Saturday 27 May 2017

Review: Letters: The Letters Of Samuel Beckett Volume II: 1941-1956 by George (editor and French translator), Martha Dow Fehsenfeld (founding editor), Dan Gunn (Editor) and Lois More Overback (General editor)

Cambridge University Press, £30

What with all the introductory editorial materials, biographical profiles, indices and copious annotations, this big and lovely book comes in just short of 800 pages -- just a few pages more than the first volume of Samuel Beckett letters. And there are two more volumes to come!

To call the whole enterprise monumental is to seriously understate the case. It is highly unlikely that another writer will appear who will command such careful scholarly attention.

The dates in the title are somewhat misleading -- the first letter printed is from January 1945. The reason for this is simple -- Beckett was incommunicado for most of the war years.

The short messages he managed to get to the Irish legation to Petain's puppet regime in Vichy were not transmitted to his family in Ireland. And it is most improbable that he was writing to any of his French friends about his activities for the Resistance in Paris or, later, in the Vaucluse, where he spent nearly three years hiding from the Nazis.

For Beckett, some kind of normality was resumed in early 1945 but it was to be nearly another year before he was ensconced in his Paris flat and could resume his career as a writer.

And then he made his boldest move -- while writing his first novella in English, he drew a line across the page and continued composing in French.

For the next four years he experienced what he later called "the siege in the room", a protracted bout of creativity that gave him four novellas, four novels, two plays, writings about art and, on the evidence of this book, hundreds of letters.

The majority of the letters from the late 1940s are those to Beckett's friend Georges Duthuit, who was the son-in-law of painter Henri Matisse. Duthuit had spent most of the war years in the United States and, when he returned to Paris, he had bought the avant-garde magazine transition in which much of Joyce's Work in Progress (aka Finnegan's Wake) had appeared and which also first published a short story and a critical essay by Beckett in the early 1930s.

Duthuit relaunched the magazine in 1948 as a platform for presenting French culture and art to an English-speaking audience. Beckett was just the kind of help he needed, bi-lingual, deeply interested in contemporary painting and music, a poet and a critic but, above all, an incomparable translator.

Beckett's dealings with Duthuit produced much of compelling interest but perhaps none more so than Three Dialogues with Georges Duthuit. These are three pieces of critical writing that Beckett presented as a kind of mini-drama. Years later, when asked if he had written them down after conversations with Duthuit, Beckett corrected his interlocutor by saying he had written them up.

The letters gathered here allow us access to the ongoing struggle Beckett engaged in, over a number of years, to refine his thinking about art and aesthetics. All that is soon said but we can track other developments in Beckett the writer in these letters and, from 1950 onwards, in his letters to Jerome Lindon, his exclusive French publisher.

Beckett gradually moves towards the view that the work of art is "integral" -- it is or should be sufficient on to itself. It goes out into the world unsupported by commentary or "explicitation".

Here is the origin of his shyness, his refusal to grant interviews -- he once told a journalist: "I have no views to inter."

During the long lead-in to the first English production of Godot, Beckett had a meeting with Ralph Richardson, who wanted "the low-down" on Pozzo's life and experience before he would consent to "illustrate" the part.

Beckett was delighted to tell the actor that he had put everything he knew about the characters into his play. And that was the end of Richardson's involvement.

In fact, Beckett became irritated by theatrical producers' obsession with "stars". In one letter here, he crosses out the word "fame" in a sentence and substitutes "magnitude" and with one stroke removes stars from the theatre where they have no business and restores them to the heavens where they belong.

The volume of correspondence increases hugely as we move into the 1950s. The success of Godot in French and even more so in German had the effect of widening Beckett's circle of friends and collaborators.

When the work started to appear in English, the flow of letters becomes a spate. And yet only those letters that "have a bearing on my work" -- as Beckett insisted -- have been gathered. What we have been spared is anyone's guess. There is more than enough here to be going on with.

Despite the size of the book, every effort has been expended by the editors to assist the reader. Almost every detail has been helpfully annotated; a precise chronology for each year has been provided, noting the main events in Beckett's career and the principal current events. All correspondents are identified and the major ones profiled.

Beckett continues to get the kind of attention he deserves. This is a book to treasure.

Gerry Dukes is a writer and critic

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