The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume II

…. being in [the world] discourages you from talking about it and not being in it disqualifies you from talking about it.
—Samuel Beckett to Georges Duthuit, March 2, 1949 (p 131)

I am no longer capable of writing in any sustained way about…. anything. I am no longer capable of writing about. (p 141)

Volume II purports to cover the period 1941 to 1956 but the first letter is from 1945. There are no letters from 1941 to 1945, the period during which Beckett lived in hiding from the Nazis and wrote his first masterpiece, the novel Watt. By 1947 Beckett had begun writing directly in French and within a few years produced the works that would make him famous: the great trio of novels, Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable, and the play Waiting for Godot. But in those first post-war years, before Godot began to change his material fortunes, times were hard for Beckett. He began an association with Georges Duthuit who gave him paid work translating texts. It is this association that gives us the most remarkable letters of Volume II. Their discussions on aesthetics went deeper than in Beckett’s other relationships. At the same time Beckett was finding his voice, as we like to say today. Or as he put it,

I see a little clearly at last what my writing is about and feel I have perhaps 10 years courage and energy to get the job done. The feeling of getting oneself in perspective is a strange one, after so many years of expression in blindness. (p 75)

This combination—Beckett and Duthuit’s professional relationship, requiring them to analyze texts, along with Beckett’s finding his own voice as a writer—shows us a side of Beckett that we had only gotten glimpses of in his letters to others up to this point. He is at once analytical and resistant to analysis. While he seems willing enough to engage Duthuit in aesthetics and shows repeatedly he is up to the task, his unique creative relationship to ignorance and weakness demands that he swear off the very attempts he so assuredly makes. It is a maneuver he will make over and over as the years go on but after these detailed exchanges with Duthuit it will be done shorthand. There is little doubt that Beckett could indeed engage in criticism and could discuss his own work very well. When he insists over and over again that he cannot, this inability does not indicate a lack of skill or the proper intellectual capacity, but an overwhelming repugnance for this type of thinking and writing. He may have learned a lesson from his association with Georges Duthuit: never again engage, to this degree, in a discursive mode he disliked so much. The relationship between the two men eventually turned sour. We don’t know why, either because letters expressive of it do not exist or because those letters have not been published. James Knowlson, Beckett’s biographer, is silent on the matter. But a note included in Volume III reveals how deep the rift had become. In a letter to Mary Hutchinson from 1957, Duthuit wrote about Beckett:

This is one man that is really too long a-dying, and talks too much for one given to silence…. I’ve had enough of these thick Irish strings, pulled too tight…. (Volume III, p 30)

In 1958 Beckett would write to Barney Rosset,

I am coming at last to see that the only sensible course is for me not to open my mouth to man or beast on any matter remotely concerning me. (Volume III, p 180)

Beckett’s letters to Georges Duthuit are pitchers overflowing with thoughts, apprehensions, memories, rare descriptions of Suzanne, and even dreams (one about Matisse “saying, in Dublin slang, that he was exhausted”. (p 87)) They are especially appealing in terms of style.

This evening, among the dripping bracken, in this light from the setting sun, illuminating the storm from below, I had the feeling that we need a motive to blow up all this dismal mixture. It is surely to be sought where everything must be sought now, in the eternally larval, no, something else, in the courage of the imperfection of non-being too, in which we are intermittently assailed by the temptation still to be, a little, and the glory of having been a little, beneath an unforgettable sky. (p 102)

Having been written during the Molloy-Unnamable-Godot period, they have the same kind of tumbling cadences as his creative work. He didn’t hold back, declaring in August of 1948:

But you will not despise me, I shall shock you often but you will be with me. I have other friends, but only one Georges Duthuit. I feel it. I know it. (p 104)

Waiting for Godot, still Beckett’s best-known work, serves as a good example of what Beckett was willing to say about his work. The popularity of the play has always been coterminous with the chatter it inspires; a cloud of discourse surrounds it and follows it everywhere. One of the primary functions of art is to produce discussion, but Godot seems to generate an excessive amount of speculative commentary. I had the opportunity once of talking about the play with a philosophy class and one of the students asked me what the bowler hats symbolized. This is the kind of question that drove Beckett bonkers. There was a never-ending stream of them. Based on information from the letters, it seems safe to say that if his answers were for the record (to be published or broadcast) he would respond that he knew no more than any other reader or viewer of the play, that what you see is what you get, no symbolism exists and looking for hidden meanings is a waste of time. His response to Michel Polac’s query (p 314) is characteristic in this regard. The response was to be read on air as an introduction to a radio reading of the play. Beckett wrote an entire page that can almost be reduced to three words: I know nothing. He typically responded the same way whenever he was asked to comment on a published account of his work. It was fine for people to talk. Just don’t ask Beckett to throw in two cents.

However, if the query came from a director of the play and Beckett’s response was a private one from one creative artist to another and a good production of the play was on the line, then the tone of his response was markedly different. To Desmond Smith, who considered putting on a production of the play in Toronto, Beckett gave this advice:

Do try and see the thing primarily in its simplicity, the waiting, the not knowing why, or where, or when, or for what. If there are obscurities of detail their elucidation will never be in terms of a system of symbols…. Confusion of mind and of identity is an indispensable element of the play and the effort to clear up the ensuing obscurities, which seems to have exercised most critics to the point of blinding them to the central simplicity, strikes me as quite nugatory. (p 610)

Why could he not respond in like manner in his public statements? Each reader will answer according to their own perception of the kind of person Beckett was. To me it seems clear that he found it distasteful to direct however minutely the way a reader or viewer encounters the work, even when they ask for direction. The tone to his response to Polac, with its emphatic series of I don’t knows, seems impatient, even irritated, as if it annoyed him to even be asked. Even so, to my mind Beckett shows the utmost respect for readers by crediting them the intelligence and creativity to do the work of reading for themselves. On the other hand it is certainly useful for a director of Godot or an actor playing Pozzo to know that Pozzo

is a hypomaniac and the only way to play him is to play him mad. The difficulty always experienced by actors with this role…. results I think from their efforts to clarify it and to give it a unity and a continuity which it simply cannot receive.
—to director Alan Schneider (p 586)

The unknowing at the heart of the play must be experienced for what it is. It is not something one can stand outside of in knowing. It is simply very difficult, if not impossible, for some people to do this. But the exercise is important, and the attempt offers something about the truth of our world. This may be one reason why, despite the accompanying cloud of explicative discourse (or because of it?), the play lives on. Beckett wrote at length to Carlheinz Caspari who was to direct the play’s West German premiere. Here is a chunk of the letter:

Nor is it, for me, a symbolist play, I cannot stress that too much. First and foremost, it is a question of something that happens, almost a routine, and it is this dailiness and this materiality, in my view, that need to be brought out. That at any moment Symbols, Ideas, Forms might show up, this is for me secondary—is there anything they do not show up behind? In any event there is nothing to be gained by giving them clear form. The characters are living creatures, only just living perhaps, they are not emblems. I can readily understand your unease at their lack of characterization. But I would urge you to see in them less the result of an attempt at abstraction…. than a refusal to tone down all that is at one and the same time complex and amorphous in them…. no clear statement can be made in a form that can satisfy the mind…. (pp 391-2)

It’s hard to leave it at that. As Beckett wrote to Polac,

It is not given to everyone to be able to move from the world that opens under the page to that of profit and loss, then back again, unperturbed, as if between the daily grind and the pub on the corner. (p 316)

The sense of waiting in Godot can never be relieved. And that is why the play lives on.


The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Cambridge University Press

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2 Responses to The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume II

  1. Your pieces on Beckett’s letters have been of the highest interest. Thanks!

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