Samuel Beckett: "I write the kind of queer English that my queer French deserves" (Credit: Getty)
As an Irishman, Samuel Beckett was entitled to neutral status in the war with Nazi Germany, but on September 1, 1941 he joined the Resistance. In the summer of 1942, on the point of being arrested by the Gestapo, he and his companion, Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, fled Paris and eventually settled in Roussillon until shortly after the liberation of Paris in August 1944.
Understandably, then, it was only with the slow return of something like normality that Beckett's literary correspondence was resumed, although undoubtedly letters were written during these years which have not been included in The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume 2, 1941-1956 (Cambridge University Press, £30). These gaps have arisen as a result of Beckett's insistence that only letters "having bearing on my work" should be included in this edition of his correspondence. Whatever one may think of that as a principle of selection, and however much one may sympathise with the editors in the difficult cases of judgment which it must frequently place before them, in the case of the period 1941-56 it has had the strange effect of excluding letters relating to Beckett's personal life from which generous quotations have already been published (in, for instance, James Knowlson's biography).
The decade following Allied victory was to be an extraordinary one for Beckett. In these years he wrote the works that laid the foundation of his later fame: En Attendant Godot, Molloy, Malone Meurt, Murphy and L'Innommable. After reading Molloy in 1951, Jean Blanzat announced without reserve or hesitation that "un grand écrivain vient d'apparaître".
However, as those titles also suggest, these years of living in France were as much a period of linguistic displacement as literary progress. Although in 1948 Beckett will deplore his "weedy French" ("français de faible des Halles"), the determination to quit English as at least the primary language of composition was taken as early as 1946, and pursued without deflection: "I do not think I shall write very much in English in the future," he tells George Reavey at the end of that year. Writing in 1949 to the recipient of his most elaborated letters in this period, the art critic Georges Duthuit, Beckett wrings his hands over the slow progress he is making with his side of a joint composition: "It is perhaps the fact of writing directly in English which is knotting me up. Horrible language, which I still know too well." "Still" strikes the authentic Beckettian note, of something which is on the way out but refuses quite to go, and also hints that one of the attractions for Beckett of living in France was the prospect of becoming less at home in English. So it was with satisfaction that in 1951 he would write of his "fading English" ("mon anglais pâlissant"), and perhaps still greater satisfaction that a couple of years later, à propos a mooted translation of Molloy, he would announce: "My English is queer." What was not possible, however — and also not desired — was a total extirpation of English. As he said in 1954 in response to an inquiring letter from Hans Naumann:
Since 1945 I have written only in French. Why this change? It was not deliberate. It was in order to change, to see, nothing more complicated than that, in appearance at least. In any case nothing to do with the reasons you suggest. I do not consider English a foreign language, it is my language...Which does not preclude there being urgent reasons, for this change. I myself can half make out several, now that it is too late to go back. But I prefer to let them stay in the half-light. I will all the same give you one clue: the need to be ill equipped.