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Beckett Biographia

In response to:

The Life of Sim Botchit from the June 15, 1978 issue

To the Editors:

Congratulations on choosing the eminent biographer, Richard Ellmann, to review Deirdre Bair’s Samuel Beckett [NYR, June 15]. However, the perfect review is a rarity, and I wish Ellmann had begun with his middle: “The relation of Beckett’s writings to his life is problem-ridden. Deirdre Bair says she wants to illuminate it, but she clouds it further.” Ellmann himself is a model of illumination, and yet he occasionally errs. Beckett did not seek “refuge from the Nobel Prize” in Tunisia; he happened to be there when the prize was awarded. Beckett did not “insist upon the suppression of all but the most skeletal details” of his biography in Laurence Harvey’s fine book Samuel Beckett: Poet and Critic; as reader of the manuscript for Princeton University Press, I wondered whether Beckett would permit various quotations, but he did. And Harvey does illuminate the relation of Beckett’s writings—especially the poems—to his life. Beckett’s wife has saved that life more than once. Nor does Beckett risk that life by driving recklessly around Paris; he was never a reckless driver, and it is many years since he has driven in Paris. These are minor errors, but more serious is a sentence in the last paragraph of this sensible and sensitive review: “His own success has been a new sadness, and his ultimate reason for permitting her biography is to let his infirmities become public knowledge and so challenge that success.” His “ultimate” reason, on the contrary, is that Beckett could not have stopped the biography, even if he had exerted himself in that direction. He is all too aware that one cannot legislate against various vulgarities.

Ruby Cohn

University of California

Davis, California

Richard Ellmann replies:

Ruby Cohn’s objections might better be addressed to Deirdre Bair. It is Miss Bair who says positively, on the authority of Beckett’s publisher and close friend Jerome Lindon, that Beckett’s “choice of an isolated village in Tunisia was no accident, and had been timed to coincide with the Nobel announcement.”

It is also Miss Bair who asserts, on the authority of Laurence Harvey himself and of A.J. Leventhal, that Beckett removed from Harvey’s book the names of persons who had been important to him, and had Leventhal remove further biographical references.

That Beckett could have done nothing to thwart Deirdre Bair from publishing her book is disproved by Ruby Cohn’s own remarks about Laurence Harvey. All quotation from Beckett’s published and unpublished writings, and from unpublished letters, could have been stopped. At an earlier stage Beckett could also have prevented access to friends and documents.

As to Beckett’s driving, I offer it as my own view that driving a 2 CV around Paris is ipso facto reckless.

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