In literary annals, 2009 may well go down as the year that saw the publication of not this or that novel, set of poems, or “important” theory book, but, quirkily enough, the first of four promised volumes of the letters of Samuel Beckett. As Joseph O’Neill put it in the cover story for the New York Times Book Review of April 5, “an elating cultural moment is upon us.” That sentiment has been echoed by many other reviews: In the March 11 TLS, Gabriel Josipovici takes Beckett’s letters to be, along with those of Keats and Kafka, among “the ten or twenty greatest books of their time.”
Can a writer’s letters—occasional and ephemeral as these tend to be—really qualify as great literature? In Beckett’s case, yes. For here is the most reticent of twentieth-century writers—one who refused to explain his plays and fictions, wrote almost no formal literary criticism, and refused to attend his own Nobel Prize ceremony—revealing himself in letter after letter as warm, playful, unfailingly polite even at his most vituperative and scatological, irreverent but never cynical, and, above all, a brilliant stylist whose learning is without the slightest pretension or preciosity.
Ironically, we might not know this new Beckett had he not written so many letters to his close Irish friend Tom McGreevy (they constitute the bulk of the present volume). Fortunately for us, McGreevy, a sophisticated writer-editor–art connoisseur who had met Beckett in Paris in 1928 when both were briefly lecteurs at the École Normale, was as peripatetic as his peer: He was likely to be in London when Beckett was in Paris, in Dublin when Beckett was in Germany. Thus the correspondence, at least throughout the ’30s, never flagged. Writing to prospective editors and publishers or to the women in his life, Beckett could be guarded and remote. But writing to “my dear Tom,” he is curiously candid and intimate, with results that will surprise even those quite familiar with Beckett’s biography and oeuvre. Indeed, although Beckett’s editors had to conform to the author’s mandate to include “those passages only having bearing on my work”—a mandate obviously open to interpretation and hence delaying publication for decades, while the editors and publishers hashed out rules and procedures with the estate—the letters to McGreevy, which seamlessly merge the personal and the professional, are among the most revelatory documents we have about the prewar Beckett.
The gradual formation of Beckett’s aesthetic is perhaps the central narrative of the youthful correspondence. In a 1937 letter to his German friend Axel Kaun, the future creator of Waiting for Godot (1955) explains:
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 where it is most efficiently abused.
Beckett goes on to tell Kaun that the “dissonance of instrument and usage” he longs for “has nothing at all to do with [the] programme” laid out in “the most recent work of Joyce,” which must be understood as “an apotheosis of the word.” “Perhaps,” writes Beckett, “Gertrude Stein’s Logographs come closer to what I mean. The fabric of the language has at least become porous.”
This letter (written in German and here reproduced bilingually) has been much cited by scholars as a repudiation of transparent language and “normal” narrative, but read against the correspondence with McGreevy, the attack on “grammar and style” is seen to have a quite particular thrust. First, Beckett was never quite the Joyce disciple his readers have supposed. On the contrary, however hard he may have tried in More Pricks than Kicks (1934) and Murphy (1938), the creation of fictions displaying the systematic mythic and symbolic correspondences of a Ulysses or a Finnegans Wake was never Beckett’s métier. Again, although he wrote a book on Proust, praising his brilliant treatment of time and memory, Beckett had little patience with his analysis of social class or his endless dissections of sexual relationships—for example, that of Charlus and Morel, which Beckett dismisses as “mere bourrage & badly out of control,” indeed “pure Balzac”: in Beckett’s lexicon, a definite insult. “Am reading the Cousine Bette,” he tells McGreevy in 1935. “The bathos of style & thought is so enormous that I wonder is he writing seriously or in parody.”
Beckett, one surmises, had no taste for Romantic excess; nor, for that matter, did he care for the minute cultural analysis of a George Eliot. His taste is for the more robust and large-scale critique of the eighteenth century—of Swift, Diderot, Johnson (he spent much time trying to write a play on Johnson’s relationship to Mrs. Thrale), and especially the “divine Jane” (Austen) and Fielding. Consider the following:
I’m enclosing the only bit of writing that has happened to me since Paris and that does me no particular credit as far as I can judge. I’m enchanted with Joseph Andrews, Jacques and the Vicar of W. in one. The reminiscences of Diderot interest me very much, the ironical replis and giving away of the show pari passu with the show, as when he executes a purely professional apostrophe to Vanity and then observes that something had to be done to spin out a chapter that otherwise would have been too short. And the hero is suggested admirably, almost a physical weight on the page, all thighs and sex, palpitant, like Aminta or a Marivaux prétendant. . . . Such a thing never to have read! I think the very short chapters are an idea.
This is vintage Beckett in conversation with McGreevy: Reading Joseph Andrews in the context of Tasso’s pastorals, Marivaux’s Rococo comedies, and the picaresque Diderot versus the sentimental Oliver Goldsmith, he shifts language registers so naturally that they coalesce.
Yet, and this is obviously a problem for the young Beckett (witness the long troubadour-inspired poem “Serena 1,” appended to this letter, with its excessive allusions and graphic images of a lurid and unredeemable London), he has not yet learned the Fielding lesson of being at once inside (“almost a physical weight on the page”) and outside (“giving away of the show pari passu with the show”) a character’s individual identity. However mimetic the rendering of a particular incident, Fielding’s narrator shifts perspective at will, distancing himself from his own plot and characters. It was not until after the war, when Beckett began his trilogy, that he was able to master—and complicate—such double vision.
But that time was still far away and by no means anticipated by the young Sam. In the interim, the letters track his path from top Trinity College scholar to École Normale lecteur, Dublin pub crawler in battle mode with his mother, London flaneur and patient of the famous psychoanalyst W. R. Bion, and strenuously self-educated art student, making a six-month tour of German museums and galleries. At every step, Beckett was reading voraciously, attending (and reporting on) concerts of classical music, and taking notes on Giorgione or Signorelli. In art, as in literature, it is the eighteenth century that most delighted him: Watteau’s paintings or the architecture of Sanssouci in Potsdam.
Beckett’s travels make for high drama, sometimes tragic, often comic, and always endearing. Here is part of a letter that gives the flavor of his mental state during a London stay (August 1932) in search of potential publishers and/or job prospects:
I sat on the wharf and watched the little steamers dipping their funnels to get under the bridge, and it opening for a big boat to go under. Très emouvant. That’s all I do now—go out about 2 and find some place to sit till the pubs open and get back here about 7 and cook liver and read the Evening News. I couldn’t stand the British Museum any more. Plato & Aristotle & the Gnostics finished me. I bought the Origin of Species yesterday for 6d and never read such badly written catlap. I only remember one thing: blue-eyed cats are always deaf (correlation of variations). I finished Vanity Fair and Cunt Pointercunt. A very painstalling work. . . . I bought Moby Dick to-day for 6d. That’s more like the real stuff. White whales & natural piety. . . . I haven’t opened my mouth except in bars & groceries since you left this day week: to haughty barpersons and black-souled grocers. About going where I don’t know. I suppose I must go home. I haven’t tried to write. The idea itself of writing seems somehow ludicrous. . . . If I could work up some pretext for writing a poem, short story, or anything at all, I would be all right. I suppose I am all right. But I get frightened sometimes at the idea that the itch to write is cured.
Here is a man who cannot write, writing the most immediate and acute prose about his reading, enjoying his wordplay on that “painstalling” novel, Huxley’s Point Counter Point, and inventing jokey epithets for Moby Dick—“White whales & natural piety”—as easily as lyric runs on “haughty barpersons and black-souled grocers.” The “itch to write,” it seems, has hardly been “cured.”
For things to change, perhaps a crisis had to occur, as it did on the night of January 6, 1938, when Beckett, having finally returned to Paris after a terrible scene with his mother, was the victim of an acte gratuit: On a dark Paris street, a drunken stranger accosted him with a knife, stabbing him close to the heart. “How lovely it is being here,” Beckett writes McGreevy from his convalescent bed, “even with a hole in the side. A sunlit surface yesterday brighter than the whole of Ireland’s summer.” The proximity to death, soon to be heightened by the war, jolted Beckett out of his paralytic torpor: He sent McGreevy a new poem, beginning “they come / different and the same”—a poem notably unclotted and intriguingly spare. A new chapter was about to begin. But to read it, we will have to wait for the second volume of these captivating letters.
Marjorie Perloff is the author of Wittgenstein’s Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary (University of Chicago Press, 1996).