Beckett: Storming for Beauty

Estate of Avigdor Arikha
‘Samuel Beckett au cigare,’ 1970; drawing by Avigdor Arikha, who died in 2010. An exhibition of more than fifty of Arikha’s paintings, pastels, and drawings—many of which have never been shown before—will be on view at the Marlborough Gallery, New York City, March 20–April 21, 2012.

Seventeen copies sold, of which eleven at trade price to free circulating libraries beyond the seas. Getting known.

—Krapp’s Last Tape

Professional success touches with its transfiguring staff even the stoutest resister. For the first fifty-odd years of his life Samuel Beckett managed to elude Fortuna’s bounteous glance. On the opening page of that knotty late text Worstward Ho he set out, succinctly and famously, his negative aesthetic: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” By that time, however, he had experienced very great success, critical and popular, primarily because of Waiting for Godot—billed by Variety as “the laugh sensation of two continents”1—which after its early productions in the mid-1950s made his name known throughout the world. It was a triumph that astonished him, and the inevitable light it threw on him not only professionally but personally caused him some dismay. For he seems genuinely to have been a modest person who feared and shied from the limelight. In 1969, when news came that her husband had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, Suzanne Beckett is said to have exclaimed, “Quelle catastrophe!” She knew her man.

However, in The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume II: 1941–1956, two slowly developing but clearly marked changes in tone occur. The first shift takes place in 1945, the second in the first half of the 1950s.

In the letters in the first volume (1929–1940), Beckett was very much an angry young and, later on, not so young man—angry at the world at large and himself in particular, at the simultaneously recalcitrant and seductive nature of literary language, and, more prosaically, at the shortsightedness of publishers who refused to publish his work and the crassness and stupidity of those who did,2 such as “Shatton & Windup,” otherwise Chatto & Windus, with whom in the early days he had protracted and acrimonious relations. In the first half of the second volume the temperature lowers as the onset of middle age brings its inevitable cooling, yet for the most part these letters remain inward-turned and resolutely self-regarding. The rueful irony of Krapp’s reflections on his poor sales does not hide the lingering melancholy of a now celebrated author who for so long had been neglected and shunned by publishers and public alike—it was not until 1950 that Beckett began “getting known,” when Jérôme Lindon of Les Editions de Minuit read Molloy and recognized it for the masterpiece that it is.

Yet the notion of Beckett as a recluse horrified to find himself suddenly “damned to fame”—the phrase comes from the title of…

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