The commentary for the first volume of Samuel Beckett’s letters, 1929-1940, is kind enough to give us a copy of a private criticism of one of Beckett’s first works, ‘Echo’s Bones’, by Michael Roberts, in which the correspondent asks, in frustration, “What is their virtue apart from the negative one of not expressing any opinion or moral judgement? […] Is he afraid that he might be silly or sentimental if he talked?”
It’s a problem you might put to these early letters themselves, though the poet Dennis Devlin puts the issue more kindly when he writes, “he (Beckett) likes only using the essential phrase.” The young Beckett is, indeed, extremely terse in his correspondence, even when he’s writing to close friends, family or confidantes. This can be irritating, as important figures in the writer’s early years only appear in passing, sketchily drawn (Lucia Joyce in particular, who dated Beckett for some time before being taken into a clinic run by Jung with schizophrenia, is mentioned only very briefly). Less often, it’s funny, as when Beckett ends a long letter about publishing and scenery with the words, “Donagh Bryan is dead. Love ever.” Once, when Beckett vows to help evacuate friends from France, under the threat of Nazi attack, his refusal to give into sentiment is genuinely touching; “The last time I was there I left behind me a pair of soiled drawers and Sartre’s Nausee. These at least I hope to recover.”
This reticence was always going to make the collection a book to be trawled for little gems rather than an actual treasury. But part of the difficulty seems to lie in the editors’ decision to, as they put it in the dustjacket, include primarily letters “selected for their bearing on his work.” Which means we’re treated to some pretty ordinary accounts of publishing woes over genuinely interesting letter, like the one that appears, abbreviated, in the notes, about a raucous party at the Joyces (“Joyce danced in the old style”).
Neither does Beckett always come across at his best here. His self-conscious faecal/anal obsession, occurring only rarely in his published work – most prominently, and worryingly, in the scene in Molloy where Malone administers his own son enemas- is at full flow here. Sometimes, again, the toilet humour’s amusing, as when he compares himself to “a constipated Eurydice (returning) to the shades of shit”, but overall it makes for a wearying read, as does the nasty, bragging description of his submerging two dogs repeatedly in the ocean to stop them from copulating. It’s the kind of behaviour you might have expected from a Hamm or a Pozzo, rather than from their creator.
The real interest, and real story, comes in the scattered glimpses of a developing writer discovering his own place in literature through reading. Beckett’s responses to art are, perhaps sadly, far more animated than his responses to reality. After struggling with Vanity Fair and Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point, the young author adds, “I bought Moby Dick to-day. That’s more like the real stuff. White whales & natural piety.” Of Keats, he says, “I like that awful sweetness and thick soft damp green richness. And weariness.” One passage he picks out from The Mandragola could almost be a Beckettian epigraph; “Forgive him: for he tries with idle dreams/To make the hour less bitter than it seems.”
There are pleasures to be had here, including some poems of dubious quality- one of which includes the line “the penis took the day off up hill and down dale”. And there are, after all, another three volumes still to come. But as it stands, if you’re looking for insights into the life of Beckett, James Knowlson’s authorised biography Damned To Fame has a distinct advantage over these letters in that he’s far more willing to share than the man himself.