Monday, February 23, 2009

Beckett beyond tragedy

The Letters of Samuel Beckett 1929-1940 are exceeding even my high expectations. Above all the gift these letters offer is the chance to follow a young writer as he seeks a way forward, finding glimpses of a path in writing, music and painting. In July 1937, Beckett responded to Axel Kaun, who worked for Kafka's publisher Rowohlt Verlag and had suggested that he translate a German poet. Beckett declines but doesn't stop there. He complains of finding writing in formal English "more and more difficult, even pointless":
To drill one hole after another into [language] until that which lurks behind, be it something or nothing, starts seeping through - I cannot imagine a higher goal for today's writer.

Or is literature alone to be left behind on that old, foul road long ago abandoned by music and painting? Is there something paralysingly sacred contained within the unnature of the word that does not belong to the elements of the other arts? Is there any reason why that terrifyingly arbitrary materiality of the word surface should not be dissolved, as for example the sound surface of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony is devoured by huge black pauses, so that for pages on end we cannot perceive it as other than a dizzying path of sounds connecting unfathomable chasms of silence?
(Translated by Viola Westbrook)
A month later, Beckett wrote to his aunt Cissie Sinclair about the work of the painter Jack B Yeats via another favourite:
Watteau put in busts and urns, I suppose to suggest the inorganism of the organic - all his people are mineral in the end, without possibility of being added to or taken from, pure inorganic juxtapositions - but Jack Yeats does not even need to do that. The way he puts down a man's head & a woman's head side by side, or face to face, is terrifying, two irreducible singlenesses & the impassable immensity between. I suppose that is what gives the stillness to his pictures, as though the convention were suddenly suspended, the convention & performance of love & hate, joy & pain, giving & being given, taking and being taken. A kind of petrified insight into one's ultimate hard irreducible inorganic singleness. All handled with the dispassionate acceptance that is beyond tragedy.


  1. Glorious stuff! My copy is still sitting on the shelf: I'm putting everything aside to make way for it. It's a beast!

  2. Steve, in case you haven't seen this:

  3. I had seen it Nigel, but thanks. If I address a review it'll The Spectator's by Philip Hensher. He doesn't have a clue.



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