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.
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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.