Sam-I-Am’s Final Act

The last volume of his collected letters reveals Samuel Beckett at his most Beckettian

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Samuel Beckett, pictured in 1985: “I have not the right to renege on my work” (©Louis Monier/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

This final volume of the superb Cambridge edition of Beckett’s letters covers the final two decades of the author’s life, when his existence might be said to have become more Beckettian in the sense of moulding itself to the conditions of enduring decrepitude which had for so long been an imaginative resource for him. The recurrent subject of these letters is, as Beckett put it, “tout mon petit avenir problématique d’écrivain finissant sinon fini”. In one sense, this was the condition he had been waiting for from the beginning: “I try to think, with what mind remains, that now is the time at last, the chance at last, in these remains, with those remains, though think is not the word, at last not the word.” The frustration of a wonderful opportunity that eludes being adequately grasped runs through these letters.

This is partly a matter of the physical ailments which accompany old age. Problems with his eyesight provoke some dry verbal drollery: “Off to Bern tomorrow for a few days only to see an eye specialist or rather have him see me.” And again: “Eyes not much change as far as I can . . . see.” Or again: “Nothing to be done about eyes for moment   . . . funny I didn’t see it sooner.” “I hope words have now failed me,” Beckett would write a few months before he died, in a paradoxical gesture composed equally of resignation and, in its refusal to permit words actually and finally to fail, resilience. These late letters are studded with such small and unavailing advantages gained over the inevitable and encroaching end.

A collapsed lung was a more serious episode, but once more Beckett turned the mishap into the occasion for verbal inventiveness: “Here all is as well as one can expect who does not expect much. Nothing left to boast of but a scarred lung and I suppose that much extra fragility. Haven’t resume[d] smoking and perhaps never will, though no longer forbidden. Strength pretty well restored, such as it was.” A ludicrous dental accident while on holiday in Tunisia moved him to a more baroque turn of words: “Had 3rd swim today in dulcet water. On emerging one quarter of upper stumps & appertaining Rialto fell to the sands. Makes speech and mastication night [for nigh] to impossible. But drink and silence unimpaired.” “Rialto” for “bridge” is a good joke, but it also perhaps has some literary resonance. Beckett’s youthful opinion of T.S. Eliot, expressed in a letter to his friend Thomas McGreevy in May 1933, was that he was a “nice man but bad poet”. Nevertheless, one seems to hear echoes of “Burbank With a Baedeker, Bleistein With a Cigar” in Beckett’s account of the failure of his dental work, a poem which is set on “the Rialto once”, and of which the first stanza reads:

Burbank crossed a little bridge
Descending at a small hotel;
Princess Volupine arrived,
They were together, and he fell.

The sense of entering the final phase of life seems to have sent Beckett back to the words of other writers more often than he had been used to do. Writing to Kay Boyle in 1973 he noted that “Time gets like a last oozing, so precious and worthless together.” In “To Autumn” Keats imagines the personification of the season as “by a cyder-press, with patient look, / Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.”

Keats was in Beckett’s mind once more the following year as he reported a surprising flurry of poetic activity: “My conspicuously viewless wings have started to twitch again like an old wasp’s in treacle” — recalling and playing with “the viewless wings of Poesy” from Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale”, and where the tension created by the Beckettian insertion of “conspicuously” ahead of the Keatsian “viewless’ is perhaps a polishing and perfecting of those earlier simpler attempts to elicit a jokey verbal life from the failings of his eyesight. What these twitchings resulted in, if anything, is not clear. In general these late letters are less revealing of Beckett’s views of writing (his own and that of others) than the longer, more expansive and exploratory letters he wrote as a young man. This is in part because these later letters tend to be shorter, sometimes even becoming telegrammatic in their brevity and parataxis. Occasionally this produces lucid crystals of concentrated commentary, as in the wonderful sentence (half admiring tribute, half brilliant summary) about Pinter’s Betrayal: “The slowback from all over to in store wrings the heart and that first last look in the shadows, after all those in the light to come, a curtain of curtains.”

Of Beckett’s own work we hear little in this volume, with the exception of a long and very helpful letter to Christian Ludvigsen about Beckett’s experience of writing for the stage. He begins by balancing the primacy of the mental world in which the play begins and the finality of the physical theatrical world in which it ends up:

The mental stage on which one moves when writing and the mental auditorium from which one watches it are very inadequate substitutes for the real thing. And yet without them it is impossible to write for the theatre. My experience is that the mental vision and consequent stage directions are valid on the whole but have often to be corrected, and even altered, in function not only of the real theatre space, but also of the performers.

This leads him to describe his ideal theatrical experience:

I dream of going in to a theatre with no text, or hardly any, and getting together with all concerned before really setting out to write. That is to say a situation where the author would not have a privileged status, as is the case when he arrives with a text already set, but would simply function as a specialist of neither more nor less importance than the other specialists involved.

It is an arresting but also a surprising confession, because elsewhere Beckett seems to locate the “real excitement” of his work on the page: “I love to think of you working again. It is the best there is. A blank sheet of paper and already it all begins to fade.” Nevertheless, he knew that the products of such creative pleasure had to be disciplined, as he reveals in a comment about Not I (a work the visual seed of which was planted, we now know, by the sight of “an Arab woman all hidden in black absolutely motionless at the gate of a school in Taroudant”): “I would not have released Not I before testing it further, both text and image, in a sterner workshop than imagination’s.”

The term “workshop” relates to another recurrent theme in these letters, namely the importance to Beckett of work, in the sense both of activity and product. “Would give a lot to be engaged on some work, any work.  But nothing doing. After half a mental sentence shame wells up.  Senile quintessentialism,” he writes in 1967. “I have not the right to renege on my work,” he writes the following year, and this sense of what he owes to his work is once again uppermost in his mind after he has won the Nobel prize for literature (“I tried not to get it & failed”): “I hope the work will forgive me [for the crime of winning the Nobel] and let me near it again.” It is therefore entirely characteristic and in keeping that, near the end of his life, Beckett should have expressed his gratitude to his biographer James Knowlson in these terms: “All I can say is thanks thanks thanks for all you do for my work.” Not, note, “all you do for me.”