The Letters of Samuel Beckett 1966-1989 review: 30 years of extraordinary work
All praise to the editors for deciphering the writer’s notorious handwriting, glossing oblique references to people and places, and hunting down glancing literary quotations
Writing life: Samuel Beckett in France in 1977. Photograph: Louis Monier/Gamma-Rapho via Getty
The Letters of Samuel Beckett Volume 4: 1966-1989
Edited by George Craig, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Dan Gunn and Lois More Overbeck
Cambridge University Press
‘It will be a most difficult job,” Samuel Beckett writes to Martha Dow Fehsenfeld in March 1985, authorising her to edit his letters. And indeed it has been. The letters published in the 750 pages of this fourth volume represent only a fraction of those available. For each one Beckett’s notoriously illegible handwriting had to be deciphered, his oblique references to people and places glossed, his glancing literary quotations hunted down in English, French, German and Italian.
So all praise to the editiorial team: Fehsenfeld herself; Lois More Overbeck, the general editor; Dan Gunn, who contributed the magisterial introduction to this volume; and George Craig, with his brilliant French translator’s preface. No one will envy them their 31 years’ hard labour; all readers will appreciate their extraordinary achievement.
This volume covers the last third of Beckett’s writing life. The heroic period of The Trilogy, Waiting for Godot, Endgame and Happy Days is over. The works get more and more minimalist and threaten to stop altogether. Blocked writer’s complaints pepper the letters: “work at a standstill . . . not a tremor”; “work becalmed and leaking in shark-infested water”.
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And yet, under cover of silence, there continues to be a remarkable level of productivity. Take 1976. That year included premieres of Footfalls and That Time in English and German (the latter directed by Beckett), the television plays Ghost Trio and . . . but the clouds . . . , as well as the composition in 10 days of the admittedly tiny Neither for setting by the composer Morton Feldman.
Not bad for a man in his 70th year.
Beckett’s level of control over his works, how they were published and how the plays were staged was well known. Yet somehow it is not possessive and proprietorial. In a letter to the New York theatre director Joseph Chaikin he ends each piece of minutely prescriptive advice with the ironically repeated “but you know what authors are”.
It is as though his completed works became autonomous things, of which he is only the custodian. “I have not the right to renege on my work”, he says to Martin Esslin, turning down the suggestion of a radio version of Happy Days. He rejected a first approach by the Comédie-Française to stage Waiting for Godot; he was eventually to relent: “it’s the play itself which asks to remain without ties”.
He felt that the public acclaim that came with his award of the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1969, was a sort of intrusion on the right to privacy of the writing: “I hope the work will forgive me and let me near it again.”
Courteous and companionable
“Forgive” is one of the most often repeated words through the letters: forgiveness for a delay in answering letters – he received thousands and responded to them all – for not being able to agree to a request for a public appearance, for his unwillingness to take on one more directing assigmment. This was the most courteous of men and, remarkably, given his reclusive reputation, one of the most companionable.
A heavy drinker, he was on the tear with Harold Pinter until 5am, we hear, at dinner with friends in favourite Paris restaurants, celebrating with actors after productions.
He keeps scrupulously in touch with old friends, such as the writer and activist Kay Boyle, in California, or the Trinity College Dublin lecturer Con Leventhal; there are warm and unfailingly loyal letters to his closest colleagues, the American director Alan Schneider, the English theatre designer Jocelyn Herbert and the actors Billie Whitelaw and Patrick Magee.
Yet there is a protected private self throughout. His wife, Suzanne Dechevaux- Dumesnil, with whom he lived for 50 years and who accompanied him on long holidays in north Africa, Malta and Italy, gets only a handful of references.
Terrifyingly, he warns his long-term lover Barbara Bray: “Don’t ask me to prise open my heart. Nasty black stuff would come out.”
Irish family and friends figure regularly among his correspondents. Although he made his last visit to Ireland in 1968 he never forgot Ireland. “I sometimes go over the old Irish haunts in my mind,” he remarks; when he cannot sleep he replays golf games on the Carrickmines course.
Yet the very attractiveness of Ireland for him seems to have been something like a trap or a temptation. Returning to Paris after that last, 1968 visit, he comments: “The sea and mountains were looking marvellous. I was glad to get back here, out of their clutches.”
Allergic to attitudinising
How political a writer was Beckett? He was clearly allergic to the histrionic attitudinising in so much politics. In a letter to Theodor Adorno, who shared his suspicion of the 1968 student movement, he asked: “Was ever such rightness joined to such foolishness?” And yet he stood staunchly with oppressed people and peoples, dedicating his play Catastrophe to the imprisoned Václav Havel, and refusing to allow productions of his plays in South Africa before segregated audiences. A phrase he uses about a Russian sculpture by Vadim Sidur might aptly be applied to his own work: “a speechlessness of indignation and compassion”.
Inevitably, for a man in this late phase of his life, many of the letters are moving and evidently sincere letters of condolence. With failing health – an abscess on the lung at one point, cataract operations, the crippling condition of the hands that stopped his piano playing – he is always aware of his own approaching end. There are passages in the letters that read like a piece of Beckett prose or poetry in the inching of consciousness towards death: “I try to think, with what mind remains, that now is the time at last, the chance at last, in these remains, with those remains, though think is not the word, at last not the word.”
But there is also the stoicism of the twice-quoted remark of his uncle Gerald on the sudden death of his much-loved father. He said to the widow: “Well, May, he’s got it over.”
The last letter in this book is dated November 19th, 1989; by December 22nd Samuel Beckett had finally got it over.
Nicholas Grene is emeritus professor of English literature at Trinity College Dublin