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By Bruce Jacobs

beckettThe Letters of Samuel Beckett
Volume I: 1929-1940
Edited by Martha Dow Fehsenfeld and Lois More Overbeck
Cambridge University Press ($50.00, 782 pp.)

Samuel Beckett, 1969 Nobel Prize winner and one of the giants of 20th century literature, wrote over 15,000 letters; and those are only the ones the editors of The Letters of Samuel Beckett have tracked down and transcribed. Who knows how many others are stashed in boxes across the world; for Beckett was one who answered nearly every letter he received.

Cambridge University Press has inherited the task of publishing and annotating these letters (albeit only 7500 make the cut for direct inclusion or footnoting) which will result in a four volume set, the first of which arrived in January of 2009. At fifty bucks and 800 pages, it takes commitment. Go ahead, commit. You may find no better place to put your money or your time this year.

We know Beckett best for his most famous work, the play “Waiting for Godot” (the English translation by Beckett himself of the original French “En Attendant Godot’), which unfortunately has been analyzed to death in every schoolroom in the world. For those who know him only for this work––he has been compartmentalized into THE definition of the minimalist “Theater of the Absurd”––his letters show us a much different man, one for whom the world is large, deep, and rich for the mining.

While Volume I of The Letters includes only letters from the years 1929-1940 when Beckett (born on April 13, 1906) was a young man, they show him to be a young man with a big appetite for travel, painting, music, and of course literature. In fact, his earliest published works were not novels or plays but a collection of poems (“Whoroscope” 1930) and a critical study of Proust (“Proust” 1931). He didn’t publish a play until “Godot” in 1952.

We are fortunate that Beckett was such a careful correspondent, for his letters reveal much about his insatiable reading, his visits to museums and concerts, his friendships with other writers and artists, his struggles for publication, the second-guessing he endured by editors intent on revising his work, his many physical aches and pains, and his efforts to become fluent in French and German during his residences in France and Germany.

Because his authorization to publish his letters (received in 1985, more than twenty years before publication) stipulated that only those related to “his work” be included, we find very few addressing his romantic involvements of the time. Perhaps more of this side of his personal life will find its way into later volumes.

The Cambridge editors Martha Dow Fehsenfeld and Lois More Overbeck and their team (a project of this magnitude clearly needs plenty of bench strength) have included extraordinarily rich annotations of each letter. They have marshaled top translators since Beckett was fond of mixing languages, and depending on his correspondent, wrote many letters in German and French. As a result of these efforts, The Letters of Samuel Beckett not only provides insight into Beckett’s life but also illustrates the intellectual world of the time…and what a world it was.

Proust, Kant, Dickens, Darwin, Balzac, Goethe, Austen – Beckett reads them. Joyce, Yeats, Gide, Sartre, Hemingway, Eliot – Beckett knows them. Little escapes him: “I made a desperate effort to get something started on Gide and failed again. I began a poem yesterday…a blank unsighted kind of thing, but looking at it, it is clear that it can never turn out to be more than mildly entertaining at the best. The old story – ardour and fervor absent or faked so that what happens may be slick enough verse but not a poem at all. I seem to spend a lot of time in the National Gallery, looking at the Poussin Entombment and coming stealthily down the stairs into the charming toy brightness of the German room to the Brueghels and the Masters of the Tired Eyes and Silver Windows. The young woman of Rembrandt is splendid.” All this in just one paragraph of a letter to his friend the Irish poet Thomas McGreevy in 1932; picture thousands of these pieces spread out over these letters and you’ll have a portrait of a great mind at work.

After hearing a lecture by Carl Jung, Beckett critically notes: “I can’t imagine his curing a fly of neurosis, & yet he is said to have actually cured cases of schizophrenia. If this is true he is the first to do it. He insists on patients having their horoscopes cast!” Or, after lamenting pesky autograph seekers (“Aren’t people shits? Signed photographs, signed books, signed menus…I suppose [they] would feel honored if Joyce signed a piece of his used toilet paper.”), he ruminates on his own reading: “I have been doing a little tapirising & reading Keats, you’ll be sorry to hear. I like the crouching brooding quality in Keats – squatting on the moss, crushing a petal, licking his lips & rubbing his hands, ‘counting the last oozings, hours by hours.’”

Like many geniuses, perhaps, the young Beckett is full of self-doubt and restlessness. He writes from Hamburg in 1936: “Ireland? I feel nothing but the dread at having to return. I can’t read, write, drink, think, feel, or move. I seem impelled to address my friends when least in a condition to. People like me – for a little. That is worse than being disliked from the beginning. I hope I am not obscure. Where it hurts? No aim need be taken. It doesn’t hurt anywhere. And is worked up into hurt everywhere. I feel like an anaesthetized Sebastian affecting to choke back his cries.”

The image that emerges from the Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1929-1940 is a way of living that may forever be gone from us. The lanky, young, handsome Beckett moves among the cities of Europe visiting museums, drinking and smoking in the cafes, reading and conversing in various salons, speaking and learning new languages, and always staying in touch by letter with other writers, publishers, artists, friends, and family. It seems like a more forgiving world than ours, a world where individual behavior off the norm is tolerated and even expected. Ideas and arts mattered – as much to be discussed and critiqued as to be appreciated.

As our world of social communication evolves from cafes and correspondence to internet chatter among Facebook, Twitter, email, text messages, and other non-archival media, how can the dialogues of today’s writers and artists be retrieved 80 years from now for a collection encompassing a lifetime of thought?

Will we even have commercially available books and libraries (let alone editors and translators compensably employed to do twenty years of research before publication)? Will all art be transitory and performance based? Will music be unattributed tunes streaming Pandora-like according to our own design? Will tobacco, caffeine, alcohol, and other elixirs be regulated out of common use? Will language dissolve into a cacography of grunts, gestures, and abbreviations like the ubiquitous yo, hey, and later?

It would be nice to think that my fear of the death of Letters is driven more by the current pendulum swing than any real wholesale change in our need to write down our thoughts; but just in case I’m right, an investment in The Letters of Samuel Beckett may be the safest way to preserve something of at least one wonderfully full intellectual life.


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