Highlight of Stay So Far
- The Letters of Samuel Beckett Vol. IV: 1966-89 edited by George Craig, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Dan Gunn and Lois More Overbeck
Cambridge, 838 pp, £29.99, September 2016, ISBN 978 0 521 86796 2
Faced with the threatening possibility of hope, Beckett liked to get his retaliation in first. ‘Downhill begins this year,’ he announced with grim satisfaction in 1966. Even this may have been a slip, allowing the possibility of there having been an ‘up’ from which to come down. Usually his defences were in place in advance: ‘All is I suppose as well as can be expected by one with my powers of expectation.’ Thus armoured, he could allow himself to send his version of a cheery wave from holiday in Italy: ‘Nothing to tell that’s not better untold. Aches worse than in Paris, weather filthy.’ The line between stoicism and vindication isn’t always easy to draw: when having serious trouble with his teeth, he reported that speech and eating were almost impossible, adding with relish: ‘But drink and silence unimpaired.’ It’s true that there are odd occasions when something which, by his standards, might count as cheerfulness breaks in: ‘Moments here when it’s not as bad as all that to be not quite dead.’ However, normal service is soon resumed. ‘Now such inertia & void as never before. I remember an entry in Kafka’s diary. “Gardening. No hope for the future.” At least he could garden.’
Letters are performances of the self, of course, and Beckett knew what he was at, including flirting with self-parody. His long-time confidante and lover, Barbara Bray, well understood the game by the time she received this jolly missive from Porto Santo near Madeira in 1968: ‘Nothing to tell here. Stopped antibiotics. Steady coldish east wind. Often cloudy. Strand badly polluted. Wonder if this is the right place. Perhaps move on to Algarve. Tired moving. Find suitable hole and lie down for keeps, sole ambition. Hotel reasonably quiet. My bathroom smells of sewer.’ Some of this is just the writer flexing the familiar muscles, some of it is to fend off the boredom of communicating, some of it is a long-cultivated form of intimacy with Bray. As he reflexively rounds off another letter to her: ‘Can think of nothing more of uninterest to say.’ No cliché is so stale, no metaphor so dead that Beckett can’t find a way to make it twitch: ‘My spirits, though they lack altitude, are far from extinguished.’ Setting his face against any modification of his short plays, he takes his stand: ‘As they totter or not at all.’ Right to the end his ear could still hear verbal train crashes coming from a distance: ‘I’m destroyed with mail, endless solicitations & footling appointments. Even for space-gazing no zest left. It’s wholly ghost I’ll be soon.’
Life’s compensations? Limited. One of them is touched on in this report from beautiful Courmayeur in the Italian Alps: ‘Teacher whisky at half the French price. Highlight of stay so far.’ Perhaps the consolations of memory? ‘And when I grope back to the Paris of the late twenties and early thirties I find so little that I might almost as well not have been there.’ (He does occasionally allow himself almost lyrical memories of Ireland; indeed, it is only as a memory that he finds Ireland bearable.) Even when writing to his fellow cricket-lover Harold Pinter and dreaming of going to the Oval with him one day, he remembers something he didn’t actually get to see: the ground is ‘where I once missed Frank Woolley just out when I arrived having made something like 70 in half an hour’. Others send birthday greetings, only to be trumped by the recipient: ‘The day doesn’t bother me. Just another. No better no worse. But the avalanche is appalling.’ Or more deftly: ‘I never felt older.’ After spending some time with Adorno in 1967 (they had first met almost a decade earlier), Beckett affected to wonder why they got on: ‘Don’t know why he likes me or why I like him.’ Presumably it wasn’t because each was attracted to the other’s bubbly optimism.
When trying to console his close friend Jocelyn Herbert on the death of her partner, George Devine, Beckett suggests there is one possible form of solace or at least distraction: ‘Work hard labour & not much comfort, but a great deadener.’ Or, rather, in his own case it would be if he could get any done. ‘I try to work. To little avail. A gruesome dark. I wish the need would leave me.’ If it did, he fantasises, he might go to London to watch some cricket. Instead, ‘I sit in the dark with my head on a table groaning.’ The inventiveness of his reports on his failure to write constantly threatens to belie their content: ‘Very barren patch for me. The wall won’t recede & I have no reverse gears. Can’t turn either.’ Any hint of backsliding into optimism is quickly slapped down: ‘Thought I could advance work in regress but was wrong.’ At times he waxes Beckett-lyrical about the unmatchable misery of it all: ‘What hellish labour the “sedentary trade”, the coal face nothing to it!’ Or again: ‘Work laborious. Like small hand-saw in knotty timber.’
The only thing worse than writing was failing to write, and the only thing worse than that was not writing ever again. Announcements of the end of his writing life abound: ‘Not a shadow of work apart from translating Watt. Perhaps it will come back. But unlikely.’ This comes from 1967: still to be written were Not I, That Time, Footfalls, Company, Rockaby, Ill Seen, Ill Said, Worstward Ho and much else, as well as numerous translations of his own earlier work. But increasingly he will have it that further writing is impossible, that it’s barely credible he ever did any at all: ‘Can hardly believe ever put 2 words together,’ he writes in his 70th year. With more justification, he steps up the death notices as his own gets nearer. ‘Dim to brink of extinction. Further work inconceivable.’ And a few months before his death: ‘I hope words have now failed me.’ As even the scrappiest note included here confirms, he never failed them.
In so far as the letters in this volume throw any direct light on his work, it mostly takes the form of his minute, almost obsessive directions about the staging of his plays. But occasionally he will let fall a remark with a wider remit. In response to a Japanese scholar asking about possible similarities between his plays and Noh drama, he writes: ‘Noh drama presupposes audience complicity, mine audience resistance. That is perhaps worthy of consideration.’ And in 1982 he was comparatively forthcoming in response to an inquiry about why he had switched to writing in French after 1945:
Escape from mother Anglo-Irish exuberance and automatisms.
From excess to lack of colour.
Distance from the writing from which clearer to assess it.
Slow-down of whole process of formulation.
Impoverished form in keeping with revelation & espousal of mental poverty.
English grown foreign resumable 10 years later. So on.
This is an artful non-manifesto as well as a stylised piece of autobiography. He chose to translate the title of his story ‘Sans’ as ‘Lessness’, and this letter in effect insists that lessness is moreness. Excess subtracts, omission adds, even down to ‘So on’. Beckett had long claimed to regard writing more as a form of excretion than of expression, a protracted struggle against the easy indulgence of words. Writing letters at all was always in some tension with this aesthetic, but there are many fine examples here of the way he manages, cunningly, to communicate without altogether betraying his principles.
One frequent, entirely understandable, topic for lamentation is the sheer volume of correspondence he has to undertake, 95 per cent of it handwritten. Beckett had no secretary, no institutional support, and little rudeness: he replied to nearly everyone who wrote to him, and their numbers increased with his fame. The nadir was the catastrophe of the Nobel Prize in 1969. From his refuge in Tunisia he writes to Bray: ‘In the last 3 weeks I have written approx. 500 cards, notes & letters of acknowledgment … I have now to hasten to Nabeul and buy 100 stamps.’ The award prompted a card from one ‘Georges Godot’, who evidently fancied himself a bit of a wag, and sent Beckett congratulations promptly since, as he declared, he had a horror of keeping people waiting. ‘Je l’ai remercié,’ Beckett reported to another correspondent, ‘de s’être manifesté avec une telle promptitude.’
We have long known how little Beckett wanted to play the part of the great writer, still less that of the public intellectual (the label itself was a conjunction of phobias that he was spared, gaining currency only after his death). The letters throw a little more dark on his techniques for avoiding the limelight. They play a series of variations on ‘couldn’t possibly’, ‘so sorry’, ‘no’. Though he lived most of his adult life on the Left Bank, he largely avoided getting sucked into the intellectual celebrity culture that flourished there in these years. He did no journalism, no essays in cultural criticism, and granted hardly any interviews. (Having a phone in his apartment that couldn’t receive incoming calls helped.) His preference was always to withdraw to the cottage he had in the country outside Paris where only the birds interrupted the longed-for silence, or perhaps consolidated it. But he did, without fanfare, support good causes, and he was endlessly generous with financial help for friends, sometimes even just acquaintances, who were in distress. The final letter included here, written within weeks of his death, was a response to a request for permission to make a film of his earliest novel, Murphy: ‘I am ill and cannot help. Forgive. So go ahead without me.’ Fittingly, the film was never finished.
Now that this widely admired edition is complete, we can see how much it has added to our understanding of this self-erasing writer, not least in charting the development of Beckett’s distinctive way of fending off those twin impostors, hope and despair. In a letter from 1935 to a friend from university days, Tom McGreevy, Beckett quoted some phrases from Thomas à Kempis’s Imitation of Christ that ‘seemed to be made for me and which I have never forgotten’. The first was: ‘He that can well suffer shall find most peace.’ The letter to McGreevy is in the first volume, which gives us glimpses of the younger Beckett’s suffering, including the ‘sweats & shudders & panics & rages & rigors & heart burstings’ that drove him to seek help in psychoanalysis. But just as the extreme privations of the war years spent barely surviving in rural France, and the extreme penury of the later 1940s spent writing apparently unpublishable books, seem to have played a part in enabling him to strip away the comforting upholstery of language to arrive at the truth that lies on the other side of silence, so, too, these purgative experiences allowed him to find, if not ‘peace’ then at least some acceptance of the long Calvary of a human life. The letters in the third and, especially, this fourth volume often suggest someone who, in Freud’s famous phrase about the aim of psychoanalysis, has ‘replaced disabling neurosis with mere ordinary unhappiness’. His amused dejection and uproarious melancholy (Beckett, as Christopher Ricks observed, ‘had what he drily called a strong weakness for oxymoron’) are constant reminders to himself as well as others not to cede anything to the reactionary forces of facile cheer.
As a master of minimalism, Beckett knew the power of brevity. Sentences are reduced to phrases; verbs are omitted; modifiers and all grace notes are lopped off, until only the raw stump of a phrase is left standing, mocking more fulsome attempts at expression. As a writer who could regard every utterance as a destroyed silence, the sheer fact of having to write a letter was a kind of defeat, but, as some of the more laconic instances show, he was good at cutting his losses. The shortest letter comes in response to a request to record a version of Eh Joe that would depart from Beckett’s stage directions. It reads, in its sumptuous entirety: ‘No. SB.’ Perhaps even the addition of the initials was a needless attempt at avoidance of misunderstanding, a weak concession to the usual norms of communicativeness. Fail better next time.
Late in his life Beckett granted Martha Fehsenfeld permission to edit a selection of his letters, stipulating that it should be confined to those ‘having bearing on my work’. As the editors sagely observe, no two people would be likely to agree on where to draw this line. Beckett seems to have insisted on the condition principally as a way of preventing gossipy ‘revelations’, and the Beckett estate, represented for many years by the formidable French publisher Jérôme Lindon, was fiercely vigilant in protecting his reputation. But now that all four volumes of this lovingly annotated (and beautifully produced) edition are out, it is clearer than ever that the enterprise can do Beckett’s standing nothing but good – not that it’s in much need of help. (Even Beckett would surely have recognised the rare combination of thoroughness and tact on display in the editorial apparatus, the whole enhanced by George Craig’s witty and resourceful translations from the French.) Collectively, they give us a whole new anthology of Beckett’s writing.
There is a sense in which, as Dan Gunn remarks in his lengthy introduction, these letters are not about his work; they are part of his work. It is slightly disappointing that the final volume doesn’t contain anything to match the wonderful series of letters to McGreevy that are the backbone of the first volume, or the long meditations on the aesthetic in his letters to the art historian and critic Georges Duthuit at the heart of the second, or the letters to Bray that make up the single largest correspondence in the third, and which display a rich mixture of Beckett’s human and writerly qualities. An increasing weariness is legible in the final twenty years or so, including weariness about the insatiable demands of correspondence. When he was younger, Beckett needed intimates to write to; in his middle years he enjoyed writing to their now increased number; in his last years he was grateful that they had existed, grateful that he would not do so for much longer, grateful to be left alone.
There are many memorable letters in these four volumes, and readers will choose their own favourites. One of mine is the first recorded letter to Bray, before (as far as we know) they became lovers, commiserating with her on the news of the death of her estranged husband. Letters of condolence can be one of the most ritualised, cliché-padded forms of the genre, but Beckett’s seems to issue from deep inside his own unblinking confrontation with the dark. It’s not easy to say whether Bray was an exceptionally lucky or exceptionally unlucky woman in falling in love with this endlessly interesting man who, without leaving his long established partner (whom he eventually married) or taking other practical steps to accommodate Bray’s needs, was to be her collaborator, confidant and, for more than thirty years, faithful-ish correspondent. But it’s not hard to see why she did.
Far from being troubled by your letter I am very touched that you should tell me about your great sorrow. I wish I could find something to comfort you. 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, that I can see nothing for us but the old earth turning onward and time feasting on our suffering along with the rest. 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 always 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. And beyond all courage and reasonableness I am sure that for the likes of you and me at least it’s the ‘death is dead and no more dying’ that makes it possible (just) to go on living. Forgive this wild stuff, I’m not one to turn to in time of trouble. 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.