The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume 1: 1929–1940
edited by Martha Dow Fehsenfeld and Lois More Overbeck
Cambridge University Press, 782 pp., $50.00
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 …