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Arts and Culture

Sincerely, Sam Beckett

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Posted on Oct 28, 2011

By Michael Dirda

“The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume 2, 1941-1956”
A book edited by George Craig, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Dan Gunn and Lois More Overbeck

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 today’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 resume. 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!”

 

book cover

 

The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume 2, 1941-1956

 

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

 

Cambridge University Press, 791 pages

 

Buy the book

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.”

To see long excerpts from “The Letters of Samuel Beckett” at Google Books, click here.

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.

© 2011, Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group

 


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deboldt's avatar

By deboldt, November 1, 2011 at 11:20 am Link to this comment

I must sincerely apologize to Gerard for what he must think is really nasty behavior on my part. 

I have to ask you, Gerard if you even have a passing familiarity with Beckett’s work?  If you are familiar with Beckett’s dominant pessimism, did you post your optimistic comment as an irrelevance or a refutation?  Absent you setting a context for your remarks, I think you sort of stepped in it.  Best you not wade in waters beyond your depth or knowledge. 

Wabash College?  It’s been more than half a century since I graduated, so any Wabash influence has by now been vestigial at best.  I’ve sort of lost touch with my old Alma Mater.  Does Wabash have a reputation for post-modern, apocalyptic pessimism these days?  Back in the late fifties, the Philosophy Department, where I took my minor, was dominated by Whitehead, James, Hegel, Kant and Kierkegaard.

Peace,

Bob Boldt

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By gerard, November 1, 2011 at 9:47 am Link to this comment

Well, I guess deboldt put me in my place!  Goes to show what Wabash College does to people. They don’t move. lol

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By whitedog, November 1, 2011 at 8:19 am Link to this comment

It always amuses me that these very anomolous and strange artists get embraced by the academics. The one’s who would have been so affronted and put off by their inimitable personailites and habits. Still it’s very encouraging to know that they have published the personal letters of this man who wouldn’t even give interviews for us all to read and learn from. So we can live as we choose and succeed, hmmmm. Or some have been able to.

Maybe there’s hope for me.

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deboldt's avatar

By deboldt, November 1, 2011 at 1:56 am Link to this comment

Sometimes my assumptions get me in trouble.  When I responded to Gerard’s comments, I assumed they were a put on.  They so perfectly personified everything Beckett wrote against in his life: the idea of human progress, inherent good faith, improvement, the illusion of merit, and the denial of the ultimate disillusion of all our hopes and dreams in the grave.  Perhaps even the word “against” is too proactive a word for Beckett.  He viewed Humanity as a comic/tragic, purpose driven species waiting for a meaning that never arrives. 

I have always found it interesting that many regard Beckett’s seemingly drab, unadorned plays as the greatest written in the 20th Century. (I agree with this assessment BTW.) I think he knew exactly where we end up as people and where we would end up as a species.  I’m also sure Beckett would have dismissed this last idea as rubbish.

Actually I should rather have put Gerard’s words in the mouth of Winnie from “Happy Days.”  (Has anyone pointed out that “Happy Days” begins where “Un Chien Andalou” leaves off?) The hope and cockeyed optimism in Gerard’s words are actually far closer to the mood of that poor, sinking land-locked creature than they are to Lucky.

Now that we are pretty certain that the extinction of our species is at hand, Beckett takes on increased gravitas.  For me he was always an apocalyptic figure.  Vladimir and Estragon are the last two men on earth. (A lone last man would indicate some mercy on the part of the gods—wouldn’t it?)  Lucky, Pozzo and the stable boy are ghosts from the history of a deserted and decimated planet.

Bob Boldt
Jefferson City, MO

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Shenonymous's avatar

By Shenonymous, November 1, 2011 at 12:39 am Link to this comment

They weren’t just any so many words strung together, were they?

ESTRAGON: I hear something.
POZZO: Where?
VLADIMIR: It’s the heart.
POZZO: (disappointed). Damnation!

We are human.  We make mistakes. C’est là le problème.  We simply
don’t have all of the answers. Où es-tu capable, rien n’est là que
vous voulez dire. Il n’ya rien à faire!
  Do not listen only to your mind
but put your ear to your heart.

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By gerard, October 29, 2011 at 4:59 pm Link to this comment

deboldt:  Done deal!

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deboldt's avatar

By deboldt, October 29, 2011 at 1:56 pm Link to this comment

What a wonderful comment Gerard!  I’m sure Beckett would approve.  If I ever have a chance to stage Godot I wonder if I might have your permission to incorporate it in the play’s dialogue—perhaps at the end of Lucky’s speech?  Please send your release to deboldt(at)gmail.com

Bob Boldt

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By Rafael Ravenet, October 29, 2011 at 11:48 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

For one is one and as Beckett brings the modern sense to realized indeterminancy and understanding- for we are all unfinished and incomplete. Is mutability a good and needed feature of language rooted in the emotions of man? “not the abstraction of scientists.” Still science, in the Harvard physicist L. Randall’s recent published understandings cannot perhaps hope to “know” given scale and the difficulties of realizing the LHC at CERN. Aaaahhh Beckett and the reach of western thinking precisely at a time when thought buckles under the weight of impossible understanding. thus, poets lift us higher than our hopes for heaven and some enlightened monks talk in sign(?) Alas, does the poet know his letters from beyond the eternal silence of death? How could he ever know what lay beyond when writing letters in this life. So Beckett leaves them to speak for themselves and after all can we really ever ask for more? WTFDWK

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By MeHere, October 28, 2011 at 12:54 pm Link to this comment

Thanks for this nice article. Love Beckett!

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By gerard, October 28, 2011 at 10:26 am Link to this comment

Once human beings realize and admit that they have all the necessary tools and materials but it’s up to them to do the “intelligent design” bit, we are on the road to peace on earth, good will toward men women and children—beginning, hopefully, with the children since they “deserve” no less!

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