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Not a word from Geoffrey

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In August 1934 Samuel Beckett was at his mother’s house in the Dublin suburb of Foxrock. In a letter to his friend Thomas McGreevy, he commented on the psychoanalysis he had been undergoing in London with Wilfred Bion: ‘It is only now that I begin to realize what the analysis has done for me,’ he wrote.

And now I am obliged to accept the whole panic as psychoneurotic – which leaves me in a hurry to get back & get on. Had a long walk with Geoffrey Sunday to Enniskerry & got soaked. He likes you very much & hopes to be writing to you soon.

The ‘whole panic’ is the series of heart palpitations that drove Beckett to seek medical help. Geoffrey is Geoffrey Thompson, an old school and university friend, now a doctor, who consulted with him about his symptoms and advised him to move to London for psychoanalysis.

Geoffrey Thompson was my grandfather. Following him through Martha Dow Fehsenfeld and Lois More Overbeck’s edition of Beckett’s letters was like taking a core sample of a friendship through six decades. I never met Geoffrey, and I had never had a sense of his life from the inside; but here, embedded in four thick volumes of edited correspondence, were fragments of what felt like a private story to be pieced together.

Back in London in March 1935, Beckett wrote to McGreevy:

It was with a specific fear & a specific complaint that I went to Geoffrey, then to Bion, to learn that the ‘specific fear & complaint’ was the least important symptom of a diseased condition that began in a time which I could not remember, in my ‘pre-history’, a bubble on the puddle; and that the fatuous torments which I had treasured as denoting the superior man were all part of the same pathology.

Brooding on his own unhappiness, he wasn’t too miserable to pass on a little news:

I spent an evening with Geoffrey and to-day I am going down to Eden Park to spend afternoon & evening. He is in excellent form and is now attached to the outpatients psychological department at Bart’s, so that he can proceed to little analyses on his own!

When Beckett mentioned Geoffrey in letters at this time, it was usually to McGreevy, and usually with a mixture of affection and resentment. ‘No news from Geoffrey,’ he wrote in May 1935. ‘C’est l’amour.’ Geoffrey had met a schoolteacher called Ursula Stenhouse, my grandmother. Beckett did not welcome the new claim on his old friend’s attention. ‘I never see Geoffrey,’ he wrote to McGreevy in October 1935. ‘He is leaving Bethlem at the end of this month, & so far as I know his plan to get married on Nov. 2nd still holds good, with me holding the hat [acting as best man]. What a bloody nuisance.’

As well as irritating Beckett by falling in love, Geoffrey had been working at the Bethlem Royal Hospital. Beckett visited, and reported to McGreevy that he went round the wards ‘with scarcely any sense of horror, though I saw everything, from mild depression to profound dementia.’ He was writing Murphy. His tours of the wards seem to have helped him with the section of the novel in which the ‘seedy solipsist’ gets a job as a psychiatric nurse.

The newly married Geoffrey was not being a very satisfactory friend. ‘No news at all lately from Geoffrey,’ Beckett told McGreevy in February 1936:

I came across all the “Surrealism and Madness” texts I translated for Titus and sent them to him with the Eluard and Breton Essais de Simulation … Perhaps these were too much for him.

This was gentle mockery, but it gave way to a glum refrain. March 1936: ‘No news at all from Geoffrey, except indirectly that he is “idyllically” happy.’ May: ‘No news at all from Geoffrey, & his brother Alan has had none for a long time.’ June: ‘Not a word from Geoffrey, for about 3 months.’ Later that month: ‘No news at all from Geoffrey.’

If he was neglectful, it was not simply a case of married bliss. Adult life was closing in. In July 1936 Beckett told McGreevy he had finally heard from Geoffrey, who was ‘worked to death’ at the Maudsley hospital and longing to ‘escape’ into psychoanalysis; Ursula was ill with chicken pox; the following month Geoffrey’s mother died suddenly, and his brother Alan also fell ill. The friendship was becoming a matter more of principle than of practice. Beckett thought of Geoffrey when he was arguing with a publisher who wanted him to cut large sections of Murphy, as he explained to Mary Manning Howe:

I am exhorted to ablate 33.3 recurring to all eternity of my work. I have thought of a better plan. Take every 500th word, punctuate carefully and publish a poem in prose in the Paris Daily Mail. Then the rest separately and privately, with a forewarning from Geoffrey, as the ravings of a schizoid.

In December 1936, Beckett reported to McGreevy that Geoffrey was ‘well dug in at Harley Street, with more patients than he can manage’. Geoffrey’s marriage seemed to present a continuing problem. In March 1937, as Beckett prepared to stop over in London on the way back to Dublin from Germany, he told McGreevy:

I have pre-vented an invitation from Geoffrey by writing a card to Mrs Frost, asking her to put me up for a week, for I don’t expect to stay longer in London. If Geoffrey were alone I would be glad to stay with him, but not as it is.

Months went past and each life went its own way. Geoffrey sent Beckett an advertisement for a job as a translator in Geneva; Beckett, still casting around, named Geoffrey as a referee in his application for a post at the University of Cape Town. Whatever the difficulty with Ursula had been, it was getting easier. At the end of 1937, Beckett told Manning Howe that he had seen Geoffrey and Ursula each time he passed through London ‘and found them much easier and better than so far. She has improved in appearance, got more definition, and in certain combinations of mood, light, ebriety and seminal intoxication has a very beautiful exterior.’ He was even willing to countenance communications with her interior: in January 1938 he told McGreevy that he had received ‘a long letter from Ursula & replied to them jointly at equal length.’

Beckett suggested to James Joyce that he consult Geoffrey about his daughter’s mental illness. Geoffrey ‘wrote very nicely’ to Beckett about Murphy shortly after it was published. In a letter to McGreevy, Beckett sketched the life of the young psychiatrist: ‘He is working from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., with short intervals to snatch food, and complains of poverty. He & Bion take piano lessons.’ Still there was the sense of drifting apart. The refrain came again – ‘Not a word from Geoffrey’ – and in June 1939 Beckett wrote to McGreevy in a tone of resignation:

I have lost touch altogether with Geoffrey. But if I was in the kind of trouble that he deals in I would go to him and, I know, be helped as before. He may think I stay in London on my ways through & don’t look him up, which has never been the case.

The war came down between them (Geoffrey was an army psychiatrist in England during Beckett’s resistance years) and afterwards they no longer seemed so close. In 1945, when Beckett travelled to St Lô to volunteer for the Irish Red Cross, he went with Geoffrey’s brother Alan. When Beckett’s mother was ill in 1948, it was Alan who took care of her, and when an edition of Waiting for Godot was published in 1954, it was Alan, not Geoffrey, to whom Beckett sent a copy; Beckett consulted Alan when Tom McGreevy was ill with heart trouble in 1961, and when McGreevy died in 1967, Alan wrote to Beckett about his end.

I was reading the letters in suspense and with a kind of jealousy. Had Beckett’s affections really shifted from one Thompson ancestor to another? Was the friendship finished?

In June 1976, Beckett replied to what he called a ‘terrifyingly interrogatory’ letter from Geoffrey: the Irish broadcaster RTÉ had asked Geoffrey to take part in a programme about Beckett’s life, and he wanted to confirm biographical details and dates. Beckett obliged, asking him to ‘soft pedal’ the long-ago analysis with Bion. A month later he wrote to Geoffrey again:

I am speechless on the subject of my work. But I look forward to hearing more about your reactions. That it should so occupy a mind such as yours is for me mightily flattering.
I shall be back in London first fortnight of October for a BBC television job. Let us meet then without fail, if not before. All September I shall be in Berlin to direct the 2 new plays.
Affectionately to you all.

I couldn’t help feeling this was a happy end. Their relations as young men in the 1930s had been close but rather fraught, and had seemed to wither in the middle of their lives; but now, at the age of seventy, they were finding a renewed affection, deeper and simpler than before. Whatever affinity had drawn them to one another as schoolboys in the 1920s was still there.

None too soon. Four months later, in November 1976, Beckett wrote to Robert Steen:

I dined with Geoffrey in London about 10 days before his death. He was in excellent form and looking forward to 5 more years of private practice. I was hardly back in Paris when news came from Ursula (his wife) of his death. A massive heart attack, he was gone in a few seconds … He was very dear to me.

It is fanciful to suppose that the dramatic shape in which the friendship seemed to emerge from the letters, with its ups and downs and eventual resolution, bore much relation to reality. For one thing, the editors of the published correspondence selected their material on the basis of relevance to Beckett’s work, not to his private friendships; for another, Geoffrey kept few of Beckett’s letters, so a great part of what passed directly between them is not to be known.

Beckett carried on writing to Ursula occasionally. I have a postcard that he sent her from Tangiers in 1977, the year after Geoffrey’s death. The message is characteristic of its writer – a terse, kindly, unflinching expression of sympathy with someone in pain – and perhaps this card, all by itself, contains enough of the truth about the friendship. The final reference to Geoffrey in the published letters is a short note sent from Paris in January 1989:

Dear Ursula,
Forgive tardy thanks for your moving greetings.
Yes, dear Geoffrey much with me, how he helped me – and still does.
Much love to you all
Sam

Sam Thompson’s novel ‘Jott’, based on the friendship between Samuel Beckett and Geoffrey Thompson, is out now from JM Originals.

Comments

  1. Simon Wood says:

    Is it fanciful to suppose that Beckett was as demanding a friend as his books?

    And that a psychoanalyst was the best listener for him, saying, as they do, nothing, and that this rigorous discipline of silence as opposed to reactive chatter further fed into his work, making it even more demanding?

    I have always been a big fan of Beckett and scared to hell of him. I am therefore keenly interested in Sam’s novel “Jott”, based so attentively as it is on the letters.

    This is one for the doctor’s waiting room, the bleak train station, the park bench.


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