We shall never any of us know what we are worth, and it is the last question we should be asking.
—Samuel Beckett to Robert Pinget, May 24, 1966 (p 30)
On the 25th of November 1981, in thanking a friend for the gift of a pen, Samuel Beckett wrote,
If with it I fail to fail better worse I only deserve to succeed. (563)
It’s a sentence that only Beckett, whose idea of success was anything but ordinary, would have written, an arrangement of words that recalls his most famous “fail better” quotation from Worstward Ho, which he had been working on that year. It’s also a joke that only Beckett could have made. “Failing better” was good. He wouldn’t want to do it worse, but to poke fun at himself, at the very language of his latest work of prose fiction. Here he was, before the book was even published, characteristically distancing himself from it, or rather recognizing his distance from it.
Writing would not become easier for Beckett as he approached the final years of his life. He could quip that,
I work on, with failing mind, in other words, improved possibilities. (527)
But if anything his ambivalence toward that work only deepened. Writing was all he was good for, as he wrote, and all he wrote, to Mathieu Lindon in 1985 in response to the question, why do you write? (652) Yet a common refrain of these letters of the last two decades is that words failed to come, that there was little or nothing left, despite the fact that during this period he wrote some of his best and most beautiful works, including Not I, Rockaby, and Ill Seen Ill Said. They weren’t long, but they were large. And then, in the final year of his life, he would write, “silence is my cloister” (713) and, “I hope words have now failed me.” (719) His last work was the poem What Is the Word.
In the final letter, dated a month before he died and addressed to Michael Kuball, who had proposed making a film version of Murphy, Beckett wrote,
I am ill & cannot help. Forgive.
So go ahead without me. (726)
The tears came when I read that.
Fortunately a new batch of letters had become available to the editors after the first three volumes had been published and they follow in an appendix, opening the circle up once again. The four volumes are workhorses, both as books and as facilitators of more work. The immense scholarship they represent is nothing less than awesome. Even better, that scholarship never intrudes on the letters themselves, but serves them at every turn. Volume IV covers the years from 1966 to 1989. 1969 was the year of his Nobel Prize. After that Beckett’s fame grew and grew, and so did the demands on his time due to increased correspondence. As he did with his creative writing, so too with the correspondence: Beckett made do with less. He became a master of saying the most with the least. He developed in his letters a form of shorthand that at times resembles poetry. Here is a letter to Kay Boyle from July 30th, 1984:
I grow dumber and dumber.
Nothing to tell.
Glad and sorry it’s said and done. All the little.
I think of you often, dear Kay.
A severe critic of his own work, Beckett’s attitude toward the “Roughs” he wrote is rather interesting. He was adamantly opposed to any of his plays being adapted to film, and would probably have refused the Beckett on Film project. Certainly not all of the films are stellar, but in my opinion Katie Mitchell’s version of Rough for Theatre II is among the two or three best of the series. That film encouraged me to take a closer look at the text, and it has become a favorite. Beckett described the Roughs as “abortions” but added, “But I suppose what is not? More or less.” (520) This opinion did not stop him from having them published (while, by contrast, he resisted to the end allowing other works to be published) and wrote that as he prepared them for publication he “wondered if they were not performable. Their very unfinishedness has something dramatic.” (412) The Roughs (and Rough for Theatre II in particular) have always felt complete and satisfying to me, and Beckett’s letters have not solved the mystery why he relegated them to the back of the heap even though he did say, more than once, that his opinion of his work wasn’t necessarily better than anyone else’s.
Another highlight of Volume IV, for me, is when Beckett, who comes across as a polite, considerate and in all respects decent man, is unfair to the American actor Hume Cronyn. Harold Pinter had written to Beckett to report his concern over aspects of Cronyn’s performance in the 1972 New York production of Krapp’s Last Tape. Beckett in turn wrote to director Alan Schneider to instruct Cronyn to “refrain from any words that are not in the text.” (314) The words in question were “balls” and “rubbish” that Cronyn had chosen to comply with the stage directions of the play: “Krapp curses”. In Cronyn’s version of events (published in Beckett Remembering Remembering Beckett pp 238-40) he had asked Schneider what curse words he should use and was told not to change anything. But Cronyn was upset not only because Beckett had written to Schneider and not directly to him, but also because he couldn’t go on doing something that Beckett objected to. So Cronyn wrote to Beckett to ask him which words to use and Beckett replied that any suggestions would be made to the director of the production. Now it would seem highly unlikely that Beckett could forget his own stage instructions. And yet this seems to have been what happened. The story sticks out only because it’s such a rare instance of common human failing on Beckett’s part. For a man who placed failure at the heart of his work, he seems to have exhibited uncommon excellence in his professional life.
The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Cambridge University Press