Samuel Beckett: a man of letters

Alexander Adams in Spiked:

Samuel_beckettThere are few figures in modern literature as enigmatic as Samuel Beckett (1906-1989). His dramas Waiting for Godot and Happy Days present characters in predicaments equally pitiful and grotesque. His novels such as Murphy, Watt and Malone Dies give internal monologues of characters trapped in webs of memory and doubt. These works are quintessential examples of existential literature, though they have been described as absurdist. He was famously resistant to exegesis and refused to explain what his writings ‘meant’, a stance which generated exasperation and admiration in equal measure from detractors and supporters. ‘I know no more of the characters than what they say, what they do and what happens to them.’ A collection of approximately 2,500 letters, postcards and telegrams fills the 3,500 pages of the recently completed four-volume set, The Letters of Samuel Beckett. Beckett, and later his estate, stipulated that the only letters to be published should be those directly addressing his work. Yet it would be incorrect to say the selection neglects the personal because writing described and defined Beckett’s outlook on life. As readers of his novels notice, there is often an overlap between the fiction and the events in Beckett’s own life.

After studying in Dublin and Paris, in the winter of 1936-7, Beckett toured the museums of Germany. ‘The trip is a failure. Germany is horrible. Money is scarce. I am tired all the time. All the modern pictures are in the cellars.’ He had introductions to artists who, having been forbidden by Nazi authorities to exhibit or publish their work, were living under conditions of living death. A close friend was the poet Tom MacGreevy, later director of the National Gallery in Dublin, and art is a constant subject throughout Beckett’s correspondence. Beckett’s enthusiasm for art meant that he came into contact with many artists and formed strong friendships with some, including Jack B Yeats. He bought art and also wrote brief catalogue essays to support his favourite artists. The development of literature might have been different had Beckett’s application for a place at the Moscow state school of cinematography been accepted. His rather casual letter to Sergei Eisenstein is printed here. Instead of pursuing a career in cinema, teaching or academia, Beckett published fiction before the Second World War. Beckett’s first published novel, Murphy, almost became a posthumous publication. In January 1938, while the book was in the proofing stage, Beckett was stabbed in a Paris street by a drunk. He made a full recovery and in letters to friends he downplayed the risk his life had been in.

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