The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume III

Holes in paper open and take me fathoms from anywhere.
—Samuel Beckett to Nancy Cunard, January 26, 1959 (p 193)

The late 1940’s are often singled out as a peak in Samuel Beckett’s writing life. Indeed, that’s when he produced the works—principally Waiting for Godot—that put him on the map. But by 1951 he had reached a creative impasse and it wasn’t until 1957 that he began to see a way out of it. Volume III covers the years 1957-1965, the period of Beckett’s career we might describe as his great second act, involving multiple genres: the novel, plays for stage, television and radio, and his one and only film script. Talk about an embarrassment of riches. Volume III takes us even deeper into Beckett’s creative process than the letters to Georges Duthuit in Volume II had. We see his struggles, false starts, doubts and, in rough outline, the evolution of some of his works.

For me, the most fascinating periods of Beckett’s life are the years of exile in Roussillon, when he wrote Watt and planted the seeds of his great post-war works, and the period of his great second act. The two periods are related, as we shall see. But we have no letters from the Roussillon period, and so, for me, the third of the four volumes contains the most riches. Not only do we get to see, clearer than ever before, how Beckett worked his way out of his creative impasse, but we get wonderful glimpses of the way he worked, of the craft of his writing. We see him wondering out loud about ideas, shooting off sparks in multiple directions, and we see his peculiar relationship to his work—how complex, ambivalent and delicate it was. I don’t know that any other book has given me a clearer picture into an artist’s mind. And since Beckett is my favorite writer in English, this third volume of the letters will henceforth rest at the beating heart of my personal library.

Alain Badiou makes a case for How it Is being the work that released Beckett from his impasse and opened up the second act. Even if one agrees with the thrust of that assessment, it is undeniable that the story starts earlier. Becket began How it Is in 1959, writing in French as he had done for years. But the previous year he had written Krapp’s Last Tape and he had done it directly in English. He also wrote Rough for Theatre II and Embers in 1958. In my opinion these are the works that made the first break in the impasse. The key feature of all three is an assessment or at least an encounter with a life or a life’s work. Krapp’s Last Tape is well known. The other two aren’t as well known, but they’re every bit as remarkable. Rough for Theatre II involves two men, Bertrand and Morvan (clerks, bureaucrats, readers?), whose names, of course, resemble Beckett and the various Molloy/Malone/Morans of the novels. The two assess documents by and pertaining to a man set to jump from a window, but whether to assist or to understand the potential suicide is hard to tell. The whole thing is held in suspension and ends with the man still standing in the window. Embers is an even clearer image/narrative construct of Beckett’s creative impasse. It concerns a writer who can’t finish anything because his works always “went on for ever”. He visits with ghosts, who are arguably aspects of his own mind, or his own fictions talking back to him, and one of them says, “The time will come when…. You will be quite alone with your voice, there will be no other voice in the world but yours”. And let us not forget the strange end of Embers, when he remembers the upcoming appointment with the plumber: “Ah yes, the waste”.*

In November of 1958 Beckett remarked that he needed to get back to the time when he wrote Watt, in English:

I am in acute crisis about my work…. and have decided that I not merely can’t but won’t go on as I have been going…. and must either get back to nothing again and the bottom of all the hills again like before Molloy or else call it a day.
—to Barbara Bray (pp 183-4)

As he wrote to Barney Rosset, that period of “the bottom of all the hills” was precisely that of Watt. (p 181) The very momentum of the works from the late forties had led to impasse. He wanted the rock bottom. It seems to me that the three works I’ve mentioned broke into the clog even if it took the rigor of How it Is to snake through the muck.

A couple of details about these so very different works—Krapp and How it Is—following quickly one after the other. As late as 1968 Beckett considered writing variants on the Krapp theme, having him married, for example, and with or without children. Something about this play, the very idea of this play, that Beckett was so proud of when he had finished it, was a kind of fuel to its author’s imagination. How it Is, on the other hand, was a struggle through the murk. He even struggled with the title. And he shared work in progress with trusted friends, such as Barbara Bray and Robert Pinget, seeking their input. But Pinget found it very hard going, and this discouraged Beckett since he had worked so hard to make it clear. Pinget told his friend that, “Light can only come in through tiny cracks in all this darkness and this mud” and that, “The gasping in the first two parts is unbearable”. (p 354) His response to the novel was deeply troubling for them both. But for Beckett, the novel’s “unpalatable” tone was its truth.

Here a comment might be appropriate concerning Beckett’s doubts about works in progress compared to an apparent absoluteness with regard to finished ones. Here he responds to Arland Ussher, who had written about his work:

So have nothing wherewith either to agree or disagree with what you say about my work, with which my unique relation—and it a tenuous one—is the making relation. I am with it a little in the dark and fumbling of making, as long as that lasts, then no more. I have no light to throw on it myself and it seems a stranger in the light that others throw. (p 511)

Beckett said the same many times to many different people. Clues as to his relationship to work in progress are found in letters to George Reavey and Alan Schneider. He wrote to the former

I am aware vaguely of course of the hidden impetuses that are behind its [Happy Days] making, but concern with their elucidation would prevent the making. (p 443)

and to the latter

New play festers…. Difficult to write about. Keep it till we meet. Know who’s going with me, but not where I’m going. Endless possibilities in idea. In great fear of spooking them. (p 487)

At a certain point, if Beckett did not abandon a work, he declared it finished, and when he got to that point he could be very firm. The letters are full of examples of very detailed instructions to directors of his plays. And as a director himself, Beckett had specific and one might even say rigid instructions for actors and every other aspect of production. To say he knew what he wanted is an understatement. His instructions, of primary interest to theater artists, were as if set in stone.

Of primary interest to writers are the glimpses we get into craft. Beckett occasionally mentioned to friends that he was at work in a place without access to dictionaries, but that it was for the best. He wrote to Barbara Bray that he “couldn’t imagine anyone feasting on Roget. Haven’t got a tip from it yet.” Then he adds, “Get me a copy, will you….” (p 426) In reassuring Pinget’s doubts about work in progress, he put in a P.S., “That you should agree with yourself on title and commas is all that matters.” (p 475) —a comment of particular interest to me since those are the areas I struggle with the most. He wrote to John Calder on the corrected proofs of an edition of Watt,

I started to suppress colons & semi-colons, having forgotten “how hideous is the semi-colon” page 156. So they all go back as indicated. Sorry for this stupidity.” (p 530)

I find this passage fascinating for many reasons, but perhaps mostly because of what it suggests about the use of these marks of punctuation. Even Beckett struggled with them! The fact that he underwent this “stupidity”, deciding in the end to save his joke rather than leave the unwanted marks out is funnier than the joke itself. And how arbitrary, really, the use of commas and sometimes, even, semi-colons can be. They must serve flow and tone and clarity. And if they don’t they need to go (wasn’t sure whether to put a comma after “don’t” or not).

The letter to Dulan Barber (p 575) is one of the most fascinating from a writer’s point of view. Barber was the representative of John Calder Publishers in charge of communicating with the printer. As explained in a footnote to the letter, “How it Is introduced two oddities that presented typesetting problems: no end punctuation, and stanzas of text divided by an extra line space.” (p 577) To get the character counts in alignment with these typesetting concerns, Beckett proposed a series of word changes. His command of the text in this instance is astonishing. And inspiring. But Calder Publishers were on top of their game too. They were able to resolve everything without changing a single word.

Beckett’s relationship to critics and criticism was, as we have seen, profoundly ambivalent. He could be exasperated, even infuriated by critics who couldn’t see what was in front of their faces but tended to read symbolism, allegory and deep meanings into everything. Yet he was upset with Pinget, as noted, because he had given a “moral” rather than “technical” response to How it Is. And he wrote to director Alan Schneider on his production of Happy Days,

I think myself that a commercial success is very unlikely and don’t anticipate much mercy from the critics. So I am interested in the “professional” reaction in the sense that it will help me to decide whether this is really a dramatic text or a complete aberration and whether there is justification for trying to push further this kind of theatre. (p 435)

And Barbara Bray, his closest and most trusted confidant during this period, was, among other things, a critic. Moreover, as noted before, he was hardly incapable of criticism himself, despite repeated claims to the contrary. He wrote to Barney Rosset explaining in precise and erudite detail what Film was about. (p 549)

I could go on outlining the riches of Volume III, describing some of Beckett’s problems with actors (and theirs with him) and with productions of his plays, about the actors he liked or didn’t like, and about how Play evolved. But I’ll have to end with a quote from what is, to my mind, one of the most remarkable letters of all, to Matti Megged, an Israeli writer. On the issue of the relationship between living and writing, Beckett wrote

It seems to me that this is probably your chief difficulty. Your view seems to be that what you can’t live you should at least be able to state—and then you complain that your statement has devitalized its object. But the material of experience is not the material of expression and I think the distress you feel, as a writer, comes from a tendency on your part to assimilate the two. The issue is roughly that raised by Proust in his campaign against naturalism and the distinction he makes between the “real” of the human predicament and the artist’s “ideal real” remains certainly valid for me and indeed badly in need of revival. I understand—I think no one better—the flight from experience to expression and I understand the necessary failure of both. But it is the flight from one order or disorder to an order or disorder of a different nature and the two failures are essentially dissimilar in kind. Thus life in failure can hardly be anything but dismal at the best, whereas there is nothing more exciting for the writer…. (pp 376-7)

The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Cambridge University Press

*Quotations from Embers from The Grove Centenary Edition

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