- Over Beckett’s Shoulder
We are inclined to think of Samuel Beckett as a writer who experienced language as a stain upon the silence, yet the nature and extent of his correspondence reveals a deeper truth: he was willingly apprenticed to a medium he could not help but distrust. We are no longer shocked by Beckett’s voluminous side, having already read the first volume of letters, but it remains the case that Beckett’s correspondence is one of the most counter-intuitive bodies of work produced in modern times, at least if we accept the dominant picture of him, which has been predicated on his extraordinary sense of reticence. A lot of Beckett’s most memorable characters struggle to “say” what they “think” they “know,” and we have been accustomed to imagine him struggling in much the same way. We are told that he exhausted modernism by exhausting the resources of language (which were not up to much in the first place), yet his own commitment to writing appears to have been inexhaustible. More than anything else, this rich paradox underwrites the pleasure of any reading of this second volume of letters. Why did Beckett apprentice himself so absolutely to such an incorrigible medium?
As far as writing letters goes, part of the answer lies with his diligence and good manners. As one might expect of the Beckett we (think we) know from the various biographies, he was extremely careful in keeping up on his correspondence, which must often have felt precisely like the kind of pensum (or chore) that he returned to so often in his writing: there is nothing to be done, but there are still things one needs to do, and one of them, it seems, is to answer one’s letters. At times in this volume, certainly, one reads letters of this kind, and Beckett wrote them scrupulously. In this practical regard, these letters reveal him to have been loyal and reliable. In business, he did what he said he would do, and there are some very entertaining examples here of what happened when his collaborators did not. There is obvious irritation—“fatigue and disgust” might be the better phrase—and we come wonderfully close to Beckett as he tackled the business of being a writer. The picture we get, needless to say, is that it was an exhausting business.
There would be less reason to peruse this volume if that was the whole story, but as anyone who has read the first volume will know, it is not. Writing letters for Beckett was not just about duty and its dereliction; letters also acted—in the memorable phrase of Dan Gunn, one of the editors of the present volume—as “channels to possible selves.” In the first volume, this more profound experience occurred largely in the letters to Thomas MacGreevy, who was lucky enough to receive some of the most astonishing letters Beckett ever wrote. Here, the mantle passes to Georges Duthuit, the French art historian and critic to whom Beckett wrote during the late 1940s with a confessional zeal and sense of fellowship that remains remarkable. It was often late at night, and Beckett was often the worse for wear (i.e., not sober), and he wrote in an unguarded manner that makes these the most extraordinary letters in the present volume. That they are less about Beckett himself and more about his aesthetic preoccupations makes them even more interesting (Beckett’s confessional urge, as it pertained to the self, had been spent largely in the letters to MacGreevy). Bram Van Velde, the Dutch abstract painter, is often the artist they are discussing, and he draws from Beckett some of his most eloquent assessments of the artistic predicament:
To go back to Bram: there is not having and there is not being able to, perhaps too much of a tendency to think of them as standing together. The poor are able to, rather. Not even poor...