9 March, 2009Issue 8.7EuropeLiteratureThe ArtsTheatreWriters

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Shining Agates of Negation

Stephen Ross

beckettM.D. Fehsenfeld, L.M. Overbeck, D. Gunn and G. Craig (eds.)
The Letters of Samuel Beckett (1929-1940), vol. 1
Cambridge University Press, 2009
782 pages
£30.00
ISBN 978-0521867931

On the night of 6 January 1938, Samuel Beckett was stabbed in the chest by a French pimp named Robert-Jules Prudent while walking home with friends. Narrowly missing his left lung and heart, the blow confined him to a Paris hospital for over two weeks. When Beckett later met the improbably named Prudent in court and asked why he had attacked, the Frenchman responded wryly: “Je ne sais pas, monsieur. Je m’excuse (I don’t know why, sir. I’m sorry).” In hindsight, it all seems like an episode out of one of Beckett’s own plays, highlighting as it does the absurd contingency of life, the untoward and irrational behaviour of the down-and-out.

Amused by his assailant’s response and ever wary of guarding his privacy, Beckett chose not to press charges. In a gesture of qualified compassion, he had already written from the hospital to his friend Thomas McGreevy that he found his assailant “more cretinous than malicious”. Because Beckett never divulged his inner feelings about the episode, we can only surmise the extent to which it coloured his imagination and might have prompted the composition of later masterpieces of human dejection like Waiting for Godot (1953) and Endgame (1957).

Had Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) not survived his stabbing, he would be largely forgotten today. His legacy would comprise a few poems, short stories and a novel, Murphy, the proofs of which he corrected while convalescing from his stabbing. Yet, as James Knowlson indicates in the title of his 1996 biography, Beckett was “damned to fame”, living to the age of 83 and writing some of the most important plays and novels of the 20th century, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1969. His wife, Suzanne, called the prize “a catastrophe” for the intensely private Beckett.

But for Beckett’s fans, the nitty-gritty facts of his private life have always held great interest. Now, with the arrival of the long-awaited Letters of Samuel Beckett (1929-1940), the first in a projected four-volume collection of Beckett’s correspondence, interest in Beckett “the man” only promises to increase. This is not a bad thing at all, as the letters will likely draw readers to Beckett’s more neglected early works, like the superb Murphy.

Letters concerned with the more intimate and potentially scurrilous details of Beckett’s early life, particularly his numerous romantic involvements, have been culled for the most part by the editors, owing more to the enormous mass of letters (over 15,000) in the Beckett archive than to any prudish censorial agenda. We are not spared, however, intimate details of the various ailments Beckett suffered during this period, from “sebaceous cysts” and “lumps between the wind and the water” to “heart palpitations” that seem to have put a provisional fear of God in him. The letters suggest that Beckett was either uncomfortable all the time or a pathological hypochondriac.

For the most part, though, the letters document Beckett’s alternately joyous and miserable youthful peregrinations through Ireland, France, England and Germany as a student, lecturer, tutor, fledgling writer and exquisite loafer. We find him straining to discipline himself as a writer and undertaking a rigorous programme of self-education in the arts and humanities, ranging from European literature and philosophy to music, foreign language, theatre, visual art and even film.

Fittingly, the first two entries in the volume—short, factual notes—are addressed to James Joyce, whom Beckett affectionately dubs “Shem” or “the Penman” in his letters to friends. Beckett was Joyce’s most gifted disciple, working as one of his research assistants for “Work in Progress” (later titled Finnegans Wake) and publishing essays in support of Joyce’s experimental style. He met Joyce in Paris in 1928 through his close friend, confidante and fellow writer, Thomas McGreevy, who is, incidentally, the most frequent addressee in this collection.

Beckett laboured under Joyce’s shadow early on, writing to his friend Samuel Putnam in 1932: “I vow I will get over J.J. before I die. Yessir.” But even more pressing than Beckett’s anxiety of Joycean influence was his concern to overcome the inherited limitations of his own style and mother tongue, namely, the unavoidable stylishness and obtuseness of his English writing. A 1937 letter to Beckett’s acquaintance Axel Kaun illuminates this point:

It is indeed getting more and more difficult, even pointless, for me to write in formal English. . . . To drill one hole after another into it until that which lurks behind, be it something or nothing, starts seeping through—I cannot imagine a higher goal for today’s writer.

The letter is noteworthy not only because it captures the stylistic underpinnings of his later work, but because it was originally written in German. Indeed, Beckett wrote letters both in passable German and in impeccable French, with snatches of Italian and Latin scattered throughout. Fortunately for non-readers of German, French, Latin and Italian (to name just the major languages that appear), the editors have translated every foreign-language letter, phrase and free-standing word into English.

Beckett’s linguistic brilliance must not be overlooked, particularly because it is so much at odds with his impulse toward linguistic minimalism. How did he balance these opposing qualities in himself? Simply put, he did not, but grappled with stylistic questions his whole career, paring his voice down again and again. Reading the passage above, we come to understand Beckett’s motives for composing much of his post-World War II work in French, notably Waiting for Godot, Endgame and the novel “trilogy” Molloy (1951), Malone Dies (1951) and The Unnamable (1953). For Beckett, writing in French satisfied an artistic imperative to lay bare the “something or nothing” lurking behind language, an imperative that writing in English seemed to preclude. He aspired to a style-less style that, in its linguistic impoverishment, would raise ideas of negation, impotence and nothingness to a kind of sublime.

Of course, Beckett’s artistic interests extended far beyond literature. In early 1936, Beckett wrote to Sergei Eisenstein, a film director in Moscow, asking to be taken on as his assistant. While Beckett admitted to having no experience of studio work, he wrote, rather clunkily: “It is because I realise that the script is function of its means of realisation that I am anxious to make contact with your mastery of [scenario and editing work].” Although Beckett never heard back from Eisenstein, the letter gestures toward Beckett’s later commitment to drama, the medium for which he is now best known. Beckett went on to write and direct several short films.

We also find him keen to register his opinions about music. In a letter to his cousin, Morris Sinclair, he confesses an inability to make peace with Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, into which the composer “poured everything that was vulgar, facile and childish in him”. Beckett does speak glowingly, however, of Beethoven’s last String Quartet in F (opus 135), which he saw performed in 1934; Beckett was particularly gripped by the epigraph of the final movement: “Der schwer gefasste Entschluss / Muss es sein? Es muss sein! Es muss sein! (The heart-wrenching decision / Must it be? / It must be! / It must be!”) One is reminded of the final lines of Beckett’s 1953 novel, The Unnamable: “You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

One could go on listing for pages and pages Beckett’s meditations on art (“I like that crouching brooding quality in Keats—squatting on the moss, crushing a petal, licking his lips & rubbing his hands”), politics (“Germany is horrible”, written on 13 December 1936) and life (“It is so much simpler to be hurt than to hurt”). But that would spoil the fun of perusing this volume and finding for oneself such “shining agates of negation”, to appropriate one of Beckett’s phrases in an early letter. At nearly 800 pages and bulwarked with extensive introductory and biographical material, this first volume is a formidable work of scholarship, destined to assume its rightful place beside The Collected Letters of W.B. Yeats and the Letters of James Joyce as essential reading of 20th century Anglophone literature.

The iconic image of Beckett as a wizened, austere prophet of the barrenness and inhuman desolation of the modern world is dispelled, or at least qualified, on nearly every page of this epistolary portrait of a prodigiously gifted, neurotic, humane, and, malgré lui, ineluctably human writer. As he writes in the last letter in the volume (in French) to Marthe Arnaud: “You think you are choosing something, and it is always yourself that you choose; a self that you did not know, if you are lucky.”

Stephen Ross is reading for an MSt in English Literature at St John’s College, Oxford.