Letters of Samuel Beckett: 1957-65 
by George Craig, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Dan Gunn and Lois More Overbeck.
Cambridge, 771 pp., £30, September 2014, 978 0 521 86795 5
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MAN : It’s hard to imagine you with tired eyes, mademoiselle. Perhaps you don’t know, but you have very beautiful eyes.

GIRL : They will be beautiful, monsieur, when the time comes … I’ll put up with whatever is necessary. And after my eyes have been beautiful, they’ll grow dim, as everyone else’s do.

The French​ originals of these lines went out on Paris National Radio on 12 January 1957 in a broadcast of Le Square, adapted by Marguerite Duras from her novel of the same name. A stage version of this ruminative two-hander – a discussion of unhappiness between a young housemaid-cum-nanny and a middle-aged travelling salesman, who get talking on a bench in a quiet Paris square – had been cruelly panned four months earlier: Le Monde’s review had begun by saying that to encourage plays like this would drive theatre to its ‘derniers spasmes’, and after two weeks the producers pulled the plug. The broadcast found a more receptive listener in Samuel Beckett, who wasn’t only in favour of an art of last gasps but had recently been brooding on radio drama as a pure play of sound and silence. ‘Merveilleux, merveilleux,’ he wrote the same day in a note to Duras, whom he didn’t know. Two days later, he was telling Donald McWhinnie at the BBC, which had just broadcast his first radio play, All That Fall, that Le Square was ‘overwhelmingly moving – to me’, and, he imagined, ‘ideal’ for the Third Programme. McWhinnie agreed and passed the material on to Barbara Bray, the producer of All That Fall, who got to work on the translation I’ve just quoted.

Beckett was still commending Le Square the following spring as he finished Krapp’s Last Tape, of which he wrote years later: ‘A woman’s tone goes through the entire play, returning always, a lyrical tone.’ So it’s possible that there’s a distant echo of what he called Duras’s ‘infinitely affecting text’ in the feelings that gather round, say, Krapp’s memory of a nursemaid – ‘The face she had! The eyes! Like … chrysolite!’ – who seemed to be taking an interest in him each time she pushed her pram past his ‘bench by the weir’. (‘And yet when I was bold enough to speak to her – not having been introduced – she threatened to call a policeman.’) The main outcome of Beckett’s enthusiasm, however, was a quickening of the tempo of his communications with Bray, a Cambridge graduate in her mid-thirties who emerges as something more than an appendage to McWhinnie in the published correspondence by way of her ‘excellent translation’ of Le Square. Much later she did the English-language rendering of L’Amant that flew off the shelves in the 1980s. By then, she’d long since moved to Paris and accepted the role of a kind of maîtresse en titre to Beckett, a role that makes her – like Thomas MacGreevy in the first and Georges Duthuit in the second – the star correspondent in this third volume of his letters.

When he tuned in to the Duras broadcast, Beckett was fifty and felt that he was, so to speak, failing upward. ‘Not to want to say, not to know what you want to say, not to be able to say what you think you want to say, and never to stop saying, or hardly ever, that is the thing to keep in mind,’ Molloy says, ‘even in the heat of composition.’ Some version of this advice had seen Beckett through a run of rapidly assembled masterpieces – Molloy was written in six months, Godot in three – after the day he ‘became aware of my own folly’ in 1945 and his turn to French a year later. But on finishing L’Innommable in 1950 he found himself at an impasse, and after he’d taken a year to expel ‘the grisly afterbirth’, as he called the fifty or so pages of Textes pour rien, his stories – if that was still the word for them – came to a temporary halt just as the world was beginning to take an interest in his writing. By the mid-1950s, still professing to be creatively stymied, he was famous and neck-deep in correspondence with directors, producers and translators. ‘I feel I’m getting more and more entangled in professionalism and self-exploitation,’ he wrote in 1958 to Barney Rosset, his New York publisher, ‘and that it would be really better to stop altogether than to go on with that.’

In some ways, success had a calming effect on Beckett, whose experiences during the Occupation had already shaken him out of the clenched, sneery misery and ‘feeling of arrogant “otherness”’ for which he’d reproached himself in the 1930s. He started joking with a lighter touch about his gloomy ways (one letter to Aidan Higgins ends: ‘With which rays of sunshine I am/Yours sincerely …’), and his self-deprecation became a powerful sort of charm. ‘Success and failure on the public level never mattered much to me,’ he wrote to Alan Schneider in 1956, ‘in fact I feel much more at home with the latter, having breathed deep of its vivifying air all my writing life up to the last couple of years.’ The occasion was the mortifying flop of the first American Godot, directed by Schneider, which had been billed as ‘the laugh sensation of two continents’ at the Coconut Grove in Miami: the columnist Walter Winchell called it ‘vulgar’ and Bert Lahr, who played Estragon, got a letter asking what a star of The Wizard of Oz was doing ‘in a play which is communistic, atheistic and existential’. ‘This Miami fiasco does not distress me in the smallest degree,’ Beckett wanted Schneider to know, ‘or only in so far as it distresses you.’

Success brought cash in too, for the first time, or nearly. (The cottage he built in Ussy-sur-Marne in 1953 was funded by an inheritance from his mother.) When Godot reopened on Broadway later in 1956 – this time with publicity boasting that the producers were gambling on attracting seventy thousand intellectuals – his share of the box office came to $500 a week: big money for a writer who’d been kept afloat by translation work and the sums Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, his partner, had earned from dressmaking and giving piano lessons. Beckett’s response to prosperity was to buy a Citroën 2CV, move into a bigger flat on the Boulevard Saint-Jacques – ‘We simply must have our rooms where we can shut ourselves up, not possible at present,’ he explained ominously in 1959 – and start taking Suzanne on holiday in the summer. Nothing much changed beyond that, and in the letters the main sign that he’s no longer broke is the frequent appearance of such sentences, addressed usually to hard-up artists or writers, as ‘Cash that bloody cheque – for God’s sake, I don’t need it.’ James Knowlson’s biography reports that when his painter friend Henri Hayden was hospitalised in 1962 he looked after the Haydens’ tax bills as well as their rent.

Beckett was, in other words, beginning to resemble the otherworldly, saintly figure of later legend, down to being, by this stage, craggily photogenic. He ‘looks like a magnificent Mexican sculpture now’, Nancy Cunard wrote in 1956 after meeting him for the first time since the 1930s. In a letter to A.J. Leventhal quoted by Knowlson, Beckett says of the same lunch date that Cunard was looking ‘very wraithy’, and one effect of reading his letters in this edition is that the range of similarly off the cuff, not wholly saintly tones in them gives a stronger sense of him in various worldly settings than even the most careful biographical narratives allow. Confronted with Irish censorship he becomes a Protestant gent from South Dublin denouncing ‘the Roman Catholic bastards’. English censorship elicits French-style disdain for ‘these … grocers’; ‘picnic at entr’acte, what a people’ is his only comment after a trip to Glyndebourne. One professor, Herbert Myron, receives such gobbets as: ‘Read in the Mill on the Floss (Chap. VIII) “Mrs Glegg had doubtless the glossiest and crispest brown curls in her drawers, as well as curls in various degrees of fuzzy laxness.”’ Another is treated with more formality – ‘Thank you again, dear Professor Adorno, for your friendship and for your belief in my work’ – and mocked gently behind his back for his ‘profundities’.

Not surprisingly, Beckett sounds least like a man on close terms with the void when writing to his family, of whom not many were left: his brother died in 1954, his mother in 1950 and his father in 1933, which was when his melancholia first became an urgent problem. For his cousins Molly Roe and Sheila Page, and Sheila’s husband, Donald, with whom she lived in Surrey, he does his best impression of an ordinary bloke, a black sheep of the Dublin business caste who has made good in a modest way and sends thanks for a set of golf clubs or passes on news of characters from their childhoods: ‘The Hamiltons … didn’t leave a stivver to poor Eddy, in fact I think he was owed a lot of wages!’ With his mother and her ‘savage loving’ out of the picture, the world he grew up in is apparently less distressing to contemplate (and more available as material for works like All That Fall). The cher maître treatment he gets elsewhere also seems to make him eager to keep up with less awestruck long-term presences in his life, though he’s ‘knocked all of a heap’ by an offer of an honorary D.Litt from Trinity College Dublin, which he uncharacteristically accepts.

The principal long-term presence by now, Suzanne, who’d lived with him since 1939, shows up only in a spectral fashion. The editors haven’t laid hands on any of his letters to her – it seems likely that she, or she and Beckett, destroyed them – but his scattered mentions of her, plus her cameos in the footnotes, tend to bear out a description of the relationship in Anthony Cronin’s biography of Beckett: ‘It was her function to help, to stabilise and, in many matters, to be a standing reproach.’ Beyond some references to her ‘witch doctor’ – Suzanne believed in homeopathy and was, the poet Anne Atik wrote in a memoir, ‘the first person I ever met who drank black radish-juice’ – her most interesting appearances are in the generous quotations from an unpublished journal by Robert Pinget, one of the few Beckett disciples to whom she took a liking. On 6 August 1960, he pays a visit

to hand back to Sam the ms. [of Comment c’est] he’d given me three days before to read. I was dreading having to give my opinion. The text is so difficult that it requires several rereadings. I had no right to be violently against … He greeted me with an odd, deeply troubled look. Was probably waiting for my judgment. I made no bones about it and told him that it was too difficult for me to judge after a first reading. He seemed surprised … for, he said, he had done everything he could to be understood … Suzanne agreed with me, and indeed later on congratulated me on having taken this tone rather than blurting out it’s extraordinary … I remind him that he himself, when he was working on it, had told me that it would be unreadable. He takes me up on this, saying ‘I said unpalatable.’

After a while Beckett seems to calm down and says he’s on edge because he dreamed the night before that Pinget called the book ‘a Japanese enormity’. Four days later:

Afternoon with Suzanne. Tells me Sam’s reaction to my verdict. In his fury and disappointment said I had the judgment of a concierge. A moral judgment. I should have been judging the text as a specialist, technically. I can’t get over this reaction … Suzanne feels she has to do a whole number on Sam’s weaknesses, that I’m too fond of him, that I shouldn’t get attached to this man who doesn’t get attached to anyone, etc.

It’s a pregnant ‘etc’ since, under ‘Sam’s weaknesses’, Suzanne could have included, had she wished, an impressive roster of derelictions involving boozing, other women, and emotional and geographical inaccessibility. (She didn’t like Ussy and rarely joined Beckett there; after they’d moved into larger quarters he too retreated there less often.) All the same, they weren’t leaving one another. They’d gone on the run together during the war, and afterwards she’d hauled his manuscripts round the publishing houses until Les Editions de Minuit signed him up. ‘I owe everything to Suzanne,’ Beckett said to Knowlson a few weeks before his death. So it’s hard to know which woman to feel worse for when Beckett’s correspondence with Barbara Bray takes a feelingful turn, starting with a letter of condolence written in March 1958. John Bray, Barbara’s estranged husband, the father of her two small girls, has died, and Beckett, unusually for his letters by now, brings his full rhetorical resources to bear on the task in hand:

All I could say, and much more, and much better, you will have said to yourself long ago. And I have so little light and wisdom in me, when it comes to such disaster … Somewhere at the heart of the gales of grief (and of love too, I’ve been told) already they have blown themselves out. I was always grateful for that humiliating consciousness and it was there I huddled, in the innermost place of human frailty and lowliness. To fly there for me was not to fly far, and I’m not saying this is right for you. But I can’t talk about solace of which I know nothing … Work your head off and sleep at any price and leave the rest to the stream, to carry now away and bring you your other happy days.

Eight months later, having spent some time in London overseeing rehearsals at the Royal Court, he sends love to the children and his respects to Miss Richards, Barbara’s housekeeper in Purley. He signs off: ‘Forgive all my sadness and foolishness and try and find some happiness somewhere.’ In the summer of 1959 he tries to establish some ground rules: ‘The only alternative is between calling it a day and just stumbling on from meeting to meeting, let us then stumble on if you will.’ But by 1960 it’s clear that Barbara isn’t accepting them. ‘I know this is not the letter you want,’ he writes on 22 January. ‘Off it goes nevertheless.’ A week later he tries to make his position plainer: ‘You speak of the happiness one gives and gets. The situation I see is one where no matter what I do pain will ensue somewhere for someone.’ The debate – one-sided, since Barbara’s letters seem not to have survived – drags on for the rest of the year. Though he’s relieved to learn that her planned move to Paris is ‘largely at least a professional necessity’, he’s alarmed and exasperated by her continued questioning, which he deflects in tones similar to those he uses on actors and critics who pester him about more than literal meanings:

You know … what my imperatives are – or do you really? You know also how fond I am of you and therefore how glad I wd. be to see you more often. All the answers are there – if you can find them. There’s no good your looking to me for permissions or forbiddances – you won’t get any. You can only be sure that whatever you decide to do I’ll try and help you and that my ability to do so is necessarily and so far as I can see permanently restricted. Your living in Paris might improve matters or worsen them – I can’t tell … You can’t ORGANISE such things, just try and make the best of each situation as it arises. I can’t write any more in this way.

On 25 March 1961, he provided a definitive clarification by marrying Suzanne, after which he and Barbara stumbled on much as before. To guarantee that his wife would inherit his estate, he and Suzanne married under English law, in Folkestone, and while hanging around to establish his residency he went on aimless drives and took note of Kentish place names. A year later, two of them worked their way into Play, in which a man and two women, held fast in ‘identical grey urns’, are compelled to speak endlessly of their bourgeois love triangle; the wronged wife mentions ‘the way back by Ash and Snodland’, adding to the incongruously Home Counties atmosphere. ‘Adulterers, take warning,’ the husband says, ‘never admit.’ Barbara reviewed the world premiere for the Observer and saw in it ‘people in all their funny, disgraceful, pitiable fragility and all the touchingness, in spite of everything, of their efforts to love one another, and endure’. Madame Beckett saw the same director’s second stab at it ‘and did not like it’, Beckett wrote to Schneider, who was getting ready to do his own production. ‘Suzanne found the faces excessively made up and characterised: ageing missus and exciting mistress, etc. This would be completely wrong. [They] are all in the same dinghy at last and should be as little differentiated as possible. Three grey disks.’

In the years​ covered by this volume, Beckett wrote seven stage plays, three radio plays, a television play, a short film, a novel and a handful of shorter prose pieces. In addition, he translated L’Innommable, Fin de partie, Textes pour rien, Comment c’est, L’Expulsé and Imagination mort imaginez into English, adapted Pinget’s La Manivelle as The Old Tune for the BBC, and translated All That Fall, Happy Days, Play and Krapp’s Last Tape into French. He also directed Film and involved himself in stage productions in England, France and Germany. In his letters, though, he talks constantly of his indolence, hopelessness, lack of inspiration and disgust with what he’s writing. ‘The only chance for me now as a writer,’ he tells Barney Rosset, is to ‘get back down to the bottom of all the hills again, grimmer hills [than] in 45 of cherished memory and far less than then to climb with’. He must ‘either get back to nothing again … like before Molloy’, he reiterates to Barbara, ‘or else call it a day.’

These resolutions were made in 1958, the year he mythologised his breakthrough of 1945 in the form of Krapp’s musings on ‘that memorable night in March when suddenly I saw the whole thing … The vision at last.’ It was a condition of Beckett’s own revelation – ‘this state, if you like, of which I can still only catch a glimpse, for a lifetime is not too long for us to get used to that darkness’, as he put it in an amazing letter to Georges Duthuit in 1949 – that it couldn’t be described ‘except by mouthing extravagant nonsense’; at the same time it was ‘very simple and not the least little bit metaphysical or mystical’. Either way, the idea of it seems to encompass advances on disparate fronts. In form, his postwar fiction moves decisively away from the arch third person of Murphy and Watt in order to relate, instead of merely describe, stories ‘ill-told, ill-heard, and more than half forgotten’. Intellectually it forgoes – mostly – a dense weave of learned allusion but starts handling both philosophical reasoning and novelistic conventions as material for stand-up comedy. And there’s a related emotional unclenching that lets Beckett play around with his darkest feelings about mothers, Ireland, sex, himself and so on.

In some moods, usually in what he called ‘under-the-table-talk’, he spoke of access to his inner world in more old-fashioned terms. ‘He talks of his books as if they were written by someone else,’ Patrick Bowles, the first translator of Molloy, noted while Beckett retouched his handiwork in 1953. ‘He said that it was the voice to which he listened, the voice one should listen to. “There are many things I don’t understand in my books.”’ Bowles also reports him as saying: ‘It is as if there were a little animal inside one’s head, for which one tried to find a voice; to which one tries to give a voice. That is the real thing. The rest is a game.’ Beckett’s characters often listen to voices too, which makes some of his most alarming and beautiful passages – the description of the ‘far whisper’ that haunts Molloy, for instance – look almost like transcripts of direct transmissions from the abyss of meaninglessness that more than a few people in the late 1940s felt opening under their feet:

I listen and the voice is of a world collapsing endlessly, a frozen world, under a faint untroubled sky, enough to see by, yes, and frozen too. And I hear it murmur that all wilts and yields, as if loaded down, but here there are no loads, and the ground too, unfit for loads, and the light too, down towards an end it seems can never come. For what possible end to these wastes where true light never was, nor any upright thing, nor any true foundation, but only these leaning things, forever lapsing and crumbling away, beneath a sky without memory of morning or hope of night … And if I went on listening to that far whisper, silent long since and which I still hear, I would learn still more, about this.

By the end of The Unnamable, however, the voices and the figures who listen to them have been dismantled along with the rest of the novels’ fictive machinery. The ‘self-devouring, ever-reducing thought’ that Beckett has been pursuing leaves him with nothing to work with but a first-person voice speaking from nowhere to no one, and no way forward unless he’s prepared either to do some discreet re-mantling, or to keep stripping away and risk the fiction degenerating – in J.M. Coetzee’s words – ‘into a record of an increasingly mechanical stripping process’.

Comment c’est, or How It Is, the result of his do-or-die self-rallying in 1958, represents his first full-scale assault on this problem. (Texts for Nothing, which by and large explores the second of the two routes, is more a series of inconclusive skirmishes.) His letters to Bray, whose tastes and range of reference had made her his chief sounding-board, document the terrible time he had writing it: twenty months of ‘this Pim hell’, as he calls it. (‘Pim’, the novel’s working title, is what the central figure – ‘a “man” … lying panting in the mud and dark murmuring his “life” as he hears it obscurely muttered by a voice inside him’, in Beckett’s summary – calls the identical being he encounters, or says he encounters, or has said to him that he encounters.) ‘The hole I have got myself into now is as “dumb of all light” as the 5th canto of HELL,’ Beckett says: he had been reading Dante again and finding models – plus, maybe more important, poetic authority – for the shadowy torments he’d taken to devising for his creatures. Still, his doubts seem more than usually serious. ‘I saw “it”, very clearly, for the first time,’ he tells Pinget as the project gets underway, ‘it’s embarrassing rather than anything else, it wrecks a large part of what I’d already done.’

Pinget wasn’t the only reader who also had reservations when the text reached its final shape in 1960. With its infinite regress of crawling figures attacking one another’s arses with tin-openers in order to communicate such questions as ‘do you love me cunt,’ it’s the least loved of Beckett’s novels. Its solution to the post-Unnamable problem is to repopulate the emptiness around the speaking voice with an intricately imagined afterlife scenario, compensating for this relative expansiveness with what Beckett called a further ‘weakening of form’ – the novel is written in unpunctuated telegraphic gasps – as well as the by now expected discovery that the narrative elements are nothing more than the imaginings of a mind listening to itself in the dark. There’s little of the mad artistic exhilaration that keeps comparable passages of The Unnamable going, and the few jokes that squeak through the ‘midget grammar’ are extra sour. ‘To read that in private is asking too much of anyone,’ Beckett wrote in response to an actor’s trepidation about doing a reading, ‘let alone in public.’ For better or worse, though, he’d constructed the treadmill that his longer fictions would largely be stuck on until he started work on Company in 1977.

‘He talks​ to me about his work,’ Pinget wrote in his journal a couple of weeks before he was branded a concierge (a judgment that was instantly retracted). ‘Says he is sick of it. Would so much have wanted it to go on for ever. Impossible. Always this complex, about Joyce, about Dante etc.’ The rest of the inner story these letters seem to tell – a partial one, necessarily: this time round the editors have found room for only 20 per cent of the ‘total corpus’ – has to do with the system of permissions and forbiddances that Beckett used to dodge his way round his ‘complex’ and do the writing most people remember him for. Godot, his first play to be performed and published, had been poured out onto the page with somnambulistic ease, and without denigrating it, he found it helpful to think of it as something he’d knocked out for a bit of fun. He sometimes spoke of drama as a distraction from the real stuff or an ignobly crowd-pleasing activity, grumbling to Pinget about ‘slipping into light amusing dialogue’ and ‘the ugly come-ons or wheedlings … that you have to go in for’ like a man who’d thrown over his austere poetic endeavours for all-singing, all-dancing mass entertainment. This diplomatic fiction, aimed at himself, worked well.

In the letters Beckett writes of his dramatic projects with a gloomy relish he rarely applies to his other work. ‘Never thought about Radio play technique,’ he tells Cunard after the BBC’s approach, ‘but in the dead of t’other night got a gruesome idea full of cartwheels and dragging feet and puffing and panting which may or may not lead to something.’ It led directly to All That Fall. Hearing Patrick Magee’s voice gives him an ‘exciting idea’ which rapidly expands into Krapp’s Last Tape, a play he’s openly pleased with: ‘It is pleasantly sad and sentimental: a nice little entrée of artichoke hearts, to be followed by the tripe à la shit of [Endgame]. People will say, Well, well, he has blood in his veins, who would have thought it, it must be age.’ (‘I nearly entitled it “Ah Well”,’ he says to Rosset.) In 1960 he writes merrily of a ‘mad idea’ he’s had: ‘Quite unrealisable but shall have to have a shot at it when Pim is out of the way.’ The idea, for Happy Days, gives him a few headaches, ‘but there’s a play there all right I think.’ Of Eh Joe he writes casually: ‘It’s not what it could be but not bad for a weary old drunk.’

Drama also supplies him with occasions, deadlines and commissions, which he says he can’t write to, though if a favoured actor or director needs material he might just be able to slap something together. Fin de partie ‘is at least 20 per cent undecantable into English’, he declares, ‘and will forfeit that much of whatever edge and tension it may have. I am quite certain of this.’ If he undertakes to re-create it in English anyway, it’s only to oblige his friends at the Royal Court. Constraints help him too. He’s never happier than when making difficulties for his actors by reducing the available means of expression: burying a character in sand first up to her waist, then up to her neck, for instance. And he moves constantly between French and English, the choice seemingly depending on which language is currently going dead on him, or isn’t going dead in the right way. In English he feels ‘a kind of lack of brakes’; in French ‘control is easier for me, and probably excessive.’ But he shies away from too much self-analysis. ‘I am aware vaguely of course of … hidden impetuses,’ he tells a friend who’s written an essay on him, ‘but concern with their elucidation would prevent the making.’

To ‘bastards of critics’ and ‘bastards of journalists’, he tends to offer versions of the same line, with a partial exception for academics if they’re good drinking companions. Directors and translators with textual queries are treated helpfully, which makes the letters very useful if you want to know what lines like ‘tires bleeding voiding zeep the highway’ might mean. (‘Voiding: emptying, expelling, as though road extruded by tires.’) If you want to know what Beckett thought about the Holocaust, the Cold War or torture in Algeria, beyond being against them, there’s a lot less on offer, and though he kept up with current events he hardly ever mentions them. The editors, like Knowlson, point out that non-French intellectuals were liable to be deported for making nuisances of themselves, and Beckett does say of the ‘Manifeste des 121’, on the right to resist the draft in the Algerian war: ‘If I weren’t a foreigner I suppose I’d be in it.’ He also withdrew his plays from apartheid South Africa. But for anyone who’d like to trace the specific historical contours of the crisis of meaning and understanding that’s played out in his writing, there’s only a tiny sprinkling of offhand comments to speculate about. His level of interest in society and the way an artist should relate to it seems close to zero.

This attitude gave Beckett a mysterious rapport with those he perceived as ‘margin people like me’. Builder-poets, suicidal scribbler-recluses and half-mad vagabond-actors were always getting in touch with him and trickle steadily through the letters as recipients of money, encouragement or both. He was always pleased when his plays were staged successfully in prisons – as they were from early on: Godot played San Quentin 12 years before Johnny Cash – and two of his rare allusions to the news of the day concern notorious prisoners. On 13 April 1962 he mentions in passing that Edmond Jouhaud, one of the generals who had staged a coup in Algeria, ‘must just be leaving now for the last day of his trial’, a trial at which he was expected to be sentenced to death. And in 1961, in response to a question from an old acquaintance, he writes: ‘Can’t think of anything worth saying to say about Eichmann … Just the I suppose flippant vision of his being sentenced to be treated kindly and shown in a comfortable cage on the fairgrounds of the world.’ (‘Many a foul beast, and worthy of extermination,’ he wrote years before in Molloy from a foul beast’s point of view, ‘can live till he dies in the peace and quiet of our zoological gardens, broken only by the innocent laughter, the knowing laughter, of children.’)

So it’s a neat editorial flourish that the last letter in the book, written on Christmas Day in 1965, ends with the vista from his workroom on the seventh floor of 38 Boulevard Saint-Jacques. ‘Through the open window I hear the Santé prisoners howling like beasts,’ he writes dramatically to MacGreevy. ‘And see beyond the Val de Grâce and Panthéon illuminated.’ It’s an appealing image to leave him behind on, brooding about which part of the scene he belongs to, except that the timeline is still ticking away and we know – from the editors’ general introduction – that he will soon have further romantic complications to conceal from the two women now permanently installed in his life. In the meantime he’s established a covert quasi-domesticity. There are ups and downs – ‘Dear Barbara/Your Thursday letter today. It is not inspiriting’ v. ‘Dear Barbara/Your letter would encourage a corpse’ – but it’s clear that he wouldn’t want to go on without her, and there’s usually something in each letter aimed at making her laugh. ‘No drink,’ he writes from a healthful holiday with Suzanne. ‘But smoke like a fish.’ One afternoon in 1962 he relieves the au pair and takes Bray’s daughters out solo for duck à l’orange, profiteroles and pony rides in the Jardin des Plantes. Soon enough, though, he’s back at his desk, ‘without a glimmer, without a hope, but always in agreement with the Great Silent One’.

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