14 November, 2011Issue 17.3LettersLiterature

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Pulverizing the Pretty Charlock

Francis Hutton-Williams

Infinite MusicGeorge Craig, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Dan Gunn
and Lois More Overbeck

The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1941-1956 Volume 2
Cambridge UP, 2011
886 Pages
ISBN 978-0521867948


The “siege in the room” is one of the most productive periods of literary achievement by a single author in history. From 1946 to 1950, Samuel Beckett entered a new phase of writing that brought him unprecedented recognition, not least from the notoriously hard-to-please Jean Blanzat reviewing Molloy for the Figaro Littéraire: “[…]pouvoir dire, au moins une fois dans sa vie, qu’un grand écrivain vient d’apparaître”. During this time, Beckett revolutionised the novel with three works—Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable—not to mention four other astounding nouvelles; and transformed the course of modern drama with Waiting for Godot while diverting his efforts from fiction. Readers will wonder: how on earth do the letters account for this?

Now I must buckle down to doing the wearisome tidying up of my play, which will probably be called En attendant Godot. Above all I must make sure that the anus is clear.

Fond regards,


[to Georges Duthuit, March 1949]

The scatological indifference is startling; and yet the author’s ambition to tidy up “holes” recurs again and again in this volume, providing an astonishingly fertile space for the excavation of persistence, loss, and discomfiture.

One might have assumed that this frenzy of creativity would require a break from letter-writing. Here, however, is the proof that his activity as a man of letters also grew. Stretching to almost 900 pages, The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1941-1956 represents only 40% of the total number of letters written during those years. So what is missing?

Firstly, the letters Beckett sent to Josette and Henri Hayden while he was hiding in the Vaucluse. The recent purchaser of that collection has not permitted access and the hope remains that they will be released for inclusion in one of the subsequent volumes. One is less sure why passages have been left out of the exchange with Beckett’s American lover, Pamela Mitchell, when internal evidence suggests they have already been reproduced. It should also be noted that the letters that are included in this volume date from January 1945; not from 1941, as the title advertises. None of the few letters written during the Nazi Occupation up to the Liberation of Paris make “direct reference” to the work, such as the Watt notebooks.

Yet the range of correspondence in this second volume really begins under a climate of constant surveillance during which the Irish writer was pinned down and unable to move. The editors have accordingly opted in favour of historical continuity, despite the intervention of war, in ascribing to this volume the originary date of 1941 without the letters. Vital exchanges from this period are included but only in the general introduction. To Cornelius Cremin, first secretary of the Irish legation in Vichy, Beckett writes:

Have had prolonged interviews with the local Gendarmes, in their barracks 6 miles from here. My history almost day by day from my first setting foot in France. They can’t believe that I can be called Samuel and am not a Jew. Yesterday they took away my identity card I suppose to see if it had not been tampered with. My movements are restricted in the extreme, radius of ten kilometers about.


And to Sean Murphy, the Irish minister to France, he adds eight months later:

But with regard to this constant prying into my identity, my past movements, my present movements, my means of existence, my mode of existence, why I am called Samuel, etc. etc.[…]when my only offence, I mean that of having clandestinely crossed the line of demarcation, has been judged in the police-court of Apt and presumably purged by the payment of a fine of 400 francs[…]You might even mention, if you could be so kind, that you believe me to be inoffensive.


This relentless interrogation sets the scene for the more complex and divergent commitments that are explored in the volume after the Second World War. We are able to see how Beckett’s personal history clashes in fascinating ways with the histories of his addressees. Having risked his own life working for the French resistance cell, “Gloria SMH”, he maintains a positive relationship with Georges “Belmont” (previously Georges Pelorson), who collaborated with the Vichy Government. We learn that Beckett’s most heartfelt moments “spilling my guts out” and “unloading all this” (this from a man who preferred France at war to Ireland at peace) are aimed toward a figure who was regarded with considerable suspicion by the French cultural mainstream for his escape to the United States during the war period. Sometimes it is the figure of the art historian, as we saw with Thomas MacGreevy in the first volume, which is being pursued at all costs. These outpourings are just as powerfully felt in the ardent perfection of Beckett’s language-skills with Mania Péron, to whom letters now have to be addressed in the absence of her husband, Alfred. Fellow exchange-student “Alfy” had worked alongside the Irish author on the translation of Murphy and of “Anna Livia Plurabelle”, and recruited Beckett to the resistance before he died on deportation from the Mauthausen concentration camp. As the letters progress, it becomes clearer how it is his basic commitment to others that Beckett is restructuring; and as the author becomes increasingly decentralised in his thinking, we are able to sense why Jér√¥me Lindon, so much more than a publisher to Beckett, went on to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature on the writer’s behalf.

The war continues to act as an enabling influence for Beckett. We appreciate how it disengages the special feelings of privation, allowing his muscular erudition to fall away into the kind of artistic achievement that we now associate with the writer’s minimalist style. It is interesting to note at the start of this volume how the editors have chosen to accentuate the saturation of James Joyce’s influence. The last letter that Beckett sent to Joyce (the day before Joyce died on 12 January 1941) is illustrated on a prefabricated lettercard “written” by means of struck out phrases, as was required during the Occupation. An uncanny tribute indeed to the latter’s technique.

The breadth of correspondence that follows is considerable. Recipients range from the Irish Republican rebel Ernie O’Malley to the shy Swiss novelist Robert Pinget; from the distinguished French magistrate and composer Edouard Coester to Simone de Beauvoir, who is judged to have overstepped her editorial duties with the abridgement of Beckett’s “Suite”: “You are giving me the chance to speak only to retract it before the words have had time to mean anything.” The author’s increasing contact with publishers in this volume, such as Peter Suhrkamp (head of S. Fischer Verlag and of the imprint Suhrkamp Verlag) allows us to gain real insight into the public recognition that emerges as Beckett is forced to consider aspects of adaptation, translation, directing, and performance beyond his occupation as a fiction writer. No one was more taken aback by this sudden shift in literary fortunes than Beckett himself, and many letters show him struggling to come to terms with these changes. The exchange with Michel Polac, head of Radiodiffusion Française, prompts an especially fruitful crisis:

It is not given to everyone to be able to move from the world that opens under the page to that of profit and loss, then back again, unperturbed, as if between the daily grind and the pub on the corner.

And he adds:

As for wanting to find in all this a wider and loftier meaning to take away after the show, along with the programme and the choc-ice, I am unable to see the point of it. But it must be possible.

[after January 23, 1952]

That final intimation reveals much about the way the author was eventually compelled to take over the stage as a director.

It should be noted that the general editors have overcome the pedantic tendencies of the first volume. The signs of emendation [for and sic] that caused interruptions to reading have now been mostly removed, without any cost in distortion to the understanding. The pruning of unnecessary biographical detail (where parts of that knowledge could be assumed for major figures) in favour of well-placed individual illustrations, like that of Alexander Trocchi, has also enhanced the book’s excellent appearance overall. New problems have been introduced, however, by the enormous number of French translations, especially those required by the Beckett–Duthuit exchanges that form the bulk of this volume. These cause real spatial constraints and pose difficult questions for an English language edition.

The demand for translation is not supported by Beckett’s own reading of literature, which takes place in the original language. Furthermore, his movement to rural France—firstly, to Roussillon-sur-Apt in the Vaucluse during the Occupation, and later to Ussy-sur-Marne after the war—refracts a tongue beyond that of the cultivated Parisian. The inventive side of the author’s linguistic development results in additional difficulties with syntax, regardless of the pains he takes elsewhere in refinement and perfection. Some of the most excited passages in discussion with Duthuit might be perceived as untranslatable. How can one translate those words that “lie” in speaking their author? And how does one account for extracts of the original correspondence on which Beckett’s meaning remains contextually, and playfully, unstable?

The translator, George Craig, is to be praised for taking on such tasks and many more in this volume. Thoroughly aware of Beckett’s self-translations, he has allowed the English to preserve its distance from the French by sensing (without anticipating) the author’s feverish desire to combine various inflections and registers. Craig’s ability to resist “turning the unusual into the usual so that it won’t read like a translation” (as Beckett wryly notes of Erich Franzen’s version of Molloy in this volume) will impress readers, as does his capacity to separate the author’s self-depreciations from his more considered judgements. One wonders, however, presuming that most readers approaching this book will have some French, whether all of the secondary passages (those not written by Beckett) needed to be translated, and whether that could have freed up more space for the author.

Francis Hutton-Williams is reading for a DPhil in English at Exeter College, Oxford.