In the course of the 1950s, Samuel Beckett went from being an obscure scribbler whose name rang a faint bell among students of James Joyce to being one of the most celebrated writers in the world. Mysterious, self-deprecating, impossibly learned and craggily photogenic, he attracted so much popular and scholarly curiosity that in 1967 his British publisher, John Calder, predicted that by 2000 only Napoleon, Wagner and Jesus would have had more books written about them.
Beckett wasn’t overjoyed by the attentions of, in his words, “bastards of journalists” and “bastards of critics”. Being a former academic and struggling writer himself, though, he found it hard not to sympathise with congenial scholars, to whom he got into the habit of slipping the odd manuscript, and with struggling writers of all sorts, to whom he made himself and his cheque book discreetly available. When a would-be biographer, Deirdre Bair, came knocking in 1971, he couldn’t bring himself to discourage her definitively, then fumed over the resulting book.
He responded to what he termed “Mrs Bair’s unerring inaccuracy” by taking steps to put his afterlife on a more solid footing, with less gossip and, he hoped, a clearer focus on his writing. Nine months before his death, in 1989, he gave James Knowlson, a British academic he got on well with, the go-ahead for a biography. Four years earlier, he had put Martha Fehsenfeld, a similarly trusted American theatre scholar, in charge of editing his letters for posthumous publication, with the simple-sounding proviso that she could print only “those passages . . . having bearing on my work”.
Knowlson published his findings in 1996 in a biography that’s since become the standard life. (The same year saw the publication of a stylishly written biography by Anthony Cronin that is excellent on the Dublin end of things but isn’t always wonderfully accurate.)
Fehsenfeld, however, found herself contending with — to mention just a few of the problems — letter-hoarding private buyers, a literary executor who took a Gallically strict view of what “bearing on the work” meant, and Beckett’s handwriting, described by one manuscript specialist as “the worst . . . of any 20th-century author”. There was also the matter of languages — Beckett moved easily between English, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Latin — and of tracing his often bewilderingly arcane references.
As a result, it’s only now, after 31 years of editorial heroics by Fehsenfeld and her team, that her own original correspondence with Beckett appears in this fourth and last volume of the Letters. “It will be,” he writes clairvoyantly, “a most difficult job, and I am relieved at the thought of its being in such devoted and capable hands as yours.” It’s now possible to say with some certainty that his relief wasn’t misplaced.
At the same time, the reader isn’t subjected to an unduly severe reading of Beckett’s proviso. You get a detailed picture of the man and the social worlds he moved in, and each of the first three volumes has a narrative spine of sorts, provided by Beckett’s principal addressees. In the first, an arrogant, anguished young man unfolds himself to his older crony Thomas MacGreevy. The second volume shows Beckett, who has done some growing up in the interim while serving in the French Resistance, struggling to explain the thinking, or anti-thinking, behind the masterpieces he’s casually turning out in a series of extraordinary letters to the art critic Georges Duthuit. In the third, he adjusts to his newfound fame while establishing an awkward stasis between his French wife, Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, and his lover Barbara Bray.
Considered as a standalone book, the fourth volume is at a slight disadvantage. Beckett’s best years as a writer are now behind him, and though some essential parts of the Beckett canon — among them the prose work Company and the play Not I — are still to come, much of his work-related correspondence has to do with his feelings about this or that production or edition, or else with his minutely detailed instructions for the ghostly television films with which he occupied himself in the last years of his life.
There’s also, this time round, no star correspondent. Instead his old friends die off at an alarming rate, and the story these letters tell, such as it is, crystallises itself around decline and death, which Beckett, being Beckett, takes in his stride: “Ineffable departure. Nothing left but try & eff it.” From time to time there are plangent complaints — “I could do without 1982” — but his failing health, a favourite topic of his early manhood, recedes as the end comes close. The predominant tone is one of unbending adherence to his paradoxical aesthetic of failure and incapacity: “I work on, with failing mind, in other words, improved possibilities.”
Along the way you get some behind-the scenes glimpses of an increasingly unsettled emotional life. Though it’s not fully spelled out by the editors, it’s clear that Beckett spread his affections quite widely — leading, for instance, to a slightly farcical episode in which both his wife and his long-term mistress flew in to see a production he’d directed while having a brief affair with an attractive film student, which would have led, as Knowlson commented, “to some interesting timetabling”. In a letter from that time he assures Bray she has nothing to worry about, and here and there he’s forced to respond to being taxed with neglectfulness, or worse, by this or that woman friend. “Don’t ask me to prise open my heart,” he writes warningly. “Nasty black stuff would come out.”
It’s clear too, however, that — with the exception of Suzanne, whom he nonetheless stood by — Beckett managed to stay on good terms with all the women in his life. And in spite of a few flashes of his earlier manner (one message to a producer reads, in its entirety, “No”), the letters are mostly in awe-inspiring accordance with his late-life image as Saint Samuel of the Void.
Whether he’s discussing French grammar with the postman, quietly giving his Nobel winnings to needy artists, or lavishing polite attention on his younger colleagues’ avant garde manuscripts (“I don’t see how you can cut the poem . . . All I meant was that its association with the bacon-stroking seemed unadvisable”), it’s hard not to think of his tribute to Joyce: “heroic work, heroic being”.
The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume IV: 1966-1989, edited by George Craig, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Dan Gunn and Lois More Overbeck, Cambridge University Press, RRP£29.99,/$49.99, 837 pages