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Reviewed by:
  • The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume 1: 1929–1940
  • James McNaughton
The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume 1: 1929–1940. Edited by Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Lois More Overbeck, George Craig and Daniel Gunn. Cambridge and New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. xcix + 782. $50.00 (cloth).

When Samuel Beckett gave permission to Martha Dow Fehsenfeld to edit his letters back in 1985, he suggested to her that the correspondence be reduced “to those passages only having bearing on my work” (xiv). Undoubtedly Beckett would have been aware of the debate that such a statement could generate. After all, he named the (sometime) narrator of his early novel Watt, Sam, arguably to unsettle the interpretive relationship between an author’s life and his creative output. For the Beckett estate, and the editors, literary agents, and publishers associated with this volume, the debate concluded with a more broadminded interpretation of what counts. The letters present a wide selection of Beckett’s extensive and illuminating commentary on paintings, philosophy, and literary works—his own and others. Included too are Beckett’s references to his panics, sweats, boils, cysts, and psychotherapy. But, sadly, much is excised. At some point these theoretical decisions must have turned practical. Beckett wrote over 15,000 letters, in a hand, one might add, better spelled and more consistent than, say, W. B. Yeats’s, but nevertheless requiring repeated apologies for illegibility to his correspondents. Of those 15,000 letters, the four volumes will purportedly present 2,500, many of which have elisions, and they will cite from another 5,000 in the extensive and helpful footnotes. [End Page 454]

Beckett’s writing in volume one is superb—morose, funny, confessional, self-doubting, acerbic, tender, punning, polylinguistic—and reveals the difficulties of becoming a writer when one is fully aware of what no longer works. The letters range from Beckett’s early days in Paris writing on Joyce and Proust, through his work on More Pricks than Kicks, Echo’s Bones, and Murphy. They thin into 1940. Most of the letters are addressed to Thomas McGreevy, translator, art critic, failed novelist, and fine poet, who provided Beckett emotional and intellectual support in these years and introduced him to James Joyce and Jack B. Yeats. Other letters are written to his literary agent George Reavey, cousin Morris Sinclair, and close friends Nuala Costello, Mary Manning, and Arland Ussher. We do not read any of their letters; it is a shame Beckett did not keep them. The editors have searched other archives to contextualize in footnotes; even so, without the other letters Beckett can at times seem to evolve heroically alone, or in literary statements at his friends, rather than in dialogue, the white separated from the yolks.

For scholars of modernism, the letters should be read: they testify to Beckett’s compulsion towards silence, the commercial obstacles of publishing in the 1930s, the fine threads of friendship from which fragile literary capability often hangs. Beckett eloquently reestablishes the terms in which he understood and transformed modernism, often in descriptions of paintings. Many of these passages have been published before, in Beckett’s biographies, in an art exhibition built around Beckett’s comments, and sprinkled through articles and books. But read together they uncover his acute aesthetic sensibility and his thoughtful nurturing of friendship, his adroit change of tone and language for each correspondent and the cul de sacs that modernist writers experienced in the 1930s. These dead ends are linguistic, and Beckett expresses them directly through his growing frustration with English and indirectly by writing between languages in Franco-English, say, or by writing entire letters in German and French. The dead ends are literary, too, as publishing house after publishing house rejects Beckett’s work despite admitting his promise, leading Beckett with stabs of enthusiasm to apply as a filmhand under Sergei Eisenstein in Moscow, to work as an Italian lecturer in South Africa, and to contemplate a career as a commercial pilot. And the dead ends are national, political, and personal, testified by Beckett’s addresses which rotate and disappear—from Ireland, “the land of my unsuccessful abortion” (647), to London, “this core of all...


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