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.

Georges Pierre/Sygma/Corbis
Samuel Beckett and Alberto Giacometti in Giacometti’s studio, Paris, 1961

In a letter in 1937 to the publisher and translator Axel Kaun, one of the most significant and artistically revealing he ever wrote,13 Beckett set out comprehensively his literary aims. Saying that he finds it more and more difficult to write in “formal English”—he had not yet made the wholesale shift to French—he declares that “my language appears to me like a veil which one has to tear apart in order to get to those things (or the nothingness) lying behind it,” and hopes that a time will come “when language is best used where it is most efficiently abused.” What he wishes most to do is to “drill one hole after another into [language] until that which lurks behind, be it something or nothing, starts seeping through—I cannot imagine a higher goal for today’s writer.”

On the road toward this, for me, very desirable literature of the non-word [Literatur des Unworts], some form of nominalistic irony can of course be a necessary phase. However, it does not suffice if the game loses some of its sacred solemnity. Let it cease altogether! Let’s do as that crazy mathematician who used to apply a new principle of measurement at each individual step of calculation. Word-storming [Wörterstürmerei] in the name of beauty.

Already, then, in 1937, Beckett was posing the question:

Is literature alone to be left behind on that old, foul road long ago abandoned by music and painting?… Is there any reason why that terrifyingly arbitrary materiality of the word surface should not be dissolved…?

In other words—in other words!—his goal is abstract literature. But can there be such a thing? Is it not the case that “some form of nominalistic irony” will be not a phase, but the farthest that “abstract” writing can go? On an earlier page of Samuel Beckett: Anatomy of a Literary Revolution, Pascale Casanova writes: “One cannot advance the hypothesis of an absolute independence of the text with respect to the world, grammar and literary convention,”14 thus contradicting beforehand her later claim, quoted above, that in Worstward Ho Beckett created a work that “is totally autonomous since it refers to nothing but itself.”

The fact is, words are not like paint or musical notation. Language is a vulgar medium; it rubs up against actuality at every point and is thereby, as Beckett would say, tainted. “Is there something paralysingly sacred contained within the unnature of the word that does not belong to the elements of the other arts?” he asks rhetorically in that letter to Axel Kaun. To which a nonrhetorical answer might be: it is not anything sacred that sets the word apart, but something profane. Language must speak, that is its essence. There could only be an abstract writing, as there is abstract painting, if words were to lose their meaning, that meaning that we have commonly consented they should have. And what then would they be? Mere noise.

This was the predicament that Beckett found himself in—or maneuvered himself into—and that he battled against from the mid-1940s until almost the day of his death.15 The struggle with language was his torment and his inspiration, and it informs every page of the letters to Georges Duthuit, in which he confesses again and again to a kind of willed artistic helplessness in the face both of the material and the medium. “I feel myself moving away from ideas of poverty and bareness,” he writes, but any hope that this might be a matter of cheer for us or for himself is immediately dashed—“They are still superlatives.” In passages very much reminiscent of the Kafka of the Diaries,16 he sees himself struggling in darkness, guided, if that is the word, by the faintest pinpricks of light:

One may just as well dare to be plain and say that not knowing is not only not knowing what one is, but also where one is, and what change to wait for, and how to get out of wherever one is, and how to know, when it seems as if something is moving, which apparently was not moving before, what it is that is moving, that was not moving before, and so on.

Given such an artistic credo, we his readers are fortunate indeed that Beckett so often failed at failure.

Anthony Cronin’s 1996 biography of Beckett is subtitled The Last Modernist, and reading these letters one concedes the justice of the epithet. Beckett maintained to the end his stance against—“Nothing will ever be sufficiently against for me”—and in this respect he cleaved to the good old modernist determination to amaze and belabor the bourgeoisie at every opportunity. Above all, mere “literature”17 was to be scorned in favor of the “unword.” Yet the Beckett scholar S.E. Gontarski has spotted18 a telling instance of Beckett whistling past the graveyard—and what better whistler could there be, in such environs?—in Three Dialogues with Georges Duthuit, the published exchange that arose out of the letters between the two men.

The Dialogues, though interesting, suffer from that combination of archness and incurable schoolboy facetiousness that was the least appealing aspect of Beckett the artist. In his closing statement Beckett offhandedly says: “The realization that art has always been bourgeois, though it may dull our pain before the achievements of the socially progressive, is finally of scant interest.” One begs to differ. Clearly audible here is the modernist’s unease before the incontrovertible fact that his work, no matter how avant-garde in design and execution, will have its life mainly through the patronage of a bourgeois audience.

In the face of this and other aspects of his predicament Beckett adopted various and ever more radical strategies, the initial and perhaps the most radical of which was the decision to abandon English in favor of French, taken, as he said, “pour écrire sans style.” Once again, however, he sought to play down the drama, indeed, the decisiveness, of his action. Writing in 1954 to the editor and translator Hans Naumann, he struck a positively languid attitude: “Since 1945 I have written only in French. Why this change? It was not deliberate. It was in order to change, to see, nothing more complicated than that, in appearance at least.” Yet a moment later he has a second thought, and grants that there may have been “urgent reasons, for this change,” and offers “one clue: the need to be ill equipped.” Here he is making a sly and, one may guess, significant pun, “the need to be ill equipped” being, in the French original, “le besoin d’être mal armé,” which Dan Gunn sees as “perhaps an echo of the poet who made impotence so central to his oeuvre, Mallarmé.”

As the Letters move into the 1950s we encounter the second shift in tone, with the sudden flowering of Beckett’s career as a published novelist and, more markedly, as a commercially successful playwright. Doused now are the fireworks of old; the letters become businesslike, informative rather than opinionated, circumspect rather than reckless. Inevitably this makes for a certain falling off of interest. All the same, Beckett was one of the greatest letter-writers, and could not be dull even when he tried. There are wonderful moments of tenderness here—especially in the letters to his former lover Pamela Mitchell—and, of course, of humor. Writing to Duthuit from his cottage in the countryside at Ussy-sur-Marne in 1951, he records how

I keep an eye on the love-life of the Colorado beetle and work against it, successfully but humanely, that is to say by throwing the parents into my neighbour’s garden and burning the eggs. If only someone had done that for me!

The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume II: 1941–1956 is, like its predecessor, a model of editorial diligence and inspiration. The scholarly apparatus is impeccable. The range of citations of sources boggles the mind—is there anything these Four Masters have not followed up and tracked to its lair? And what a marvel the translator, George Craig, has wrought. Even a glance at a page of one of the letters to Duthuit brings on dizziness—Beckett’s handwriting more and more aspired to the condition of the straight line—but Craig makes his way every time from end to end of the high wire with deceptive ease and aplomb. As he tells us elsewhere,19 he is Irish, “and familiar with Beckett’s world, above all with the paths by which his linguistic idiom, in both English and French, had evolved.” No author, no letter-writer, could have been better served.

  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. 

  13. 13

    See The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume I: 1929–1940 (Cambridge University Press, 2009), pp. 512–520. The freedom and directness, unique in the letters published so far, that Beckett allowed himself in addressing Kaun may in part be accounted for by the fact that the letter is written in German, a language that Beckett knew well but in which he was not entirely fluent. 

  14. 14

    In the next sentence, Casanova wades more deeply into the mire: “One can simply propose, because one wishes to aim for it, the ‘minimal minimum’ before the disappearance of words and meaning.” What would the “minimal minimum” be? And how exactly do the words “because” and “before” function here? 

  15. 15

    The final line of his final published work was “what is the word.” 

  16. 16

    Though Beckett was ambiguous in regard to Kafka’s fiction. Having read “about three-quarters of The Castle,” he wrote, “I felt at home, too much so—perhaps that is what stopped me from reading on. Case closed there and then…. I remember feeling disturbed by the imperturbable aspect of his approach. I am wary of disasters that let themselves be recorded like a statement of accounts.” 

  17. 17

    The novelist Aidan Higgins ruefully records Beckett’s dismissal of Higgins’s marvelous first novel Langrishe, Go Down as “oul literary shite.” 

  18. 18

    In his foreword to Dilks’s Samuel Beckett in the Literary Marketplace

  19. 19

    Writing Beckett’s Letters, published in the Cahiers Series by Sylph Editions and the Center for Writers and Translators of the American University of Paris. Craig’s is one of a score of fascinating Sylph pamphlets, which are exquisitely produced, lavishly illustrated, and lovingly edited. Writing Beckett’s Letters is an essential companion to the Letters themselves.