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  • Samuel Beckett’s Letters and the “Syntax of Extreme Weakness”
The Letters of Samuel Beckett Volume III: 1957–1965. George Craig, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Dan Gunn, and Lois More Overbeck, eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Pp. lxxxix + 771. $52.95 (cloth).

Samuel Beckett wrote to Kay Boyle on July 27, 1957: “now that I’ve forgotten my English I feel like going back to it” (56). He would be going back to it a great deal during the period spanned by this selection of his correspondence, for the English world now clamored for his performance pieces, as well as for his early work and translations of his French fiction. The string of masterpieces that followed what he called his “anglo-irishing of” En attendant Godot and Fin de partie (xxxi), seldom seen on the London stage since the days of his Anglo-Irish Protestant precursors G. B. Shaw and Oscar Wilde, was however by no means a retrenchment in the forsaken mother tongue, but it was rather an extension into English of the means acquired in and through French to discipline his verbal flamboyance and render his pessimism more astringent.

Beckett did not, however, always welcome the results, being uneasy with the elegiac tenderness that came with his English. Although on April 10, 1958 he confided to his American publisher Barnet Rosset, “I feel—to a disturbing degree—the strangest of solicitudes for this little work,” Krapp’s Last Tape (127), a month before that he had told the English dramaturge Donald McWhinnie that the monologue “is rather a sentimental affair in my best original English manner. Begin to understand why I write in French” (115). He had recently told American director Alan Schneider: “I must confess I feel the old tug to write in French again, where control is easier for me, and probably excessive” (103–04). This issues in Comment c’est, the most excessively controlled of his prose, but also in the play Happy Days, which renders a situation quite similar to the novel (stuck in muck) but shows without excess the French “control.”

Beckett was insistent on both his origins and his expatriation, having told a Hungarian publisher in May 1964: “As a writer I have no feeling [End Page 183] of any national attachment. I am an Irishman (Irish passport) living in France for the past 27 years who has written part of his work in English and part in French” (601). Irish could still be a term of abuse: he told Schneider on May 20, 1961 that he had given up trying to stop a Dublin company’s unsanctioned touring Godot production in England: “All Irish and uproarious. Very upsetting” (412). Yet he resented it when BBC radio editors were fretting over the Anglo-Irish vagaries of The Old Tune, his version of Robert Pinget’s La Manivelle, and he rejoiced when actress Brenda Bruce added a Scots accent to her interpretation of Winnie in Happy Days: “c’est fou ce que ça bonifie” (amazing what an improvement it makes) (506–7). In the period after the death of his Dublin mentor Jack Yeats, Beckett returned to the poetry of the painter’s brother, William Butler, “with intense absorption” (391), and later to the plays—influences which would pool in his subsequent performance work, most explicitly “… but the clouds. …”

Although recent efforts have been made to redeem Beckett for political engagement, the decorated Résistance recruit and much-censored defender of free speech remains a peculiarly recalcitrant campaigner for political causes. This volume holds few references to the Algerian crisis that verged on civil war during that period, even as it impinged directly on Beckett’s life. “Dreadful week, the two of us with our ears glued to Europe No. 1 every hour,” he wrote to Pinget in apprehension of a military coup on February 6, 1960 (294). A year later, insubordinate French generals in Algiers attempted to seize power, but Beckett would mention it only after the surrender, telling Barbara Bray simply: “Here apparently all quiet again. Tanks etc. gone. Great sigh of relief on coming back late from Odéon last night and hearing news on radio” (408).

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