The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1941–1956, volume 2 of a projected four-part compendium, is an endless Chinese banquet at which all but the most determined gourmands are likely to feel stuffed somewhere between the crispy pig ears and the thousand-year eggs: Some may thrill to the hairpin turns and daredevil high jinks involved in the translation of Molloy from French into English, but many with more than a glancing interest in Beckett may find by page 200 or so that his correspondence and its staggeringly detailed footnotes have, to torture a phrase from Jane Austen, delighted them quite enough for one evening and will put this tubby, ill-proportioned book aside until that fortuitous and chimerical month in the country they’ve set aside to read Proust in his entirety.
From an archival standpoint, the scholarly apparatus attached to these letters is impeccable, though it was Beckett’s ukase that only letters with bearing on his work be selected for publication. As a result, a lot of what the editors have included here—responses to fussy editorial queries, business negotiations, and fine points of translation—would be utterly opaque without exegesis. Footnotes are so profuse that the rare, perfunctory missives without them look almost forlorn.
The worst to be said of the massive research appended is that it fractures any sense of an unfolding personal narrative of the kind one gathers from reading the letters of Chekhov, say, or Rosa Luxemburg; what does “go forward” is Beckett’s steady refinement of an aesthetic, his insistence on a severe, pristine, ascetic literary practice that extends to the presentation of his plays—this volume mainly deals with Godot, and to a lesser extent with Endgame, the indicated staging of which was informed by Beckett’s exhaustive knowledge of representational painting. With Happy Days, Beckett proceeded to distill theatrical spectacle into increasingly static, painting-like tableaux. “I do not believe in collaboration between the arts,” he writes, startlingly, to the art critic Georges Duthuit. “I want a theater reduced to its own means, speech and acting, without painting, without music, without embellishments.”
As we learn from letters to various theater directors, Beckett was by no means as strict about enforcing his own vision as has often been claimed. (“You ask me for my ideas about En attendant Godot, extracts from which you are doing me the honour of putting on. . . . I know no more about this play than anyone who manages to read it attentively.”) His personal fondness for Roger Blin, among others, allowed for a good deal of leeway with respect to staging and mise-en-scène, though when Beckett directed his own plays, and sometimes when merely advising a production, he often reduced actors to jelly with his notes. One gets the feeling that if he hadn’t been terribly shy, he would have preferred to act all the parts himself, since he had quite elaborate ideas about every detail. After the period covered by this volume, Beckett found his ideal interpreters in Jack MacGowran, Billie Whitelaw, and David Warrilow; here, the early productions of Godot were highly troublesome, as it seemed every big-name actor from Ralph Richardson to Marlon Brando wanted to bring his special magic to Beckett’s austere masterpiece, but never did so, either because of manifest incomprehension or scheduling problems.
Little brilliantines of excremental wisdom, blithe self-contempt, and unassuageable futility make up for a great deal of numbing palaver over payments and book deals; Beckett often refers to his own writing as shit, or snot, or a turd swirling in a toilet bowl. (“My God how I hate my own work,” he wrote in 1956.) He is allergic to any kind of publicity and refuses to give interviews, sit on panels, or indulge in the careerism of writers’ conferences and literary festivals. One can’t help admiring this extreme self-effacement, considering the fatuous self-promotion so typical of the literary world today. If the business correspondence of this volume is occasionally redundant and tiring, the collected e-mails of the current OK list promise to be so much worse!
Beckett’s enthusiasms are often a surprise. He declares The Catcher in the Rye the best thing he’s read in years, and remarks on the “extraordinary pathos” of Barbara Stanwyck in Chaînes du destin (released in the US as No Man of Her Own). The austere image of Beckett conjured by his work, which could make him seem to exist entirely on his own frosty planet, has eroded over the years. It was once difficult to imagine him swimming, or playing tennis, and it is still rather startling to learn that he also played golf. The more important revelation in the letters is the great range and perspicacity of Beckett’s interests, in music, painting, dance; in this connection, his activity as a translator of other people’s writing (de Sade, Ponge, Bataille, Genet) reflects an engagement with the cultural matrix around him one would never suspect after reading Watt or Malone Dies.
There is, less surprisingly, the kind of hypochondriacal complaining that most writers, trapped at a desk with their swirling innards a favored distraction, are wont to interrupt themselves with. We hear much about Beckett’s implacable, recurring cysts, dental mishaps, episodes of writer’s block, spells of depression, and other maladies. This sort of casual information places him squarely inside the familiar, etiolated universe of his fiction and theater; it’s interesting to see how closely Beckett’s work mirrors a chronic state of physical distress. Interesting too that Beckett’s discomfort living in his own skin never leads him in real life into the kind of misanthropy his characters often lug around with them from bog to bog.
Beckett’s inexplicable enthusiasm for the paintings of Bram van Velde, articulated at ponderous length on what feels like every third page, occasions many intriguing reflections on the plastic arts in general. In van Velde, Beckett seems to have discovered a kind of dead-ended, self-contained practice he imagines to be the visual equivalent of his prose; in this connection, the reader might apply Beckett’s views on this artist to more plausible exemplars like Dubuffet or Giacometti. In any case, Beckett’s avid support for an appreciably less fascinating friend reflects an appealing generosity and kindness that everyone who knew him has remarked on.
Aside from hard-to-imagine love letters, the most conspicuous lacuna here is the absence of any correspondence from the period between 1941 and 1945, when Beckett and his companion, Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, evaded the occupying Germans, finding refuge with friends and acquaintances in various French cities and towns before settling in a small house in Roussillon in the Vaucluse—a village advantageously out of the way that served as a storage depot and meeting point for the maquis. Since Beckett was a noncombatant partisan in the French Resistance, this longueur was arguably the most interesting period of his life, and it’s a pity no publishable letters survive from it.
Gary Indiana is the author of seven novels and six books of nonfiction.