Quotidian but Quite Quotable

This latest volume in the superb Cambridge edition of Beckett’s letters discredits the writer’s diffidence

Books Literature
Samuel Beckett: His letters are studded with genius (credit: REX/Ozkok/SIPA)

“I’m a poor fist at letter writing”: so Beckett in August 1960 to Elliseva Sayers, one of his former students at Trinity College, Dublin, who had stayed in contact with the man she remembered as “handsome, distant, a reluctant teacher trying to find himself”. This latest volume in the superb Cambridge edition of Beckett’s letters discredits Beckett’s diffidence. Even his mundane correspondence could be vivified by verbal touches that, for a moment, kept flatness at bay. The thank-you letter might be thought beyond redemption, but here is Beckett showing his appreciation for a gift of walking shoes and at the same time defying the torpedo-touch of that most jaded epistolary form: “Boots marvellous, never trudged in such comfort.” The letters collected here are studded with such moments, and it is tempting just to anthologise them: “No drink only bad weak beer and not much of that. But smoke like a fish.”

The years covered by this correspondence were years of burgeoning reputation and growing success for Beckett. Royalty cheques of gratifying size were beginning to arrive with some frequency (“Thanks for your letter, accounts, enclosure of handsome cheque and proof covers” he writes to John Calder in June 1963); though Beckett could be sometimes misled about what was due to him. An unintentionally funny letter finds him musing on quite how much he would receive when royalties of 72,000 Yugoslav dinars were converted into a currency he could use. (The deflating answer was about £36.) Inevitably, then, many of these letters are routine acts of business, relating to contracts and performances. An impressive number reveal Beckett painstakingly helping foreign readers of his work with difficult points of usage or language. But here the opportunities for inventiveness and flair were thin. Work too could be dispiriting: “The work drags on at snail’s pace, the heart or whatever it is not seeming in it and the difficulties too great. I neither let light in nor keep it out, I only try to say as little more than I find as possible, that doesn’t sound right somehow, and as little less.” Not that Beckett allowed that to upset him unduly: “I have never seen things so dark for myself both physically and writing, never I think also with such indifference.” “I am drowning in my inch of old ditchwater,” he writes in another letter, evoking a situation at once very bad and also — this is the magic worked by the little tug of possessiveness in “my”, and the openness of “old” to suggest both the stale and the companionable — consolingly familiar.

A topic which recurs in these business-like letters is censorship. The diction of Beckett’s plays frequently offended the Lord Chamberlain, and this involved him in a running battle with the guardians of public decency.  Here, however, there were certainly openings for humour. Rehearsing Endgame in 1964, Beckett manage to wring a joke out of a situation he clearly found exasperating and humiliating:

L.-C. continues to refuse bastard & pee. Trying leak for latter. But arses accepted. Bollocks overlooked.

Elsewhere in these letters the body and its defects are a source of grim humour. Beckett had begun to have serious problems with his teeth, and on July 19, 1965 had to undergo surgery on his jaw. Two months later, he wrote to Patrick Magee, the actor who had taken a role in a number of his plays, and confirmed the rumours about his bad health:

Yes, my mouth has been giving me trouble, as though to atone for all the solace it has conveyed to me for so long, and still does, in the form of nicotine and alcohol.

“Atone” strikes the authentic Beckett note, momentarily conjuring up as it does a state of affairs in which it is the natural function — almost duty — of parts of the body to bring affliction and embarrassment (but never solace) to the person whom they collectively comprise.

As with earlier volumes, the editorial work on display here is of a very high order.  Often excellent, too, are the translations of Beckett’s French, which sometimes rise to the level of imitation. So Beckett’s formidably idiomatic sigh of exasperated disappointment with his life to Jacques Putman — Mais il n’y a plus rien à tirer de moi et de ma pouffiasse de vie de chien de bâton de chaise mal percée — is brilliantly rendered as: But there is nothing more to be got out of me or of my dirty bitch of a blundering life that palls between two not very close stools.

That freshening of cliché by the substitution of “palls” for the customary “falls”, and the scatological twist given to “stools” by the introduction of the word “close”, are inspired and genuinely Beckett-like touches.

Refreshing, too, is Beckett’s unbroken silence on the urgent public issues of the day.  These letters cover the period of the great crisis in France over Algeria. Beckett was clearly deeply concerned about whether or not the fabric of French society would hold.  “Dreadful week, the two of us with our ears glued to Europe No. 1 every hour” he wrote to Robert Pinget in February 1960. But nowhere does Beckett discuss, still less analyse or offer an opinion about, the crisis of state playing itself out around him.  How unlike, and how preferable to, our own times, when every fly-by-night pop star, model, actor, footballer, and “celebrity” seems to have an insight on the question of Scottish independence which it would be criminal not to share with the wider world.