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  • The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume 1:1929-1940
  • Martin Harries (bio)
The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume 1: 1929-1940. Edited by Martha Dow Fehsenfeld and Lois More Overbeck, with George Craig and Dan Gunn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009; xcix + 782 pp.; illustrations. $53.00 cloth.

In 1939, Beckett replies to a friend who has sent him a "nebulous reproduction" of a painting the friend bought at auction for five pounds (664): "If you want a big name I think Piazzetta or Tiepolo are the most likely, & the latter better than the former, though the picture seems rather too maniéré & doubtfully drawn to be of any possible chance by either" (663-64). The letter goes on at some length in this vein of authoritative assessment. Beckett's evaluation is in itself impossible for others to assess, as the editors of this volume have not been able to trace the painting in question: where they have failed, it seems doubtful others will have any luck. This moment is nevertheless remarkable for Beckett's willingness to play the role of the [End Page 167] connoisseur. These letters are, among other things, a record of Beckett's dogged education in visual art, most strikingly evinced when he drags himself across Germany looking at fine art in 1936/37.

These intimations of Beckett as connoisseur offer one way to understand this first of four projected volumes of his letters. There is an unsettling and specular relationship between the formidable editorial work behind this splendid edition and the portrait of the artist as young aficionado that emerges from them. Because these letters abound in erudite references, the editors reproduce that connoisseurship. More important, however, Beckett's knowledge of art obliges us to ask what knowledge of art is. We know that the most terrible epithet in the famous exchange in Waiting for Godot is "Crritic," but do we know what the target of this curse is?

Writing eight years earlier to Thomas McGreevy, probably the single most important of his correspondents in this volume, Beckett reflects on one of his own early ventures in criticism while also responding to McGreevy's description of a review of his work by Rebecca West:

My Proust seems very grey & disgustingly juvenile — pompous almost — angry at the best. Tant pis. As for the critics — I don't know. I don't think I care very much. I feel dissociated from my Proust — as though it did not belong to me, ready of course to get any credit thats [sic] going but — genuinely, I think — more interested than irritated at the prospect of the nose-pickers' disgust. I may be altogether wrong. What you quoted of R.W.'s criticism reduces, it seems to me, to almost unqualified approval. Perhaps the fatuous enthusiasms are more painful than anything.


Beckett, analyzing his response to his long essay Proust (1931), describes a dissociation to be understood not in the psychological sense but in the seemingly simpler one of a separation between author and work. This feeling of his work's not belonging to him produces a disinterested expectation of the "nose-pickers' disgust." This disgust, in turn, is the result of a discipline that is in itself disgusting: these critics are "nose-pickers" not because they do not understand Beckett and McGreevy but because nose-picking is what they do. Beckett's reaction to West's review makes this aversion to the practice of criticism especially clear. West had reviewed McGreevy's book favorably, but that favorable response is an example of the pain caused, at least for Beckett, by "fatuous enthusiasms."

The mildly scatological critic as nose-picker is part of a complicated rhetoric of bodily waste that is a hallmark of Beckett's work, and certainly of these letters. In their comprehensive introduction, the editors describe how "[w]riting and shitting [...] may be seen to share for Beckett an all-important intimacy, an urgency, a necessity even, just as they share a difficulty and delight in emission and transmission" (xcv). In Beckett's scatological terms, one might say that the problem with nose-picking is that its products are not even shit. Writing and...


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