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.
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