“Weary of Silence, Soon Sickened by Words”

Delving into the various linguistic predicaments of Samuel Beckett reveals the beautiful complications of his writings.

Critique Language Literature
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.

To mention the requirement for a measure of linguistic estrangement was surely a generous clue, pointing as it does towards the literary strength that Beckett would eventually draw from a courted inability to be at ease in either suppression or expression — “weary of silence, soon sickened by words”. George Craig, the editor responsible for the often subtle translations of Beckett’s French in this volume, says that one of his goals was to “stretch English to a point where it will allow a glimpse of the sheer strangeness of Beckett’s French”. One of the conditions of that enabling strangeness in French was the fading but never entirely vanished presence of English in Beckett’s mind, as a kind of salutary linguistic vexation.

But in the original French, that last phrase to Naumann reads: “le besoin d’être mal armé.” It is impossible not to hear the pun: “d’être Mallarmé”. The very expression of impediment is at the same time the expression of the most exorbitant literary ambition — nothing less than actually to be Stéphane Mallarmé! The younger Beckett had not cared for that particular poet. Writing to Tom McGreevy on October 18, 1932, he grumbled: “I was trying to like Mallarmé again the other day, & couldn’t, because it’s Jesuitical poetry, even the Swan & Hérodiade. I suppose I’m a dirty low-church P. even in poetry.” Later, this opinion would change, perhaps under the influence of Georges Duthuit, whose criticism juxtaposed the work of artists such as Vuillard and Moreau with Mallarmé’s verse. In the late 1940s Beckett would translate Mallarmé’s “Edouard Manet” for Duthuit’s Transitions. The taste for Mallarmé took hold. James Knowlson records that in the late 1970s, Beckett spent comparatively little of his time now reading modern literature but regularly went back to what he called the “old chestnuts” — one of which was the poetry of Mallarmé.

The doubleness of that moment in the letter to Naumann takes us to the heart of the aesthetic Beckett was forging during this period. It was an aesthetic assembled from impoverishment, impediment and impotence, and first glimpsed obliquely in the course of a long correspondence with Georges Duthuit on the subject of the paintings of Bram van Velde. In part it was a transcription of the bare life that Beckett was then leading — “a quiet and meagre life. With no friends, with only work to give it meaning.” To some extent there was no choice about this. Incidental comments shed light on the harsh conditions of life in Paris immediately after the war: “The winter is setting in now in Paris. No heating in this house for the 6th year in succession. Things are very bad, with a badness that won’t lead anywhere I fear.” Material conditions were, he said, “appalling”, and would stay so for many years. An arresting detail in a letter of 1956 illustrates the point: “Eating fresh pineapple for the first time in my life with ferocious enjoyment.”  

But with Beckett this immiseration was not wholly imposed. The site of the cottage he had built in the Marne valley was chosen because the undramatic sparseness of the countryside was attuned to his unusual notions of what was desirable in landscape: “I should like to get out of Paris myself, not to the south, to flat green country, not too green but as flat as possible, with only woods interrupting the horizons.” (Beckett’s interest in trees and the extensive plantings he carried out on his land are mentioned in many of these letters.) This severity of life was not absolutely unrelieved. The prospect of a visit to Paris from his American publisher, Barney Rosset, provokes a spasm of at least imagined conviviality: 

Few things would give me more pleasure than to see you in Paris next month, this month or any month, with I hope Loly on your arm, and with my ill-gottens to buy for us spirals of apéritifs and bring you to Bobino and supper with buckets of Beaujolais and Sancerre at the ever satisfactory Marquesas. 

But this Rabelaisian Beckett was not often allowed out, at least in his correspondence.

Speaking of Godot, Beckett described what he was aiming at when writing: “What is at issue is a speaking whose function is not so much that of having a meaning as of putting up a struggle, poor I hope, against silence, and leading back to it.” The flash of defiant, paradoxical wit in “poor I hope” shows how far Beckett was from being humbled by this apparently abject writerly posture, in which he discovered possibilities of proud inflexibility. In declining to allow his name to be considered for election to the Irish Academy, he wrote in discomfort but without apology to the man who had wished to propose him, Seumas O’Sullivan: “I should be distressed if you were to think of me, because of this, as unfriendly or systematically aloof.” Well, maybe not systematically aloof; but that disclaimer still leaves the door open for a good deal of opportunistic aloofness, and a number of instances occur in the letters gathered in this volume.  

Unsolicited inquiries about literary meaning were liable to be dealt with imperiously, as in the case of the hapless Michel Polac of Radiodiffusion Française. Polac was putting on extracts from Godot and had approached Beckett for guidance. Whatever the strangeness of Beckett’s usage in the French language, his reply shows that he had acquired a high degree of skill in the well-known French technique of using elaborate courtesy as an instrument for the better delivery of an uppercut:

Vous me demandez mes idées sur “En Attendant Godot, dont vous me faites l’honneur de donner des extraits au “Club d’Essai, et en même temps mes idées sur le théâtre.

Je n’ai pas d’idées sur le théâtre. Je n’y connais rien. Je n’y vais pas. C’est admissible.

Others might be handled more gently.  Jacoba van Velde, whom Beckett had suggested as the translator of Godot into Dutch, was invited to ask questions of its author: “Demandez-moi tout ce que vous voulez à ce sujet.” Not the same thing, of course, as an undertaking to tell everything on that subject; but still, not quite so redolent of a slamming door as was that letter to Polac. 

When this edition of Beckett’s letters was being planned, it must have been tempting for the editors to adopt a policy of printing only translations of the letters written in French. In deciding to print both originals and translations, they have greatly increased the size of the edition, but their view that this was a price worth paying was undoubtedly the right one: as they say, “It makes Beckett’s original available to the reader, as well as conveying their sense and something of their tone to the reader without French.”

It does however pose some tricky technical problems, as Beckett himself noticed when warily contemplating translating L’Innommable: “The simplest thing is for me to translate it myself, though I do not intend to take it on for the moment.  I am by no means a good translator, and my English is rusty, but I simply happen to be able still to write the queer kind of English that my queer French deserves” — where “deserves” refuses to commit itself between a merited boon and a merited blight.

The problem is sharpened by the fact that George Craig’s translations of the French would sit alongside letters written by Beckett himself in English. The temptation must have been great to write a kind of Beckett-ese. But Craig’s translations are full of felicitous, literary touches, as when “dans l’eau” is rendered as “five fathoms under”, and that echo of Ariel’s song in The Tempest (“Full fathom five thy father lies”) is justified a few lines later when Beckett writes of his solitary games of chess, and we are reminded, with difference of course, of the discovery of Miranda and Ferdinand playing chess later in that play.

As with the first volume of Beckett’s letters, the quality of the editing here is exceptional, the reach, scope and precision of the annotation often astonishing.