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Darkness and Kindness

The Letters of Samuel Beckett Vol. 2: 1941-1956
Edited by George Craig, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Dan Gunn, and Lois More Overbeck
(Cambridge University Press, 791 pp., $50)

In February 1950, David Greene, who was then a professor of English at New York University, asked a twenty-three-year-old protégé on a Fulbright year in Paris to track down Samuel Beckett. 

I should like to know
 a.) what he is doing now, for a living.
 b.) why has he, or has he, stopped writing.

But none of this is terribly important except that I should like to find that he is a real person, living in the flesh. When I read Murphy I have my doubts sometimes.

This inquiry, buried in one of the wonderful footnotes that adorn the second volume of Beckett’s Letters, is replete with irony. In the previous five years Beckett had completed Watt, written the trilogy Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable, created (in a matter of weeks) Waiting for Godot, and produced a number of shorter “nouvelles,” including the ravishing First Love. And yet Greene can be forgiven for his ignorance; it was not until the autumn of 1950 that Editions de Minuit took on Molloy and the logjam of non-publication was broken. By the end of 1956, when this volume of letters concludes, the novels had achieved cult status (with Molloy inevitably banned in Ireland), Endgame was going into production, and Godot had made Beckett world-famous. But nobody would have forecast all this at the start of the period covered by this riveting book.

Its start date is technically 1941, in line with the end point of the volume of letters that preceded it; but the first letter actually printed is from January 1945. During the war years Beckett lived a peripatetic life between Paris and Vichy, France, before settling in Roussillon. He and his partner, Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, were involved in a cell of the Resistance and often in danger: the first drafts of Watt were written more or less on the run. (Beckett was later decorated for his Resistance work, but characteristically disparaged his contribution as “Boy Scout stuff.”) With the end of the war he was able to return to Ireland, largely impelled by the need for money. Though his determined return to France in 1945 was fraught with difficulty, he managed it, partly through the expedience of working in the hellish-sounding Irish Red Cross hospital at Saint-Lô in Normandy. When he and Suzanne were re-established at their Rue des Favorites apartment in Paris, they had next to no money. He kept himself going by what he later called “literary drudgery” and by Suzanne’s dressmaking, until life was eased by an inheritance in 1950. But his literary persona was forged in those years of penury, and so was his literary language.

Significantly, a large proportion of the letters in this volume are in French. They are translated with scrupulous panache by George Craig, himself an Irishman, whose Englishing of Beckett’s slangy and playful French is pitch-perfect, and whose sparkling “Translator’s Preface” is a highlight of the book. The manner in which Beckett adopted French as his first literary language around 1946 is not a simple conversion, but these letters illuminate it. It has long been recognized that by this step Beckett hoped to escape the “Anglo-Irish exuberance and automatisms” characteristic of his apprentice works, More Pricks Than Kicks and Dream of Fair to Middling Women. His biographer James Knowlson has cannily suggested that it was a way of escaping from James Joyce.

But the idea that he did it pour avoir moins de style,” to have less style, and to embrace a kind of abstractness, is challenged by many statements in this book, as in a postscript to the art critic Georges Duthuit in March 1950: “Never understood so clearly as when reading you, not even when reading Proust, to what extent French is the language of the infinitesimal.” Toward the end of the period covered here, Beckett is writing All That Fall, his first radio play, which is full of colorful and zany eloquence. And so are the letters. There was style aplenty.

A COLLECTION OF letters is not a biography, and this is particularly true in this case: the instruction given by Beckett himself to the editors, when the great project began, was to publish only letters “having bearing on my work.” (He did not forgive Richard Ellmann for publishing Joyce’s intimate letters to Nora.) The footnotes suggest (as does Knowlson’s biography) some of the riches excluded by this criterion, as we are not given his passionate and self-lacerating letters to his lover Pamela Mitchell around the time of his brother’s death in 1954.

I can’t face any more difficulties, and I can’t bear the thought of giving any more pain, make what sense you can of that, it’s all old age and weakness, why will you not believe me?... Don’t imagine I don’t feel your unhappiness. I think of it every hour, with misery. For God’s sake admit to yourself you know nothing of me and try and believe me when I tell you what I am. It is the only thing [that] will help you. You will be happy one day and thank me for not involving you any deeper in my horrors.

But even without this dimension, a picture of Beckett’s postwar life emerges like a developing photograph: planting trees at his grim Ussy cottage (“a hole in the Marne mud”), meditative drinking sessions in Parisian boîtes, reading novels (he admires Fontane, Salinger, Camus), maintaining his distance from the Sartre circle (there is a scorching letter to Simone de Beauvoir when she drops the second half of his story “Suite” from Les Temps Modernes). And there is much here that not only adds to the existing biographies by Bair, Cronin, and Knowlson, but also enforces some reconsideration.

The great revelations of this series are the letters to Duthuit, who as editor of the revived avant-garde journal Transition put a good deal of translation work Beckett’s way. Much more importantly, the two men sustained what Duthuit’s son later described as a “volcanic” friendship, revolving around their differing approaches to painting. The first volume of letters charted Beckett’s passionate odyssey around German art galleries in the 1930s, mainly through letters to his friend Thomas MacGreevy (who would become director of the National Gallery of Ireland); and in the late 1940s Duthuit is the recipient of similar outpourings, though their friendship slackened later in life.

The painters who preoccupy Beckett are his friends the Dutch brothers Bram and Geer van Velde, and the Irish painter Jack B. Yeats. Beckett admired and wrote copiously about all three, using Duthuit as a sounding board to figure out why the van Veldes missed greatness and Yeats achieved it. “Having thought I had detected in Yeats the only value that remains at all real for me—a value which I no longer want to try to pin down closely, and which cannot be accounted for by the so very respectable considerations of country and workmanship—I become literally blind to all the rest.... So I am not someone to talk art with, and on that subject I am not likely to utter anything other than my own obsessive concerns.” As usual, he is too hard on himself.

The letters that dominate this collection were written to editors such as Duthuit, actors and directors such as Roger Blin, and publishers such as Jérôme Lindon of Editions de Minuit and Barney Rosset of Grove Press in New York. There are none to family members, nor to Suzanne. Yet the personal, intimate affectionate side of Beckett is much in evidence: Lindon would later say that he never met anyone “in whom co-exist together in such high degree, nobility and modesty, lucidity and goodness.” The criterion of work-relatedness does not exclude a vivid sense of Beckett’s extraordinary character, and it brings in some surprising material, again adding to the life story.

It is well-known that Beckett was supportive of a group of prisoners in the German jail of Lüttringhausen who put on a production of Waiting for Godot in 1954, and that he kept in touch with the convict who masterminded it, whom the editors identify as Karl-Franz Lembke. They print an extraordinarily emotional letter from Beckett to Lembke in October 1954: 

My dear Prisoner
I read and re-read your letter.
Godot is from 48 or 49, I can’t remember. My last work is from 50. Since then, nothing. That tells you how long I have been without words. I have never regretted it so much as now, when I need them for you.
For a long time now, more or less aware of this extraordinary Lüttringhausen affair, I’ve thought often of the man who, in his cage, read, translated, put on my play. In all my life as man and writer, nothing like this has ever happened to me. To someone moved as I am, phrases come easily, but from a sloppy way of talking, not at all your style, given that I am no longer the same, and will never again be able to be the same, after what you have done, all of you. In the place where I have always found myself, where I will always find myself, turning round and round, falling over, getting up again, it is no longer wholly dark nor wholly silent.
That you should have brought me such comfort is all that I can offer you as comfort. I, who am what is called free to come and go, to gorge myself, to make love, I shall not be fatuous enough to dispense to you words of wisdom. To whatever my play may have brought you, I can add this only: the huge gift you have made me by accepting it.

Two years later Lembke, now released, was trying to put on a production of the play in Frankfurt, and letters to his German publisher show Beckett arranging permissions, sending money to help with the production, and suggesting Lembke as a translator for “a few easy poems.” But a footnote drily adds that these arrangements ended abruptly when it was discovered that Lembke had embezzled the funds of his acting company and absconded; and Cronin’s biography tells of an alarming visit by Lembke to Paris, where he moved in to Blin’s apartment and was kept strictly away from the Rue des Favorites. The story might make a play in itself, from a different kind of playwright. What endures is the emotional generosity of Beckett’s response.

EMOTION RECURS, NOTABLY in the letters to Duthuit, often written late at night and possibly with “drink taken,” as the euphemistic Irish phrase has it. The harrowing experience of observing the decline and death of both his mother and his brother recurs. “The weather is fine, I walk along my old paths, I keep watching my mother’s eyes, never so blue, so stupefied, so heartrending, eyes of an endless childhood, that of old age. Let us get there rather earlier, while there are still refusals we can make. I think these are the first eyes that I have seen. I have no wish to see any others, I have all I need for loving and weeping, I know now what is going to close, and open inside me, but without seeing anything, there is no more seeing.” And as he watched his brother die, he wrote to Pamela Mitchell: “The old Irish slogan ‘Die in Ireland.’ It’s a dangerous place to come back to for any other purpose.”

His response to national commitment is unequivocal: recent tendencies to claim him for his native country will not find much support here. “Haven’t been back to Ireldand [sic] since my mother’s death in 50 and hope I never shall,” he writes to George Reavey in 1953. And to Barney Rosset a year later: “No, there are no compensations for me in this country, on the contrary. And as so shortly to be the only survivor of my family I hope never to have to.” When the enterprising Alan Simpson tries to woo Godot from him for an early Dublin production, arguing that this would be patriotically apposite, Beckett retorts bleakly: “As to the propriety of first production in English being in Dublin, I’m afraid I have no feeling about that at all.” (It did go ahead, after the Peter Hall production in London, and was an artistic success but not a commercial one.)

Getting away from Ireland raises the specter of Joyce, a large figure in Beckett’s Parisian life in the 1930s. They met for the last time in June 1940, when Joyce arranged the loan that enabled Beckett and Suzanne to abandon Paris for Arcachon; Beckett’s last postcard to him arrived just after Joyce’s death six months later. Yet the Joycean mantra of silence-exile-cunning continues to echo strikingly in these letters. “But when one is not gifted, really stupid and clumsy, what is one to go in for? Cunning? Art? Keeping quiet? Silence will come soon enough, not from pride, but from weariness of speech.” As he becomes better known, and journalists want to interview him, Beckett wonders what he can do “as the nonsense accumulates: exile? don’t know; cunning? not my style; silence? gladly.”

As for Joyce’s work, a critical note is sounded in a fascinating letter written in 1955 to David Hayman, a young scholar who had asked Beckett to read his thesis on Joyce and Mallarmé, when Beckett suggests “an exagmination [the word comes from Finnegans Wake] of how in Joyce the form of judgement [sic] more and more devoured its gist and the saying of all the saying of anything.” In the same letter, a brilliant reflection on Joyce’s debt to Dante suggests something of his own. Most interesting of all is his judicious letter to the translator Hans Naumann in February 1954, responding at length to inquiries about his work. 

My dealings with Joyce.... Our dealings were entirely those of friends. I was never his secretary. We very seldom talked literature, he didn’t like doing it, neither did I. We often went out together. He showed me the greatest kindness and generosity.... I still think of him as one of the greatest literary geniuses of all time. But I believe I felt very early on that the thing that drew me and the means I could call on were virtually the opposite of his thing and his means. He had a very strong moral influence on me. He gave me, without in the least wishing to do so, an insight into what the words “to be an artist” mean. I think of him with unqualified admiration, affection and gratitude.

Others would say much the same of Beckett himself. But there is more: an anxiety of influence remained. Surely the great tidal flood of language that ends The Unnamable is, above all, Joycean?

THESE LETTERS REVEAL that Beckett, contrary to some general supposition, was prepared to talk about his work, particularly about the process behind it. Impatience creeps in only when over-interpretation is suggested, or crude connections between the epiphanies in his writing and his own breakthrough into an achieved style. “I do not know who Godot is. I do not even know if he exists. And I do not know if they believe he does, those two who are waiting for him.... 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. I am no longer part of it, and never will be again. Estragon, Vladimir, Pozzo, Lucky, their time and their space, I have only been able to know a little about them by staying very far away from the need to understand. They owe you an explanation perhaps. Let them get on with it. Without me. They and I have settled our accounts.”

Accordingly, there are few references here to the writing of what became Waiting for Godot. This is partly because it came so fast. The first version, in French, was started on October 9, 1948, and finished by the end of the following January. In March 1949 Beckett told Duthuit that he was “[buckling] down to doing the wearisome tidying up of my play, which will probably be called En attendant Godot. Above all I must make sure the anus is clear.” It is likely that he was concentrating so hard in the frenzied weeks of composition that he wrote few letters. The two tramps, rehearsing their dilatory conversations in the shadow of menacing prospects that loom periodically and brutally into view, are rooted in a matrix of influences, reaching back in time. These include the eerie paintings of Caspar David Friedrich seen by Beckett in pre-war Germany, and his own experiences with Suzanne while hiding out in wartime France; and Knowlson has inferred further influences from the visionary worlds of J.M. Synge and Jack Yeats. The letters given here do not add to the immediate circumstances of the play’s creation, but they help to show—along with those in the previous volume—the imaginative preoccupations that lie behind. (Those of us hoping to find a specific reference to W.B. Yeats’s play Purgatory, from 1938, must close the book disappointed.) A connection with actual lived experience remains a matter of permissible but speculative inference, which is exactly where Beckett would have wanted it left.

Similarly, Beckett was anxious to tell people that the celebrated revelation on Dún Laoghaire pier that is dangled before the audience in Krapp’s Last Tape was not a simple transposition of what happened to him in or around 1946.

Spiritually a year of profound gloom and indigence until that memorable night in March, at the end of the jetty, in the howling wind, never to be forgotten, when suddenly I saw the whole thing. The vision at last. This I fancy is what I have chiefly to record this evening.... What I suddenly saw then was this, that the belief I had been going on all my life, namely [Krapp switches off impatiently, winds tape forward, switches on again]—great granite rocks the foam flying up in the light of the lighthouse and the wind-gauge spinning like a propeller, clear to me at last that the dark I have always struggled to keep under is in reality my most [Krapp curses, switches off, winds tape forward, switches on again]—unshatterable association until my dissolution of storm and night with the light of the understanding and the fire.

Speaking less elliptically, Beckett remarked in 1961: “Molloy and the others came to me the day I became aware of my own folly. Only then did I begin to write the things I feel.”

His emergence into greatness in these years is indisputable, but what enabled it is less easy to define. His experiences in the Resistance and at Saint-Lô, the deaths of the last members of his family, the transference into a new language, and not least Suzanne’s indefatigable determination to bring his work around the offices of endless publishers—all these played their part. What his letters contribute to the story is a picture of the marvelous generosity and verve of Beckett as communicator: the passionate engagement of his late-night epistles to Duthuit, the generosity and thoughtfulness of his responses to young scholars such as Hayman, and insecure writers such as Robert Pinget; the energetic warmth and affection of his letters to Lindon, Rosset, and other supporters from his early days.

The last words of The Unnamable have been quoted unto cliché: “You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” In fact, it is essential to read them in context, at the end of that great outpouring sentence that rushes over four pages, and begins: “The place, I’ll make it all the same, I’ll make it in my head, I’ll draw it out of my memory.” These letters illustrate how Beckett was doing just that, much as Joyce had done. Writing to Rosset in February 1954, Beckett himself ironically invokes those famous closing words, and his “failure to implement” them; he then mentions a work in progress.  

At the moment I have a “man” crawling along a corridor in the rock in the dark, but he’s due to vanish any day now. Of course there’s no reason why it would start now or ever for that matter. I’m horribly tired and stupefied, but not yet tired or stupefied enough. To write is impossible but not yet impossible enough. That’s how I cod myself these days. 

To “cod” someone, in Hiberno-English, is to deceive them knowingly; to pull the wool over their eyes. Beckett never codded himself, nor his audience. What these letters celebrate, and do justice to, is the sound of a unique voice, telling the truth. 

Roy Foster is Carroll Professor of Irish History at the University of Oxford. His latest book is Words Alone: Yeats and his Inheritances (Oxford University Press). This article appeared in the December 15, 2011, issue of the magazine.