Monday 20 November 2017

An emotional farewell from Ireland's master of existential doom

Letters: The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume 4, 1966-1989, Edited by: George Craig, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Dan Gunn and Lois More Overbeck, Cambridge University Press, €29.99

Samuel Beckett pictured at the Royal Court Theatre in 1973. Photograph: John Haynes
Samuel Beckett pictured at the Royal Court Theatre in 1973. Photograph: John Haynes
John Hurt in the Gate Theatre Dublin production of 'Krapps Last Tape'

On October 2, 1935 the Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist, Carl Jung, gave a lecture in London's Tavistock Institute where he recalled how a woman patient he once treated said she felt like she had "never been properly born."

A 29-year-old diffident Dublin writer who was in attendance that day - who had recently undertaken psychotherapy for depression - remarked to a friend at how closely the story resembled his own life. His name was Samuel Beckett.

Leaving Dublin to make Paris his permanent home in 1937, Beckett was under-appreciated in the mainstream literary world for the first two decades of his career. Outside of a small group of committed Dublin wordsmiths, and Parisian symbolists, surrealists and existentialists, his work was largely unknown. Things didn't get much better when he went to Paris initially either. In 1938, for instance, his first novel, Murphy, was published. But only after getting rejected 42 times. He was also stabbed in the chest that same year by a street pimp called Prudent. Beckett did eventually hit upon global fame in the 1950s: with plays like Waiting for Godot, Krapp's Last Tape, and the novel trilogy: Molly, Malone, and The Unnamable.

Through the process of stripping back language to its primal state, Beckett sought to convey in prose, poetry, and drama, the inherent torture, confusion, suffering, and utter pointlessness of human existence. If James Joyce's modernist vision dragged the entire contents of western civilisation into his episodic narratives, Beckett's interpretation of modernity was far darker, sparser, and crucially, less sure of itself. But one suspects this may have been very much to do with a moment in history, rather than a conscious decision of the artist as such.

The Second World War had an enormous impact on Beckett's life and work. Primarily because he bore witness in France to its barbarity: both as a fighter in the Resistance and a volunteer for the Irish Red Cross. Beckett believed, outside of one's own subjective experience, the individual has no objective knowledge from which they can conceptualise the world with rationality. His own subjective experience would be one burdened by chronic shyness; constant uncertainty; the continual threat or fear of physical and mental illnesses; frustration that his best work was always behind him; and the inevitability of death looming quietly in the background.

Beckett treated language as a double edged paradox. Outside of it, there is no means to express, and yet, within the constraints of its cultural, political, philosophical and historical connotations, it makes a prisoner of the human spirit. Thus, bleak, solitary silence, and those unspeakable, oddly undefinable, and yet seemingly very familiar, and ever present moments within human behaviour, is something that emerges from his work at all times. In a typical Beckett narrative, form is turned inside out; the beginning and end often don't connect in linear fashion; while characters can find themselves stuck in a kind of dark no-man's-land or existential purgatory: merely counting the endless passing of time; existing in that moment between birth and death, always looking towards the grave.

The Letters of Samuel Beckett 1966-1989 takes us into the autumn of his life: when he was a global literary superstar and became a Nobel Prize winner too. Readers looking for revelations about the mechanics of his work, or tales of gossip concerning his controversial love life, will no doubt come away disappointed. For instance, there are many letters here to Barbara Bray, who was Beckett's mistress for many years. And yet, there is no evidence, or even so much as playful flirting, indicating the sexual and romantic nature of their relationship anywhere within their correspondences.

It's well documented that Beckett was a very private individual, who really did believe that the work was all that mattered. He gave very few interviews over the course of his lifetime. Even still, one suspects some level of censorship is going on between the writer and publisher here. Or, that letters of a more revealing nature were simply withheld or destroyed many years ago.

As numerous friends and artists have attested to, Beckett's generosity with money was legendary. This clearly comes across: he insists on sending numerous individuals regular cheques to make sure they are never out of pocket. Some of these concise letters deal directly with publishers and the literary establishment, always looking to get a piece of the writer somehow. But most are to the wide network of friends Beckett kept in close contact with across the globe for the duration of his life.

Written in both French and English, they include letters to the novelist Paul Auster; the playwright Harold Pinter; Beckett's biographer James Knowlson, and the British stage designer, Jocelyn Herbert. The picture that emerges here is of a sensitive, empathetic man; of someone who really wished he was doing more writing of literature than letters; someone who takes pleasure in the simple rituals of life, such as a dip in the sea, a walk in the sunshine, sitting on a bench, or having a drop of whisky with friends.

As the years go on, the letters get shorter, more poignant, and melancholic. Actually, the correspondences become more like short aphorisms, and closer in tone and style to Beckett's work itself. "Words fail," he writes to one friend just before his death, "so simply much love." Describing the death of his wife Suzanne to another friend, he writes:"The end was gentle. The very end. Before the first rest at last."

I was close to tears reading these last letters: especially since Beckett's fixation on death features so prominently in much of his work. A writer of Beckett's magnitude and originality only comes along once every few centuries. Therefore any words they put down on paper ought to be of significant interest to global literary culture, and to posterity. And this final volume of letters certainly are.

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