Saturday, April 10, 2010

Notes on The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1929-1940

I've finished reading the first volume of Beckett's Letters and now eagerly await the publication of the second (of four planned volumes). Till then there is much Beckett-related material to hold me over, not including his own work, much of which still remains for me to read. So I'm now reading James Knowlson's enormous biography of Beckett, Damned to Fame. I can see now that some of the letters might have meant more to me had I been more familiar with certain details of his life. Even so, reading the Letters was a very pleasurable experience. I have excerpted from several letters in previous posts (here, here, here, and here), so I won't include any samples here. Instead, these are my thoughts on the overall project and the presentation of the current edition.

Beckett's main directive was that any volume of his correspondence must include only those letters having bearing on his work. And the introduction tells us that the sheer number of letters in existence necessitated further selection even beyond Beckett's dictum. I had forgotten this last point and have been somewhat frustrated while reading Damned to Fame, with its numerous references to several letters that do not appear in The Letters but which seem to have direct bearing on Beckett's work. But returning just now to the introductory pages in the Letters, I not only remind myself that it wasn't meant to be a "complete" Letters (with Beckett's rule in mind), I notice again this paragraph:
The editors [Martha Dow Fehsenfeld & Lois More Overbeck] believe, especially because the several biographies of Beckett make liberal use of the letters in quotation or paraphrase, that there remains very little reason to exclude a letter, or part of a letter, because of what Beckett says about himself. To take one example, it is the editors' view that Beckett's frequent, at times almost obsessive, discussion of his health problems—his feet, his heart palpitations, his boils and cysts—is of direct relevance to the work; with this The Estate of Samuel Beckett has disagreed.
This is unfortunate and, I think, represents a lost opportunity. Anyone who has read Beckett's fiction should, I would think, be able to see the connection between the author's own health issues and his attention to the problems of the human body, the absurdity of being alive with a body that fails us. In fact, echoing the editors' point about the existing biographies, Knowlson shows just such a clear connection, identifying, for example, Beckett's experience in the hospital to have a cyst removed from his neck as the likely source for some of the details in his fiction written soon thereafter (however much one may want to take issue with Knowlson's at times excessive, though eventually tempered, interpretation of fictional details through the lens of the biographical). A related lacuna could be Beckett's experience with psychoanalysis and his fascination with its theory and practice. The Letters do record various references to Beckett's therapist, Wilfred Reprecht Boin. But there is very little, if anything, about the actual therapy itself. Of course, it's entirely possible that Beckett did not write about his experience in letters. Knowlson does, however, make reference to the considerable quantity of notes that Beckett took about his own analysis and about the various theories in general, some of which made their way into Beckett's fiction, as Knowlson also shows. I wonder, then, if potentially valuable letters regarding Beckett's analysis were excluded on the basis that the Estate does not view them as relevant. Given Beckett's own interest, evident in the Letters themselves, in somewhat unpleasant biographical details of Samuel Johnson's later life, one would think that a looser interpretation was in order.

That said, the editors have done a very fine job with what was evidently an extremely difficult undertaking, and is indeed a major literary event. My only other complaint is with the footnotes that accompany virtually every letter. The edition itself, published by Columbia University Press, is attractive, though quite bulky. It's a very heavy book. The size could have been reduced considerably with fewer notes, many of which are, to this reader, plainly irrelevant, needlessly repetitive, pedantically detailed, or, on rare occasion, comically tone-deaf (as when it appears they've missed a joke). Josipovici addresses this point in his excellent review of the book last May in the TLS:
A word in conclusion about this edition. One cannot but be grateful to Martha Dow Fehsenfeld and Lois More Overbeck, and to the associate editors George Craig and Dan Gunn, for persevering with their project in the face of what must at times have seemed like dispiriting opposition from the executors, understandably concerned to protect Beckett’s privacy. But one must question their method. Though they describe their annotations as light, there appear to be as many pages of notes as there are of letters, and since the notes are in small print there must be double the number of words. Why was it necessary to gloss Beckett’s passing mention of Hardy: "Thomas Hardy (1840–1928)"? Are there any other Hardys? Do we need to be told that A. A. Milne was Alan Alexander Milne and Elgar a "British" composer? And is it really necessary, when Beckett reports that he went to an uninteresting concert, to have ten packed lines giving us every item played, complete with the full names of the composers and the precise opus numbers? This is not just neutral: it gets in the way of the letters and makes for an unwieldy volume. The Beckett who lives with such intensity in the letters risks being entombed in the annotations. On the other hand the decision to quote in the notes from the acceptance and rejection letters Beckett received reminds us of the acumen and courage of those, like Charles Prentice at Chatto and T. M. Ragg at Routledge, who took on and encouraged Beckett while others were turning him away. And the notes would be worthwhile just for the sensitive and tactful unpacking, by George Craig, of Beckett’s games with French expressions. I doubt if I would have worked out that "fuck the field" is Beckett’s literal translation of the dead French metaphor for making a quick exit, or that "Dear Reavey, Herewith 2 Prépuscules d’un Gueux" is Beckett’s little joke with the French for "Twilight of the Gods", "Crépuscule des dieux", and thus means: "Herewith two little foreskins [prépuces] of a beggar (with a nod to Wagner)".
I was indeed grateful for the translations, in the notes, of Beckett's playful use of several other languages. And there are indeed many notes that add much to the experience. But way too many involve details that any reader of the volume would already know about. We are told not only who Thomas Hardy was (with unnecessary dates), but who Dostoevsky was and Samuel Johnson and so on. There are several letters in which Beckett refers to a painting called Morning by his friend Jack B. Yeats; the notes repeatedly explain the reference, as though readers cannot be expected to remember details from page to page. We are told countless details about the art Beckett viewed during his strange visit to Germany in 1936. Etc. This is a relatively minor complaint, except insofar as the notes do indeed intrude on the letters themselves (I fairly quickly started skipping most of them) and make the book itself heavier (and perhaps more expensive?) than necessary.

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