Friday, March 06, 2009

Those Beckett Letters

As has been fairly widely noted, Cambridge University Press recently published The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume 1, 1929-1940. Not too long ago, I would have looked on this event with something close to complete indifference, whether I'd begun reading Beckett or not. I had no interest in biographies in general and extended this lack of interest to diaries and letters--I saw interest in these latter two categories in particular as bizarre and puerile. In part my indifference had to do with my resistance to the reading of fiction through the lens of biography. This particular resistance has not lifted, but I can now see value in reading good biographies of literary figures, biographies that are interested in the writing, or that might perhaps help with reading the author in question, by attending to the his or her problems writing. That is, not merely a series of events, alongside breathless sales reports and the biographer's tedious speculation as to the psychological make up of the author.

I admit that letters and diaries still seem weird to me, but my view has been softening. I've always blanched at the thought of some of my own letters and journal entries being published, in the extremely unlikely event that I became famous enough that some poor soul should have to read them. (I've also wondered at the problem for scholarship posed by email chains, versus physical correspondance, at least when I operated under the assumption that society would continue without catastrophe. Ahem. But I digress.) Of course it's the personal nature of such documents that has bothered me, the writing being obviously not intended for public consumption.

So they seem weird, but as I say, my attitude has changed somewhat. I must confess to having developed an interest in certain diaries, certain letters, such as those of Kafka (of course, by now I've already read his Letter to His Father, which at least one reader thinks perhaps ought not have been published at all) and, obviously, Beckett. My attitude had softened somewhat already by this time, but when I read Josipovici's On Trust two years ago, I became fascinated by some of what Kafka had to say in his letters and diaries, and how those related to the problems of writing, the problems of suspicion and trust. I was similarly moved by Beckett's approach to writing, his problems, as revealed till then only in his biographies, which made use of some of his letters.

But anyway, here I am unexpectedly wanting to read Beckett's letters, like now, knowing it's foolish, that I'm being pointlessly impatient, since I have a quite a bit of Beckett's fiction still to read, as well as the two biographies, Dierdre Bair's Samuel Beckett and James Knowlson's Damned to Fame (both recently acquired, though in somewhat beaten used copies). Not to mention piles of other books (which I also want to read now). I was not expecting this. Nevertheless, I do plan to hold off, for a while. In the meantime, I'm enjoying the bits and pieces revealed by others. For example, Steve Mitchelmore really got the ball rolling, for me, with this post, which included two tantalizing excerpts. Here's part of one:
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?
Then at his fine blog, A Piece of Monologue, Rhys Tranter wrote about the book a few days ago, which he had not quite dived into yet. But he quoted from the introduction. I will finish up by excerpting one of his equally tantalizing excerpts. The letters, say the writers of the intro:
demonstrate his numerous commitments: to reading in a systematic way the classics as well as the literatures of several cultures; to training himself in music and the visual arts; to learning languages, becoming fluent in at least five and familiar with many more; to keeping up with a broad range of acquaintences, friends, and professional associates; to answering in polite and timely fashion practically every letter that was addressed to him, even when he became famous and the inquiries grew in number; to writing, of course - criticism, fiction, poetry, drama; and perhaps more surprisingly, a commitment to getting published and to seeing his dramatic work realized on stage. The letters also show the author's endeavor to lead the life that would make all these commitments realizable.


Rhys Tranter said...

Knowlson's biography of Beckett is monolithic, and unsurpassed. I've read over biographies by Deidre Bair and Anthony Cronin, but Knowlson's weaving of biography, critical analysis, and overwhelming detail takes the biscuit

I feel the same about the perils of mixing literary biography with literary interpretation, but still enjoy reading about writers' lives. Will Self once wrote about it as a kind of onanistic pleasure. I'm not sure I'd go that far. I'm just a gossip at heart.

Thanks for the mention.


Richard said...

Thanks Rhys. I'd gathered that Knowlson's bio was the best. Hadn't heard of Cronin's.

The only writer bio I've read is Jonathan Coe's of B.J. Johnson, which of course is tangentially related to Beckett...