In February 1931, Samuel Beckett wrote to his friend Thomas McGreevy to acknowledge receipt of McGreevy’s new book. He was sorry he hadn’t done so already, explaining, “My teeth have been afflicting me and some have to come out and some have to be filled and I am feeling very sorry for myself.” Things would only get worse. During the same period he also told McGreevy: “My bitch of a heart has been keeping me awake.” “I have been paralysed with a most atrocious cold.” “I have been in bed for the last week with a dry pleurisy.” The next year he wrote, “At last I worked myself up to seeing a doctor about my neck, which he described as a deep-seated septic cystic system!!” Under the knife he went—“I had a joint off a hammer toe at the same time”—but the cyst returned. He lay in bed with “pus pouring out into foments through the stitches.” And so it continued, a tough decade for poor Sam: “I am in rotten form, grippé I think, with the old herpes & a slowly festering finger.” “The intestinal pains are worse than they have been so far.” “Another abscess burst, & none too soon.” “A heart attack last night.” “I lie for days on the floor.” “I feel beyond description worthless, sordid, & incapacitated.” “I can’t read, write, drink, think, feel, or move.” “My shoe exploded this afternoon.” “My anus has been giving me a good deal of trouble.” “It is more than I can do to go on.”

It’s impossible to know what Beckett’s correspondents were supposed to make of this. For us, at a distance of some eighty years, knowing that physical wretchedness was to become the big joke in Beckett’s work, his catalog of woe is funny above all. But the Beckett of these years is not the Beckett known to literary history. He has yet to escape Ireland. He writes in English. His cysts are painful and real. In 1935, when he asks, “Is there some way of devoting pain & monstrosity & incapacitation to the service of a deserving cause?”, it’s possible he doesn’t know, as we do, that he’s talking about art.

When and how did Beckett find his voice? A reader’s report on Dream of Fair to Middling Women, which he completed in 1932, declared: “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…also indecent.” In 1936 a reader of Beckett’s poetry wrote, “I get some sort of idea of the kind of person S.B. is, I learn that he knows Dublin, has read Joyce, and gets a lyrical experience from things which used to be thought not to give it,” but went on to add that the poems themselves were unreadable. “Who is, or will be, his audience?… How, in short, is he to be read, and what is the advantage of reading him?”

These questions are not unfair. If some of the stories in More Pricks Than Kicks (1934) seem to point the way forward, that’s because we know the path is there. Beckett was always looking for an excuse to stop writing. In 1936, when he was struggling to publish Murphy, he complained, “I do not feel like spending the rest of my life writing books that no one will read. It is not as though I wanted to write them.” The cheerful paradox is that from this very conviction—we are all doomed to labor fruitlessly and witlessly at pointless tasks—his greatest art was born.

* * *

Cambridge University Press has now published two of a projected four volumes of Beckett’s letters, and these are certainly the most important. The first runs from 1929 through 1940, the second from 1941 through 1956, and together they cover the critical events of Beckett’s writing life: his flight from Ireland in 1937; his decision, at more or less the same time, to begin writing in French; and his turn from fiction to drama in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Many of the letters have been available to scholars for years, so these volumes don’t add a great deal to what’s already known about Beckett’s philosophical and aesthetic vision. What they do reveal is the man himself, the real person, and this is a crucially important discovery, because the popular image of Beckett as a steel-haired ascetic with staring eyes—Beckett the great mind, the dissertation subject—tends to obscure the great humanity of his work.

But reading both volumes is tough going, to be sure, and the selection is unbalanced and incomplete. There are no letters to Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, Beckett’s companion and future wife, or to any of his immediate family, and there are no letters (apparently none survive) about his time in the French Resistance. Instead, there are a great many letters about translation rights, production rights, royalties and advances. We’re told that Beckett authorized the publication of only those letters that have a direct bearing on his work. The editors have made a spirited attempt to be faithful to this request, but the distinction is arbitrary and meaningless: every letter has a bearing on the work; every letter reveals something about Beckett that might, in turn, shed some light on what he wrote and why he wrote it. In any case, if we’re going to peep at him as he gets undressed, it seems disingenuous to pretend that our interest isn’t prurient.

There’s another problem: reading the letters is like shucking oysters with a toothpick. The early ones especially are dense to the point of opacity, and although the difficulty is mitigated by the editorial apparatus, the apparatus itself is maddening and obtrusive. Every letter drags behind it a cartload of humorless footnotes. When Beckett writes, for instance, “The wind for 3 days was terrifying,” the editors inform us, “From 6 to 8 March 1931 Dublin experienced easterly winds that changed to north-easterly winds on 9 March.”

If the notes are not always so gratuitous, they do take up an enormous amount of space and set the tone: these are source texts, not books to be read joyfully from cover to cover. And the truth is, I couldn’t do without the notes. Herewith a Beckettian paradox: they are intolerable; they are invaluable. But it’s important to acknowledge that despite the letters’ extreme erudition and stylistic grace—despite the fact that it was Samuel Beckett who wrote them—they’re still only letters. There’s no reason to assume that they’re as deliberately contrived as Beckett’s published writing. Their virtue is their careless fluency, the way they gather up whatever he’s thinking about on a given day. They’re as much about his anus as they are about Cézanne.

If we read the letters that way—if we remember to imagine Beckett at his desk, tormented by cysts and boils—they tell a surprising story. They show the extent to which the transformation of his art reflected a personal transformation—a transformation of his spirit, his attitude, his way of relating to the world.

* * *

The young Samuel Beckett was miserable and jobless and trapped in Ireland—by then the Irish Free State—for which he had a deep and unaffected hatred. “Dublin is as ever only more so. You ask for a fish & they give you a piece of bog oak.” His letters from this period are characterized by a savage contempt for everything and everyone he came across. But in 1935, after two years of psychoanalysis, he had reached the conclusion that this feeling of “arrogant ‘otherness’”—along with the “boozing & sneering & lounging around & feeling that [he] was too good for anything else”—was poisoning his life. “For years I was unhappy,” he wrote on March 10, “consciously & deliberately ever since I left school…so that I isolated myself more & more, undertook less & less & lent myself to a crescendo of disparagement of others & myself.” The “composition”—he means his whole life, his personality, his very sense of self—was “invalid from the word ‘go’ & [had] to be broken up altogether.”

One can hardly overstate the importance of Beckett’s decision to begin writing in French, but it’s interesting that he wrote his first French poems at almost exactly the same moment that he identified critical flaws in his character—the moment he decided he should try to be a nicer guy. The importance of all that soul-searching cannot be discounted, and a striking illustration of what it meant for his art can be found in a series of letters written early in 1938, after he was stabbed by a pimp named Prudent. The wound was serious, but from the first Beckett was determined to avoid any thought of vengeance. The worst he said of Prudent was that he seemed “more cretinous than malicious.” Later he reported that the two of them had “exchanged amiabilities.” Prudent apologized and Beckett said, “Not at all.” Later still he wrote, “Prudent got off with 2 months, to my relief. He was ably defended, the plea of blind drunkenness skillfully advanced, and I represented as the aggressor.”

He was joking, but he meant it, and for me this is one of the most telling moments in Beckett’s correspondence: a first glimpse of his mysterious generosity, his largeness of spirit. Here is that attitude toward suffering in which laughter is the only proper reaction to the absurdity and wretchedness of life, and here it’s apparent what that attitude consists of at a personal level: Beckett was determined to believe—he did believe—that Prudent had made a mistake. Even if that mistake had nearly cost Beckett his life, he would rather Prudent not suffer. He would rather the sum of misery not increase.

The postwar Beckett resembles the prewar Beckett in certain respects. To wit: “I am in a bad way, really bad, like a big cat that has been poorly neutered.” “I have the impression that the smallest sea bathe would finish me off.” “I have cancer of the broncus about twice a month, then it passes.” “Whatever is best in me has long gone.” “I can’t go on and I can’t get back.” “Things are not very grand with me. It is time now I made big changes in my way of living.”

But now he seems to save all his contempt for himself. With others he is generous and gracious and loving. He offers consolation to fellow writers; he schemes to avoid hurting the feelings of his translators; he writes thank-you notes to reviewers who, he is charmed to learn, belong to “the small number of those to whom so poor and distant a voice really speaks.”

And this is why it’s nice to have the business letters in these volumes. Beckett was unfailingly polite in his correspondence with publishers and editors. He expressed anger only on those rare occasions when his work was cut or emended without his consent. Otherwise he was genuinely delighted that anyone was willing to read his writing—“no easy or pleasant matter.” To Jérôme Lindon, who had just written an effusive and boyish letter thanking Beckett for allowing him to publish his books, he responded, “You are the only French publisher who, five years ago, wanted anything to do with me. Whose is the debt of gratitude?”

The younger Beckett spoke of writing as something that happened to him. He had “hopes of its all coming in a gush like a bloody flux.” And there was indeed something hemorrhagic about his output in the years just after the war. Between late 1947 and early 1951, in one of the greatest outpourings in twentieth-century literature, he wrote Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable, Waiting for Godot, Eleutheria and many shorter pieces. This man who had never had any hope for his work was now able to write, “I see a little clearly at last what my writing is about and feel I have perhaps 10 years courage and energy to get the job done. The feeling of getting oneself in perspective is a strange one, after so many years of expression in blindness.”

The difference between his earlier work and the work he produced during this period is obvious at a glance. Here is a more or less representative passage from Murphy, written in the mid-1930s: “In the beautiful Belgo-Latin of Arnold Geulincx: Ubi nihil vales, ibi nihil velis. But it was not enough [for Murphy] to want nothing where he was worth nothing, nor even to take the further step of renouncing all that lay outside the intellectual love in which alone he could love himself.” Beckett had been reading Arnold Geulincx in the library at Trinity College Dublin, and this is a close paraphrase. But what does it mean? The tone doesn’t tell us whether or not he intends it as parody.

Here, on the other hand, is a corresponding passage from Molloy, written in French in 1947 and published in an English translation by Beckett and Patrick Bowles in 1955: “Now as to telling you why I stayed a good while with Lousse, no, I cannot. That is to say I could I suppose, if I took the trouble. But why should I? In order to establish beyond all question that I could not do otherwise? For that is the conclusion I would come to, fatally. I who had loved the image of old Geulincx, dead young, who left me free, on the black boat of Ulysses, to crawl towards the East, along the deck.”

Geulincx is not essential to this passage, as he is to the one from Murphy. We know approximately what Molloy is talking about even if we know nothing about Geulincx. Partly this is an effect of Beckett’s writing in French, a language in which he felt “ill equipped”—which is to say, at least in part, that he was less comfortable paraphrasing other texts. But once again, language is not the whole story. There is also a new attitude. Molloy says he could tell us why he stayed so long with Lousse, but no, he cannot, and why should he? Who cares? Parts of Murphy are nearly incomprehensible to anyone who doesn’t have a good grasp of its philosophical and theological underpinnings, but Molloy requires no special knowledge or commitment. We follow Molloy and Moran—who is either Molloy’s doppelgänger or his creator, or both, or neither—on their demented expeditions. We don’t need to know where they’re going or why, and they couldn’t care less whether we’re listening to them.

Molloy is the real thing—here are Beckett’s elliptical subclauses, his persuasive irrationality, his casual acknowledgment that pain and suffering poison our lives and teach us nothing. It represents a shift from solipsism as subject to solipsism as method. It has, for anyone who begins with the earlier books, the weight of revelation. But it all begins with generosity, an enlistment of the reader against the absurdity of the text. Suddenly Beckett is on our side. If we’re inattentive, if we don’t know what he’s talking about, it’s no matter—we can simply read on until it starts to make sense again.

But it’s a sly business. Beckett repudiates the method but not the matter, and although Molloy himself seems to dismiss Geulincx as a youthful fascination, the image he mentions is central to the spirit of that novel: Ulysses’ black boat is traveling west over the edge of the world, so the man crawling east along the deck is “free” only within these hopelessly circumscribed boundaries. Beckett doesn’t explain the image because the novel explains it for him. He’s figured out that, in fiction, the only way to say things impossible to say is by not saying them. And indeed, all of Molloy explores the same idea: we are free only as the man on the deck is free; we crawl east but we travel west; we play our absurd parts in the shadow of death.

* * *

There are very few letters that describe the process of writing the French trilogy (Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnameable). Beckett’s steady, furious work on it seems to have left no time for him to explain what he was doing. But even though we don’t know what was happening at his desk every morning, we do know what was happening in his spirit and soul. It was during this period that he wrote a series of agonized letters to his friend and editor Georges Duthuit, for whose magazine, transition, he was ostensibly writing a piece about the artist Bram van Velde. As it happened, writing about van Velde was only a way of writing about himself. He explains, “Bram is my great familiar. In work and in the impossibility of working.” The piece turned into “a kind of madness into which no one has the right to drag anyone else.”

The Duthuit letters read very much like the fiction Beckett produced during the same period. Their extreme complexity is not as problematic as it may have been because it’s apparent that he doesn’t entirely expect to be understood, and that their basic significance is perfectly clear and can be apprehended at a glance. He writes always of failure and doubt. And if these letters are often painfully personal, if his lack of self-consciousness has no parallel elsewhere in his correspondence, I think one explanation is that these aren’t letters at all. In one sense, they’re a rehearsal for the plays and novels that occupied the rest of Beckett’s time, but in another they’re a part of that larger work—a kind of fiction in themselves. The key difference is that Beckett himself is the narrator and principal character.

“I am searching for a way of capitulating without giving up utterance entirely,” he writes in 1949. And later: “Never again can I admit anything but the act without hope, calm in its damnedness.” He rarely gives any context. He writes aphoristically: “It is the wretched longing not to be always alone. Or to be alone with impunity, to wander beneath the palm-trees without being shat upon by the vultures.” “In the fields, on the roads, I give myself over to deductions on nature, based on observation! No wonder I am irritable.” “Such a victory over the reality of disorder, over the pettiness of the heart and mind, it is hard not to go and hang yourself.”

His mother was dying, and many of the Duthuit letters were written from her bedside. Because their language is close to the language of the French trilogy, they remind us of something that’s easy to forget: in Molloy, in Godot, in the rest of his greatest work, the pain Beckett plays for comedy is real. His ability to laugh at it—and to make us laugh at it—is a gift, but he feels that pain keenly. “I keep watching my mother’s eyes, never so blue, so stupefied, so heartrending, eyes of an endless childhood, that of old age…. I think these are the first eyes that I have seen. I have no wish to see any others, I have all I need for loving and weeping, I know now what is going to close, and open inside me, but without seeing anything, there is no more seeing.”

If the French trilogy seems to speak eloquently for all of us, it does so because it never departs from its own tormented and subjective reality. The Duthuit letters reveal that this reality was also Beckett’s reality. The trilogy carries with it the agonized concerns of a very particular moment in his life. Knowing this doesn’t change what’s on the page, but for me it gives those three novels a resonance that makes them more meaningful. He’s always joking and he’s always not joking. He’s thinking of his mom. He’s heartbroken.

* * *

The letters to Duthuit end as abruptly and inexplicably as they began, and what follows is the period of Godot, the period of fame and success. Fortunately for us, the success of Godot means that journalists and actors and directors are constantly writing to ask Beckett questions. Now, at last, he’s forced to speak to the larger purpose of his work.

A clear pattern emerges in his descriptions of Godot. He protests that he has nothing to say about it: “I have no ideas about theatre. I know nothing about it. I do not go to it.” “I do not know in what spirit I wrote [Godot].” Invariably, he says a great many penetrating things about it: “In Godot it is a sky that is sky only in name, a tree that makes them wonder whether it is one, tiny and shriveled…. [A place] sordidly abstract as nature is…sweaty and fishy, where sometimes a turnip grows, or a ditch opens up.” “Time that stands still, that skips over whole lives, space no easier to cross than the head of a pin, these perhaps are the true false gods of the play.” And then, after offering these thoughts, he retreats and admits once again that he doesn’t know anything and that what others say is of just as much interest and significance as what he says. “From the preceding, which feels to me like a schoolboy essay, I fear that you will not be able to extract much that might be of assistance to you. Take account of it only in so far as you have a mind to. I am the first to feel its uselessness.”

And what about Beckett himself? What about his “process”? Suddenly everyone wants to know. Beckett writes, “As for saying who I am, where I come from and what I am doing, all that is quite beyond me.” And again: “Hard, not to say impossible, for me to talk about myself and my work.” But this refusal to talk about himself had less to do with “arrogant ‘otherness’” than with simple anxiety. He avoided interviews because he didn’t want to offend the interviewer; he was worried that he wouldn’t know how to answer the questions. By the same token, he preferred not to have his books considered for awards because he dreaded having to appear rude when, in the event that he won, he was incapable of attending the award ceremony.

The letters make it clear that there was nothing affected about his refusal to answer personal questions. But more than that, they reveal that his equivocations were a kind of answer. Ask a man who he is, and what answer could be more revealing than “I don’t know”? This predicament is one of Beckett’s most enduring subjects. At the end of Molloy, Moran says, “If there is one question I dread, to which I have never been able to invent a satisfactory reply, it is the question what am I doing.” Everywhere in his work, we find the same confusion, which was also Beckett’s own. He wrote to Duthuit in 1948, “One may just as well dare to be plain and say that not knowing is not only not knowing what one is, but also where one is, and what change to wait for, and how to get out of wherever one is, and how to know, when it seems as if something is moving, which apparently was not moving before, what it is that is moving, that was not moving before, and so on.”

Which brings us back to Godot. Can we say who he is? Of course not. Beckett wrote, “I do not know who Godot is. I do not know if he exists.” “If by Godot I had meant God I would [have] said God, and not Godot.” But again, by not answering the question, he was answering the question: “I myself know him less well than anyone, having never known even vaguely what I needed.” He’d been saying it all along: Godot is a kind of need. Godot is “the thing…in its simplicity, the waiting, the not knowing why, or where, or when, or for what.”

The Unnameable ends, famously, “I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” After the absurd pageant of the book, with its quadriplegic pseudo-narrator who may or may not live in a jar of sawdust, we’re left with this, a message of hope above all. We do go on, the great majority of us, even though we can’t. If we fail, we try in the future to fail better. Life is absurd and terrible, but what a miracle that it’s possible, as bad as it is.

For all his talk about not knowing anything, Beckett knew what he wanted to say, and he was always moved when somebody understood him. In 1954, when he learned that the inmates at Luttringhaüsen prison had staged Godot, he wrote to one of the prisoners: “In the place where I have always found myself… it is no longer wholly dark nor wholly silent.”

Beckett wants the best for us. He wants us to have a less bad day than we might have had. The last letter in the second volume ends, “Allow me to wish you—well brought up as I am—much happiness in this bloody awful coming year.” After 1,300 pages of correspondence, I know this man, and there is a sweetness in these lines that brings tears to the eyes. He signs the letter as he signs so many letters: “Love Sam.”