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Beckett in Love

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Estate of Avigdor Arikha
Avigdor Arikha: Samuel Beckett au verre de vin, 1969

The Swiss tennis champion Stan Wawrinka has the words “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better” tattooed in blue ink on the inside of his left forearm. The lachrymose ending of Israel Horovitz’s recent movie My Old Lady has Kevin Kline paying his respects at a tombstone on which are engraved the words “If you do not love me I shall not be loved.” The first of these quotations is from Samuel Beckett’s late prose piece Worstward Ho, the second from his 1936 poem “Cascando.”

In their original contexts, they do not work quite so well as motivational mottoes or sentimental consolations. “Fail better” (which I recently saw on a recruitment advertisement for a financial services company) is followed a few lines later by a reminder that, for Beckett, the phrase is an exhortation, not to keep trying until you succeed but to keep failing until you fail completely: “Fail again. Better again. Or better worse. Fail worse again. Still worse again. Till sick for good. Throw up for good.” This doesn’t quite work on an athlete’s arm. As for “If you do not love me I shall not be loved,” it is quickly followed by another bout of verbal nausea:

the churn of stale words in the heart again
love love love thud of the old plunger
pestling the unalterable
whey of words

We are unlikely to see that on a Valentine’s Day greeting card anytime soon.

Beckett loved tennis and his sense of humor might have been gratified by the joke that contemporary culture is playing on him, making his enactments of futility themselves futile by reading them as cheerleaders’ chants. And he would have recognized the ironies involved in this transformation of wretchedness into celebration, for he faced them in his own lifetime, not least in the years after the utterly unexpected success of Waiting for Godot in the mid-1950s, which brought him money and fame. Success was not what Beckett had bargained for: his compact with the Muses stipulated that he must embrace, as his biographer James Knowlson summarizes, “poverty, failure, exile, and loss.” Instead of failing better, he was now succeeding worse.

The feeling of abandonment from which he had written (between 1947 and 1950) Godot, Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable—the knowledge that no one greatly cared what he wrote or why—was now impossible. In 1948, he could write, with typically self-wounding humor, to his agent George Reavey in London that “I am now retyping, for rejection by the publishers, Malone Meurt.” In a revealing homage to his Paris publisher Jérôme Lindon, appended to a letter of June 1962, Beckett reveals that he was, indeed, on the cusp of abandoning writing altogether before Lindon accepted his great novel Molloy for publication in 1950: “It would have taken only this last little no thank you for me finally to see that that was it.”

By 1957, when the third volume of Cambridge’s wonderful edition of his letters begins, Beckett is famous and “these bastards of journalists” and “those bastards of critics” (as he calls them in a letter to Alan Schneider) are working over his case. Beckett was acutely conscious that however much he would “refuse to be involved in exegesis of any kind,” he already had by then a public image. He agonized about becoming, as it were, Beckettian and longed for those days of utter hopelessness and utter freedom. As he wrote to his American publisher Barney Rosset in November 1958:

I feel I’m getting more and more entangled in professionalism and self-exploitation and that it would be really better to stop altogether than to go on with that. What I need is to get back into the state of mind of 1945 when it was write or perish. But I suppose no chance of that.

Three days later he returned to the same theme:

The only chance for me now as a writer is to go into retreat and put a stop to all this fucking élan acquis [momentum] and get back down to the bottom of all the hills again, grimmer hills…[than] in 45 of cherished memory and far less than then to climb with, i.e. nice proportions. It’s not going to be easy, but it’s definitely the only last worth trying to pant as far as I’m concerned. So if all goes well no new work for a long time now, if ever.

He repeated this image of getting “back to nothing again and the bottom of all the hills again like before Molloy or else call it a day” to his radio producer (and subsequently his lover) Barbara Bray a few days later. Later again he writes to Bray, in a beautiful summary of his aesthetic, about trying and failing “to find the rhythm and syntax of extreme weakness, penury perhaps I should say.”

These protestations, admittedly, cannot be taken quite at face value. The joke on his own hopes of failing better in the letters to Rosset—if all goes well, he will write nothing—is by no means new.

Long before Beckett feared entanglement in the nets of fame and “self-exploitation,” he could always find other reasons both to be disgusted with his writing and to believe that the worse it got the better it would be in the end. In 1933, when still obscure, he wrote to his friend Thomas MacGreevy: “I find it more and more difficult to write and I think I write worse and worse in consequence. But I have still hopes of its all coming in a gush like a bloody flux.”

By the time we find him in his post-Godot agonies Beckett was, moreover, very good at being Beckettian, at playing on, and playing up to, the image he has created. The great delight of this new volume of letters, indeed, is in the hilarity of Beckett’s acting out for his correspondents a version of himself close to the misfortunate characters that populate his work. When an admirer sends him two dozen monogrammed handkerchiefs, he becomes Hamm in Endgame, who refers to his handkerchief as an “old stancher”: “I have received two dozen old stanchers; I shall have to start crying again.” He gives Rosset a wonderfully deadpan account of standing on a street corner in London after a lunch with Charles Monteith and Peter du Sautoy of Faber and Faber. While they praised Krapp’s Last Tape as “frightfully funny,”

I was calculating with anguish the chances of my bladder’s holding out to the only public lavatory known to me in the West End, viz. in the Piccadilly Underground (it did almost).

The “almost” is as delicious in its comic catastrophe as anything in Godot. So is his description to Bray of mundane futility: “I go out to look for something to do in the garden. Yesterday I mowed the grass which did not need to be mown. Perhaps to day with rain threatening I shall water it.” And there is his similar image of himself, written to Jacoba van Velde, as a Sisyphus with a garden spade: “I would like to spend two months in the country digging holes, filling up each one as I go with the earth from the next one.”

He plays up his own bodily afflictions: “I was always a great one for cysts.” He delights in the deadliness of his physician (“You wouldn’t get through one day of his prescription,” he mock-boasts to Bray) and hopes those same afflictions might kill him off: “Perhaps in this way I shall succeed in dying before an operation becomes necessary.” He comes up with a doubly miserable topographical coinage to describe his mood, combining the flatness of the polders—low-lying land—with the becalmed doldrums and claiming to be in “the poldrums.” He imagines a character for his next work: “Says nothing, just howls from time to time.” He pretends to be so fed up with writing that he finds himself “wishing I had complied with my father’s wishes and gone into Guinness’s Brewery.”

These deadpan performances, in which Beckett amuses his friends with jokes on his own reputation for misery, calamity, and pointlessness warn us against reading him too literally when he claims in 1958 to be “in acute crisis about my work.” When, those friends might have asked in return, was he not? How, indeed, could he write without acute crisis? For the other great pleasure of these letters is that we find Beckett sharing his ideas about writing much more openly and with many more confidants than before. This not just a matter of detailed and illuminating instructions about the staging of his plays. It involves, too, a laying out of the truth that despair and darkness are integral to his acts of creation.

There is a magnificent, ten-word summation of how he writes in a letter of 1959 to Nancy Cunard: “Holes in paper open and take me fathoms from anywhere.” He elaborates a little in a letter to Ethna MacCarthy, in which he refers to “the exercise-book that opens like a door and lets me far down into the now friendly dark.” That the dark is indeed his friend tempers somewhat the notion of a crisis in his creativity. We have to remember that Beckett needs the inability to express anything before he can express something. In a letter of 1960 to the Israeli writer Matti Megged, he distinguishes clearly between mundane failure and the aesthetic failure on which he builds his work:

Thus life in failure can hardly be anything but dismal at the best, whereas there is nothing more exciting for the writer, or richer in unexploited expressive possibilities, than the failure to express.

Even with all of these qualifications, there is nonetheless a meaningful sense in which Beckett’s work is at a turning point in 1957. Some important things will happen to it and we might look to this third volume of his letters to understand where they come from. In one significant respect, though, we must look in vain. The Letters of Samuel Beckett series is a superb achievement of scholarship and publishing, wonderfully presented and richly annotated. As the series goes on, however, and the number of extant letters grows, the process of selection becomes increasingly exclusive—the first volume included 60 percent of the available corpus; the second volume 40 percent; the present one just over 20 percent. Even so, the scope of the volume has had to be limited—it was intended to run up to 1967 but ends in 1965. Its riches of humor, insight, and engagement, and the evident care and integrity of the editors, are such that it seems churlish to point to what it does not contain. But there is a highly significant absence.

The principle of selection for these volumes is that laid down by Beckett himself, who decreed that only those letters “having bearing upon my work” be published. Yet as the editors acknowledge, the distinction between the private man and his public work is “endlessly debatable.” It seems to me that the most debatable decision is the exclusion of letters written by Beckett in 1958 and 1959 to Ethna MacCarthy, the woman he had fallen in love with in 1922 or 1923 when they were both students at Trinity College Dublin. He adored her, though their relationship was not consummated.

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Paul Joyce
Samuel Beckett outside the Royal Court Theatre, London, during rehearsals for his 1979 production of Happy Days

In December 1957, he was devastated to learn that MacCarthy (now married to his old friend Con Leventhal) had been diagnosed with terminal throat cancer. MacCarthy still mattered deeply to him: a year later he flew to Dublin to sit with her for a week as she lay dying. (He writes to Rosset to say that “I have to go to Dublin for a week at least at the beginning of December to see an old friend who is very ill, the usual Irish errand.” But of course this errand was far from usual for Beckett, who had not been to Dublin at all for the previous four years. In the summer of 1957 he had written to Mary Hutchinson: “I can’t think of anything, short of the continuance of some rocks in the mountains, that I want to hear about Dublin.”)

According to James Knowlson’s authorized biography, Damned to Fame:

From December [1957] until Ethna’s death eighteen months later, Beckett wrote her long, sometimes very beautiful letters, which can only be described as touching love letters written to someone for whom he had never lost his feelings of deep affection.

These letters contain detailed descriptions of Beckett’s day-to-day life during this period. As he wrote to her, “I suppose the best I have to do is to open for you my little window on my little world.”

Yet only three letters to MacCarthy are included in The Letters of Samuel Beckett, two of them written jointly to her and Leventhal, and none matching Knowlson’s description of long and beautiful love letters. The two hints of their emotional importance to Beckett that survive in the published Letters are in a quotation in a footnote in which Beckett mentions to her “all that was always and will always be in my heart for you” and the poignant sign-off to a letter to MacCarthy of February 1959: “Je t’embrasse tout doucement tout tendrement.” (I send you a gentle and tender kiss.)

Is it mere curiosity to want to see these letters? Do they have a “bearing upon” Beckett’s work? Emphatically, they do. For just as the death of Beckett’s father in 1933 had a vast impact on his subsequent writing, MacCarthy’s illness and death are surely linked to the way his work changes in the late 1950s.* This change is his way out of the impasse he was complaining about to Rosset and Bray in 1958. It involves a gradual letting-in of three things he had fought to exclude from his writing—womanliness, memory, and the possibility of love. These are all, surely, connected to the rush of memories of love set off by MacCarthy’s approaching demise.

At its simplest, the big thing that happens to Beckett’s work in the years covered by this volume of letters, 1957 to 1965, is the arrival of female voices. Beckett’s previous world is overwhelmingly male. Women are entirely absent from Godot; when they appear in the novels they are typically either nameless old crones of barely discernible femininity (Lousse in Molloy is a “woman of extraordinary flatness” such that the narrator wonders “if she was not a man rather or at least an androgyne”—the flatness being aesthetic as well as physical) or whores with hearts of gold like Celia in Murphy.

Yet a female presence gathers force from 1956 and 1957, beginning peripherally if touchingly with Nell in Endgame. It becomes much more insistent with the radio play All That Fall, dominated by the literally huge figure of Mrs. Rooney. It runs through Krapp’s Last Tape and culminates in Beckett’s first stage heroine (the word is not inapt), Winnie in Happy Days in 1961. Thereafter, women will hold their own with men in Beckett’s prose and plays (most notably in Not I, Footfalls, Rockaby, and Ill Seen Ill Said). Even within the period covered by these letters, Beckett can write, in Come and Go (1965), an all-female dramatic trio. This would have been scarcely imaginable ten years before.

It would be crude to suggest that this crucial shift is merely or solely a response to Beckett’s exploration of his feelings for MacCarthy: Nell and Mrs. Rooney predate her illness. But it is obvious that those feelings have a profound effect on the way Beckett allows his female figures to bring into his world memory, erotic desire, even tenderness. Obvious, that is, from Krapp’s Last Tape and what Beckett writes about it to his correspondents.

The letters published here reveal that he is deeply conscious that something has happened to his work with this play and that this something is connected to MacCarthy. He tells her, in June 1958, that he has written a “stage monologue” in English “which I think you will like if no one else.” Why should she like it? Because it is in broad terms about his feelings for her: Krapp is a writer who has turned away from the possibility of love for the pompous pursuit of his artistic destiny but who keeps returning to an eternally suspended moment in which he and his beloved are together.

He wrote the play quickly in February 1958, after hearing of MacCarthy’s illness. He writes to the radio producer Donald McWhinnie on February 25 that “I have an exciting idea for a short stage monologue” before adding, typically, “I know my exciting ideas and how depressing they can become.” Yet this caveat does not diminish the force of his excitement—Beckett’s enthusiasm for Krapp is unique in his published correspondence so far. Later in 1958, he will declare his week in London rehearsing the play with Patrick Magee, for whose voice he wrote it, his “best experience in the theatre ever,” a boyish enthusiasm that seems decidedly un-Beckettian. He was acutely conscious of having a motherly anxiety for the play. He writes to Rosset that “I feel as clucky and beady and one-legged and bare-footed about this little text as an old hen with her last chick,” and later that “I feel—to a disturbing degree—the strangest of solicitudes for this little work.”

As Beckett remarked many years later when he directed Krapp’s Last Tape for the San Quentin Drama Workshop, “a woman’s tone goes through the entire play, returning always, a lyrical tone….” That “woman’s tone” is the new note in Beckett’s work. Beckett, in the published Letters, is strongly aware of its novelty. He is anxious about the piece because, for the first time in his work, it approaches a humane gentleness, and he worries, only half-jokingly, whether people will think he is going soft. Writing of Krapp as an opener on a double bill with the much bleaker Endgame, he describes it to Jacoba van Velde:

It is pleasantly sad and sentimental: a nice little entrée of artichoke hearts, to be followed by the tripe à la shit of Hamm and Clov. People will say, Well, well, he has blood in his veins, who would have thought it, it must be age.

Krapp’s Last Tape is not in fact sentimental. Beckett guards against that danger by making Krapp a clownish, dirty, decrepit, pathetically failed version of himself had he stayed in Dublin and given up writing before his important work was done. But the play does have new blood in its veins—the blood of memory and grief and love.

In a moving letter to Bray after the death of her estranged husband—surely one of the most beautiful letters of personal condolence on record—he writes of a stillness at the heart of grief and love:

Somewhere at the heart of the gales of grief (and of love too, I’ve been told) already they have blown themselves out. I was always grateful for that humiliating consciousness and it was always there I huddled, in the innermost place of human frailty and lowliness. To fly there for me was not to fly far, and I’m not saying this is right for you.

It is this still point at the eye of a storm of grief and love generated by Ethna MacCarthy’s dying that Beckett allows into Krapp’s Last Tape as he has never let it into his work before. It comes in with a culminating lyrical memory of being with her in a boat on a lake, an image of a floating, arrested moment of calm and connection:

We drifted in among the flags and stuck. The way they went down, sighing, before the stem! [Pause.] I lay down across her with my face in her breasts and my hand on her. We lay there without moving. But under us all moved, and moved us, gently, up and down, and from side to side.

This note has been unheard in Beckett before because it is the note of memory. Before this, Beckett’s characters do not remember. Memory is mocked—Molloy can’t remember his own name or his mother’s; Estragon can’t remember in the second act of Godot what happened the previous day in the first act and he and Vladimir can’t remember whether they lived in the Mâcon country or the Cackon country. A typical exchange in Endgame is:

Hamm: What have you done with your bicycle?

Clov: I never had a bicycle.

Even the most banal kinds of memory do not function. But in Krapp’s Last Tape, memories are stored, recorded, and replayed. This is the beginning of the effort, as Beckett will put it much later in the prose work Company, “to have the hearer have a past and acknowledge it.” In his next major play, Happy Days, Winnie will be able, at a crucial moment, to remember being courted by her husband Willie, and however ambivalent the memory, it sustains a human connection that gives the play an unexpected tenderness. From here on, remembering becomes a possibility for Beckett’s characters and with that possibility he opens up new aesthetic opportunities for lyrical evocation and for the gothic hauntings of the present by the past that shape his late dramas.

Having restored memory, Beckett is also able to make use of his own childhood and youth, not least the trauma of his father’s death that he had been avoiding since he wrote Echo’s Bones in 1933. He does not go soft or become sentimental—memory is terrifying in Not I and chillingly ghostly in Footfalls. He does not succumb to the idea of a continuous character, moving steadily from past to present. But he does find ways to use his own life more directly as material for his work and in doing so to give that work a more humane texture in which desire and love, grief and longing are woven into the texture of his darkness.

This is how Beckett goes on. He did not in fact return to the utter abandonment of 1945. How could he with the whirl of friendships, business, travel, stage productions, clamoring publishers, and global fame that is captured so vividly in these letters? The trajectory that would propel him onto tennis player’s arms and corporate mottoes was not to be stopped. But if Beckett could not reverse time, he could move back through it in memory. It is deeply touching that the last letter in this utterly engrossing volume is to his oldest Irish friend Thomas MacGreevy, addressee of some of the very earliest letters in the first volume of the series. It is a suggestion for an aid to memory:

Have you been getting on with your memoirs? Did you try the tape-recorder? Will you still let me get you one?

He knew all about tape recorders, having used them in his play to spool his own way back to love and loss.

  1. *

    See my review in these pages of Echo’s Bones, edited by Mark Nixon (Grove Press, 2014), March 19, 2015.