As he neared the end of his life, Samuel Beckett, one of the keenest chroniclers of unfathomable distances, wrote a letter to his friend Kay Boyle in 1985: ‘I try to see it all from afar, with neither smile nor tear, but with little success so far.’ We may doubt his detachment but Beckett set himself on a self-sighting and even a life-sighting from his haven of late life farness. This fourth and final volume of letters (1966-1989) concludes a huge body of correspondence with characteristic reticence and self-deprecation. These are not letters that show what J.M. Coetzee observed of the first volume, ‘the making of Samuel Beckett.’ Beckett was at his brashest best there, dishing out invective and insolent witticisms, primarily aimed at the literary establishment. The candour of youth spoke through him, especially in the letters exchanged with fellow Irish poet and close friend Thomas McGreevy. The highlight of the second volume was the extended aesthetic dialogues undertaken with Georges Duthuit, the editor of the literary review transition.
Now that we have arrived at this fourth volume, the letters have become dimmer, to use a Beckettian word. Youthful candour has been replaced by a mellow tenderness and poise. These are letters of slow ageing. They show the weight of words on a writer’s life that constitutes his unique ripening. Beckett writes to his directors, producers, stage designers, actors and translators with a mind to help them with his work without ever explaining himself away. He writes less elaborately but with great clarity and precision to scholars and professors. There is noticeable warmth when the academic in question is also a friend. Beckett establishes enduring correspondences with his American director Alan Schneider, stage-designer Jocelyn Herbert, actors David Warrilow and Rick Cluchey. He continues to report sharply felt everyday chores to Barbara Bray and shares some of the dimmest gems with painters Henri Hayden and Avigdor Arikha and old friends Kay Boyle and Mary Manning Howe. There are letters to fellow writers like Robert Pinget and Harold Pinter, not to mention Fernando Arrabal, Paul Auster and Vaclav Havel and a rare correspondence with philosopher Theodor Adorno.
Beckett won the Nobel Prize in 1969. These are letters of a man finally ‘damned to fame’ in his early sixties and a sense of busy work is writ large over them. On the one hand, this is a period when Beckett is becoming increasingly aware of his legacy and even the impending public life of his correspondence. Beckett’s directive to Martha Fehsenfeld, entrusted with the correspondence was ‘its reduction to those passages only having bearing on my work.’ On the other hand however, these are not letters that appear to envisage a readership beyond the addressee. There is hardly any public posturing here but rather an increasing self-eschewal on facing fame. Personal passages are edited out and we are left with a mediated expression of a writer’s life – or better still its residues through his work.
As Beckett grows older, the locutions of his life and work echo each other. To begin with an example from the late letters, on 17 May 1986, he returns six articles on his work to Barbara Bray and plays on the final line of Krapp’s Last Tape:
Perhaps my best years are gone. When there was a chance of happiness. But I wouldn’t want them back. Not with the fire in me now. No, I wouldn’t want them back.
To Bray he writes:
I wouldn’t want them back. Not with the ashes in me now.
In this crossing from text to life, ageing is expressed in the mutation from ‘fire’ to ‘ashes’ —and there is a note of comic deflation as the context changes from a philosophical not-wanting-to-go-back to a more mundane wish not to see critical texts on his own work. A Beckett reader would hear echoes of Hamm in a post-script to a complex sentence: ‘There’s remains of English for you.’ While Hamm’s ‘chronicle’ in Endgame had had ‘There’s English for you’ as a refrain, Beckett adds the word ‘remains’ in his letter. Words like ‘remains’ and ‘residua’ emerge in the correspondence as privileged descriptive terms for Beckett’s own work and while he can hardly be accused of not understanding ageing even in his youth or middling bad years, his actual ageing strengthens the implications of such language. Talking about his work as ‘ruins’, Beckett tells Lawrence Shainberg: ‘And perhaps one day like me [you] will cherish your ruins. And like me listen sadly to their silence. Disappointed.’ Here, readers will remember the memorable opening sentence of the short prose text, ‘Sans/Lessness’: ‘Ruins true refuge long last towards which so many false time out of mind.’
A brief letter to Franz Wurm in 1980 shows how age colours these textual sediments:
I try to think, with what mind remains, that now is the time at last, the chance at last, in these remains, with those remains, though think is not the word, at last is not the word.
Here Beckett’s locution is inflected – if not infected – by his literary voice. A Beckett reader would be reminded of lines in the play Ohio Impromptu: ‘Thoughts, no, not thoughts. Profounds of mind. Buried into who knows what profounds of mind. Of mindlessness.’ The sentence quoted above from the letter is a quintessentially Beckettian construction of hesitancy and self-doubt: he throws a word outward only to pull it back in. It’s ‘at last’ and not ‘at last.’ It’s ‘think’ and not ‘think.’ What places this articulation in time is the deictic shift from ‘these remains’ to ‘those remains’ and creation becomes a way of shuffling the former with the latter. What enables this shuffling is the movement through ‘vast tracts of time’ in ageing and yet as Beckett implies, he was always already too old! If ‘mindlessness’ is an effect of ageing, from ‘half-brainedly’ to ‘mind in marmelade [French for marmalade]’ mindlessness gets its due in this final volume of letters, as it does in Beckett’s late prose texts Company and Worstward Ho.
Beckett thought his life was unworthy of any biographical pursuit. When Deidre Bair wanted to write the first Beckett biography, he didn’t want to be associated with it. His was a ‘neither help nor hinder’ policy. As he wrote to George Reavey in 1972, he didn’t want to get into the ‘sponsoring censoring situation.’ He decided not to read the biography before it came out. When it did and Bair’s ‘unerring inaccuracy’ was pointed out to him, he was quick to write it off by calling it a ‘nescience fiction’ with the homophonous insinuation towards a science(-fiction) of ignorance. Even a disparaging expression from Beckett (‘nescience’) carries philosophical and ethical baggage. As Anthony Uhlmann has shown, Beckett was deeply influenced by Arnold Geulincx’s notion of ‘nesscio’ or ‘I don’t know’ and all his life he vouched for an aesthetic of ignorance. Beckett later said yes to James Knowlson’s biographical project on the understanding that it would come out after his death. The decision neither to sponsor nor to censor his life bespeaks a passivity that he had turned into a life-principle.
Beckett hardly lacked a death-obsession. The editors emphasise in their introduction to the volume that these letters open on a note of death wish. The very second letter ends like this: ‘Giacometti dead. George Devine dead. Yes, drive me to Père Lachaise and go straight through the red lights.’ This desire for death sets the tone for this volume. Not only is Beckett himself getting old but people are dying all around him. The addressee of one letter is declared dead a few pages down the line. To put it as the speaker in A Piece of Monologue does, Beckett’s letters walk ‘from funeral to funeral.’ This makes the absence of mourning in these letters all the more remarkable. There are tender moments when he lovingly mentions the dear departed but otherwise Beckett refrains from any explicit expressions of mourning. As we shall soon see in his letters from Ireland, this inability to mourn creates a sense of ghostliness about the past as well as the present.
In a rare didactic 1966 letter to French novelist Robert Pinget, Beckett advices him not to take literary prizes seriously, not to read his own work and to stop thinking about the value of his output: ‘We shall never any of us know what we are worth, and it is the last question we should be asking.’ This position resonates with Beckett’s favourite sentence in Geulincx’s ethics: ‘ubi nihil vales, ibi nihil velis’ or ‘where you are worth nothing there you should want nothing’, amply quoted in previous volumes of letters. This talk about literary prizes would culminate in the Nobel Prize for literature being conferred upon Beckett in 1969. He did not, like Sartre, decline it but he didn’t go in person to receive it or give a speech. He gave most of the prize-money away to writers in need such as the playwright Arthur Adamov. As he would write in the letters, ‘I want no part in this award’, the same position he took on his biography a few years later.
The period covered in this volume began with sustained eye, jaw and finger problems for Beckett. In 1966, visiting Dublin for a death in the family, Beckett writes to Barbara Bray:
Very old and helpless. What’s left of the old lovely familiar through the mist […]. Alone now with whiskey in room where so often with the gone. On old boyhood French chair. All so veiled and shakey. Last time here.
In these letters from Ireland, Beckett emotes on old and familiar Irish havens and continues to spray-paint all things Irish with a grey shadowy hue: ‘Tomorrow other ghosts. The city a little, and the university’ and again ‘Ghost myself, I saw several ghosts.’ Beckett considers the ghostly charms of the Irish haunts to be rather dangerous. While he is drawn to the Irish Wicklow mountains, as he reports in a 1968 letter to Pamela Mitchell, he is also ‘glad to get back here [Paris], out of their clutches.’ The Irish ghosts haunt the fag end of his life: in letters written in 1987 Beckett keeps regretting not having listened to his father’s suggestion of going into Guinness’s and remembers his mother May Beckett’s sentence ‘Hell is here.’ This sentence presents a verbal memory of his mother which erases the difference between life on earth and the so-called after-life. Sentences like these strengthen the Beckettian conviction that the last phase of life is not just a crossing over into death but a veritable death-in-life situation. This makes old age all the more spectral. The Irish voice hits back in the common lament that he shares with both Barney Rosset and John Beckett. The lament makes this final sojourn truly uncanny by acknowledging death before death: ‘Ochone ochone/dead and not gone.’ In a 1989 letter to Rick Cluchey, Beckett writes: ‘I’m beyond repair, body & mind, & ever further with every passing ghost.’ One wonders whether Beckett refers to his friends, passing away at the drop of a hat as ‘ghosts’ here. Or is it time itself bearing these mortalities in it that has turned spectral? We can simply replace ‘every passing ghost’ with ‘every passing moment.’
There are bouts of Beckettian humour as in a 1967 letter where he is asked to say something about the importance of bikes in the social life of Dublin back in the days and he quips back: ‘They were used in a maniacal way by elderly persons desiring to keep young. I kicked many under me, from the age of 6 on, including a green one.’ To borrow terminology from Murphy, the ‘big world’ shows its face up as Beckett writes a letter of plea for Fernando Arrabal on trial for blasphemy in Madrid. ‘The plea’ offers a humane obverse to the misanthropic humour regarding Irish bikes. Who can forget Molloy’s bicycle – with which he killed a dog which was being taken to the vet for euthanasia?
In letter after letter, Beckett expresses a craving for the silence of Ussy where he had a country cottage, away from the bustle of Paris. The Marne valley in Ussy turns out to be the centrepiece of Beckett’s aesthetic landscape. This ‘small world’ is his solitary shelter and it is here that he writes most of his late texts. In the letters, he continually identifies the silent mist of the place with the growing silence in his head. He keeps referring to his own body as a ‘carcass’ and to himself as a ghost trapped in a dead body. He tells Ruby Cohn in a letter in 1985: ‘To raise my past head from my past hands is almost more than I can manage nowadays.’ His diminishing physical abilities add to the difficulty of writing. Writing was never a simple process for Beckett and, with every work he produced, he pushed himself a touch nearer to the absolute silence. There is extreme difficulty in writing new stuff on the one hand and a feeling of void at having written none and Beckett autographs this situation with typical self-ridicule:
Would give a lot to be engaged on some work, any work. But nothing doing. After half a mental sentence shame wells up. Senile quintessentialism.
The irony of this is that Beckett had been vicariously living the onset of ageing ever since his youth through his works and this gives a sense of fullness to this old age when it finally arrives:
My old head nothing but sighs (of relief ?) of expiring cells. A last chance at last. I’ll try. “From where he sat with his head in his hands he saw himself rise and disappear.” Ineffable departure. Nothing left but try and eff it.
What we have here in this 1984 letter to Avigdor Arikha is a first draft of the opening sentence of what would become the short prose work Soubresauts/Stirrings Still. Effing the ineffable was Watt’s coda, written a good three decades earlier. Has old age changed much in this task of speaking the unspeakable? Precious little. If only, old age has realised something anticipatorily precipitated for an eternity. As Beckett acknowledges in a 1980 letter: ‘I work on, with failing mind, in other words, improved possibilities.’ These letters stage a tension between the fullness and bliss of old age and the battle against its failings in order to produce writing. His rhetorical description of swimming as an affair with nothingness outperforms the take on writing as simply the worst: ‘I pound on the heels of my everlasting nihil like tiny Achilles after giant tortoise. Sometimes I give up and try to work. That’s the worst of all.’ Worstward it is!
With increasing fame comes the increasing demand to produce work and it takes its toll on Beckett. He is helpful to translators in Hungary, Poland and India. After long hesitations, he also agrees to produce self-translations of old works like Mercier and Camier, giving him one more reason to call them ghosts. In a 1966 letter, while talking about the miniscule prose-text Ping [Bing in French], Beckett remarks that during drafting, ‘all the verbs have died.’
Does the ‘big world’ of public events and the socio-political touch Beckett’s letters? It just about does – at a distance. There are fleeting discussions with Kay Boyle about her opposition to the Vietnam War and the American elections. In the letter to Adorno in 1969, Beckett expresses his mistrust towards the 1968 Paris student movements by saying that never was ‘such rightness joined to such foolishness’ which would imply that his problem lay more with the manner of protesting rather than the causes behind the protests. In 1987, Beckett agrees to sign a petition for a human rights campaign in Chile against the torture of the Pinochet regime. The big public event of landing on the moon gets a characteristic backhand reference in relation to his own work in a letter of 21 December, 1969: ‘No news of Sans [‘Lessness’], as if it had sunk to the bottom of the Sea of Tranquillity, unless it’s the Ocean of Storms.’ As this reference to moon landing suggests, Beckett had his ways of folding the big world into the little world of his textual life. He tells Harold Pinter on the latter’s first staging of James Joyce’s only play Exiles, that the condition of ‘apartness’ is its ‘clue’: ‘As much stage as possible as often as possible between the actors.’ The non-relational quality of this apartness will remind the reader of Beckett’s Play where the three characters are locked up to their heads in three urns and can never talk to one another without the mediation of a tortuous light that makes each of them speak as it falls on them.
Inside the letters, Beckett sends little translations like ‘doggerelised’ Chamfort maxims (‘Live & clean forget from day to day/Mop life up as fast as it dribbles away’) to Pascal quotes (‘How empty heart/and full of filth thou art’) and even innocuous family poems like the one written for niece Caroline Murphy: ‘Earth smile/Sea be kind/Sun shine/For Caroline.’ He often remembers the gravediggers from Hamlet and inserts odd poems here and there to Jim Lewis, Barbara Bray and others. In a letter of 1978 to Herbert Myron, he writes a draft of Company’s opening sentence: ‘A voice comes to one in the dark. Develop.’ This imperative ‘develop’ which rings true of the yet to be developed manuscript at that stage would later be replaced by the verb ‘Imagine.’ Beckett follows this up with a beautiful microscopic passage about a ‘black thread’ suddenly found on the ground. This passage would ultimately be omitted from the published text of Company but what the letter allows us to see is how the ‘black thread’ turns into ‘white hair’ in subsequent drafts. The editors duly footnote the omitted passage about the white hair. This is typical of the care taken by the editors in this most thoroughly and rigorously edited volume; the footnotes are scholarly and exhaustive. An immense amount of work has gone into translating the French and German letters into English, not to mention the great introduction which sets the perspective for the book.
Let me conclude with what is perhaps the most interesting inset text in a 1988 letter to Hans-Jochen Schale, who had just retired from the position of Director of Radio Drama at the Stuttgart studio in Germany where Beckett had worked on many TV and radio plays. Beckett inserts a tiny radio play titled ‘Hörendspiel’, combining ‘Hörenspiel’ with ‘Endspiel’ (Endgame), meaning ‘Last Radio Play.’ All we have here are eight one to three word sentences as a dialogue between Silence (S) and Voice (V). As Silence drifts from being ‘audible’ to ‘less audible’ to ‘still less audible’ and finally ‘inaudible’, Voice’s repeated ‘No’s turn towards ‘Yes.’ The complete inaudibility of Silence elicits an affirmation from Voice and the dialogue ends there. How does one do the transformation from an audible silence to an inaudible silence on radio? Does Silence utter the signifiers ‘audible’ and ‘inaudible’? Beckett’s epistolary life, which acts as a container for his literary life, can perhaps be encapsulated in this space between voice and silence. It’s a voice saying yes to inaudible silence. Is this voice dead or not? This spectre is beyond the grave-principle.
Beckett, Samuel. The Complete Short Prose: 1929-1989. Ed. S.E. Gontarski. New York: Grove, 1995.
Beckett, Samuel. The Complete Dramatic Works. London: Faber, 2003.
Beckett Samuel. The Letters of Samuel Beckett Volume IV: 1966-1989. Ed. George Craig, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Dan Gunn and Lois More Overbeck. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.
Uhlmann, Anthony. Samuel Beckett and The Philosophical Image. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.