When the first volume of Samuel Beckett's Letters appeared in spring 2009, James Naughtie refereed an unseemly ding-dong on the Today radio programme between their soft-voiced Irish founding editor, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, and a grumpy Philip Hensher, who kept demanding what he claimed "we want" from Beckett's published correspondence.
Hensher proposed that, Beckett being the only Nobel Prize winner in Wisden, we "would love to know what he had to say about cricket", to which Fehsenfeld gently replied that no letter mentioned cricket. The irrelevance of what Hensher wanted was underlined by both authors having quoted Beckett's 1985 condition that the posthumous publication restrict itself to "passages bearing on my work".
Volume one covered 1929 to 1940. Volume two (of a planned four) is subtitled "1941-1956", although the first letter in it dates from 1945 because no others were found from the war years, most of which Becket spent in the south of France with his future wife Suzanne Déchevaux-Dumesnil, steering clear of the Nazis while working for the Resistance. He also – "to keep myself sane" – continued work on Watt, the last of his novels initially written in English, "in dribs and drabs, first on the run, then of an evening after the clodhopping during the occupation". Clodhopping alludes to the arduous farm labours which sustained the couple through their forced exile from Paris.
Many letters in this volume reflect radical changes. Beginning with his last reunion with James Joyce in Vichy in June 1940, the collection traces Beckett's transformation from a wordy Joyce-adoring prentice poet and novelist into an ever more assured (and later, minimalist) one, whose phenomenally innovative plays captivated a long-term worldwide following.
A letter of November 1947 confides: "I do not think I shall write very much in English in future." Whereafter more and more letters are in French, along with George Craig's impeccable translations. Asked why the change, Beckett wrote: "le besoin d'être mal armé" ("the need to be ill-equipped"). Having lived mainly in France since 1928, he would have been hearing and speaking at least as much French as English. When in 1949 the art historian Georges Duthuit requested an article on Bram van Velde, the Dutch artist whom they both admired, Beckett declined: "It is perhaps writing directly in English which is knotting me up. Horrible language, which I still know too well."
The years from 1947 to 1950 were anni mirabili for Beckett, bookended by his first play, Eleutheria, the free-flowing yet tightly crafted novels Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable, and Waiting for Godot. His growing fame as a dramatist prompted growing involvement in productions and translations, and a consequently far wider range of letters than before.
To his American publisher Barney Rosset, he reported on "a highly unsatisfactory interview with SIR Ralph Richardson, who wanted the low-down on [Waiting for Godot's] Pozzo, his home address, family background & curriculum vitae. As I know nothing of these matters we parted coldly". Whereas for Peter Hall's 1955 production of Godot in London, Beckett provided more than 60 laser-pointed notes, including a charming sketch of the Yogic tree position after Vladimir's "Let's just do the tree" line, commenting: "It is the hands pressed together as though in prayer that produces Estragon's 'Do you think God sees me?'." The very perfectionism which had made Beckett so diffident about commenting on his earlier, relatively failed writings, seems to have galvanised his optimal input to and direction of the plethora of subsequent print and stage productions.
Apart from unavoidable trips abroad, he commuted for most of his 1950s between Paris and a little house near the village of Ussy-sur-Marne, 30 miles away, where he delighted in studying nature, planting trees, bird-watching and gardening. Dan Gunn's introduction observes how "Ussy lets Beckett mourn not just for the numerous loved ones lost during the war or the years which follow (including his mother and brother), but for himself as well, for what has to be shed when the path chosen – path human but above all path literary – is as straitening as his own."
The countryside also let him relax: "Tomorrow I shall sow some spinach and bed out leeks. I am gathering greengages to make our own eau de vie...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 neighbour's garden and burning the eggs. If only someone had done that for me." At which, Beckett lovers will smile – but also thank goodness that nobody did. And they will give thanks also for the concerted scholarship of this perfectly pitched quartet of editor-translator-chroniclers.
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