Wednesday, October 26, 2011

“I am no longer capable of writing about”: The Letters of Samuel Beckett 1941-1956

Soon Beckett’s stipulation that only letters with a bearing on his work can be published will be repeated as often as Kafka’s request to Max Brod. The difference is that we may regret Beckett’s executors were not so disloyal. What ever the riches the letters contain, we will always wonder about those bearing on the life. However, the latest volume stresses the unavoidable and indeed necessary nature of such wonder.

The cover of volume two announces letters from 1941 to 1956, yet the first letter is dated 17th January, 1945. The missing years were those of war, most of which Beckett spent living and working in a farming community deep in the “free zone” having escaped occupied Paris on the brink of arrest. From there he sent postcards to his family in Ireland, which they didn’t receive and, on January 12th 1941, he sent a “pre-printed lettercard” to James Joyce. A facsimile is shown in the introduction. Joyce died the next day.

If we cannot have direct access to what Beckett experienced in that time, it remains indirectly sensible. The anxious verve of the brilliant young writer is replaced by a quieter man, still gravely lyrical yet less prone to hyperbole, much more forgiving of third parties (unless it’s Alexander Trocchi) and more focused on writing, just writing. What makes the editors’ task particularly daunting (that is, in persuading the executors to publish) is Beckett’s reluctance to discuss the detail of his work. When he does mention what he has written, he is excessively dismissive. So, rather than offer a review of the letters, I want to focus on this apparent oddity.

It is odd because Beckett was exceptionally learned and eloquent – the letters to Georges Duthuit, the major highlight of this collection, are proof enough of both – and before the war published critical essays, including the monograph on Proust. There is strong evidence of diverse learning in his fiction too: Molloy likes anthropology because of “its inexhaustible faculty of negation”. This is no divine innocent at work. One expects at least one letter to raise local decisions made during his famous “siege in a room” while writing Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable. Yet the nearest he gets is to comment on the possibility of an overall title: “this work is a complete whole only in so far as one takes for granted the impossibility of going on”. So much, at least, for Beckett’s alleged pessimism. What he tells the German translator Hans Naumann suggests it was nothing new: when he knew James Joyce they “seldom talked literature, he didn't like doing it, neither did I.”

He has to be more open about the plays: while Waiting for Godot is in production, the director Roger Blin learns “the spirit of the play ... is that nothing is more grotesque than the tragic”. Otherwise he avoids all requests for insight and interviews and makes only one public statement about his relation to the play: “All that I have been able to understand I have shown.” Silence, then, Beckett claims, is not due to having anything to hide, but ignorance. “You may put me in the dismal category of those who, if they had to act in full awareness of what they were doing, would never act.” Is this disingenuous? The answer, which can be neither yes nor no, may reveal the uncommon nature of Beckett’s non-method.

Once he is famous Beckett receives letters from enquirers curious about the origins of his work. Hans Naumann again: “Has the work of Kafka ever played a part in your spiritual life?”. He apologises for his response: “I am not trying to seem resistant to influences. I merely note that I have always been a poor reader, incurably inattentive, on the look-out for an elsewhere. And I think I can say, in no spirit of paradox, that the reading experiences which have affected me most are those that were best at sending me to that elsewhere.” Reading Kafka, he says, “I felt at home – too much so”. He didn’t finish The Castle because it did not offer this elsewhere: “I remember feeling disturbed by the imperturbable aspect of his approach. I am wary of disasters that let themselves be recorded like a statement of accounts.”

As this suggests, the letters bear on the work most powerfully when Beckett is looking away. And indeed he is most expressive as only Beckett can be when talking about an entirely different art form. The painting of Bram van Velde is, he tells Duthuit, “the afterbirth of the unfeasible”. His art “is new because it is the first to repudiate relation in all its forms. It is not the relation with this or that order of opposite that it refuses,” he says, “but the state of being in relation as such, the state of being in front of.” In this we can recognise the remove in which Beckett’s narration operates and in which the reader experiences it.
I think continually of those last paintings, miracles of frenzied impotence, streaming with beauties and splendours, like a shipwreck of phosphorescences, decidedly one is a literary all one’s life, with great wide ways among which everything rushes away and comes back again, and the crushed calm of the true deep. [Trans. George Craig]
Beckett admits what we suspect: “bear in mind that I who hardly ever talk about myself talk about little else.” He goes as far as to call Bram van Velde his soul-mate:
The further I sink down, the more I feel right beside him, feel how much, in spite of the differences, our ventures came together, in the unthought and the heartrending.
The reason for Beckett’s critical silence after the war is perhaps best expressed when he ends a letter about van Velde: “I am no longer capable of writing about.” Such thought, such writing, is mere relation. The contradiction inherent in making such statements cannot go unnoticed: “To write is impossible but yet impossible enough”. There is also a need to speak. To Thomas MacGreevy he writes of his “feeling of helplessness ... and of speechlessness, and of restlessness also I think, before works of art”.

In contrast, Beckett’s references to contemporary literature are few and far between: Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye he liked “more than anything for a long time”. For me, however, the great revelation of the letters is Beckett’s occasional engagement with the work of Maurice Blanchot. As early as October 1948, he acknowledges receipt of an unspecified essay sent by Duthuit, presumably for translation. Three years later Duthuit has Beckett translate passages from what is presumed to be Sade’s Reason and “the foreword” to Faux Pas which just happens to contain this passage:
The writer finds himself in the increasingly ludicrous condition of having nothing to write, of having no means with which to write it, and of being constrained by the utter necessity of always writing it.
 Compare this to the famous passage in Beckett's Three Dialogues with Duthuit:
There is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.
No trace of these translations remains, not even the name of the journal for which they were intended. In April 1951, he also translates The “Sacred” Speech of Hölderlin collected in The Work of Fire and complains of the “very badly translated” extracts from Heidegger. The same applies. That same month Molloy was published and was nominated for the Prix des Critiques, for which Blanchot was a judge. He supported the novel “without reservation” and tried to persuade the jury to award it the prize. Beckett’s partner Suzanne wrote to Jérôme Lindon that “[to] have been defended by a man like Blanchot is the main thing for Beckett, whatever the outcome”. In 1954, when Peter Suhrkamp was preparing a journal dedicated to Beckett and requested French reviews, Beckett told him that those by Maurice Nadeau and Georges Bataille were the best “but the big thing, for me, is the recent piece by Maurice Blanchot”. He means “Where Now? Who Now?” published in the NNRF in October 1953. This is the extent of his comment, understandable given the formality of the letter, yet he doesn’t mention the review to more casual correspondents let alone responds to its analysis. If such reticence is not disingenuous, we may recognise a reason in Blanchot’s words:
What first strikes us is that here someone is not writing for the worthy purpose of producing a good book. Nor does he write in response to the noble urge we like to call inspiration; or to say the significant things he has to say; or because this is his job; or because he hopes by writing to penetrate into the unknown. Is it then so as to get it over with? [...] What is this vacuum which becomes speech in the inwardness of he whom it engulfs? [trans. Sacha Rabinovitch]
The vacuum may then be a stuporous passivity; an elsewhere engulfing.
Art requires that he who practises it should be immolated to art, should become other, not another, not transformed from the human being he was into the artist with artistic duties, satisfactions and interests, but into nobody, the empty animated space where art’s summons is heard.
What must a writer do in order to inhabit this space? If we search these letters in the hope of finding Beckett’s secret, we betray our admiration and need. The question assumes the mastery it must divest to discern an answer. One of the final letters in this volume is to a young writer seeking guidance and consolation from a writer he revered: “Don't lose heart” he tells Robert Pinget, “plug yourself into despair and sing it for us.”

In “Oh All to End”, his obituary tribute to Beckett, Blanchot remembers Molloy's failure to win the Prix des Critiques, and recognises his naïveté in trying to alert members of the literary establishment to its deserve. Beckett's early novels, he says, were after all “foreign to the resources of 'literature'”. Even today one cannot imagine such a novel winning anything but the label unreadable. Blanchot then compares Sartre’s theatrical soliciting and refusal of the Nobel Prize with Beckett’s distance: “he had neither to accept nor refuse a prize that was for no particular work (there is no work in Beckett) but was simply an attempt to keep within the limits of literature that voice or rumble or murmur which is always under threat of silence”. The aside prompts reassuring disquiet: there is no work in Beckett. Blanchot continues by quoting from his own work Awaiting Oblivion “because Beckett was willing to recognize himself in that text”. Does this mean Beckett corresponded with Blanchot? How else did he find out? Perhaps volumes three and four will disabuse us.


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