‘The Letters of Samuel Beckett: 1941-1956’: Book Review

Beckett2LettersThis second volume of letters ‘having bearing on my work’ elegantly compiles Samuel Beckett’s postwar correspondence. The often pleading, imploring frustration of a struggling Irishman trying to land a publisher for his poems and tales has faded. Postwar, Beckett returns to Paris and then goes away to Ussy-sur-Marne to confront himself–and to create his breakthrough prose and drama.

Easing if not replacing the acerbic, dyspeptic tone of his youthful letters, he blends his unease into a mellower, if no less rueful, distillation of himself. He begins the sunset of the first day of June 1949 walking back to Ussy, accompanied or nagged along the road by mayflies. ‘In the end I worked out they were all accompanying me towards the Marne to be eaten by the fish, after making love on the water’.

This remarkable vignette exemplifies the quality of his insights. A rare talent in both the novel and the play, Beckett’s decision to enter into French as his primary mode of literary creation demonstrates his command of the idiom beyond his thirty years first in Ireland and then abroad. Beckett made France his milieu.

Ireland recedes, where his older brother and his mother lingered before dying. He writes to Duthuit in 1948 after he watches his fading mother’s blue eyes. ‘Let us get there rather earlier, while there are still refusals we can make.’ Here you can discern the powerful mood which will grace or unsettle Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable.

His visits back to Dublin appear to have caused less contention than those in the pre-war decade, yet he rankles at the censorship there and in London. When Godot was slated to appear on the West End in 1954, the Lord Chamberlain ‘got going’. So, ‘coat’ replaced ‘fly’, ‘backside’ replaced ‘arse’, and ‘guts’ replaced ‘privates’.

Such asides speckle Beckett’s writing, to one person in his letters, to the few but discerning readers of his increasingly confident fiction, or his sudden exposure with the fame that he had courted for so long with so little success. Waiting for Godot was advertised in Miami as ‘the laugh sensation of two continents’. Socialites walked out in droves.

Dan Gunn introduces this collection by noting its ‘rhythm of approach and withdrawal’. One wishes more had survived, and that the lacunae of the wartime years had been replaced with evidence of his life, but the silence speaks for his and bravery as an Irish citizen working against fascism and under the threat of death. Such commitment provided Beckett with more equanimity and compassion in the difficult years during and after the war as he reconstructed his own life and career in France.

Beckett comes to terms slowly with his celebrity, granted as he nears the age of fifty. Already sensing the diminution of his physical powers, ironically he enters into his literary prime in this second volume. He, who had urged so often others to read his works and to publish them, now begins to find himself elucidating or correcting others who seek out his advice.

Despite his French allegiance, he remains Irish. Editor George Craig as a fellow countryman senses the Irish-English persistence in Beckett’s phrasing, and its pitch to the breath and spoken word rather than the semicolon or period. He castigates silly critics of Godot: ‘Like a lot of seaside brats digging for worms people are’.

Within whichever language he chooses, Beckett agonizes over the right word, the key phrase. He separates his voice in French, with its discipline and narrower range, from his native English, with its temptations to wander. Either way, this annotated and durable edition attests to his skill, his fluency, and his humanity.