Saturday, February 20, 2010

"the movement, the transitions!"

As I've noted, I've been reading occasionally in the recently published edition of The Letters of Samuel Beckett. This first edition covers the years 1929-1940. So far, I've been reading approximately a year at a time, and I am up to the beginning of 1934. Beckett is a young man, and there is much ado about placing stories and poems and reviews, as well as attempts to get his first novel, Dream of Fair to Middling Women, published. I was surprised by the latter business. This novel never appeared in Beckett's lifetime, and I hadn't known that he'd ever tried to get it published—I'd had it filed away as a failed first attempt, much like Proust's Jean Santeuil. This notion certainly fits in with what we know of, for example, Beckett's attempts to escape the shadow of James Joyce. But I've yet to read either of the two enormous biographies, Deidre Bair's Samuel Beckett and James Knowlson's Damned to Fame. If I had, perhaps I'd already have been disabused of this idea. Even so, in his introduction to the Grove centenary set, Paul Auster says that Dream of Fair to Middling Women is not included because Beckett had blocked it from being published in his lifetime; it is, so to speak, not canonical. I suppose he only blocked after it had been dead and buried and plundered for other work, and he'd later found his own voice.

The stuff about efforts at publishing is interesting only to a point. Then there are the many expressions of angst about how poorly writing is coming, how awful it is. And he includes poems in some of these letters, some to friends, others to publishers. The excessive influence of Joyce is unmistakable, in the worst way: I find I cannot read Beckett's poetry, the early poems anyway. (Much as I have difficulty chewing on many of the early stories, whereas I felt an affinity with the great trilogy.) Then there are the remarks about other authors, assessments. This is, unsurprisingly, some of the best stuff here (along with Beckett's own ideas on what writing is and ought to be, about which I hope to blog, time permitting). During this time he was reading Proust and working on his critical monograph (as yet unread by me, though included in the Grove set) about In Search of Lost Time, so there are scattered comments about different sections of the book. In a letter from December 1932, for example, he writes about re-reading Le Temps Retrouvé [Time Regained] and finding himself unable to "get on with" the "Balzac gush" of the first half, while the second includes "surely [...] as great a piece of sustained writing as anything to be found anywhere." I find such remarks bracing. But somehow my favorite so far are about Dostoevsky, in part, I think, because of my own troubles with that author. Here, Beckett is reading a French translation of that novel which is variously rendered in English as The Possessed or Devils or Demons:
I'm reading the 'Possédés' in a foul translation. Even so it must be very carelessly & badly written in the Russian, full of clichés & journalese: but the movement, the transitions! No one moves about like Dostoievski. No one ever caught the insanity of dialogue like he did.
More to come. . .

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Blogger Stephen Mitchelmore said...

Richard, read Knowlson's if any despite and because it's exhaustive. But there's also Anthony Cronin's The Last Modernist.

February 25, 2010 4:54 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

Hi Stephen, thanks. Yes, I intend to read Knowlson's, certainly. In fact, I've already begun it, though am only 30-some pages in....

February 25, 2010 8:08 PM  

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