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Glyn Vincent

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What's So Secret About Samuel Beckett

Posted: 11/01/11 01:24 PM ET

"It is not easy to get through the ages from [a] self so estranged and one overdoes the lair." -- Samuel Beckett in a letter to Thomas MacGreevy 1956

Fame came late to Samuel Beckett. In 1950, Beckett at 44 was still an unheralded, Irish author scrimping by in a garret in Paris. He made trips back to Ireland each summer to visit his ailing mother and had the occasional essay or poem published in obscure literary magazines. Since the end of World War II, he'd completed five novels and two plays, though almost all remained, at the time, unpublished. Beckett felt drained, unable to write, his life at a standstill. As he wrote to his close confidant and friend, the art historian, Georges Duthuit:

"You see, Georges my old friend, I was right not to write you. I do not know where I am going, I am not the one who is moving. Something is coming to an end, and this time I see nothing starting in its place... Do not think I am complaining. Complaining of something ending! Or that nothing is beginning!"

Beckett's many letters to Duthuit are among the most intriguing -- and amusing -- included in volume two of the Cambridge University Press collection of Beckett letters published this month, covering the critical years 1941-1956. It's during this period that Beckett switched to writing in French and that, after 1950, his most important novels (Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable) were published and Waiting for Godot catapulted him to international renown.

After Godot's success, Beckett's material and social circumstances changed (he added a deux chevaux, a wheel barrow and a phone to his worldly possessions) but these letters demonstrate a remarkable constancy in his philosophy, his perspective from the bog, his faith that life itself will not change. He is certain that no matter which direction is taken, nothingness will prevail. It is truly an affirmation we come to realize, this will-less double imperative -- "I can't go on, I'll go on" -- that we so identify with Beckett.

In one brilliant, rambling letter to Duthuit, Beckett describes what he calls -- take a deep breath -- "the courage of the imperfection of non-being."

"It is surely to be sought in the impossibility of ever being wrong enough, ever being ridiculous and defenseless enough... Not to have to express oneself, nor get involved with whatever kind of maximum, in one's numberless, valueless, achievementless world; that is a game worth trying... and one which will never work, if that works."

The team of editors who compiled the first two epistolary volumes did so over a decade, scrupulously appending to the letters copious notes and explanations about nearly every book, article, play, painting or piece of music Beckett came across. It's a mesmerizing feat that yields many vivid, surprising, and significant texts.

Editor Dan Gunn's ground-breaking introductory essay to the volume focuses on the correspondence with Duthuit and on Beckett's particularly revealing letters to Pamela Mitchell. She was a young American woman whom Beckett met in Paris in 1953. Mitchell fell in love with Beckett and returned to Paris in the spring of 1954. Their affair took course at a pivotal moment in Beckett's life, as his older brother, Frank, was dying of cancer in Ireland and the game-changing London production of Godot was still up in the air. (James Knowlson, Beckett's biographer, calls these four months among "the most traumatic in his life.")

From Ireland, where he had gone to be by his brother's side, Beckett wrote to Mitchell at first with a certain fervor, then more erratically. Gunn writes: "The fact that Mitchell has been his [Beckett's] lover, and that he is resigned to terminating their affair, seems to allow him, through a double loss, to grieve the more freely: for his brother, for himself, for the love he judges irredeemable;... Rarely does Beckett permit himself the lyricism, however world-weary, that pervades this series of letters."

Strangely, though, many of these very letters are omitted from the collection or relegated to tiny-font, one-line footnotes .These include letters in which Beckett announced to Mitchell his sudden, painful departure for Ireland and, on his return to Paris four months later, the end (though it was not) of their relationship.

"I don't love anymore," Beckett wrote to Mitchell. "For me things must go on as they are. I have not enough life left in me to even want to change them... The notion of happiness has no meaning at all for me any more. All I want is to be in the silence... I should have said this to you long ago. It was not clear at the time the way it is now. While my brother was dying it was not forever." (I read the letter, omitted from this volume, while researching a book at the Beckett Collection at the University of Reading. Part of this letter was also published in Knowlson's Damned to Fame.)

Such a fundamental declaration, a sentiment of resignation expressed so similarly in End Game, the play that Beckett was fitfully beginning at the time, would seem worthy of notice -- and exploration. But this rich material that might otherwise provide for the warp and weave, the texture of Beckett's life just when it is most needed, is deemed less significant than notes about contracts, option rights, possible productions, and even memos to printers about punctuation.

One of the oddities of Beckett scholarship is that while so much attention has been lavished on him -- three biographies, hundreds of academic books, and now these volumes of letters -- there remain puzzling gaps in the record (no letters to his mother, the most important figure in Beckett's life, nor to any other close family members, nor to Suzanne Deshevaux-Dumesnil, his companion and wife, have shown up) and a prickly reserve about discussing certain aspects of Beckett's personal life.

The editors' guiding principle in selecting the letters was to honor Beckett's wishes and only choose those having a bearing on his work. Beckett's desire for privacy is well documented. The difficulty, as others have noted, is in discerning the line between Beckett's life and his writing, which, despite its abstractions, is visceral, emotionally driven and, in that sense, deeply personal.

How to square Beckett's shy, private persona with the explicitness of his writing? Its obsessive self observation of his spiritual and mental malaise, its clinical detailing of his body's (okay, his character's) every ache, growth, secretion, erection (or the lack of ) fart, and thump of the heart. Beckett when writing was like a hound on his own trail. As he told Mitchell "I am absurdly and stupidly the creature of my books."

As much as Beckett thought he'd excised the life of Samuel Beckett from his work, the two are still intricately one. This was something that Beckett rarely cared to discuss not necessarily because it was embarrassing (though his reticence to publish much of his earlier work indicates he was uncomfortable with its content as well as its execution). His silence was due more, as he said on many occasions, to the fact that he didn't understand that connection himself. As he wrote in The Unnamable about his own antagonists :

"I am neither, I needn't say, Murphy, nor Watt, nor Mercier, nor -- no I can't even bring myself to name them, nor any of the others whose very names I forget, who told me I was they, who I must have tried to be."

It is from that mysterious relationship between his self (however diminished), the text and the meaning, (if one exists) that Beckett's work derives much of its power. It is the anticipation of revelation and threats of self annihilation, the intimations of lost intimacy with other selves, the insistence on touching and retreat, the discrepancy between the hidden and the visible that keep us glued to his every word. Amidst such uncertainty, we revel in the "real" episodes from his life that he doles out in teaspoons (especially in works like Company and Krapp's Last Tape) as if they were secret clues to his character's predicament.

To reveal more of Beckett's private self is not to circumvent his wishes, since this was what, in the incipient decades of post-modern, twitter-all transparency, he was, as a modernist, looking at, if not for. More than a literary saint, the contemporary reader awaits a companion. The man with all his contradictions, his intense afflictions, addictions and relationships, his pervasive need for love and company as well as for solitude, his complex sexual ambiguity, his estranged and public self and, as this volume of letters so well documents, his eager, hopeless ambition that his writing resolve his humanity.

In a letter in 1956 to his American director, Alan Schneider, about an upcoming production of End Game, Beckett wrote: "I am panting to see the realization and know if I am on some kind of road, and can stumble on, or [I am] in a swamp." Once more.