"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
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Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Beckett: Interim Thoughts on the Letters

One of the unexpected pleasures of 2009 has been the appearance of the first volume of Samuel Beckett's letters covering the period 1929-1940 when he was at work on what became More Pricks than Kicks and A Dream of Fair to Middling Women and the early poems. Normally I would wait until I had finished a book before committing myself to any opinion but I am reading this one in phases, trying to prolong the pleasure.    It is true that there is a bit of showing-off in these letters, especially the ones to his friend Thomas McGreevy, but isn't that the prerogative of brilliant young men aged 24 drunk on words and the discovery of literature?Beckett is wonderfully caustic on his contemporaries but he worries about the influence of Joyce.  His work, he says at one point "stinks of Joyce" and he wants to exude "my own odour".  I don't agree and I think the stories such as "Dante and the Lobster" written at this time are unmistakably his. 

What is fascinating so far is the record of his struggle to make his mark and get launched as a writer.  In particular his arrival in Bloomsbury in the sweltering heatwave of August 1932 to do the rounds of the literary editors, including a trek round to the Hogarth Press in Tavistock Square.  Leonard Woolf was away in the country escaping the 92 degrees in the shade temperatures but SB was informed that his stuff would be sent on to Woolf.  He doubted, reasonably, that this would actually happen.  Overall the humiliation ("This month of creeping and crawling and sollicitation has yielded nothing but glib Cockney regrets") made him feel like "a slug-ridden cabbage".  Some things don't change.  What he didn't know was Chatto's reader's verdict on his Dream, the reader being Edward Garnett: "I wouldn't touch this with a barge pole.  Beckett probably is a clever fellow, but here he has elaborated a slavish, & rather incoherent imitation of Joyce, most eccentric in language & full of disgustingly affected passages – also indecent; this school is damned – & you wouldn't sell the book even on its title. Chatto was right to turn it down."  The editorial apparatus gives us this quote and much more and I think it is well done (in spite of the restriction of the Estate on publishing any letter that doesn't have a direct bearing on his work, a distinction that is beyond me). We may get excessive detail like Virginia Woolf's date of birth and maiden name when all we want to know is that Leonard Woolf had been approached but better too much than too little and most of the annotation is vitally important to illuminate obscurities of reference to people and French slang we mightn't be familiar with.

More fun ahead...


Ms Baroque said...

Marvellous. Did you see John Banville's review in the New Republic? It's full of delicious soundbites and in any case worth it just for the picture of the young Beckett... he seems to disagree with several things you say, or to raise different issues around them anyway. Interesting. Beckett's looking like man of the year, I'd say...


Nicholas Murray said...

I can't compete with Banville! The point about the scholarly apparatus is surely that it is there for those who need it and the people who think they are too clever can just ignore it. He thinks the general reader will be put off but I would have thought that only Beckett fans are likely to pick up this book, notes or no notes. The main thing I agree with him about is the arbitrariness of the editorial judgement (enforced by the Estate) about excluding things deemed not to be relevant to the writing. Even in our own lives can we make that sort of distinction about what is or is not relevant?