The search for fewest possible words: Beckett letters shed light on artist who shunned fame


The second volume of Samuel Beckett’s correspondence was launched in the author’s adopted city yesterday

“I KNEW him pretty well, and I’m discovering a lot of things,” said Edward Beckett, standing in the expansive courtyard of the Bibliothèque Sainte-Barbe, musing about new glimpses into the life of his late, famously private uncle. “It sheds a lot of light on his friendships, and more generally. It’s illuminating, even for people who knew him very well.”

Moments earlier, he had joined in the applause as Barry McGovern and the French actor Rufus came off stage to a racket of approval after their bilingual readings from the latest volume of Samuel Beckett’s collected letters. With evening falling, the bookshelves of the old library had lit up behind the actors and an audience of hundreds heard the writer’s inner voice come to life once more in his adoptive city.

The official launch of The Letters of Samuel Beckett 1941-1956,the second volume in a colossal scholarly project set in train two decades ago, was a multinational occasion. It was a celebration of Beckett’s own gift for moving between cultures and of the cross-border collaboration – French, Irish, American, British – behind the new book.

For George Craig, a co-editor and translator on the project, it was the culmination of a long effort that brought him “passion, excitement and joy”. It began in 1985, when Samuel Beckett authorised Martha Dow Fehsenfeld and Lois More Overbeck to edit his letters. They gathered and consulted more than 15,000 pieces of correspondence in public and private hands, and the new collection is the second of four planned volumes.

“This vast body of words could have two effects on you: one is to crush you absolutely, the other is to make you feel more and more attached to the business of dealing with it,” Craig reflected.

So which was it? “I liked him more at the end. I found that all those qualities that I thought I’d seen in him actually are his qualities, and he retained them until the end. A moral generosity. An enormous depth of loyalty. And a total refusal to see fame as adding anything of value.”

The new volume spans a period of intense creativity for Beckett. After spending the war years hiding in unoccupied France, he takes the decision to write his imaginative works in French. He acts on it, producing stories, novels and a play, Waiting for Godot, that will turn him into a figure of international renown. Half of the letters in the new volume are in French, making it, as Craig puts it, “a translator’s dream, a translator’s nightmare”.

The constant linguistic shifts, added Ireland’s Ambassador to France, Paul Kavanagh, were also a measure of how thoroughly Beckett managed to absorb and negotiate two cultures, Irish and French.

“Aware of his long personal journey, and of the complexity of his relationship with his native country . . . it is fitting for me to salute his memory in a spirit of respect, both for the great dignity of his personal choices and for his seminal genius,” Kavanagh said.

Beckett was reluctant at first to allow any of his correspondence to be published, but eventually agreed on condition that only letters that had a bearing on his work should enter the public domain. The editors have respected that wish – “very much so, with me looking over their shoulders”, his nephew Edward, executor of the Beckett estate, said with a smile.

Whereas Joyce included everything on the page, the new tranche of Beckett’s letters trace his ascetic search for the fewest possible words to say what he had to say. “It nearly killed him to do it, but he went after it, and the kind of tenacity, the constant willingness to serve that impulse and a refusal to do anything else until it was done struck me as being wholly admirable characteristics,” Craig said. “And enormously endearing, because they were never based in vanity.”

Did Edward think his uncle would have liked to see his letters arouse such interest? He mulls over it for a second. “No, I don’t think he would, actually,” he replies, and can’t help but laugh.