Samuel Beckett. Photo: Bibliothèque nationale de France

In February 1985 and again in a letter of March 18 to Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Samuel Beckett authorized an edition of his letters, to be gathered during his lifetime and published after his death. But there was a caveat: the correspondence was to be reduced “to those passages only having bearing on my work.” It was not clear what he meant by “my work.” Jérôme Lindon, Beckett’s literary executor, maintained that the letters to be published must be only those that mentioned individual works or Beckett’s oeuvre. This would have entailed publishing only letters such as those that Beckett addressed to Alan Schneider on the production of Endgame and other plays that Schneider was to direct under Beckett’s instructions: these letters have been published as No Author Better Served: The Correspondence of Samuel Beckett and Alan Schneider edited by Maurice Harmon (1998). But the editors of the present letters, Martha Fehsenfeld and Lois Overbeck, held, modifying the caveat, “that the letters themselves are important acts of writing, and signal Beckett’s relation to other writers and artists.”1 Neither side yielded, but Lindon resolved the dispute in April 2001 by dying. His successor, Beckett’s nephew Edward, agreed with Fehsenfeld and Overbeck. The caveat, in effect, has lapsed. 

In any case, the editors have taken a relaxed view of it. For instance, if any of the 15,000 letters they have collected refer to Beckett’s amours—but they probably don’t, Beckett guarded his privacy—they will not be published. Otherwise there appears to be no serious restriction. Many of the letters in the first volume refer to Beckett’s health, his moods, his reading, and his comings and goings between Dublin, London, and Paris, but they have only the most remote bearing on his published work or even his work in progress. The editors plan to publish about 2,500 of the 15,000 letters in four volumes: Many of them in the first volume are published incompletely; there are lots of ellipses. Editorial work on them was complicated by Beckett’s habit of discarding most of the letters he received: It is often hard to know the context of his references. Some of the letters are handwritten and difficult to decipher. But the editors have done the hard work of research. I found only a few false transcriptions and even fewer annotations that missed the point. On the whole, the editorial labor in this first volume is immensely impressive. I don’t know why all the letters are not to be published, like Yeats’s, for instance.

Beckett admired Joyce as he deserved, a great, heroic writer, subject to the consideration that he himself must write otherwise.

Samuel Barclay Beckett was born in the family home, “Cooldrinagh,” in Foxrock, a suburb south of Dublin, on April 13, 1906. His father William (Bill) was a well-to-do quantity surveyor with a firm, Beckett and Medcalf, in Clare Street, Dublin. His mother, formerly Maria (May) Roe, had been a hospital nurse. They married in 1901. Samuel was sent to good Protestant schools, culminating in a choice boarding school, the Portora Royal, in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh. He went on to Trinity College, Dublin, reading French and graduating brilliantly in December 1927. Meanwhile, he studied Italian and picked up enough German to get by on an extended stay in Germany from September 1936 to April 1937. It was assumed that, after graduate study in Paris, he would return to Dublin and take up a teaching career in modern language and literature at Trinity.

And so he did, to begin with, but he found he hated teaching. He resigned from Trinity in January 1932, much to his mother’s disgust. Already started on a frail literary career, he published—to no acclaim—a study of Proust (1931), a book of related short stories (More Kicks than Pricks, 1934), a thin volume of poems (Echo’s Bones and Other Precipitates, 1935), and a novel (Murphy, 1938). Letters in this volume document the frustrations he met in trying to write these books and then trying to have them published, experiences that justified his claim, in the book on Proust, that “the heart of the cauliflower or the ideal core of the onion would represent a more appropriate tribute to the labours of poetical excavation than the crown of bay.”

Meanwhile, he had the problem of his mother. His father was an affable clubman, and Sam got on well with him. They often went walking together in the hills of Dublin and Wicklow. When Bill died on June 26, 1933, Beckett was desolated; he told his friend Thomas MacGreevy, “I can’t write about him, I can only walk the fields and climb the ditches after him.” Life with mother continued to be painful. She was emotionally erratic, swinging from tenderness to violence. Sometimes Beckett contrived a state of reserved contentment with her, but that was the best he could manage. There were horrible rows. May Beckett was a stern Protestant and required people to live up to her moral standard. When Sam moved into his twenties, she could not abide his idleness, his drinking, and the disgraceful quality of his fiction, so far as she could bring herself to look at it. Not that he didn’t try to get work. Later, in nearly penniless times, he applied, or thought of applying, for various jobs—an assistantship in the National Gallery, London (“Apart from my conoysership that can just separate Uccello from a handsaw I could cork the post as well [as] another”). There was talk of a teaching job in Milan, a lectureship in Italian at the University of Cape Town, or maybe a job in some advertising firm in London. When he became interested in film, he wrote to Sergei Eisenstein asking to be admitted for a year or more to the Moscow State School of Cinematography: “I have no experience of studio work and it is naturally in the scenario and editing end of the subject that I am most interested.” No reply.

When Sam left home for London and Paris on October 16, 1937, he wanted to put some distance between himself and his mother and to surround himself with new images, new sounds, streets not Dublin’s, voices not May’s. There was evidently a particularly dreadful row between him and his mother, sometime between September 21 and 28, 1937. The immediate cause is not known. It may have been, as his biographer James Knowlson thinks, Beckett’s determination to contest, in court, a car accident that was clearly his fault; or his decision to give evidence for the plaintiff, his uncle Harry Sinclair, in a libel case against Oliver St. John Gogarty that arose from a passage in Gogarty’s As I Was Going Down Sackville Street. Whatever the cause, there was a full-blown quarrel. Beckett accompanied his brother Frank on a trip to Waterford, perhaps to give himself a break. His mother, in turn, left Cooldrinagh for a while. On October 6, Beckett wrote to MacGreevy:

Instead of creeping about with the agenbite, as I suppose I ought, I am marveling at the pleasantness of Cooldrinagh without her. And I could not wish her anything better than to feel the same when I am away. But I don’t wish her anything at all, neither good nor ill. I am what her savage loving has made me, and it is good that one of us should accept that finally. As it has been all this time, she wanting me to behave in a way agreeable to her in her October of analphabetic gentility, or to her friends ditto, or to the business code of father idealized-dehumanised—(“Whenever in doubt what [to] do, ask yourself what would darling Bill have done”)—the grotesque can go no further. It is like after a long forenoon of the thumb screws being commanded by the bourreau to play his favourite song without words with feeling. I simply don’t want to see her or write to her or hear from her. And as for the peace in the heart and all the other milk puddings that the sun is said to set on so much better, they will never be there anyway, least of all as the fruit of formal reconciliation.

Worse still, as if one venomous phrase incited another:

There are the grey hairs that will go down in sorrow, that want to go down in sorrow, as they came up in sorrow, because they are that kind. And if a telegram came now to say she was dead, I would not do the Furies the favour of regarding myself even as indirectly responsible.

Which I suppose all boils down to saying what a bad son I am. Then Amen. It is a title for me of as little honour as infamy. Like describing a tree as a bad shadow. If she does not return home before, I shall leave for London probably next Monday.

London, then after a few days Paris, where he lived for the next fifty-two years. He had an allowance from his father’s estate, but it was barely enough to survive on. He continued to visit his mother now and again at Cooldrinagh, bringing her his ailments if not his love: She tended to him as patiently as she could. When Beckett was stabbed to near-death on the Avenue d’Orléans on January 6, 1938, May, Frank, and his wife rushed to Paris to be at his bedside. The day before he was released from hospital, he wrote to MacGreevy: “I felt great gusts of affection & esteem & compassion for her when she was over. What a relationship!” May Beckett died at the age of seventy-nine, on August 25, 1950, of Parkinson’s disease.

Most of the letters in this first volume are to MacGreevy. There are some to George Reavey, Beckett’s agent, but they are not particularly informative. A few are to other friends. Beckett first met MacGreevy in Paris in November 1928, when he arrived at the Ecole Normale Supérieure. MacGreevy was already pretty well established there; he knew his way around and was on visiting terms with James and Nora Joyce. He introduced Beckett to the Joyces, and to Jean Beaufret, Richard Aldington, and Eugene Jolas. Within a few months, Beckett became part of the circle and, early in 1929, at Joyce’s suggestion, wrote “Dante … Bruno. Vico … Joyce,” a chapter in the cheerleading book Our Exagmination Round his Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress.

MacGreevy also wrote a chapter. He was a man of letters, born in Tarbert, County Kerry—supposedly the most westerly village in Ireland—an avant-garde poet, critic, art historian, especially familiar with Italian Renaissance painting. In 1931, he published the first monograph on T. S. Eliot and, in 1945, a study of Jack B. Yeats’s paintings. In 1948, he started a correspondence with Wallace Stevens which lasted till the poet’s death in 1955 and resulted in Stevens’s two-part poem “Our Stars Come from Ireland”: the first part “Tom MacGreevy, in America, Thinks of Himself as a Boy,” the second—after some doodling about westwardness—“The Westwardness of Everything.” MacGreevy was Director of the National Gallery of Ireland from 1950 until his retirement in 1963. A devout Roman Catholic, he often pressed Beckett to read edifying books, including Thomas à Kempis’s Imitatio Christi.

It has been claimed that Beckett was immensely learned. He wasn’t. He would never have made a good professor; he had no time for method, system, or communication.

The first volume of letters does not produce any news, though it is good to have such a large spread of evidence. Some letters are familiar to anyone who has read the standard biographies, those by Deirdre Bair (1978), Anthony Cronin (1996), and the authorized one, Damned to Fame, by James Knowlson (1996). The themes are well identified. Beckett tells MacGreevy about his ailments: palpitations of the heart, boils, a cyst in his neck, constipation, insomnia, pleurisy, bad teeth, intestinal pains, gastric flu—and later, beyond the first volume, we will hear of glaucoma in both eyes. In 1933, devastated by his father’s death, he decided that his illnesses might be psychosomatic, and he put himself in the hands first of his friend Dr. Geoffrey Thompson; later, in London, he resorted to the psychotherapist Wilfred Bion. He had sessions with Bion three times a week—May paid—for the next two years, to no dramatic healing effect, although Beckett concluded afterward that Bion’s analysis had done him some vague good.

Then there was the question of Joyce, the Master, whom Beckett following Work in Progress called Shem or the Penman. He admired Joyce as he deserved, a great, heroic writer, subject to the consideration that he himself must write otherwise. On May 5, 1956 he told Israel Shenker: “The more Joyce knew, the more he could. He’s tending toward omniscience and omnipotence as an artist. I’m working with impotence, ignorance.” On August 15, 1931, Beckett acknowledged to Charles Prentice of Chatto and Windus that the story “Sedendo et Quiescendo” “stinks of Joyce in spite of most earnest endeavours to endow it with my own odours.” In June 1932, he told Samuel Putnam: “I vow I will get over `RJ.J. ere I die. Yessir.” On a personal level, there was a breach between Beckett and the Joyces in May 1930, but it was repaired after a while; the fact of their mentally distraught daughter Lucia’s unrequited love for Beckett made for tension nonetheless. In December 1937, Beckett helped Joyce with proofs of Finnegans Wake. He reported to MacGreevy:

Joyce paid me 250 fr. for about 15 hrs. work on his proofs. That is needless to say only for your ear. He then supplemented it with an old overcoat and 5 ties! I did not refuse. It is so much simpler to be hurt than to hurt. I am invited to dine with them Xmas night.

Two weeks later, the hurt was healed:

He was sublime last night, deprecating with the utmost conviction his lack of talent. I don’t feel the danger of the association any more. He is just a very lovable human being.

The letters show what a highbrow Beckett was: severe books, concerts, art galleries, high culture; not necessarily Beckett’s own books, but books he was reading, usually with dissatisfaction unless the author was his beloved Schopenhauer or the Fielding of Joseph Andrews. The concerts, too, classical recitals, were often disappointing: Cortot (whom I recall with renewed pleasure) had a bad day, Horowitz was off form, Beecham had some other problem. As for “the ignoble Furtwängler, who, it appears, has had the better part of his nudity covered with interwoven swastikas,” Beckett reported of his concert with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in Queen’s Hall, London on January 22, 1934:

He has the charming modesty of letting himself be led by his brass-players, who blow as only beer-drinkers can, while making with his little left hand very daring gestures towards his first violins, who fortunately paid not the least attention to them, and swinging the soft flesh of his posterior as if he longed to go to the lavatory. Hardly had I recovered from this assault [on Bach’s Suite for Orchestra No. 2 in B Minor] when he had the impertinence to launch into Schumann’s Fourth Symphony, which is less like a symphony than like an overture begun by Lehar, completed by Goering, and revised by Johnny Doyle (if not his dog), and which is not really worth thinking about, let alone launching into. Needless to say that the murderous Furtwängler, with the connivance of his damned souls, was victorious, if massacring a score that has certainly never been alive can count as a victory.

The only concerts in London he enjoyed, apparently, were chamber music recitals, performances by the Pro Arte Quartet and the Busch Quartet, especially the Busch performance of Beethoven’s Quartet No. 13 in B-flat major, Op. 130:

Although it is only his penultimate quartet it has as its finale the last composition we have from his hand, an incomparably beautiful Allegro. But it is the Cavatina that immediately precedes that Allegro that made the greatest impression on me. A movement which in calm finality and intensity goes beyond anything I have ever heard by the venerable Ludwig, and which I would not have believed him capable of.

It has been claimed that Beckett was immensely learned. He wasn’t. He would never have made a good professor; he had no time for method, system, or communication. The writers who meant most to him were Dante, Milton, Swift, and Samuel Johnson. He tried with no success to write a play about the relations between Johnson, Hester Thrale, her husband, and Gabriel Piozzi, whom she married after her husband’s death. I doubt that he ever read the Complete Works of any of these writers. He was an intellectual, a man of capricious Culture rather than of Nature. He liked the countryside as much as anyone. When Frank brought him on a trip to the West of Ireland in October 1932—Frank paid—he found it charming: Galway, “a grand little magic grey town full of sensitive stone and bridges and water.” Altogether, as he wrote to MacGreevy from Cooldrinagh, “it was an unforgettable trip and much too short, through bog and mountain scenery that was somehow far more innocent and easy and obvious than the stealthy secret variety we have here.” But that was as far as his interest in nature went, he was not tempted toward any neo-Wordsworthian intimations of immortality or spiritual power inherent in daffodils—he felt no “natural piety” in the presence of scenery.

But his sense of culture was opportunistic, never disinterested. In the books he read, he was always looking for something—a phrase, a sentence—that he might use in the book he was trying to write at the time. Take, for instance, his dealings with the Flemish philosopher Arnold Geulincx (1624–1669). I don’t know who set him on to reading Geulincx; it may have been the Irish poet Brian Coffey. Whoever it was, he had Beckett spend the best part of the first four months of 1936 in the Long Room of Trinity College transcribing fifty pages of Geulincx’s Latin from the Ethica, to be construed later, I assume. I don’t believe that Beckett was seriously interested in the version of Occasionalism that Geulincx adumbrated, according to which any appearance of mind affecting body or body affecting mind must be explained as the result of a special intervention by God, who on the occasion of a change in one substance produces a corresponding change in the other. Beckett immediately replaced God in that transaction by an innocuous entity he called eternity. He told MacGreevy about reading the Ethica:

The work [is] worth doing, because of its saturation in the conviction that the sub specie aeternitatis vision is the only excuse for remaining alive. He does not put out his eyes on that account, as Heraclitus did & Rimbaud began to, nor like the terrified Berkeley repudiate them.

He also recommended Geulincx to his philosopher friend Arland Ussher, “above all the second section of the second chapter of the first tractate [of Ethica] where he disquires on his fourth cardinal virtue, Humility, contemptus negativus sui ipsius.” In Molloy, Molloy describes himself, in a beautifully extended phrase, as “I who had loved the image of old Geulincx, dead young, who left me free, on the black boat of Ulysses, to crawl towards the East, along the deck.” But Beckett put Geulincx to best use in Murphy, giving his most memorable tag to the passive hero: Ubi nihil vales, ibi nihil etiam veles[“where you are worth nothing, there you should wish for nothing”]. He used Geulincx for Murphy just as he used the linguistic skepticism of Fritz Mauthner’s Beiträge zu einer Kritik der Sprache for Watt.

Paintings, too, Beckett looked at for his needs. In the months he spent in Germany, he ran from one gallery to another, taking notes. He appreciated some of the old masters that he saw or remembered from elsewhere—Bordone’s “Portrait of a Man” in Munich, Poussin’s “Echo and Narcissus” in the Louvre, Giorgione’s self-portrait in Brunswick—but when modern painting was in question, his ideology started insisting. Painting began with Cézanne:

Cézanne seems to have been the first to see landscape & state it as material of a strictly peculiar order, incommensurable with all human expressions whatsoever. Atomistic landscape with no velleities of vitalism.

He admired Jack Yeats for the same reason:

Watteau put in busts and urns, I suppose to suggest the inorganism of the organic—all his people are mineral in the end, without possibility of being added to or taken from, pure inorganic juxtapositions—but Jack Yeats does not even need to do that. The way he puts down a man’s head & a woman’s head side by side, or face to face, is terrifying, two irreducible singlenesses & the impassable immensity between. I suppose that is what gives the stillness to his pictures, as though the convention were suddenly suspended, the convention & performance of love & hate, joy & pain, giving & being given, taking & being taken. A kind of petrified insight into one’s ultimate hard irreducible inorganic singleness. All handled with the dispassionate acceptance that is beyond tragedy. I always feel Watteau to be a tragic genius, i.e. there is pity in him for the world as he sees it. But I find no pity, i.e. no tragedy in Yeats. Not even sympathy. Simply perception & dispassion.

Two letters throw a dim irreligious light on Beckett’s writings. The first, of March 10, 1935, was to MacGreevy, who had evidently been commenting warmly on Thomas à Kempis. Beckett acknowledged that the Imitation of Christ had some lovely phrases, but what was one to make of them “but a quietism of the sparrow alone upon the housetop & the solitary bird under the eaves?”:

An abject self-referring quietism indeed, beside the alert quiet of one who always had Jesus for his darling, but the only kind that I, who seem never to have had the least faculty or disposition for the supernatural, could elicit from the text, and then only by means of a substitution of terms very different from the one you propose. I mean that I replaced the plenitude that he calls “God,” not by “goodness,” but by a pleroma only to be sought among my own feathers or entrails, a principle of self the possession of which was to provide a rationale & the communion with which, a sense of Grace.

The other was a letter to Mary Manning on August 30, 1937, while Beckett was failing to get Murphy published:

I do nothing, with as little shame as satisfaction. It is the state that suits me best. I write the odd poem when it is there, that is the only thing worth doing. There is an ecstasy of accidia—willess in a grey tumult of idées obscures. There is an end to the temptation of light, its polite scorchings & consolations. It is good for children & insects. There is an end of making up one’s mind, like a pound of tea, an end of patting the butter of consciousness into opinions. The real consciousness is the chaos, a grey commotion of mind, with no premises or conclusions or problems or solutions or cases or judgments. I lie for days on the floor, or in the woods, accompanied & unaccompanied, in a coenaesthesia of mind, a fullness of mental self-aesthesis that is entirely useless. The monad without the conflict, lightless & darkless. I used to pretend to work, I do so no longer.

The first letter in the volume (“Dear Mr. Joyce”) is dated March 23, 1929; the last, to Marthe Arnaud, is dated “Monday” [June 10, 1940]. On June 12, Beckett and his partner Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil left Paris for Vichy. Two days later, German soldiers occupied Paris.


  1.  The Letters of Samuel Beckett 1929–1940, edited by Martha Dow Fehsenfeld and Lois More Overbeck; Cambridge University Press, 749 pages, $50.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 27 Number 9, on page 12
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