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The Making of Samuel Beckett

1.

In 1923 Samuel Barclay Beckett, aged seventeen, was admitted to Trinity College, Dublin, to study Romance languages. He proved an exceptional student, and was taken under the wing of Thomas Rudmose-Brown, professor of French, who did all he could to advance the young man’s career, securing for him on graduation first a visiting lectureship at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in Paris, then a position back at Trinity College.

After a year and a half at Trinity, performing what he called the “grotesque comedy of lecturing,” Beckett resigned and fled back to Paris. Yet even after this letdown, Rudmose-Brown did not give up on his protégé. As late as 1937 he was still trying to nudge Beckett back into the academy, persuading him to apply for a lectureship in Italian at the University of Cape Town. “I may say without exaggeration,” he wrote in a supporting letter, “that as well as possessing a sound academic knowledge of the Italian, French and German languages, [Mr Beckett] has remarkable creative faculty.” In a postscript he added: “Mr Beckett has an adequate knowledge of Provençal, ancient and modern.”

Beckett felt genuine fondness and respect for Rudmose-Brown, a Racine specialist with an interest in the contemporary French literary scene. Beckett’s first book, a monograph on Proust (1931), though commissioned as a general introduction to this challenging new writer, reads more like an essay by a superior graduate student intent on impressing his professor. Beckett himself had severe doubts about the book. Rereading it, he “wondered what [he] was talking about,” as he confided to his friend Thomas McGreevy. It seemed to be “a distorted steam-rolled equivalent of some aspect or confusion of aspects of myself…tied somehow on to Proust…. Not that I care. I don’t want to be a professor.”

What dismayed Beckett most about professorial life was teaching. Day after day this shy, taciturn young man had to confront in the classroom the sons and daughters of Ireland’s Protestant middle class, and persuade them that Ronsard and Stendhal were worthy of their attention. “He was a very impersonal lecturer,” reminisced one of his better students. “He said what he had to say and then left the lecture room…. I believe he considered himself a bad lecturer and that makes me sad because he was so good…. Many of his students would, unfortunately, agree with him.” “The thought of teaching again paralyses me,” Beckett wrote to McGreevy from Trinity in 1931 as a new term approached. “I think I will go to Hamburg as soon as I get my Easter cheque…and perhaps hope for the courage to break away.” It took another year before he found that courage. “Of course I’ll probably crawl back with my tail coiled round my ruined poenis [sic],” he wrote to McGreevy. “And maybe I wont.”

The Trinity College lectureship was the last regular job Beckett held. Until the outbreak of war, and to an extent during the war too, he relied on an allowance from the estate of his father, who died in 1933, plus occasional handouts from his mother and elder brother. Where he could find it, he took on translation work and reviewing. The two pieces of fiction he published in the 1930s—the stories More Pricks Than Kicks (1934) and the novel Murphy (1938)—brought in little in the way of royalties. He was almost always short of money. His mother’s strategy, as he observed to McGreevy, was “to keep me tight so that I may be goaded into salaried employment. Which reads more bitterly than it is intended.”

Footloose artists like Beckett tended to keep an eye on exchange rates. The cheap franc after World War I had made France an attractive destination. An influx of foreign artists, including Americans living on dollar remittances, turned Paris of the 1920s into the headquarters of international Modernism. When the franc climbed in the early 1930s the transients took flight, leaving only diehard exiles like James Joyce behind.

Migrations of artists are only crudely related to fluctuations in exchange rates. Nevertheless, it is no coincidence that in 1937, after a new devaluation of the franc, Beckett found himself in a position to quit Ireland and return to Paris. Money is a recurrent theme in his letters, particularly toward the end of the month. His letters from Paris are full of anxious notations about what he can and cannot afford (hotel rooms, meals). Though he never starved, he lived a genteel version of a hand-to-mouth existence. Books and paintings were his sole personal indulgence. In Dublin he borrows £30 to buy a painting by Jack Butler Yeats, brother of William Butler Yeats, that he cannot resist. In Munich he buys the complete works of Kant in eleven volumes.

What £30 in 1936 represents in today’s terms, or the 19.75 francs that an alarmed young man had to pay for a meal at the restaurant Ste. Cécile on October 27, 1937, is not readily computed, but such expenditures had real significance to Beckett, even an emotional significance. In a volume with such lavish editorial aids as the new edition of his letters, it would be good to have more guidance on monetary equivalents. Less discretion about how much Beckett received from his father’s estate would be welcome too.

Among the jobs that Beckett contemplated were: office work (in his father’s quantity surveying firm); language instruction (in a Berlitz school in Switzerland); school teaching (in Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia); advertising copywriting (in London); piloting commercial aircraft (in the skies); interpreting (between French and English); and managing a country estate. There are signs that he would have taken the position in Cape Town had it been offered (it was not); through contacts at the then University of Buffalo he also drops hints that he might look kindly on an offer from that quarter (it did not come).

The career that he fancied most of all was in cinema. “How I would like to go to Moscow and work under Eisenstein for a year,” he writes to McGreevy. “What I would learn under a person like Pudovkin,” he continues a week later, “is how to handle a camera, the higher trucs of the editing bench, & so on, of which I know as little as of quantity surveying.” In 1936 he actually sends a letter to Sergei Eisenstein:

I write to you…to ask to be considered for admission 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…. [I] beg you to consider me a serious cinéaste worthy of admission to your school. I could stay a year at least.

Despite receiving no reply, Beckett informs McGreevy he will “probably go [to Moscow] soon.”

How is one to regard plans to study screenwriting in the USSR in the depths of the Stalinist night: as breathtaking naiveté or as serene indifference to politics? In the age of Stalin and Mussolini and Hitler, of the Great Depression and the Spanish civil war, references to world affairs in Beckett’s letters can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

There is no doubt that, politically speaking, Beckett’s heart was in the right place. His contempt for anti-Semites, high and low, comes out clearly in his letters from Germany. “If there is a war,” he informs McGreevy in 1939, “I shall place myself at the disposition of this country”—“this country” being France, Beckett being a citizen of neutral Ireland. (He would indeed go on to risk his life in the French Resistance.) But questions about how the world should be run do not seem to interest him much. One searches the letters in vain for thoughts on the place of the writer in society. A dictum he quotes from a favorite philosopher, the second-generation Cartesian Arnold Geulincx (1624–1669), suggests his overall stance toward the political: ubi nihil vales, ibi nihil velis, which may be glossed: Don’t invest hope or longing in an arena where you have no power.

It is only when the subject of Ireland comes up that Beckett now and again allows himself to vent a political opinion. Though McGreevy was an Irish nationalist and a devout Catholic, and Beckett an agnostic cosmopolite, the two rarely allowed politics or religion to come between them. But an essay by McGreevy on Jack Butler Yeats provokes Beckett to a fit of ire. “For an essay of such brevity the political and social analyses are rather on the long side,” he writes.

I received almost the impression…that your interest was passing from the man himself to the forces that formed him…. But perhaps that…is the fault of…my chronic inability to understand as member of any proposition a phrase like “the Irish people,” or to imagine that it ever gave a fart in its corduroys for any form of art whatsoever,…or that it was ever capable of any thought or act other than the rudimentary thoughts and acts belted into it by the priests and by the demagogues in service of the priests, or that it will ever care…that there was once a painter in Ireland called Jack Butler Yeats.

2.

Beckett’s letters are packed with comments on artworks he has seen, music he has heard, books he has read. Among the earlier of these, some are just silly, the pronouncements of a cocky tyro—“Beethoven’s Quartets are a waste of time,” for example. Among the writers who have to endure the lash of his youthful scorn are Balzac (“The bathos of style & thought [in Cousine Bette] is so enormous that I wonder is he writing seriously or in parody”) and Goethe (than whose drama Tasso “anything more disgusting would be hard to devise”). Apart from forays into the Dublin literary scene, his reading tends to be among the illustrious dead. Of English novelists, Henry Fielding and Jane Austen win his favor, Fielding for the freedom with which he interjects his authorial self into his stories (a practice Beckett himself takes over in Murphy). Ariosto, Sainte-Beuve, and Hölderlin also get approving nods.

One of the more unexpected of his literary enthusiasms is for Samuel Johnson. Struck by the “mad terrified face” in the portrait by James Barry, he comes up in 1936 with the idea of turning the story of Johnson’s relationship with Hester Thrale into a stage play. It is not the great pontificator of Boswell’s Life who engages him, as the letters make clear, but the man who struggled all his life against indolence and the black dog of depression. In Beckett’s version of events, Johnson takes up residence with the much younger Hester and her husband at a time when he is already impotent and therefore doomed to be a “Platonic gigolo” in the ménage à trois. He suffers first the despair of “the lover with nothing to love with,” then heartbreak when the husband dies and Hester goes off with another man.

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