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The Word-Stormer

The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1929-1940
Edited by Martha Dow Fehsenfeld and Lois More Overbeck
(Cambridge University Press, 782 pp., $50)


If Samuel Beckett was a recluse, as most of the world liked to think, then he was surely the most garrulous recluse ever. He had a wide circle of friends, many of them close, and a very much wider circle of acquaintances, especially after he began to work in the theater, which he did partly, as he said, to escape the tyranny of prose, but also, as he did not say, for company. He liked Paris restaurants, his favorite of which for many years was the beautifully named Closerie des Lilas, and enjoyed late-night drinking with his pals. I once asked a person who had been close to him in his later years if Beckett drank a lot, and after a pause came the judicious reply, “Well, he went on benders, you know.” There is a record of him sitting in a Left Bank bar one night and suddenly emptying a full glass of beer over his own head, though admittedly this might seem evidence less of bibulous high spirits than of mental stress.

In his lifetime he wrote some fifteen thousand letters—at least that is the number his relentlessly zealous editors have managed to track down and make their selection from—most of them by hand, to a wide circle of correspondents. If all this concentric circling smacks a little of Dante, then it is apt, for Beckett had a very high regard for the dour Florentine and may even have modeled himself on him. Certainly he saw himself as a Dantesque lost spirit, and chose to name his earliest fictional alter ego Belacqua, after one of the more listless characters in the Purgatorio. Beckett’s biographers too present the impression of a figure immured in indolent suffering, beset by all manner of cysts, boils, ulcers, and anal complaints, insomnia, assorted digestive disorders, depression—of course—and what he rather mysteriously referred to as “the old internal combustion heart,” all of which ailments, according to biographical evidence, he listed in detail and described with mournful gusto for the delectation of his many correspondents.

Alas, though, not for ours. Beckett was notorious for the unhelpfulness of the help that he offered to his biographers and editors. When Deirdre Bair approached him to ask if he would permit her to write his life—her Samuel Beckett: A Biography was eventually published in 1978—he told her he would “neither help nor hinder” her, a typically ambiguous assurance which the redoubtable Bair seemed to take as nothing short of an encouraging shove between the shoulder blades. When he appointed Martha Dow Fehsenfeld as editor and Lois More Overbeck as associate editor of an edition of his correspondence, he stipulated that they should publish from the letters “those passages only having bearing on my work.” At first sight it seems a simple or at least straightforward directive, but of course it was neither, as the editors soon learned to what was evidently their chagrin.

The result is that we have in this collection no letters from Beckett to his mother, a key figure in his life, or to his much-loved father or to his brother Frank, whom he was very close to, or to Peggy Sinclair, his first cousin and, it seems, his first love. Also, in the letters that we are offered there are a number of suppressed passages, and, readerly prurience being what it is, one finds oneself pausing in frustrated speculation over each ellipsis. Probably behind every “[...]” there is nothing more revealing than news of another plague of boils, but one does keenly wish to know.

We should address first things first—though our subject would no doubt recommend last things last; so let us get the scholarly apparatus out of the way, for it is an ungainly contraption. Here then, in brief, in more than brief, is the tangled history of the project which the editors tell us is known as “The Correspondence of Samuel Beckett,” although the publication is called The Letters of Samuel Beckett—this is one of a number of odd nonsequiturs that crop up in Fehsenfeld’s and Overbeck’s guarded, not to say defensive, introduction to this, the first of four projected big volumes. In 1985, perhaps fearing the attentions of another delver into his life and work whom he would have to neither help nor hinder, Beckett decided that an edition of his letters should be published. To this end he appointed his American publisher and friend Barney Rosset as general editor, with Fehsenfeld and Overbeck—do they not sound like a pair of minor characters from Beckett’s earlier, more rambunctious fictions?—as editor and associate editor, respectively. He had met Fehsenfeld in 1976 when she was co-writing a book on his work in the theater, and now he gave her written authorization to consult his letters and to take copies of “such passages as are relevant to her research.” Later he wrote to her a short letter, which she quotes, and which contains the passage which no doubt has already set the leaves to quivering in the Beckett arboretum within the groves of academe: “I do have confidence in you & know that I can rely on you to edit my correspondence in the sense agreed on with Barney [Rosset], i.e. its reduction to those passages only having bearing on my work.”

Within weeks of the contract being signed, Grove Press was sold to Weidenfeld and Getty, and a year later Rosset was “released from his position,” as the editors delicately put it, and began a legal action against the company. Undaunted, Fehsenfeld and Overbeck continued to work on the letters. In 1996 what had been Grove Press agreed to re-assign the rights, at which point Cambridge University Press entered what by then surely might be described as the fray. Negotiations between Cambridge and Beckett’s literary executor, his fiercely protective French publisher Jerome Lindon, began in earnest in 1999. “Deliberations proved complex,” the editors note, “not least because of radically differing interpretations of what Samuel Beckett, now dead ten years, would have wished from an edition ‘only having bearing on my work.’” One distinctly detects the sound of skin and hair flying. Lindon wanted to restrict publication to those letters “in which there was specific mention of individual works or of his oeuvre,” which surely would have made for a slim and arid volume. Lindon died in 2001, and Beckett’s nephew Edward took over the literary executorship. In 2003 Barney Rosset released the original contract, which was then re-assigned to Cambridge. “Protracted discussion was still necessary before a formal contract was eventually signed among the various parties in November 2005.” Phew.

No doubt all this editorial kerfuffle will be of no more than incidental interest to the general reader, although frankly it is hard to imagine many general readers venturing far into this volume, which from the outset throws up a thicket of scholarly defenses against the non-specialist. The editors are not to be faulted for this: they have done their subject proud. Beckett was the most erudite of all the modernists, and certainly the most widely read among them—even Joyce, who burned many a barrel of midnight oil, could not compete with his erstwhile acolyte in the scholarship stakes. The letters, Fehsenfeld and Overbeck write, “demonstrate [Beckett’s] numerous commitments: to reading in a systematic way the classics as well as the literatures of several cultures; to training himself in music and the visual arts; to learning languages, becoming fluent in at least five and familiar with many more.”

Add to all this the fact that Beckett, especially in the years covered by this volume, moved in a milieu now largely vanished, and the scale of the task facing the editors becomes apparent. They tell us that in the early stages of the editorial process Beckett told them, “Please, no commentary,” to which they responded, “Not commentary, but there must be context.” With almost endearing disingenuousness they say that in editing the two and a half thousand or so letters selected from the much larger total, they “have tended toward the ‘minimalist’ approach to annotation, although, because of the very complex nature of the material, at times it may not seem so.” All the same, the notes take up a goodly portion of the book, and while they are admirably exhaustive, they are at times exhausting, too. As always with Beckett a certain word- weariness is inevitable.


Who is the person that emerges from this initial volume of letters? Samuel Barclay Beckett was born in Foxrock, a well-to-do suburb of Dublin, on Good Friday, April 13, 1906. His birth certificate records the date as May 13, which has led some commentators to believe that Beckett was lying about the correct date in order to invest the moment of his entry into “this bitch of a world” with the spurious portentousness of religious and superstitious connotations. But James Knowlson, in Damned to Fame, his superb and definitive biography of Beckett, verified the Good Friday date by the simple expedient of checking the Births and Deaths column of The Irish Times.

The Becketts, of Huguenot descent, were a prosperous Protestant family who had their money from the building trade. They and the few other families with whom they associated were hardy, assured, comfortable members of the professional middle class; they were survivors who would successfully weather the storms of revolution and civil war that battered the country in the first twenty-five years of the twentieth century. Writing of the caste to which Beckett, whether he liked it or not, belonged, the Irish critic Vivian Mercier is perceptive:

The males and some of the females of the typical Protestant family took the train every weekday to office, school or university in Dublin. In all these places they were likely to be associating almost exclusively with fellow Protestants. The females who stayed at home spent their leisure time with other Protestant ladies, though their maids and gardeners were usually Catholic. If one preferred to think of oneself as English there was really no reason not to.

The house in which Beckett was born, Cooldrinagh, was a spacious edifice standing on its own ample grounds. Life there was comfortable, ordered, and stultifying, and Beckett had a sheltered and happy, or at least not unhappy, childhood. He attended Portora Royal School in County Fermanagh in what was to become, after partition in 1920, Northern Ireland; Oscar Wilde had also been a pupil there, a fact not much boasted of by the school authorities in those strait-laced times. From Portora he made the natural progression to Trinity College, Dublin, where his main interest was French literature, from the Troubadors to the Moderns.

At Trinity he studied under Thomas Rudmose-Brown, professor of Romance languages. Beckett was much favored by “Ruddy,” who brought a whiff of luxe et volupte—if not much calme, as he seems to have been an excitable fellow—to the sober corridors of Trinity; he was also a serious scholarly and literary influence on Beckett, whom he introduced to modern French authors such as Proust and Gide. Beckett immersed himself in the French masters, especially Racine, an enthusiasm that would register strongly later on in his own work for the stage. He also read widely in Italian literature and in the great German philosophers, finding Schopenhauer particularly congenial, which is hardly a surprise.

In the summer holidays he traveled for long periods in France, and also in Germany and Italy, where in the great galleries he could indulge his enthusiasm for painting, especially that of the Dutch Old Masters. It is clear from Beckett’s letters to his friend Thomas McGreevy, the Irish poet and academic who was later to become director of the National Gallery of Ireland, that he could have been one of the finest art critics of the age. It should be remembered, however, that the majority of letters in this volume are to McGreevy, so there is a disproportionate emphasis throughout the volume on the art of painting. Also, despite his love of the old painters, Beckett had begun to develop deep misgivings about the very possibility of an art made according to the old and—according to him—outmoded conventions. James Knowlson pointed to a telling passage in a letter that now appears in this volume, which the twenty-eight-year-old Beckett wrote to McGreevy in 1934:

. . . what I feel in Cezanne is precisely the absence of a rapport that was all right for [Salvator] Rosa or [Salomon van] Ruysdael for whom the animising mode was valid, but would have been false for him, because he had the sense 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—one feels looking at the self-portrait in the Tate, not the Cezanne chauve with the big hat—operative in himself.

In 1928, the year before the present volume opens, Beckett secured a temporary teaching post in Paris at the Ecole Normale Superieure, where Thomas McGreevy was his predecessor in the job. It was McGreevy who introduced Beckett to James Joyce and his circle. Beckett returned from Paris to Dublin in 1930 to take up a lectureship at Trinity College. He was not happy in Ireland, to say the least, finding Dublin life suffocating and the tensions with his mother unbearable. He left Trinity precipitately, traveled in Germany, tried to live in Paris and in London. Then in 1932, broke and dispirited, he had to “crawl home,” as he said, and throw himself on the mercies of his family once again.

Beckett’s mother, May, was a loving though stern woman, brooding and given to unpredictable fits of anger followed by lengthy bouts of depression, traits that roughened the tranquil life of Cooldrinagh while Beckett was living there and most of which she bequeathed to her youngest son. Like so many Irishmen, Beckett was deeply attached to his mother—“I am what her savage loving has made me”—in a classic love-hate relationship that was to endure long after her death; his later decision to settle permanently in France, and to write in French, seemed as much a flight from the mother as from the motherland.

In the autumn of 1937, May Beckett and her son had a severe falling out, for reasons unclear, after which Beckett left the house, never to live there again. Mind, he was thirty-one, so it was high time he broke the umbilical cord. He wrote to McGreevy that “the grotesque can go no further. It is like after a long forenoon of the thumb screws being commanded by the bourreau [torturer] to play his favourite song without words with feeling.... And if a telegram came now to say she was dead, I would not do the Furies the favour of regarding myself even as indirectly responsible.” But the debt to his mother is everywhere obvious in his work. In the same letter he writes: “I have been sleeping here since Mother left. I do not know where she is or how long she will be away.... I have been going through my papers & trying to get my books into some kind of order,” which we might compare interestingly with the opening sentences of Molloy: “I am in my mother’s room. It’s I who live there now. I don’t know how I got there.”

Beckett’s father, Bill, a bluff, vigorous, and kindly man, was a surveyor with offices in Clare Street near the back gate of Trinity College. Beckett loved him dearly, and spent many happy hours with him tramping the roads of Foxrock and environs and bathing in the Forty Foot swimming place at Sandycove, under the shadow of Joyce’s Martello Tower. The father, like the mother, figures throughout the son’s work, emblematic of loss, of constraint, of mortality, and of the power and limits of love. In the summer of 1933, Bill Beckett suffered a serious heart attack. Beckett wrote to McGreevy:

He was in his sixty-first year, but how much younger he seemed and was. Joking and swearing at the doctors as long as he had breath. He lay in the bed . .. making great oaths that when he got better he would never do a stroke of work. He would drive to the top of Howth and lie in the bracken and fart. His last words were “Fight fight fight” and “What a morning.” All the little things come back—memoire de l’escalier.

I can’t write about him, I can only walk the fields and climb the ditches after him.

Some months after his father’s death Beckett had a devastating nervous collapse, and went to London where on the advice of his old school friend Geoffrey Thompson, a doctor with an interest in mental problems, he submitted to a course of psychotherapy at the Tavistock Clinic under the Kleinian psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion. This treatment, financed by his mother, was to last for two years. Too much can be made of the episode, but it is impossible not to see the marks of it in Beckett’s subsequent work, so much of which is cast in the form of a monologue in which a speaker, often lying on his back in dimness or dark, gabbles in a kind of delirium of doubt and self-seeking to a faceless auditor.

In those days Beckett, like any sensitive youngish person but more so, was desperately in search of a spiritual way that would lead him out of himself. McGreevy, a devout Catholic, recommended Thomas a Kempis’s Imitation of Christ as a guiding text, but Beckett had already been down that dead end. In the Imitation, he writes in a letter in 1935, he had found things that “went to confirm & reinforce my own way of living, a way of living that tried to be a solution & failed.” All he could take from Kempis was “an abject self-referring quietism ... the only kind that I, who seem never to have had the least faculty or disposition for the supernatural, could elicit from the text.” And he continues:

I cannot see how “goodness” is to be made a foundation or a beginning of anything. Am I to set my teeth and be disinterested? When I cannot answer for myself, and do not dispose of myself, how can I serve? Will the demon ... disable me any the less with sweats & shudders & panics & rages & rigors & heart burstings because my motives are unselfish & the welfare of others my concern?... Or is there some way of devoting pain & monstrosity & incapacitation to the service of a deserving cause? Is one to insist on a crucifixion for which there is no demand?

This was not a happy man.

In London, Beckett considered a number of possible day jobs, toying with the notion of becoming an airline pilot or—wait for it—an advertising copy writer. (There is food for a dinner-party game, devising the jingles that Beckett might have thought up for washing powder or diapers.) At last, the psychoanalysis at an end, he went back to Ireland, from where he made a number of escapes to the Continent, notably in 1936-1937, when he traveled extensively in Germany. Low in spirits as well as in funds, he trailed from one city to the next using art galleries as a sort of stepping stones. Then, in 1937, his roaming done for the present, he returned to Paris, where he was to live for the rest of his life.

He carried on a precarious existence in France. His first novel, Dream of Fair to Middling Women, a chaotic ragbag packed with abstruse learning and laborious juvenile humor, was rejected by scores of publishers before its author wisely put it away and went on to other projects. His second novel, Murphy, a comic tour de force and his first substantial artistic achievement, also met with little success; although he managed to get it published in London, it sold hardly at all. Short pieces appeared in the English-language magazines, such as Transition, which flourished in Paris at the time. Despite poverty and a propensity to melancholy—as the narrator of From an Abandoned Work says, “an unhappiness like mine, there’s no annihilating that”—Beckett in those years lived the not-uncongenial life of the artistic expatriate, eating and drinking in the bars of Montparnasse and spending much time in the merry surroundings of the quarter’s numerous brothels.

He wrote poems—opaque miniatures, mostly—and short stories and criticism, including a little book on Proust. He enjoyed an energetic love life, and, according to Knowlson, for a period toward the close of the 1930s was carrying on three simultaneous affairs: famously, with Peggy Guggenheim; intriguingly, with Mrs. Adrienne Bethell, an Irish antique-shop owner holidaying in Paris; and with Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, who was to be his companion for life, and whom eventually he married. We learn about these romances from the biographies, but they figure hardly at all in the letters. For all his predilection for schoolboy humor, Beckett was admirably discreet in the matter of lamour.

It is fitting that the first letter printed here, written when he was not yet twenty-three, is to James Joyce, and deals with the presentation of the essay “Dante ... Bruno, Vico ... Joyce,” Beckett’s contribution to Our Examination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress, a collection of essays instigated by the old artificer himself to pave the way for what was to become Finnegans Wake. The young Beckett was a strong admirer of Joyce’s work, although it is apparent from his many dry, not to say sardonic, references to “the Penman,” as Beckett called him, that he had the measure of Joyce’s manipulativeness and personal coldness. In 1937, when he was doing editorial work on the Wake, he wrote to McGreevy: “Joyce paid me 250 fr. for about 15 hrs. work on his proofs. That is needless to say only for your ear. He then supplemented it with an old overcoat and 5 ties! I did not refuse. It is so much simpler to be hurt than to hurt.”

There could be no better illustration of the dissimilarity between the two men than this little incident. Although Beckett’s ambitions were no less grand than those that Joyce had entertained when he was in his twenties, Beckett had none of the older master’s ruthlessness and cunning when it came to promoting his own work and reputation. The place of Joyce in Beckett’s life is a matter of some disagreement among his biographers. Deirdre Bair held that Beckett regarded Joyce as a godlike figure, to be slavishly imitated in everything from shoe size to prose style; but Anthony Cronin, in Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist, considered Joyce a thoroughgoing cad from whose clutches Beckett was relieved to escape. Knowlson, in Damned to Fame, portrays Joyce as both a monster of ego and a solicitous friend whom Beckett revered as an artist but about whose character he was both clear-eyed and forgiving.

There was an added awkwardness between the two men over the fact that Joyce’s mentally troubled daughter Lucia developed a fondness for Beckett that he was unable to reciprocate. He makes few mentions of Lucia in the letters, and those few only indicate his discomfort with the situation. Writing to McGreevy in 1937 about tensions with Joyce—his delay in writing the essay on Finnegans Wake was causing trouble—Beckett said that if there were to be a break with the Joyces, “at least this time it wont be about their daughter, who by the way as far as I can learn gets deeper & deeper into the misery & less & less likely ever to emerge.” Yet after Beckett was stabbed in a Paris street by a pimp on Twelfth Night in 1938—a very Beckettian incident, fraught with gruesome comedy—Joyce was “incredibly good” to the wounded man, paying for a private hospital room and supplying him with a reading lamp, while Nora Joyce cooked him a custard pudding. No one needed mothering more than Sam Beckett.

Joyce’s example as a dedicated artist and maker of “the new,” in Ezra Pound’s formulation, was immensely important for Beckett—but he had his own road to follow, a narrow way that diverged sharply from the broad Joycean thoroughfare. The single most significant letter in this volume is the one written, in German, in the summer of 1937, from Dublin, to the publisher and translator Axel Kaun, in which Beckett sets out in stark terms his negative aesthetic. Asking rhetorically if literature alone is to be “left behind on that old, foul road long ago abandoned by music and painting,” and commending Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony in which “for pages on end we cannot perceive it as other than a dizzying path of sounds connecting unfathomable chasms of silence,” Beckett makes a declaration that deserves to be quoted at length:

It is indeed getting more and more difficult, even pointless, for me to write in formal English. And more and more 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. Grammar and style! To me they seem to have become as irrelevant as a Biedermeier bathing suit or the imperturbability of a gentleman. A mask. It is to be hoped the time will come, thank God, in some circles it already has, when language is best used where it is most efficiently abused. Since we cannot dismiss it all at once, at least we do not want to leave anything undone that may contribute to its disrepute. To drill one hole after another into it until that which lurks behind, be it something or nothing, starts seeping through—I cannot imagine a higher goal for today’s writer.

Strong stuff, certainly; and, for all its vaunting of the “whispering of the end-music or of the silence underlying all,” remarkable for volume and range as a battle cry of the avant garde. Even Joyce is to be left in the rear of this advance: “In my opinion, the most recent work of Joyce had nothing at all to do with such a programme. There it seems much more a matter of the apotheosis of the word.”

Crouching for more than a century under the bombardment of fundamentalist modernism, we long ago hoisted the white flag; yet reading again this famous manifesto from the party of the Nothing, one is driven to ask, however timidly, the simple question: why? Why are grammar and style irrelevant, and what is it they are irrelevant to? Why is language “best used where it is most efficiently abused”? Why should we contribute to the disrepute of language as the next best thing to dismissing it altogether?

The late Cyril Cusack, a wonderful actor but a rebarbative spirit, used to recount a meeting with Beckett about a possible production of Waiting for Godot in which Cusack told the author that the play is nothing more than a moan of Protestant angst. Beckett, according to Cusack, agreed immediately to this curt analysis. One does not doubt Beckett’s artistic probity—probity was what he said he admired most in Joyce—but the ferocity of his aesthetic gives one pause. Like all artists, Beckett sought impersonality but suffused his work with the squid ink of his own desires, fears, and prejudices. He professed to have veered from the “old, foul road” down which language must drag itself, but is it not possible that what he was turning from was precisely his love of language, a luxury that his ascetic soul felt obliged to spurn?

As Cusack saw clearly, Beckett was very much an Anglo-Irish Protestant, whose language resonates—“like a verse of Isaiah, or of Jeremiah,” as his narrator Molloy has it—as if in a bleak homily mumbled from the pulpit of a bare three-quarters-empty church. He wrote in French, as he said, pour ecrire sans style, but Christopher Ricks has rightly pointed out that his French is as formal and correct as that of a scholarship boy, while his English lives and breathes vitality. Imagination Dead Imagine is the title of one of his late pieces, but the point is that the Beckettian imagination continued lively to the very end. In that letter to Axel Kaun he placed himself on “the road toward this, for me, very desirable literature of the non-word,” but a few lines later he states his program with a contrary succinctness: “Word-storming in the name of beauty.” The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1929-1940 is a preliminary record of that storm.

John Banvilles novel The Infinities (Picador) will be published in the fall. This article appeared in the May 20, 2009 issue of the magazine.