an Abandoned Work,” a curt masterpiece from 1957, whose first sentence reads, “Up bright and early that day, I was young then, feeling awful, and out, mother hanging out of the window in her nightdress weeping and waving.” What we derive, from the letters, is a record of the anxiety attacks that descended on Beckett when he was under the same roof as May, and of the plentiful sessions of psychotherapy that he underwent in London, in the hope of a cure—sessions that were paid for by Mrs. Beckett. (A delicious circular irony, for Freudians who relish such things.) “Mother’s whole idea of course is to get me committed to life here,” he writes from Foxrock in 1936, the word “committed” dangerously poised between “dedicated” and “put away,” as in a mental asylum. Very occasionally, he states the matter with a clarity that knocks the breath out of you: “I am what her savage loving has made me, and it is good that one of us should accept that finally.” According to Knowlson, the explosion between them that preceded this confession (the details of the scene remain obscure) was sufficient to propel May away from the family home for a while, and Beckett away for good. Soon afterward, he moved to Paris.
Not all was crushed. “The only plane on which I feel my defeat not proven is the literary,” he had written the previous year, and what renders this collection, for all its tics and indulgences, far more of a spur than a letdown is the slowly welling sense of a writer mustering his powers. The letters that stir me most are not those in which Beckett grapples with family tensions, or rues the indifference of publishers, but those which find him at recitals, in front of paintings, or drowned in a book. That is no mean affair; the only thing that separates the writer from ordinary folk—and, far from making him or her a better or wiser person, let alone a more amenable one, it can redouble the force of solitude, “one’s ultimate hard irreducible inorganic singleness”—is that the reading of a poem, or the pondering of a Crucifixion, becomes an event. Not a diversion, a flight, or a release from chores but an experience no less transformative than a day in bed with a lover—especially if, as in Beckett’s case, lovers were scarce. So it is, with unfeigned envy, that we find him in Berlin, in 1937, discerning “love’s epilepsy” in a passage of Beethoven’s “Leonore” Overture, or in London, in 1934, listening to the Busch Quartet play Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13, Op. 130, and hymning the “calm finality” of the Cavatina. (Almost forty years later, his play “Ghost Trio” would be folded around snatches of a Beethoven trio.) Beckett was blessed to be alive when regular concertgoers could catch performances by Vladimir Horowitz, Jacques Thibaud, and Alfred Cortot, or a production of Falla’s “The Three-Cornered Hat” with set and costumes by Picasso and choreography by Massine. Being Beckett, of course, he did not always count those blessings, belittling the Cortot program as “a disappointment” and unleashing his sarcasm at the Berlin Philharmonic, under Wilhelm Furtwängler, when they came to London in 1934 and played Schumann’s Fourth Symphony. Their 1953 performance of the same work is among the crown jewels of recorded sound, but to Beckett’s ears the conductor was “murderous” with the score. “Mr Furtwängler, like the good Nazi he is, cannot tolerate mysteries,” he wrote.
It was partly in pursuit of mysteries that Beckett travelled to Germany two years later. Some readers will be amazed at how seldom he stands back and surveys the wider convulsions of the society that he has entered. How could one be there, so close to war, and not see—or, at least, not record—any acts of repression or shows of force? Should we not blame the bespectacled Beckett for his short moral sight? The fact is that, at this juncture, his was still a fearful nature, his focus of interest tight, his spirits mounting only in the contemplation of the two-dimensional sublime; alone, he went from town to town, spending his days in galleries and sending back elaborate notes to McGreevy—on a self-portrait by Giorgione, for instance (“I visited him every day for a week”), and an Antonello da Messina, “the tiny figures of the quick in the background gossiping and making appointments, under a paradisal sky.” (In the foreground is the martyrdom of St. Sebastian.) That was in Dresden, and Beckett surely came across the Caspar David Friedrich of “Two Men Contemplating the Moon” in the same gallery, and its near-twin in Berlin, but, if so, he failed to comment: a shame, since he would later concede that the composition they enshrine was a source for his pair of tramps in “Waiting for Godot.”
Between the lines of art-historical notation, however, there was some registering of pressure. Beckett pursued (and sometimes found) modern German art, by painters such as Emil Nolde, that had been deemed degenerate by the Nazis and stored away from the eyes of a corruptible public. He also reported, in March, 1937, the “very terrified tone” of a Munich publisher from whom he attempted to buy a book of drawings that had been banned by the Bavarian Political Police. What we get, in other words, is the first hint of those engulfing shifts to which both his practical life and his consciousness would be subject in the coming years. This first volume ends in 1940; the last letter is dated June 10th, two days before he left Paris, and four days before the Germans arrived. Ahead lay Beckett’s work for the French Resistance, which he dismissed as “boy-scout stuff,” but which saw him barely escaping capture by the Gestapo when his cell of resisters was betrayed, and which later earned him the Croix de Guerre. Ahead, too, lay the decisive period in Saint-Lô, Normandy, where, in 1945, as part of an Irish Red Cross team, he worked to set up a hospital, in a place all but annihilated by the conflict. The desolation that he witnessed there, amid what the locals described as “the Capital of Ruins,” furnished the heavy, littered landscapes of his most celebrated plays and his most uncompromising fiction, and the unhappiness bred by the war required no “intellectual justification.” It was physically there, in bombed-out buildings, and it belonged to other souls, less fortunate than himself.
The youthful worrier of these compelling letters, who suggested that “the man condemned to death is less afraid than I,” was not lying; Beckett was neither a poser nor a hysteric, and there was precious little peacetime under his mother’s gaze. But from now on he would have friends condemned to real death, and would grow acquainted with forms of human behavior to which neither of his younger selves—the home-stricken solipsist and the frowning scholar—would have an answer. In a magnificent letter of 1932, to McGreevy, Beckett had chastised one of his own poems for being facultatif, or optional. It did not, he said, “represent a necessity.” These letters are a quest for necessity—for what must be written about, at whatever cost. As the long book closes, the necessities loom; in that respect, Samuel Beckett, for once, had nothing to fear. ♦