Most of us have probably heard the Samuel Beckett story about how the writer and a friend were out strolling on a fine summer’s day (on their way to a cricket match in some versions). The friend pauses, looks around him, and remarks: “What a beautiful day! It would make you glad to be alive.” To which Becket replies: “Oh, I wouldn’t go that far.”
Stefan Collini’s review in the London Review of Books of the fourth and final volume of The Letters of Samuel Beckett (Cambridge University Press, £29.99) focuses particularly on this glum side of the writer and dramatist (was there another side? – well perhaps several, though of course he wasn’t exactly the “I’m mad, me” type).
“Faced with the threatening possibility of hope,” Collini begins, “Beckett liked to get his retaliation in first. ‘Downhill begins this year,’ he announced with grim satisfaction in 1966 [in which year he was sixty]. Even this may have been a slip, allowing the possibility of there having been an ‘up’ from which to come down.”
The picture is not universally bleak: experiencing severe dental pain, he remarks that speech and eating have become almost impossible. “But drink and silence unimpaired.” And in this comment there seems to be something bursting through that one would certainly hesitate to call joie de vivre but ... “Moments here when it’s not as bad as all that to be not quite dead.”
How, one might ask, could Beckett be so (almost always) miserable and yet so (relatively) frequently funny about it? My guess on this one is that it is simply (?) that we are complex beings, capable of feeling, and being, a number of things almost simultaneously, or at any rate in quick succession. As reviewers of each volume of Beckett’s letters have pointed out, he was always politely accommodating to those who wrote to him (though he dreaded wasting time on “footling” matters) and he was enormously financially generous, not just to friends but to friends of friends (though he can’t be said to have thought much of humanity).
George Orwell, who was just as hostile to Catholicism – or at any rate to political Catholicism – as he was to Stalinist communism, once expounded the view that Catholics couldn’t possibly really believe in damnation and salvation, heaven and hell since they were always telling jokes about it (as a child I heard scores about St Peter at the gates, interviewing the latest unlikely bunch of new arrivals ‑ Paisley, Liberace and Gerry Fitt featured in one, I think). Yet Catholics did, back then, mostly believe, most of the time, in the literal truth of what, as children, they had been taught about the hereafter. This did not mean they wanted to go around in a permanent state of terror: hence the jokes; hence indeed the sins. And just because one can – and sometimes must – joke about it, that doesn’t mean one doesn’t have a plain and bleak view of what is involved in human existence – a bird flies into the brightly lit hall were the warriors are feasting, the Anglo-Saxons had it; and then out the other end. One hopes it managed to pick up a few crumbs.
The final volume of Beckett’s letters was reviewed in the November issue of the drb by Anthony Roche: http://www.drb.ie/essays/the-last-ditch
Space to Think, an anthology bringing together more than fifty of the best pieces to have appeared in the Dublin Review of Books since its foundation ten years ago, was published in October. Selling in the shops at €25, it is also available to order online at a special price of €20 (to collect in Dublin) or €20 + post and packing charges as appropriate for shipping to addresses in Ireland and internationally. To buy online, follow the steps from the home page of our website.
One piece featured in Space to Think is “Much the Same”, Benjamin Keatinge’s 2012 review of the second volume of Beckett’s letters. Here is an extract:
As one reads these letters, one is struck as much by certain continuities in Beckett’s career as by the very obvious discontinuities. There are indeed important turning points: Beckett’s resignation from Trinity in 1931, his abandonment of Ireland in 1937, his wartime experiences in the Resistance and the flagrant success of En attendant Godot in 1953. Equally, Beckett’s writings show an uneven and unpredictable line of development. There is a gulf between More Pricks Than Kicks (1934) and the more achieved prose of Murphy (1938) and similarly between these and the wartime novel Watt and the Trilogy and post-Trilogy prose. Having said this, it is apparent that philosophical positions laid out, often in obscure publications, in the 1930s, hold good for the mature writer. By the same token, Beckett was a loyal and tenacious friend and correspondent, so that when he re-emerges after the war, he picks up with his old network of associates and friends ‑ George Reavey, the van Veldes, Con Leventhal, Ethna McCarthy, as well as with George Belmont/Pelorson, whose wartime record contrasted with that of Beckett – in a way which demonstrates Beckett’s well-known generosity of spirit, sometimes absent in Volume 1 of the Letters. At the same time, this volume shows Beckett developing a new network of friends – publishers like Jérôme Lindon and Barney Rosset, actors like Roger Blin, translators like Richard Seaver and Elmar Tophoven – whom he trusted to interpret, publish and promote his work. The period 1945-1956 charts this re-emergence (with 1945 being the real starting date of the book), which is also a period of prodigious professional growth and artistic achievement.
Nonetheless, as letter after letter testifies, for Beckett “the essential doesn’t change” and a deeply ingrained pessimism, tempered by sympathy and loyalty, pervades these pages, as one would perhaps expect it to.