Cambridge University Press’ fourth and final volume of Beckett Letters is reviewed in the Dublin Review of Books

samuel-beckett-letters-volumes-1-2-3-4-cambridgeuniversitypress-cupOn April 27th, 1974, Samuel Beckett wrote to a correspondent: “I am opposed to the publication of private letters.” A decade later, perhaps with an eye to his advancing age and the claims of posterity, he appears to have relented and agreed to an edited collection of his letters. This change of heart emerges in a letter to the American actor, director and theatre scholar Martha Dow Fehsenfeld: “I do have confidence in you & know I can rely on you to edit my correspondence”; and in a later letter of 1988 he reiterated: “you [are] my choice for this unspeakable job”. Lois More Overbeck, then editor of The Beckett Circle and a textual scholar of Beckett’s work, was brought on board as co-editor. One stipulation had been that they wait until after the death of Beckett and his wife, Suzanne (both died in 1989, only a few months apart, with Suzanne predeceasing her husband). The first volume of a proposed four was not published until 2009, however, a full twenty years later. A further two editors were appointed to the task, Dan Gunn, professor of Comparative Literature and English at The American University of Paris, and George Craig, who handled the translations from French into English (a good many of the letters from Beckett are written in French). The pace of publication accelerated: Volume II appeared in 2011, Volume III in 2014, and now in 2016 we have the fourth and final volume, covering the last twenty-three years of Beckett’s life from sixty until his death on December 22nd, 1989 at the age of eighty-three. (Beckett had been born on Good Friday, April 13th, 1906, and like an inverted Christ had nearly managed to die on Christmas Day.) 

Samuel Beckett in Paris. Photograph: John Minihan

Evidence of the extensive editorial work that had been undertaken in the twenty-plus years since Beckett appointed Fehsenfeld as founding editor emerges in the extensive and detailed footnotes to the collection. In as many cases as possible, the editors have clearly been in personal contact with the original recipients and have sought illuminating commentaries on their exchanges. Thus, Beckett writes to Irish painters Louis Le Brocquy and Anne Madden on May 20th, 1981 to thank them for an aquatint of Beckett’s head, one of a series of heads of Irish writers on which Le Brocquy was then engaged: “Thanks for yrs of May 7 and many for aquatint safely received. Very moving in its ghostliness. That’s my pineal eye on its way out.” Le Brocquy glossed the last line to Fehsenfeld and Overbeck as follows: “[the painting was made by] impressions of my hand on the forehead [from which] something like an eye chanced to appear. Hence ‘my pineal eye’.” Le Brocquy himself died in 2012 at the age of ninety-six; the communication about the aquatint dates from January 14th, 1999. Other communiqués from Beckett’s correspondence are as recent as 2014 and 2015 and there is a reference to the 2016 publication of Charles Gannon’s biography of John Beckett, his cousin the musician and conductor. The editors have accomplished an extraordinary feat of editorial work to make the letters an enriching and informative read.

The file of correspondence covering the twenty three-year period amounted to a daunting total of “some 9,000 pages, though fewer and fewer of the letters themselves stretch to more than a few lines on the page”.

A huge part of their task has been deciding what to do when confronted with this fourth and final volume of Beckett’s letters. The file of correspondence covering the twenty three-year period amounted to a daunting total of “some 9,000 pages, though fewer and fewer of the letters themselves stretch to more than a few lines on the page”. At one end of the spectrum is the purely routine, such as fixing a time to meet in Paris. When the English theatre academic and director Katharine Worth misses an appointment, she writes seeking clarification about the time; and Beckett’s reply, where he apologises for mixing up a.m.and p.m., is footnoted as follows: “This card to Worth is one of hundreds of similar cards SB sent to arrange a meeting at 11 a.m. at the café opposite his apartment.” In one letter, Beckett emphatically declares that he has nothing to say about his work; and this must likewise be taken to stand for the dozens and dozens of letters he wrote politely but firmly turning down requests to submit to interview or to speak about his writing. At the other end of the spectrum, when it comes to substantial letters to close friends and working colleagues, the editorial choice about what to include or exclude is more complicated. It is rendered even more so by the injunction Beckett laid upon Martha Fehsenfeld when he chose her to edit his correspondence. As that 1985 letter put it: “[I] know I can rely on you to edit my correspondence in the sense agreed on […], i.e. its reduction to those passages only having bearing on my work.” Beckett’s original executor, Jérôme Lindon, was extremely strict in his interpretation of this directive, as Fehsenfeld makes clear in her introduction to Volume One: “[he] understood Beckett’s ‘work’ to mean only the published oeuvre” When Beckett’s nephew Edward took over as executor, he expanded the term to cover “jettisoned as well as published writing” and Beckett’s interest in art and music (there are more letters in this volume to painters than to writers). With Edward Beckett’s agreement that the edition could and should include whole letters rather than extracts, much of what we read in an individual letter is a mixture of the personal and the professional. And as the editors write here: “the line between work and life, never clear, becomes less and less discernible”. Finally, the Beckett estate has accepted in its entirety the selection they have made. Despite the good face the editors put on it, however, there is a sense in the extensive introductory material to this volume of their chafing under Beckett’s constraint.

Read the full review at the Dublin Review of Books website.

Posted by:Rhys Tranter

Rhys Tranter is a writer based in Cardiff, Wales, UK. He is the author of Beckett's Late Stage (2018), and his work has appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, The Spectator, and a number of books and periodicals. He holds a BA, MA, and a PhD in English Literature. His website is a personal journal offering commentary and analysis across literature, film, music, and the arts.

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