Michael Dirda Book Review: 'The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume I'

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By Michael Dirda
Thursday, April 2, 2009


Volume I: 1929-1940

Edited by Martha Dow Fehsenfeld and Lois More Overbeck.

Cambridge Univ. 782 pp. $50

Admirers of Samuel Beckett, arguably the greatest writer in English of the second half of the 20th century, have grown used to waiting for Godot, who will surely come tomorrow or, just possibly, the day after. In the meantime, these similarly anticipated letters have quite definitely arrived, and in an edition more sumptuous than one ever imagined.

Has any modern author been better served by his editors than Beckett? When completed, this four-book set will include approximately 2,500 letters, chosen from some 15,000 written over 60 years. Just the introductions, chronologies, indexes and biographical profiles of Beckett's friends and associates take up nearly 200 pages of this initial volume.

Best of all, each letter is annotated in detail, with every person, event and allusion scrupulously identified. While young Sam grouses about the "usual drink & futility" or complains that Proust is "strangely uneven," his editors crisply inform us that Beckett owned the 1926 Salani edition of Dante, that "bougie" is an old French word for catheter, that Bernardo Bibbiena's "La Calandra" was "perhaps the most scurrilous play of the 1400s," and that the customs duty on overcoats was 60 percent of value, "unless personally owned and substantially worn," as was Beckett's. No surprise there. A shop actually refused to mend the young expatriate's worn-out shoes. But, as he told a friend, "I can still wear them on very dry days."

In 1928 Beckett, freshly graduated from Trinity College Dublin with a degree in French and Italian, arrives in Paris to teach English at the Ecole Normale Superieure. Soon he is writing to James Joyce, who enlists him for occasional research on "Finnegans Wake," and soon, too, he is fending off the advances of Joyce's schizophrenic daughter, Lucia, who once told him to "accept the world and go to parties." Notwithstanding the round spectacles, bristly hair, gangly physique and those dilapidated shoes, Beckett seems to have been highly attractive to women (and not only in the 1930s: Susan Sontag once called him the sexiest man she had ever met).

Setting aside Lucia Joyce's largely undesired attentions, in this decade Beckett enjoys love affairs with, among others, a cousin; the rich heiress Peggy Guggenheim; and finally Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, who will eventually become his wife. Most of this correspondence, however, is directed to male friends, with whom Beckett discusses his reading, visits to museums and concerts, and various physical and mental travails. He tells one correspondent that he admires Schopenhauer for his "intellectual justification of unhappiness -- the greatest that has ever been attempted." Dostoevsky's "The Possessed," he concludes, is "full of clich├ęs & journalese: but the movement, the transitions! . . . No one ever caught the insanity of dialogue like he did." He calls Jane Austen "divine" and confesses that "I think she has much to teach me." Of Goethe's "Faust," he complains that "there seems to be a surprising amount of irrelevance for the work of a lifetime." He orders the complete works of Kant in German, reads Latin philosophy, judges Sartre's "Nausea" as "extraordinarily good." Again and again, Beckett gripes that he "can't write at all. The simplest sentence is a torture." He speaks -- in a very Beckettian manner -- of his "wild way of failing to say what I imagine I want to say."

And yet in this decade of apprenticeship he produces a major essay on Joyce, a monograph on Proust, the prize-winning poem "Whoroscope," a long unpublished work of fiction called "Dream of Fair to Middling Women," the short stories of "More Pricks Than Kicks" and his extremely funny philosophical first novel, "Murphy." He also tries and fails to write a play about Samuel Johnson -- and then agrees to translate the Marquis de Sade's "The Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom" (but the project falls through).

Despite all this industry and accomplishment, Beckett makes various lackluster attempts to find a Real Job. He tries to land a curatorship at Ireland's National Gallery of Art; he writes to the Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein, asking to be taken on as his student; he inquires about a position teaching French in a technical school in Rhodesia and applies to the University of Cape Town for a professorship of Italian. At one point, Beckett even thinks of becoming a commercial pilot, explaining that "I do not feel like spending the rest of my life writing books that no one will read," then adding, characteristically, "It is not as though I wanted to write them." Alongside literature, his other great subjects are his health and art. He suffers from cysts and boils, heart palpitations, intestinal pains and mysterious trouble with his anus. Some of his teeth need to be extracted, he spends a long (and useless) period in psychoanalysis, and he comes close to dying after being stabbed in the chest by a crazed panhandler.

When not bedridden or feeling sorry for himself, Beckett is usually looking at art, especially from the 17th-century Netherlands. In 1936-37 he even spends six months in Germany just going around to galleries, churches and museums: Of one obscure figure -- van der Werff -- he enticingly notes that his work is so pornographic that it "would make Fragonard look like Fra Angelico." Among contemporary painters, he deeply admires the landscapes of Jack B. Yeats, brother to the poet. His favorite correspondent is Thomas McGreevy, a future director of Ireland's National Gallery.

Still, it is to a young German, Axel Kaun, that Beckett writes the best known letter in this collection, a kind of apologia for his future life as an artist: "It is indeed getting more and more difficult, even pointless for me to write in formal English. And more and more my language appears to me like a veil which one has to tear apart in order to get to those things (or the nothingness) lying behind it. . . . Language is best used where it is most efficiently abused. . . . 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."

Eventually, Samuel Beckett tore apart language and human existence in a series of masterpieces, most of them originally written in French and culminating in the gasped breaths of "How It Is," where people spend their solitary lives crawling through mud in the impenetrable dark. At the end of this first volume of letters, though, the future Nobel laureate chooses to stay in Paris, even as the German armies overrun France. Soon he will join the now almost legendary Resistance cell known as Gloria SMH. Writing will have to wait.

Dirda, who can be reached at mdirda@gmail.com, reviews books each Thursday in Style. Visit his online book discussion at http://washingtonpost.com/readingroom.

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