Samuel Beckett: In his 60s he learned to say ‘no’.

The Letters of Samuel Beckett: 1966-1989

Edited by George Craig (French translation), Martha Dow Fehsenfeld (founding), Dan Gunn & Lois More Overbeck (general)
Cambridge University Press, £29.99, ISBN: 978-0521867962, PP866
by Brian Morton

When Larry Met Sammy

November 18, 2016 | by Brian Morton

This is the quarter century he didn’t expect, and didn’t particularly want. Samuel Beckett passed his 60th birthday on April 13 1966 with his glass half-empty and the cup of fame brimming over. Writing letters was both a distraction from work and a hedge against fading powers. ‘Downhill begins this year.’

More than with almost any other comparable literary figure, the letters are part of the work and not just a set of footnotes and glosses on it. And not because Beckett has become an avid commentator on his own vision. Quite the reverse. The substance of the letters, apart from a weary itemizing of physical decline, is usually No. There are offers of prizes and of the Oxford Professorship of Poetry, politely declined. When the Nobel comes up in 1969, his fugitive acceptance makes Bob Dylan look puppyishly effusive and grateful. There are requests for interviews, to which he replies that he has no views to inter. Esquire magazine wants him to go and report on the 1968 conventions in Chicago. They get Jean Genet instead, and serve them right. And then there are the endless requests from directors – including ‘Larry’ Olivier, who insists that a South Bank Beckett night would make a ‘great show’! – wanting to put on productions of Beckett plays with women in male roles, with added props and gimmicks, with music, on television. No, no, ditto, no.

And yet, the vitality denied in almost every line of this nearly 900-page swansong is present in every line, too, just as Beckett’s core-deep humanity and empathy is present even in the most exiguous and clipped of letters. The whole Beckettian project is both keeping on, even in the presence of a great metaphysical blankness, and it is about the disappearance of the most beguiling but also absurd of modern illusions: the existence of an autonomous self. The first person singular largely disappears from the correspondence; sometimes, perhaps, haste dictates a kind of telegramese, but mostly because Beckett doesn’t really think of himself as ‘Beckett’. Not once in four volumes of letters does he recount anything about his role with the French Resistance, the single moment in the life which might prompt narrative heroism. Which is not to say that he turns away from the outside world. He is acutely aware of it, not least when students start building barricades and friends cross swords with debt collectors or the law. So refined are his antennae that he detects trouble almost before it arrives.

Work is reluctance. Work is an addiction. He says at one point that he will ‘Never get free from theatre’. At another, though, there is ‘no dope like it’. Writing to American academic Herbert Myron, he says ‘What a curse bread & butter’, which seems to be a cry of sympathy for those stuck with a day job, but then signs off ‘I don’t kick myself on [in?] the way I used but the boots are still on’. The space between the ‘artist’ and the ‘work’, if space there is, is spelt out in ‘que le travail qui ne marche pas. Et le travailleur’. When he writes to Ruby Cohn – and surely he must have punned joyously on that name? – he describes his regimen as ‘Petits pas. Nulle part. Obstinément.’ Little steps, in no particular direction, obstinately: there’s the Beckettian ethos in a line.

If that adjective and attribution seems lazy, compare it to ‘Kafkan’, which is used by anyone who’s had to queue for more than eight minutes to pick up a form at the Post Office or called Job Centre Plus about employment support allowance. ‘Beckettian’ goes further and deeper. It leaps into focus when Sam, after a run of letters about a much-loved but ailing relative who has experienced no’s knife in a literal, surgical way, describes ‘Legless Uncle Jim now stone blind into the bargain. But some live amputated at the waist. Where the genitals graft.’ Authorship unmistakable.

Too many old friends are dying. With director George Devine and sculptor Alberto Giacometti gone, Beckett instructs a rhetorical undertaker to run the red lights and take him straight to Père Lachaise, which sounds aggrieved and morbid until you remember that this is the cemetery where the literary greats are put to rest. Beckett knows he is ‘damned to fame’, the phrase James Knowlson borrowed for his biography of him, and he knows that he is deeply implicated in the business of communicating the work to the world. He is addicted to the theatrical process, even as he pretends that it is a distraction from the page. Like Stockhausen, he is a presence at the key productions, a virtuosic and enigmatic rehearser. Billie Whitelaw, his ‘miraculous’ muse of later years, told me that Beckett spoke entirely in stage directions, as if he were directing the scene around him. I met him very briefly in Paris, through the kind offices of the late Nicholas Zurbrugg, editor of the magazine stereo headphones (and possibly thanks to a word from John Fletcher, a mutual colleague at the University of East Anglia). The deal was that Beckett would not discuss his work and that there was to be no question of interview by stealth. We met for a drink in his favourite hotel, which I drank far too quickly, and was offered another. As the waiter placed it down with a deferential ‘Pour Monsieur’, Beckett murmured ‘(leans forward confidingly)’, as if he were in charge of the whole scene.

This chimes strikingly with a December 1966 letter to Christian Ludvigsen in Aarhus, which incidentally also nails the reluctance to talk about the work. Beckett says ‘Godot in my opinion is insufficiently “visualized” during writing. The other plays I saw more clearly, as the stage-directions show’. This is the voice of a man who admitted to being more comfortable among the painters than the literary cliques. He goes on to give a brilliant capsule masterclass on staging Endgame and on his preferred working methods, which must have been catnip to Ludvigsen until he came to the final line: ‘Hope this is of some help. To be used as much as you like, but not quoted please.’

The selection and annotation of letters is meticulous. There are some slightly surprising absences. On a personal level, I thought there would be some correspondence with Nick Zurbrugg, who besieged Beckett for texts, but it seems none survives or is available. The patient tracing of literary allusions, puns and word-plays makes clear both Beckett’s learning (even if he can’t quite remember a famous line from King Lear) and his impishness. A few are missed or overlooked: ‘Bid us sigh on from day to day’ is surely a play on ‘Bid us, Zion’? Not that it matters.

What’s more important is the matter of language, My impression of Beckett, confirmed by Billie Whitelaw, is that in certain company he liked to lapse into the persona of a poor ould Oirishman eking out an existence rather than a life. Even in a twenty-minute meeting, the accent slipped in and out of phase. The letters, likewise. He talks about ‘lepping’ (leaping, but implying agitation and urgency). He refers to having ‘slept it out’, rather than sleeping in. But mostly he writes in a language that is entirely his own invention, not a macaronic franglais but a mixture of French structures and English vocabulary, often bitten-off at the end. When he says that a 60th year is a 60th year, he means it also to carry the Gallic shrug that implies ‘with all the shit that brings with it’. He ends sentences with ‘the worst I ever’ and ‘But how well it’, which seem to have been translated in the moment. The blending of language and staging issues comes across most sharply in a lovely little aside, thrown away, but thrown away with the meticulousness of art: ‘As the old charwoman said following the streetwalker with her eyes. “Lovely work if you can get it”.’ Nice line. Touching comment on the human condition. The sort of thing you’ll store up and use again. But Beckett doesn’t leave it there. He has to add a director’s note: ‘Cockney accent autant que possible.’ George Craig’s translator’s preface makes clear the difficulty of rendering all of this, without making Beckett sound like one of those clubhouse bores at Carrickmines who drop schoolboy ‘too-zhoors’ and ‘ah byen-toe’ into their conversation to sound . . . what? It is interesting, almost by the by, that Beckett always refers to a given work in the language of the relevant translation rather than in the more familiar language of first publication. It is clear that for him translation wasn’t ancillary, but instinct with creativity itself.

Beckett maybe didn’t relish the downhill prospect of these years, but he didn’t freewheel them. They produced some of his hardest (in the sense of most rigorous) and most affecting work. These are the years not of the insufficiently visualized Waiting for Godot, but of the astonishing Breath, Not I, footfalls and Rockaby, and even that foreshortened list leaves him another decade of life-and-work. To the list has to be added the now completed Letters. It may be that just as the gift for human sympathy was his greatest as a human being, so the correspondence was his greatest as a writer. In the end, there’s no separating them. They’re one and the same, so they are.

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