Tuesday, June 16, 2009


Edited by Martha Dow Felsenfeld and Lois More Overbeck

Cambridge University Press, $50, 782 pages, illus.

Reviewed by Martin Rubin

Some writers have a recognizable physical image that readers associate with their oeuvre. None more so than the ravaged, wasted, gaunt figure of Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) that goes so well with the bleak world of his plays, notably his best-known one, “Waiting for Godot.”

But the photographic image on the front cover of this first volume of his collected letters (starting when he was in his early 20s and ending in his mid-30s) is quite different from that iconic one. Here we have a handsome, introspective, grave, expectant young man, radiating sensitivity and intelligence - the person we encounter in this dense, revealing collection of letters, which is very much Beckett’s own self-portrait of the artist as a young man.

“I find it more & more difficult to write, even letters to my friends,” Beckett wrote in 1936, midway through this volume.

You would never know it from the natural grace and ease of these missives, which more than validate the editors’ statement in the introduction to this volume that Beckett “was one of the great literary correspondents of the twentieth century, perhaps of any century.”

His editors have done him justice by providing the fullest context imaginable, backed up by their impressive scholarship. To say this book is fully annotated would be an understatement: At times, the notes to a particular letter are much longer than its text.

But far from being off-putting, all this annotation is not only superbly satisfying and helpful to the reader but fascinating in itself. As are the profiles, notes and other scholarly material contained in this volume. All in all, they provide not only a wealth of insight into Beckett but also a rounded account of the milieus in which he lived and worked.

What jumps out more than anything else about Beckett from these letters is how cosmopolitan he was. An aunt to whom he was close was married to an Irish Jew and lived with her family in Germany until the Nazis made that uncomfortable; he visited them and wrote some interesting letters from there.

His degree from Trinity College Dublin was a distinguished one in French and Italian language and literature. Not only did he speak those languages superbly (as well as a native, according to the testimonials included here from some of his professors) but he also was fluent in German. This was when he had barely been out of his native Ireland except for some short stays.

Indeed, 30 percent of these letters are written in French and 5 percent in German, both excellent and colloquial, of course - and, as you might expect in an edition like this, beautifully translated into English by expert scholars, each of whom provides an introduction about his or her translations.

Before he went to live in France in the late 1930s and long before the 1950s, when he wrote “En attendant Godot” (“Waiting for Godot”) and those novels in French that are so esteemed by scholars, “Molloy,” “Malone Meurt” and “L’Innomable,” you can see from these letters how determined he was never to be insular, in art or in life.

These letters show a humanity in Beckett that is very attractive and certainly adds force to the argument that the bleak world depicted in his plays represents not a dehumanized place, but rather one where all of life has been distilled into its essences. As a correspondent, he is warm, confessional and open about his emotions. There are fascinating glimpses of James Joyce, whom he assisted in the almost impossible task of translating into French the “Anna Livia Plurabelle” sequences of “Finnegan’s Wake.”

Even more difficult was his entanglement in his fellow Irish writer’s family. Becoming emotionally involved with Joyce’s daughter Lucia, who was schizophrenic, was a painful experience that enormously complicated his relationship with the great man.

And yes, surreal things did happen to him, as with his being stabbed and quite seriously injured for no apparent reason by a deranged assailant shortly after he had come to live in Paris. All part of a life described with good humor and wisdom.

Not everything in these letters is personal. Astonishingly brilliant critical insights also are strewn throughout. On one page from 1934, there are these three diverse gems:

“I saw Yeats’ two latest [plays] - ‘Resurrection’ & ‘The King of the Ould Clock Tower’ at the Abbey [Theatre] Saturday. The ancient Hemolater at play. Balbus building his wall would be more dramati… what Yeats, greatly daring, can compose in the way of blasphemy, making the Christ convert into Plato.”

“A/The difference between the cities: Dublin consumes one’s impatience, London one’s patience. Which is the worst incindie [fire]?”

“I think what you find cold in Milton I find final, for himself at least, conflagrations of conviction cooled down to a finality of literary emission. With [D.H. Lawrence] it is the conflagration transmitted telle quelle [just as it is], which could never mean anything, even if the conflagration were a less kindling of damp to begin with.”

But the man in these letters is not just an artist and critic. Beckett was a terrific athlete at school and college; he is apparently the only Nobel Prize winner to have an entry in the authoritative Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack.

Although the volume ends just as the Nazis are about to occupy Paris, Beckett, despite being a citizen of neutral Ireland, had already offered his services to France the previous September, just after the outbreak of war.

Along with the Frenchwoman Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil Beckett, with whom he was to share the rest of his life, he would be active in the Resistance, endangering his life. For this he would be awarded prestigious medals by the French government after the liberation. Unlike so many Modernists, Beckett was no fascist. The innate decency of the man and his fine humanistic qualities on display in these letters make that no surprise.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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