‘The Letters of Samuel Beckett,’ reviewed by Michael Dirda

October 12, 2011

When this second volume of Samuel Beckett’s letters opens, he is on the run from the Nazis, who have just taken Paris. When it ends, in 1956, the Irish writer will have produced nearly all his major work: the trilogy of novels consisting of “Molloy,” “Malone Dies” and “The Unnamable”; the dense “Texts for Nothing”; and, not least, two of the greatest plays in world literature: “Waiting for Godot” and “Endgame.”

There are no surviving letters from the war years, during which Beckett participated in the Resistance’s legendary “Gloria” network. But in 1945, he is again back in Paris writing stories and short novels that no one wants: “They go out into the usual void and I hear little more about them.”

To supplement a small family allowance, he translates (mainly for the literary magazine Transition and, later, for a UNESCO anthology of Mexican poetry) while his lifelong companion Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil earns a little as a dressmaker. They both spend a lot of time looking at art — Beckett is enthusiastic about the paintings of Jack B. Yeats (younger brother of the poet W.B. Yeats) and Bram van Velde — and he discusses aesthetics frequently with the critic Georges Duthuit. Yet as he enters his 40s, he is still drifting:

“I see advertised in to-day’s Irish Times an editorial vacancy on the staff of the RGDATA (Retail Grocery Dairy and Allied Trades Association) Review at 300 pounds per an. I think seriously of applying. Any experience of trade journalism would be so useful.”

Fortunately for world literature, he doesn’t send in his résumé. Instead, he announces a momentous decision: “I do not think I shall write very much in English in the future.” With this commitment to French, Samuel Beckett embarks on 10 years of astonishing creativity.

He takes just six months in 1947 to produce “Molloy,” rests for a month then starts “Malone Dies,” which takes about the same amount of time. A footnote informs us that “Waiting for Godot” was written between October 1948 and January 1949. In the evenings, he devours mysteries or goes back to favorite books like “that most moving and beautiful novel Theodor Fontane’s ‘Effi Briest’. . . . I read it for the fourth time the other day with the same old tears in the same old places.” When not writing or complaining about his health and the onset of old age, Beckett happily plants trees and digs in the garden of a small house he’s found 30 miles outside of Paris:

“Fifteen or twenty years of silence and solitude . . . I feel this evening that that would suit me, and suit me the least badly possible. I have bought a wheelbarrow, my first wheelbarrow! It goes very well, with its one wheel. I keep an eye on the love-life of the Colorado beetle and work against it, successfully but humanely, that is to say by throwing the parents into my neighbor’s garden and burning the eggs. If only someone had done that for me!”

That last sentence is characteristic of the gloomy Beckett we all love.

Beckett’s fortunes start to improve when he is taken up by the English-language magazine Merlin and then by Jerome Lindon, head of the French publishing house Editions de Minuit. He might have said to them what he later wrote to his American publisher Barney Rosset of Grove Press: “I hope you realize what you are letting yourself in for.”

He was never, for instance, going to bowdlerize his writing or promote it through any form of publicity. As Deschevaux-Dumesnil explains on his behalf:

“Beckett will not hear of being interviewed, whether orally or in writing. I fear that on this he is not to be budged. He gives his work, his role stops there. He cannot talk about it. That is his attitude. . . . One must take him as he is.”

Repeatedly, Beckett insists that his writing speaks for itself:

“I know no more about this play than anyone who manages to read it attentively. . . . 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, these two who are waiting for him.”

Nonetheless, Beckett does regularly comment on how “Waiting for Godot” should be presented. To its French director Roger Blin, he writes: “The spirit of the play, in so far as it has one, is that nothing is more grotesque than the tragic, and that must be put across right to the end, and particularly at the end.”

He protests to a German director:

“If my play contains expressionist elements, it is without my knowledge. . . . Nor is it, for me, a symbolist play, I cannot stress that too much. First and foremost, it is a question of something that happens, almost a routine, and it is this dailiness and this materiality, in my view, that need to be brought out. . . . The characters are living creatures, only just living perhaps, they are not emblems. . . . Godot himself is not of a different species from those he cannot or will not help. I myself know him less well than anyone, having never known even vaguely what I needed.”

And to a Canadian would-be producer he stresses: “Do try and see the thing primarily in its simplicity, the waiting, the not knowing why, or where, or when, or for what.”

Despite success in Europe, “Waiting for Godot” only gradually finds its audience in the United States. At its premiere in Miami, many theatergoers walk out, having been led to expect the “laugh sensation of two continents.” At one point, though, Beckett grows practically giddy over talk that its two tramps might be played on Broadway by Buster Keaton and Marlon Brando. Still, Beckett’s most emotional letter in an entire volume of wonderful letters is elicited by a performance of “Godot” by prisoners in a German penitentiary. Beckett writes:

“In all my life as man and writer, nothing like this has ever happened to me. . . . To whatever my play may have brought you, I can add this only: the huge gift you have made me by accepting it.”

While “Godot” is gradually making his name, Beckett reluctantly embarks on the translation of his French novels into English, “an indigestion of old work with all the adventure gone.” He says, repeatedly in one way or another, “My God how I hate my own work.” He imagines a future volume called “Posthumous Droppings.”

As it happens, few writers have been better served by their editors than Samuel Beckett. This sumptuous volume, “The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume 2, 1941-1956,” like its predecessor and the two that will follow, is beautifully designed and laid out, while the editorial apparatus includes lavishly detailed notes, yearly chronologies, an extensive biographical appendix and more than 90 pages of introductory matter, highlighted by a brilliant summary essay by editor Dan Gunn. The letters in French — at least half of them — are followed by English translations. Anyone who admires Beckett will want to read and own this book.

Dirda reviews books for The Post every Thursday. Join his discussion at wapo.st/reading-room.

THE LETTERS OF SAMUEL BECKETT 1941-1956

Edited by George Craig, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Dan Gunn and Lois More Overbeck

Cambridge. 791 pp. $50 

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