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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 James Knowlson’s superb 1996 biography—is mistaken, as Dan Gunn is at pains to emphasize in his very fine, long introduction to The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume II: 1941–1956. Nobody who has read Beckett’s letters in these two volumes, Gunn argues, “can doubt that this fame was sought, at least as regards his work.”

For the letters attest not just to the dogged endeavor to write, against odds which often seem insurmountable, but also to the author’s determination to enable his “creatures” (as he occasionally calls them) to live and make their way in the world: letters to publishers, to translators, to academics, to journalists, to theatre directors, to theatrical agents, to radio producers.

This is refreshingly sensible: too many Beckett scholars treat their subject as a secular saint, unworldly and impregnably innocent, a cross between Saint Francis of Assisi and the prophet Jeremiah.3 As is amply demonstrated by the letters so far published—the two volumes of them now in print and the two that are forthcoming represent a modest selection, vigilantly overseen by the Beckett estate, under the control of his nephew Edward, from the many thousands that Beckett wrote in his long lifetime4—he was as eager as any writer to have his work published, and published in a way that would ensure it should reach as wide a readership as possible. Such a desire is not inconsistent with an unwillingness to be thrust into the jaws of the publicity machine that grinds away tirelessly at the center of the literary marketplace.

The first, post-1945 modulation in the epistolary tone is a result, Gunn contends, of Beckett’s experiences in the war. In the letters from 1945 onward Gunn notes “a new absence of hostility and recrimination, a lack of grievance toward the world and its inhabitants.” Although Beckett had not been a combatant, he had worked for the Resistance and had spent years on the run from the Gestapo, and so can certainly be considered a war survivor. It is a common phenomenon among those who were active in wartime that afterward they do not speak of their experiences, yet one shares Gunn’s wonderment at the fact that not once in the postwar letters does Beckett even mention his anti-Nazi work. Gunn writes:

Just when one might expect umbrage and infuriation—at the years spent in hiding, at the loss of numerous friends deported and dead, at the disastrous conditions in the ruins of the bombed Normandy town of Saint-Lô where [after the war] he works for the Irish Red Cross—what one in fact finds is resignation and reticence; gone, or almost, are the fizzling tirades of the early years, the self-pity, the rancour, and the occasional self-indulgent displays of cleverness, almost as if so much suffering witnessed had put the cap forever on a merely personal expression of disadvantage or misprision; as if, perhaps, the sight of so much brutal activity had confirmed him for ever in his inclination to a—however paradoxically rigorous and positively charged—passivity.

This is shrewdly observed and elegantly expressed. If the war taught Beckett to sit still, he put that newfound stillness to good effect in his work. The sardonic exuberance of the short-story collection More Pricks Than Kicks (1934), of the novels Murphy (1938) and the posthumously published, wildly prolix Dream of Fair to Middling Women, is in marked contrast to the quiescent dourness of Watt, written when Beckett was in hiding in Roussillon, and completed in 1945. None of these works, not even Watt, gave more than the faintest signal of what was to come in the so-called trilogy5 of novels, Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable, written in an immense creative burst—the famous “siege in the room,” as Beckett called it—toward the end of the 1940s, which are the masterworks of his middle period and surely his most representative achievement in prose. Here at last he found a means of allowing the darkness Krapp had “always struggled to keep under” to spread over the page like so much spilled ink.

About the time when he was composing the two final volumes of the trilogy and En attendant Godot—that is, roughly, between 1948 and 1954—he wrote, or it would be better to say he poured out, a deluge of extraordinary, almost delirious letters to his friend the art critic and publisher Georges Duthuit, letters that form the core of this second volume. Dan Gunn in his introduction wonders why Beckett should have fixed on Duthuit as the recipient of such an outpouring. True, Duthuit, like Beckett, had a deep interest in and love for the visual arts, and in these letters Beckett seems to concern himself almost exclusively with painting and theories of painting. However, given the breakneck pace and the well-nigh illegibility of the handwriting,6 and despite all the warm felicitations lavished upon his friend—”Cher ami,” “Cher vieux Georges,” “Mon cher vieux Georges”—the suspicion arises that Beckett in these missives is in fact communing with himself. Here, under the guise of dissecting the work of painters he admires, especially the Dutch abstract artist Bram van Velde, the future author of Worstward Ho is developing and refining his aesthetic of lessness, of negation, of the null point:

We have waited a long time for an artist who is brave enough, is at ease enough with the great tornadoes of intuition, to grasp that the break with the outside world entails the break with the inside world, that there are no replacement relations for naive relations, that what are called outside and inside are one and the same.7

He is speaking of van Velde, but the characterization could as well fit himself as an artist who has turned his face determinedly away from “relation.”

At the close of this long, impassioned letter of March 9, 1949, Beckett declares himself “no longer capable of writing in any sustained way about Bram or about anything,” a disclaimer that is almost comical when one considers the dense pages of forensic disquisition that have gone before, as Gunn points out. Yet we must fix on the vital word here, for in the next breath Beckett declares: “I am no longer capable of writing about.” This is far more than—perhaps is not at all—a confession of critical impotence. Years earlier, at the end of the 1920s, in an essay on Finnegans Wake the young Beckett had insisted that Joyce’s final masterpiece is not about something, but is something, a thing-in-itself that is only comprehensible in its own terms. Now, in the controlled frenzy of the composition of L’Innommable, Beckett is aiming at a similar autonomy of the work, by seeking to instill in himself as artist that sense he perceived in Cézanne “of his incommensurability not only with life of such a different order as landscape but even with life of his own order, even with the life…operative in himself.”8

In her fascinating, contentious, and somewhat muddled book Samuel Beckett: Anatomy of a Literary Revolution,9 Pascale Casanova, taking Worstward Ho as the triumphant culmination of Beckett’s effort to forge an “abstract” literature,10 declares that with that work “Beckett created a pure object of language, which is totally autonomous since it refers to nothing but itself.” This is a stirring claim—but is it justified? Certainly Worstward Ho11 is a marvelous and astringent text, yet it cannot but refer to things outside itself. For instance, if we peer hard enough through the dense mesh that it weaves we discern clearly the cast as of old:

Hand in hand with equal plod they go. In the free hands—no. Free empty hands. Backs turned both bowed with equal plod they go. The child hand raised to reach the holding hand. Hold the old holding hand. Hold and be held. Plod on and never recede. Slowly with never a pause plod on and never recede. Backs turned. Both bowed. Joined by held holding hands. Plod on as one. One shade. Another shade.12

We know well this pair, the oldster and the child, for they move, embodied vestiges, through much of Beckett’s later work. They are at once anonymous and immediate, and seem to spring as much from our own memories as from the author’s pen. In the ambit of Beckett’s aesthetic, however, they are a distinct inconvenience.

  1. 1

    Variety ’s poor overexcited hack has been much derided, but the description is not inaccurate: the play certainly caused a sensation, and audiences did begin to laugh once they got used to the poetic intensity of the language and the novelty of the setting, and ceased to be intimidated by the foolish judgments of po-faced and incompetent critics. 

  2. 2

    This does not include John Calder, the tireless and unfailingly loyal publisher of all of Beckett’s prose works, who makes a brief, preliminary appearance in the closing pages of the present volume, having offered to publish the novels Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable in a single volume, a prospect that Beckett described to Jérôme Lindon as “a dream, for my rheumatics.” No doubt Calder’s important role in the dissemination and promotion of Beckett’s work will be made fully evident in the next volume. 

  3. 3

    One notable dissenting voice is that of Stephen John Dilks, whose Samuel Beckett in the Literary Marketplace (Syracuse University Press, 2011) is a strident and mostly wrongheaded piece of attempted iconoclasm, but not without a point. Dilks can hardly be refuted when he writes: “There is unequivocal and direct evidence demonstrating Beckett’s engagement with all aspects of the literary marketplace from 1929 to 1989….” However, Dilks consistently fails to acknowledge the fine and always wavering line that any author must draw between the private man that he is and the public artist he is taken to be. 

  4. 4

    When consenting to the publication of his correspondence, Beckett stipulated that only those letters concerned directly with his work might be made public. This somewhat ambiguous direction—for an artist, is there anything that is not concerned with the work?—must have given, and must be giving, the Beckett estate and Beckett’s quartet of editors a considerable headache. 

  5. 5

    There has been a continuing dispute whether Beckett intended these novels to form a trilogy. The matter seems settled, however, by a brief mention in a letter to Beckett’s friend George Reavey in 1952: “If I didn’t send you my books, it is because for me the three are one.” 

  6. 6

    The translator, George Craig, is an expert decoder, and displays a linguistic sensitivity that almost matches Beckett’s. One small example must suffice. In a letter to the French critic Maurice Nadeau, Beckett writes: “ Watt ne vaut rien et en français moins que rien,” which Craig renders as “ Watt is worthless, and in French worth less.” Bravo! 

  7. 7

    However, earlier in the same letter he asks, and one detects an unmistakable anxiety in the question “Can one conceive of expression in the absence of relations of whatever kind, whether those between ‘I’ and ‘non-I’ or those within the former?” 

  8. 8

    Letter to Thomas McGreevy, September 16, 1934. 

  9. 9

    Translated by Gregory Elliott (Verso, 2006). 

  10. 10

    “In the end, it would be Worstward Ho that radicalized, and took furthest, the formal combinatory whereby he carried out one of the greatest literary revolutions of the twentieth century.” 

  11. 11

    Significantly, Beckett wrote Worstword Ho in English, and later despaired of translating it into French. After his death, his friend Edith Fournier translated it as Cap au pire

  12. 12

    Worstward Ho (London: John Calder, 1983), p. 13. 

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