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George O' Brien

The Letters of Samuel Beckett 1929-1940, by Samuel Beckett, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld and Lois More Overbeck (eds), Cambridge University Press, 782 pp, £35.00, ISBN: 978-0521867931

The opening sentence of the editors’ introduction to this imposing, revealing and altogether most welcome work concludes with the word “intensity”. And while it would be foolish to search for le mot juste to describe something as various as a person’s correspondence, never mind a correspondence like Beckett’s, where verbal heterogeneity is present to an exceptional, not to say aggravated, degree, “intensity” is a word that does convey one of the basic dispositions and tonalities of the gifted and unhappy young man who haunts these pages – so much so, indeed, that “intensity” may be thought of as a subjective counterweight to the objective experiences of failure which loom so dauntingly large, and in so many realms, throughout the years in question.

But before going on to elaborate on this volume’s expression of such a psychological economy, a word or two about the book itself, the first of four projected volumes which when complete will have published over two thousand of the fifteen thousand pieces of correspondence the editors have located and transcribed. Judging by this exemplary inaugural selection, the overall enterprise promises to be an extraordinary commitment, not only to the scholarly virtues of patience, concentration and scrupulousness but to a deep sense of the cultural value of the writer as a twentieth-century avatar. It’s not difficult to imagine periodic cries of “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on” from the editors and their understandably large team (including associate editors Dan Gunn and George Craig), particularly since we’re told the path to publication was not smooth.

The most obvious instance of editorial endeavour is the remarkable amount of detailed annotation provided: the bibliography comes to thirty closely printed pages, and the annotations also excerpt additional letters. Not surprisingly, one of the pictures of Beckett which emerges from these years is that of someone who was not only exceptionally well-read but of someone who was a compulsive reader – mostly, as the 1930s went on, in French and German, with now and then some Italian. Every book he read seems to be accounted for, and relevant editions cited. His voracious reading (an expression of intensity in itself, even without the outbursts of asperity in which it often resulted) was supplemented by an only slightly less keen appetite for painting and music, which elicit even more impressive feats of editorial hunting and gathering. Programmes of concerts at the Wigmore Hall, which Beckett attended during his London sojourns, are given in full. The provenance, attribution and current whereabouts of paintings he viewed – or one might say absorbed, his memory of them is so precise – are comprehensively explicated. In the case of the visual arts, such data is of special value in the context of Beckett’s extensive tour of Germany from September 1936 to April 1937, a time when the Nazi move against so-called entartete Kunst (degenerate art) was gathering force – the notorious exhibition of confiscated works was held in Munich from July to November 1937. Neither naive nor engagé, Beckett’s awareness of these conditions did not deter him in the least from his pursuit of artistic expressions of a European outlook far different from that of the Third Reich, nor was he at all deterred from making the acquaintance of artists and collectors vulnerable to official cultural prescriptions.

Given the time and care devoted to the annotations, it seems ungrateful to carp. But cases of too much information do occur. It’s not clear if readers really need the poet of the Cantos to be named as Ezra Loomis Pound or to know that Joyce’s friend’s name was Paul Léopoldovitch Léon, that The Odyssey is “attributed to Homer (eighth century BC)” or that Bastille Day falls on July 14th. The Hôtel Corneille in Paris makes an appearance as a landfall for Thomas McGreevy; Joyce and Synge stayed there before him but the connection is missed. Not that it matters much indeed. As is often the case, scholars prove to be on insecure ground when it comes to Irish matters. Beckett seems to be making a complicated pun on Castlecomer (“Castle Cromer”), but the editors just say “Castlecromer is a coal mining town in Co. Kilkenny”, while Connaught is said to include “Connemara, Lough Corrib, and Clonmacnoise”. And, for a tilly, one typo: “Alan Alexander Milne (1882-1566)”. All very petty of course and who cares? Well, the editors obviously do, and needless to say no amount of pedantry can tarnish what they have retrieved and clarified: the “Profiles” appendix, for instance, featuring brief characterisations of important figures and cultural entities in Beckett’s early years – Ethna MancCarthy, transition, Alfred Péron, to take a random sampling – is in itself most useful and informative.

In making their selection of letters, the editors have been guided by Beckett himself, “when he gave permission to publish ‘those passages only having bearing on my work’”. But of course the line between life and work is difficult to demarcate, and if drawn is anything but straight. As these letters cover the years during which Beckett was in the throes of his extended formation as man and artist, the relationship between life and work is even more than usually complicated and fraught (as the autobiographical aspects of Dream of Fair to Middling Women and More Pricks than Kicks, especially, bear out). Beckett may have considered a withdrawal from, or abandonment of, personality to be a consummation devoutly to be wished, like Murphy, whose parodic pursuit of such an effacement does not necessarily vitiate its attraction. But there remains the world outside the self, particularly the realm in which the personalities of others make their inviolable reality known. Needless to say, that realm, largely known by the word and how others utter it, give it and keep it, cannot help but touch on Beckett’s engagement with writing. Beckett was twenty-three in 1929, and already, the ground upon which to represent the silence begotten of the difference of self and the difference of others was being tacitly surveyed. No wonder he was so in need of artistic sustenance. The silence of reading, the mute condition of painting, the soundless sphere in which music implicitly locates its fundamental structural principle, may all be recognised as striking and necessary interludes of appeasement, necessary heightenings of awareness, where what counts more than anything else is the persuasive availability of the not-I. Indeed, on a good day, that’s what these expressive forms provide to the exclusion of anything else. Even the activities Beckett liked – walking, cricket, golf, tennis – have something of a solitary, quiescent bearing to them.

The flight from self, or perhaps the super-sensitive awareness of the inutility of self, is in various respects a response to loss, to losses incurred by the self and, more especially, the losses constituting a seemingly inexhaustible experience of others’ losses. These two zones of loss are not easily, or necessarily, separable. But just to take Beckett’s own experience of himself: there is, in no particular order, a loss of health, sometimes from psychosomatic causes; the loss of faith in a conventional career path in academia, first at Trinity, then in various half-hearted attempts to find work abroad, including an application to work in film with Eisenstein (the least half-hearted, which appears not to have received a reply), to lecture in Italian at the University of Cape Town (initially, “I am not thinking of applying”, then he sends a copy of his CV), a post as a translator in Geneva, on the application for which he forgets to sign his name; and the obvious loss of faith, such as it was, in Church and State.

In the case of the Church it is highly interesting to read of his tactful and serious critique of The Imitation of Christ – “I, who seem never to have had the least faculty or disposition for the supernatural.” (Thomas McGreevy, his mainstay and in this book his chief correspondent during these years, recommended reading it.) As for the Free State, the quality of freedom espoused in it attains its apotheosis, as far as Beckett is concerned, in the suit for libel against Oliver St John Gogarty brought by William “Boss” Sinclair, Beckett’s uncle by marriage, in the course of which Beckett was denounced from the bench.

Losses within the family loom even larger than these various failures to comply with prefabricated orthodoxies of any kind – his father’s death largest of all, undoubtedly, but there are also the insoluble conflicts in his relationship with his mother (“I am what her savage loving has made me”), and a feeling of powerlessness and guilt regarding his overworked brother, Frank, the reluctant but dutiful inheritor of the family business. Though there are no letters home here, there are many lines to McGreevy through which the state of tension back in Foxrock can be read, not to mention the fact of Beckett’s psychoanalysis (paid for by his mother). There are also tender tributes to his father’s memory, expressed with uncharacteristic straightforwardness.

Add to all this the death of his beloved cousin, Peggy Sinclair (she was twenty-two); a general sense of emotional uncertainty (as he writes to Nuala Costello, a young woman from Tuam whom he first met at Giorgio Joyce’s, “It’s a great handicap to me in all my anabases and stases that I can’t express myself in a straightforward manner, and that I cannot behave in a way that has the most tenuous propriety of relationship to circumstance”); the knowledge of Lucia Joyce’s rapidly deteriorating mental health – even while, as late as 1935, “[t]he Lucia ember flared up & fizzled out. But more of that viva voce”; and a couple of car crashes, in one of which Ethna McCarthy was badly hurt. The cumulative effect can readily come across as overwhelming and incomprehensible. It seems superfluous to add that Beckett was also stabbed by a pimp in Paris and almost lost his life. This misfortune, about which The Irish Times ran a number of reports, took place on the Feast of the Epiphany 1938, some six weeks after the judge in the Gogarty libel case determined that he was pretty much persona non grata. Not very good timing. But the Joyces, among others, were very good to him during his fortnight in hospital; Nora, whose favourite Beckett was not, brought him some of her custard pudding.

Such a litany of trouble brings to mind TS Eliot’s remark about Baudelaire: “he was man enough to be damned.” And yet ... despite the all too obviously unjustified and irrational cruelties – or perhaps they might be viewed even as failures – of life, Beckett was also quite active throughout these years. Torpid, unwell, withdrawn, idle and depressed though he was prone to be, particularly when living at home, where these difficulties seemed to be perceived by his mother as offences against the status quo, the letters reveal his comprehensive awareness of and alertness to Dublin’s various literary currents. His dismissal of “Ireland To-day, the latest rag” and of the group associated with it, which included “the pestiferous Michael Farrell” and “All Forlorn” (Beckett’s nickname for Sean O’Faolain) is perhaps to be expected. So, in contrast, are his friendships with Denis Devlin and Brian Coffey, though these did not inhibit scathing critiques of some of their work and attitudes. Relations between Beckett and the Dublin Magazine circle were more complicated, and he published some of his poems there. But Austin Clarke continued to receive caustic treatment, as did, though very much in passing, Francis Stuart’s horsey lifestyle. McGreevy was kept informed of the latest purchases and other matters of note in the National Gallery, where Beckett spent hours. His views on the collection and on the institution’s management and hanging policies remain instructive, not to mention historically valuable (one of the jobs he applied for was that of assistant curator at the National Gallery, London). As is well known, his one great resource in Dublin was Jack Yeats, for whose work he had such a penetrating appreciation and whose studio he visited regularly. Less well known, and more intriguing, is his getting to know the Gilmore brothers, George and Charlie.

Regardless of the value he attached to the fact, Beckett was certainly in the know as far as Dublin literary and cultural life went. Not going far enough was the problem that life had; not surprisingly, the dreadful thought occurred to him that “I’ll be here till I die, creeping along genteel roads on a stranger’s bike”. This problem did not affect him with quite the same acuteness or persistence in Paris, where he was also extremely well connected, not only through having taught at the École Normale Supérieure and being associated with Shem the Penman (“just a very lovable human being”), but also – thanks to Nancy Cunard – as a poet, translator and jazz aficionado. He reports receiving “a very calm letter from Lucia [Joyce], advising me to accept the world and go to parties”. And while he might have been slower than most to accept the first piece of advice, he did, in spite of misgivings, take to Paris parties. His work translating material for Cunard’s Negro Anthology, even if to some extent it was drudgery and led Beckett mistakenly to imagine he might earn a living as a reviewer, essayist and general man of letters, exposed him to discourses and forms with which he was not perhaps wholly familiar and whose influence may be inferred from his description of Murphy as a work of “compression.” And although Beckett was never going to be a book-a-year writer, his output during the thirties was not exactly thin – a book of criticism, Proust; a book of poems, Echo’s Bones and Other Precipitates; a book of stories, More Pricks than Kicks; and a novel, Murphy, in the eventual publication of which by Routledge, Jack Yeats, whose novels were published by the same house, was instrumental. (Another novel, Dream of Fair to Middling Women, and a play, Eleutheria, and the beginnings of another play about Samuel Johnson, were also written in this decade. These all appeared after Beckett’s death.) Not a bad rate of striking at all.

In all of these works, language is placed under stresses of different kinds; syntax, vocabulary and narrative form are required to perform in unexpected and frequently offputting ways, as though carrying such a charge of expressive demands that it is obliged to go out of its way to discharge them. This verbal intensity is very much of a piece with the correspondence, to such a degree that these letters seem to be rehearsing it. Not alone do we hear of Aldous Huxley’s Cunt Pointercunt and of a week in the calendar “between Noel and Sylvester” (the latter a name for New Year’s Eve). What is arguably the best-known letter here, written from Dublin in 1937 to Axel Kaun, a German acquaintance, declares:

It is indeed getting more and more difficult, even pointless, 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 it is most efficiently abused ... To drill one hole after another into it until that which lurks behind, be it something or nothing, starts seeping through – I cannot imagine a higher goal for today’s writer.

In this outrageous and disturbing statement, the burden of which Beckett artfully placed on such narrators as Molloy and Malone, one catches sight of an inclination to claim language itself as a dead loss. For to what might language be true? What is the primary tenor of experience but homelessness, lovelessness, an elaborate syntax of deprivation and destitution which common usage (as opposed to the unfamiliar abuse that is the writer’s work) cannot, and does not, wish to admit, much less articulate.

Say, for example, that Beckett took seriously the statement by Kant that “human reason has this peculiar fate, that in one species of its knowledge it is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer”. (And Beckett took pretty much everything seriously, plus he certainly knew his Kant, having imported a thirteen-volume edition of the philosopher’s complete works from Germany to Paris.) He would undoubtedly appreciate the scope for satire and self-mockery in Kant’s paradoxical point. But in it he would have also perceived a certain linguistic terminus, one with which discursive undertakings cannot help but flirt if they are to be at all worthy of the occasion. It goes without saying that Beckett’s need to expose the ineffectuality of his inherited idiom has an objective intellectual interest and warrant – one whose appeal for him is not difficult to determine, namely language’s ultimate inclination towards silence. But his exposure is also representative of a rupture between self and others, between the pressure to know, formulate and articulate one’s state of mind and dealing with those who let the language of the tribe dictate what they were thinking, and their conception of what could be thought. The letter to Axel Kaun was written in 1937. Three years earlier, Beckett was writing to his cousin, Morris Sinclair: “No sooner do I take up my pen to compose something in English than I get the feeling of being ‘de-personified’, if one may use such a marvellous expression.”


As though to confirm that in another sense too he did not have the makings of an English writer, the place where Beckett lived with least success in these years was London. That seems an odd statement, in view of his having English publishers, though with the exception of an editor named Charles Prentice (a Scot) at “Shatupon and Windup”, Beckett’s work was not especially welcome. Nor were his attempts to find reviewing and related work, and he seems not to have made any significant artistic friends there or expended much effort to make them. Yet it was there that a most important encounter between language and silence took place, in the form of his psychoanalysis under WR Bion of the Tavistock Clinic. Without necessarily holding out much hope for the process (“I fear the analysis is going to turn out a failure”), the choice not to abandon it is noteworthy – he’d had, after all, many failures. Even if “I feel I must squabble with Bion” were all he wished to say about the sessions, that in itself presupposes a use of language that had some value. It is not difficult to infer that in Bion, or in the therapeutic transaction, Beckett found someone to talk to, something to address, a certain way of speaking, perhaps, a certain way of negotiating silence or of perceiving what ends silence was serving. Here, possibly, was a resting place for loss and means proposed whereby forms might be found to accommodate intensity. At any rate, to adapt the phrase from Endgame, “something was taking its course”.













To claim that the analysis yielded discernible positive results is not only presumptuous, of course, but also mistakes the nature of analysis. Still, in the letter in which Beckett responds to The Imitation of Christ, there is the following remarkable and uncharacteristic outburst:







For me the position is really a simple & straightforward one, or was until complicated by analysis, obviously necessarily. For years I was unhappy, consciously and deliberately ever since I left school & went into T.C.D., so that I isolated myself more & more, undertook less & less & lent myself to a crescendo of disparagement of others & myself. But in all that there was nothing that struck me as morbid. The misery & solitude & apathy & the sneers were the elements of an index of superiority & guaranteed the feeling of arrogant “otherness”, which seemed as right & natural & as little morbid as the ways in which it was not so much expressed as implied & reserved & kept available for a possible utterance in the future. It was not until that way of living, or rather negation of living, developed such terrifying physical symptoms that it could no longer be pursued, that I became aware of anything morbid in myself.


And it goes on like this for almost another page. On his return to Foxrock a kind of wary truce with his mother was observed, and when that broke down, Beckett left for good. He is not long in Paris before the stabbing takes place. Soon after that he is having an affair with Peggy Guggenheim. The year is 1938. In the spring of the following year, Beckett is writing to McGreevy: “If there is a war, as I fear there must be soon, I shall place myself at the disposition of this country.” France, he means. And so he did, joining the Resistance, and entered into history, one source, surely, of his postwar masterpieces’ enactment of the dislocated and the terminal.

“Fight. Fight. Fight.” Those were among Beckett’s father’s last words to him. Difficult words. But they were taken to heart – in as much as it’s possible to say with any confidence. As Beckett himself said, in Proust: “We cannot know and we cannot be known.” Even so, we must be grateful for the opportunity this magnificent work of scholarship provides to reflect on what there is to be known, and the conflicts and crises its subject underwent in his fidelity to the strange, demanding and all too human need to speak his mind.

George O' Brien is Professor of English at Georgetown University, Washington. His publications include the noted memoir The Village of Longing.