I’ll Go On

Joseph O'Neil in The New York Times:

Cover-500 Submerged for years in a murk of international literary diplomacy and scrupulous academic exertion, “The Letters of Samuel Beckett” has finally surfaced; and an elating cultural moment is upon us. It is also a slightly surprising moment. Beckett, in his published output and authorial persona, was rigorously spare and self-effacing. Who knew that in his private writing he would be so humanly forthcoming? We always knew he was brilliant — but this brilliant? Just as the otherworldliness of tennis pros is most starkly revealed in their casual warm-up drills, so these letters, in which intellectual and linguistic winners are struck at will, offer a humbling, thrilling revelation of the difference between Beckett’s game and the one played by the rest of us. (Beckett played tennis, incidentally.)

This volume (three more are promised) auspiciously begins with two notes from Beckett to James Joyce, in the second of which (from April 1929) this 23-year-old lecturer at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris politely briefs the maestro on the distinction between the infinitive and substantive forms of a Greek phrase. Rather more forebodingly, the volume ends with a letter, dated June 10, 1940, regarding a billiards game the following Friday. Rain checks were presumably issued, because Friday was the day the Germans occupied Paris. In the years between these missives, Beckett has abandoned an academic career; published a handful of essays, a book of poems, a study of Proust, stories (“More Pricks Than Kicks,” 1934) and a novel (“Murphy,” 1938); and bounced between Ireland, England, France and Germany, engaged in what he hopefully describes, in a job application, as “private study and composition” — i.e., not very much at all. For the most part, then, we are concerned with a portrait of the artist as an unsettled, underemployed and relatively unknown young man.

More here.