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Superb essay from Stephen Mitchelmore over on the This Space blog about Beckett's Letters: "What makes the editors’ task particularly daunting (that is, in persuading the executors to publish) is Beckett’s reluctance to discuss the detail of his work. When he does mention what he has written, he is excessively dismissive. So, rather than offer a review of the letters, I want to focus on this apparent oddity..."

Once he is famous Beckett receives letters from enquirers curious about the origins of his work. Hans Naumann again: “Has the work of Kafka ever played a part in your spiritual life?”. He apologises for his response: “I am not trying to seem resistant to influences. I merely note that I have always been a poor reader, incurably inattentive, on the look-out for an elsewhere. And I think I can say, in no spirit of paradox, that the reading experiences which have affected me most are those that were best at sending me to that elsewhere.” Reading Kafka, he says, “I felt at home – too much so”. He didn’t finish The Castle because it did not offer this elsewhere: “I remember feeling disturbed by the imperturbable aspect of his approach. I am wary of disasters that let themselves be recorded like a statement of accounts.”

Read it.

Not to beat about the bush, here's the book of the year.

The first volume of Samuel Beckett's Letters, 782 pages covering the years 1929-1940, appeared in 2009. Following Beckett's wishes, when he originally authorised an edition of his correspondence back in 1985, it was restricted to "letters relevant to Beckett the writer" rather than those merely revealing of his personal life, possibly a false distinction - and, despite its length, it was not comprehensive, containing only a proportion of the letters consulted.

Nonetheless, it was a revelation, a thrilling book for all who love Beckett, not only casting light on his life and work but significantly adding to his oeuvre.

Along with that, now at last emerging, of TS Eliot, Beckett's is the most significant literary correspondence of its time and here's the second tranche. Initially, it was announced that the war years would be skipped and the volume started in 1945 - and although there's been a change of heart about the title, nonetheless there are actually no letters reproduced from the period between 1941 and 1945, when Beckett worked with the French Resistance and had to go into hiding in the Midi to save his life.

The man who then resumes his correspondence is very much changed by his wartime experiences, which he never once refers to directly. Henceforth he writes as much in French as in English (all admirably translated) and his tone has changed too. In this volume, his editors note, "Beckett complains of no one but himself and of little but what he sees as his own inadequacies."

Read more: David Sexton on The Letters of Samuel Beckett Volume II: 1941-1956, edited by George Craig, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Dan Gunn and Lois More Overbeck.

Time's Flow Stemmed has a useful blog on Beckett: A Bibliography of Secondary Literature which lists 16 key titles. As you'd expect, a number of commenters have jumped in to add their own favourite... Worth a read!

Good information about Dirk Van Hulle and Mark Nixon's Samuel Beckett Digital Manuscript Project (www.beckettarchive.org) can be found over on the Vertigo blog.

"Samuel Beckett (1906-1989), the great Irish avant-garde playwright who gave us Waiting for Godot, turned himself into a screenwriter once during his literary career. In 1963, Grove Press commissioned Beckett to write a screenplay for a film – called quite simply Film – and Beckett knocked out the first draft in four days. Another draft soon followed, and it went to the director Alan Schneider, who later recalled:

The script appeared in the spring of 1963 as a fairly baffling when not downright inscrutable six-page outline. Along with pages of addenda in Sam’s inimitable informal style: explanatory notes, a philosophical supplement, modest production suggestions, a series of hand-drawn diagrams...

[Then came] almost a year of preparation. Reading and rereading the “script,” which, of course, had no dialogue (with the exception of that one whispered “sssh!”); asking Sam a thousand questions, largely by mail and eventually in person at his Montparnasse apartment; trying to visualize graphically and specifically the varied demands of those six tantalizing pages. Gradually, the mysteries and enigmas, common denominators of all new Beckett works, came into focus with fascinatingly simple clarity...”

More via brainpickings.org

The second volume of Samuel Beckett’s letters will be published in October by Cambridge University Press. The Cahier series, which I mentioned a little while back, will be publishing a pamphlet by George Craig on his experiences translating letters for this volume, titled “Writing Beckett’s Letters.”

I would highly recommend this Cahier to anyone interested in Beckett, translation, or writing. What Craig does is to use his translations as a focus through which to draw a number of apparently divergent but in fact related threads: these would include handwriting (and an author’s physical interaction with a text); particular, in-depth translation questions; failure and futility; the uses of intellectual and cross-genre collaboration; the effects of writing in another language; and the ways in which the effects of writing in another language are transcended.

This is quite a bit of ground for a long essay that comes in at 36 pages (with illustrations), but Craig impressively remains light on his feet while treating each of these subjects with rigor. His method is to use many short, overlapping sections to build up a related set of ideas about Beckett’s writing and translation.

Via Conversational Reading.

"... moral values are inaccessible. And they cannot be defined. In order to define them, you would have to pass judgement, which is impossible. That's why I could never agree with the notion of the theatre of the absurd. It involves a value judgment. You cannot even speak about truth. That's what's so distressful. Paradoxically, it is through form that the artist may find some kind of a way out. By giving form to formlesssness. It is only in that way, perhaps, that some underlying affirmation may be found."

Beckett and "the absurd" over on This Space.

My friend the poet and publisher Micheal Schmidt once told me that he liked poetry that was made up of simple words. "Sex, love, food... the vital things are simple words," he said to me (or something like that). I took his point, and certainly agree that it isn't obscure vocabulary that makes e.g. the late Beckett such a vital (and challenging) read. But should we always eschew the arcane? And is it arcane to write "arcane" when I could have written "difficult"? Wrong to have written "eschew" when I could have said "avoid"? It surely isn't always sesquipedelian ostentation to use the multisyllabic when the monosyllabic would have fitted almost as well - is it? (Surely only a sesquipedelian ever invokes the term sesquipedelian.) Isn't the abstruse sometimes the more accurate? The recondite might not be as recognisable, but it might be the more rigorous; simple might simplify to the point of becoming wrong, complex might be confounding but absolutely correct (now, is "absolutely correct" a pleonasm? Oh, bother!) Isn't the move from "fitted almost as well" to "fitted exactly" the move from a basic to more a complex vocabulary? Well, not always, for sure...


Beckett's Proust was written in 1931, when he was 25 years old, and exhibits the sort of language use one might expect from a precociously gifted academic rather than a poet. The poetry of the later work, when Beckett showed us impotence, futility, loss, has shorn its lexicon of flash, academic jargon: Worstward Ho is far, far from simple, but its difficulty doesn't arise from tricky terminology. His prose, now, is exactly as Michael would like it: simple words directing us towards vital things (and non-things, of course: to the unsayable). Still, between the baby-language of the modern media and the blistering, elementary severity and clarity of Beckett, there does lie a place where being wordy is surely just about ok. I'd guess that even Michael would want me to know the difference between disinterested and uninterested, whilst expecting me to be neither with regard to sex, love, food... and poetry.

Mr Mitchelmore tell us that:


The Letters of Samuel Beckett 1929-1940 are exceeding even my high expectations. Above all the gift these letters offer is the chance to follow a young writer as he seeks a way forward, finding glimpses of a path in both writing, music and painting. In July 1937, Beckett responded to Axel Kaun, who worked for Kafka's publisher Rowohlt Verlag and had suggested that he translate a German poet. Beckett declines but doesn't stop there. He complains of finding writing in formal English "more and more difficult, even pointless" (more...)

It’s Becketting down with books! As you’ll know The Letters of Samuel Beckett (Volume 1, 1929–1940) have just landed, and now we have more exciting news...


As you may remember Faber acquired the Calder’s Samuel Beckett backlist when John Calder sold up and this May Faber begins publishing a whole heap of new editions – eighteen at the last count.


Each book (it says here) comes with a new introduction by an acclaimed Beckett scholar and the text has been thoroughly revised and edited. The publication will be accompanied by celebrations of Beckett’s work and no doubt a massive media onslaught. The list and schedule (which I suspect might change) so far is:


21st May 2009


  • Watt
  • Endgame
  • Happy Days
  • Krapp’s Last Tape and Other Shorter Plays
  • Malone Dies
  • Murphy
  • All That Fall and Other Plays for Radio and Screen
  • Company/Ill Seen Ill Said/ Worstward Ho/Stirrings Still

August 2009


  • Molloy
  • More Pricks Than Kicks
  • The Unnameable
  • How It Is 

January 2010


  • Waiting for Godot
  • First Love/The Expelled/The Calmative/The End
  • Mercier and Camier
  • Selected Poems, 1929-1989
  • Texts for Nothing/Fizzles

April 2010


  • Echo’s Bones

Via wood s lot -- Figures of Subjective Destiny: On Samuel Beckett by Alain Badiou:


Why there is a close relationship between poetry and philosophy, or more generally between literature and philosophy? It’s because philosophy finds in literature some examples of completely new forms of the destiny of the human subject. And precisely new forms of the concrete becoming of the human subject when this subject is confronted to its proper truth.

I name figure this textual presentation of forms of the subjective truth. The figures are of great interest for a philosophical theory of the subject. My example today will be some figures that we discover in the novels of Samuel Beckett (more...)

Scars of Différance (which says its "project is to create an e-library for a Heideggerian philosophy and Bourdieuan sociology") provides a nice pile of Beckett links (thanks Steve).

Edmond Caldwell, over at The Chagall Position, on B.S. Johnson's relationship with Beckett:


In Like A Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson, Jonathan Coe tells how Johnson got to meet his hero, Samuel Beckett, in Paris in 1966. Johnson had already been sending the older writer what Coe describes as “fan letters” as well as copies of his first couple of books, and as a result of this first meeting Beckett became an even more important figure to Johnson. They would meet on further occasions over the subsequent years, to “drink whiskey and play billiards together” whenever Johnson went to Paris, and they exchanged letters and postcards in between times. On Beckett’s side these were invariably rather “brief and functionally worded,” Coe reports, and although the relationship was clearly a significant prop to Johnson’s morale Coe is agnostic about Beckett’s investment in it beyond hazarding the opinion that there was probably more to it than mere “writerly courtesy.” Beckett certainly proved ready to give practical support to Johnson on several key occasions, including writing a letter to a recalcitrant editor testifying to Johnson’s talent, sponsoring Johnson for an Arts Council grant, and even helping him out financially. In 1973, however – a bad year generally for Johnson – he found the limit of Beckett’s generosity when he used a flattering remark from their private correspondence as a jacket blurb for Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry without Beckett’s permission. Beckett replied with an angry letter that seemed to have brought an end to their relations. On a Sunday night in the November of that same year, Coe reports that Johnson tried unsuccessfully to reach Beckett on the phone a number of times. The next night Johnson successfully opened his arteries in the bathtub.

Film by Samuel Beckett is up on YouTube (via the essential wood s lot).

Along with Schopenhauer, Samuel Beckett was thought to be particularly influenced by Descartes (who y'all know well enough) and, also, Arnold Geulincx. Who? Well, a bit more information below which comes from the sadly rather bare Arnold Geulincx resource site which was put together by Professor Anthony Uhlmann (Beckett and the Philosophical Image and Beckett and Poststructuralism).


Arnold Geulincx and his Works by Professor J.P.N. LAND (1891; originally in MIND: a quarterly review of psychology and philosophy XVI):


Since Brucker’s time the name of Arnold Geulincx has been well known to every student of philosophy in connexion with the doctrine of Occasionalism... Within the last years, many monographs have appeared dealing with various points of his doctrine, and with his relations to Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz. His writings, meanwhile, have long been so rare that hardly anyone can have seen them all together, and, till a short time ago, no more was known of the circumstances of his life than was contained in the meagre notice of Paquot (1768)... Something remained to be discovered as to Geulincx’ last years, during which he taught at Leyden and wrote his systematic works. This I have myself extracted from the archives of our town and university (more...)

Jim Murdoch:


Like George Orwell before him, Samuel Beckett had a strong aversion to being filmed or even having his voice recorded...

You might imagine that Beckett's reluctance to be interviewed came as a result of the overnight fame he achieved after Waiting for Godot but this is not the case. It is a little known fact that an abridged version of the play was first broadcast on French radio. Beckett had the opportunity to say a few words before the play went out but preferred to send a polite note that Roger Blin read out on his behalf. I find it amusing that the opening words of that statement were: "I do not know who Godot is," something he continually had to restate for the rest of his life (more...)

John Calder at Textualities (via Lee):


I feel that Beckett's thinking has been misrepresented. That's one reason I wrote The Philosophy of Samuel Beckett. At one Beckett conference in America I mentioned Beckett's view, expressed in Worstword Ho, that one reason for human existence is that pain should exist. And one professor actually said, 'I can't teach that to my students, I'd lose my job!' There may be many people who believe that while pain surrounds us all the time it is somehow constructive to try to ignore it. Beckett doesn't. His thinking is very close to Schopenhauer's in this, although I think by the time he discovered him he'd already come to the same conclusions. Schopenhauer thinks that everything is caused by a kind of Will: Nature has a Will that for him is evil, the cause of suffering. Standard religions - not so much Hinduism or Buddhism - of course, deny this. Beckett asks deeply searching questions about conventional beliefs. Why should a god want to be worshipped, admired, praised? All we're doing is replacing a parental figure with a god: Please, daddy, give me this.

As a young man, Beckett read Schopenhauer again and again...


... and not only because of his beautiful style, despite his claims to the contrary. Schopenhauer’s pessimism was very close to Beckett’s own, and he was to heed the three ways of enduring the misery of existence that Schopenhauer recommended: art, or aesthetic contemplation, compassion, and resignation.

Gottfried Büttner's essay (pdf!) "explores the ways in which Schopenhauer’s thought made it possible for Beckett to create his literary work and to come to grips with his own life." (More...)

In a fascinating short essay in James Knowlson and John Pilling's Frescoes of the Skull: the later prose and drama of Samuel Beckett (1979), Pilling writes:


Beckett's admiration for Heinrich von Kleist's Über das Marionettentheater, written in 1810 [Kleist shot himself a year later], emerged clearly in October 1976 during rehearsals of the first production on BBC television of his recent television play Ghost Trio...

It is not at all surprising, of course, that Beckett should have been so strongly attracted to Kleist's essay. For trapped as he is by his own consciousness of self, Beckett's man yearns to escape from the limitations of his mortal state ... his sense of the disaster of self-consciousness in man (and the inadequacy of the human intellect to arrive at any form of salvation) finds an unusually faithful echo in Kleist's remarkable essay.

If you want to read Kleist's essay for yourself, Idris Parry's translation is online at the Southern Cross Review.

I've just been sent a copy of Manuscript Genetics: Joyce's Know-how, Beckett's Nohow by Dirk van Hulle (University Press of Florida; I was also kindly sent Cannibal Joyce). I have precious little idea what "manuscript genetics" is/are, so, before I've read it, here is what the UPF website has to say about van Hulle's book:


By taking the principles of manuscript genetics and using them to engage in a comparative study of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, Dirk Van Hulle has produced a provocative work that re-imagines the links between the two authors. His elegant readings reveal that the most striking similarities between these two lie not in their nationality or style but in their shared fascination with the process of revision.

Van Hulle's thoughtful application of genetic theory -- the study of a work from manuscript to final form in its various iterations -- marks a new phase in this dynamic field of inquiry. As one of only a handful of books in English dealing with this emerging area of study, Manuscript Genetics: Joyce's Know-How, Beckett's Nohow will be indispensable not only to Joyce and Beckett scholars but also to anyone interested in genetic criticism.

Indispensable: you heard the man!


The book opens with a nice epigraph quoting Virginia Woolf:


It is doubtful whether in the course of the centuries, though we have learnt much about making machines, we have learnt anything about making literature. We do not come to write better; all that we can be said to do is to keep moving, now a little in this direction, now in that.

Babble with Beckett: How foreign languages can provide writers with a way out of the familiar (thanks Dave Lull):


About twenty years ago, a friend from Paris gave me a copy of Premier Amour (1945), one of Samuel Beckett’s very early works in French. This friend especially treasured this little-known short récit, but there was a word he did not understand. The protagonist does some kind of business with a “panais”. “Qu’est-ce que c’est qu’un panais?”, he asked. “It’s a parsnip.” “Yes, so the dictionary says. But what is a parsnip? The French don’t eat parsnips. They feed them to animals.” The appearance of the panais in Premier Amour is ruefully comic; it brings into play the cryptic, the abject and the theatrical. It hints, according to punning dream logic, at the proverb, “Fine words butter no parsnips”. Beckett was finding his way out of fine words.

Great news for Beckett fans! Cambridge University Press had originally announced The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume 1, 1929–1940, edited by Martha Dow Fehsenfeld and due out in October, at £85 but they have substantially reduced that figure and it now looks like the Letters will sell at a RRP of £30. Still expensive, but a hell of a lot cheaper than before. Excellent stuff. Well done CUP!

Tom McCarthy writes to tell me:


Since Calder is no longer allowed to sell its editions of Beckett's work after March this year (Faber will have exclusive rights), the Calder shop on The Cut is currently selling all of its Beckett stock half-price. You should tell your readers about it: it's a wonderful opportunity to pick up these beautiful and valuable (in the cultural and doubtless eventually the financial sense) books. When they're gone they're gone. I got the whole set today for £56, and was amazed not to see queues down the street, like at the Radiohead secret gig.

Mick Finch reviews Conversations with Samuel Beckett and Bram van Velde (via This Space):


Perhaps the most revealing aspect of their encounter is the degree of difference in each man's presentation of their world. Van Velde's nihilism weighs heavily upon the reader and this is not alleviated by his repeated claims that laughter is the only true response to the existential conundrum. Beckett, on the other hand, embodied such a response in both his life and his work and laughter is a product of his writing, not a subject.

I've just mentioned Lydia Davis's essay The Problem in Summarising Blanchot (forthcoming in Proust, Blanchot and a Woman in Red [Sylph Editions]). Well, summarising the great thinker does not seem to be a problem for Steve This Space Mitchelmore in his fine essay Always beginning again: Blanchot on Beckett.


Steve's essay is a response to the "gross caricature" of Blanchot's reading of Beckett to be found in Pascale Casanova's Samuel Beckett: Anatomy of a Literary Revolution. I've read Casanova's book and I enjoyed it. Whilst I disagreed with her take on Blanchot, I think her target was actutally those unnamed, academic critics who adopt a sub-Heideggerian approach to reading Beckett inspired by -- but poor parodies of -- Blanchot's deep engagements. I sensed that her beef was more with those who mimicked Blanchot but, for sure, she blames Blanchot for the "mysticism" and the "hierophantic glosses" he has, she avers, inspired.


Samuel Beckett: Anatomy of a Literary Revolution starts with Casanova's wonderfully clear reading of Worstward Ho. Casanova is saying, here, that those who run too quickly towards the idea of Beckett as inpenetrable or, worse, as some kind of prophet, who consider him to be sui generis, handicap themselves before they even start reading. With close attention to the text, and a bit of historical context, even Beckett's most difficult works can be read and understood without recourse to what she would think of as Blanchot-inspired mumbo-jumbo about Being. Certainly, Casanova herself shows that the fine art of close reading is all we need to understand any work and I would commend her book for that reason alone. Philosophy needs to take a back seat whilst we concentrate on what is in front of us on the page.


As Steve states, however, Casanova woefully misreads Blanchot. He isn't a mystic, he is a harsh realist, the most demanding of readers, who knows that we read and write in the face of death. In fact, it is mysticism to pretend otherwise:


In The Unnamable, we continue without "characters under the reassuring protection of their personal name" or even with a story, it's just "phantoms without substance, empty images revolving mechanically around an empty center that the nameless 'I' occupies". This is "experience lived under the threat of the impersonal". Surely this is straightforward explication of a text; nothing hierophantic at all?

Indeed: "straightforward explication of a text" and done as only Blanchot can. Once we have read a text, however, as closely and as carefully as Casanova herself reads Worstward Ho, we must then engage with the meaning of that text. Its meaning is always about, always tied up with, our own lack of meaning, the absurdity of our smallness. Its meaning is always about how the text itself engages with us engaging with its engagement. As soon as we have carefully read what is in front of us on the page, "philosophy" -- inspired by Blanchot or not -- is the only thing that will allow us to be straightforward about writing and about reading, about life and about death.

A production of Beckett’s Happy Days opens at the National Theatre, London, on the 18th January. The National have written to me saying:


We are very keen for Beckett enthusiasts to attend the preview performances in order for them to continue discussions about the production. We are therefore offering a great ticket deal for these enthusiasts for the 18 – 23 Jan whereby they can claim best available seats for £15.

To take advantage of the offer, you just need to quote "Friends of Beckett" when calling the box office (020 7452 3000).

On Sunday, Steve told us:


... at last, news that FSG is publishing Crossing the Sierra de Gredos, Krishna Winston's translation of Peter Handke's 2002 novel Der Bildverlust oder Durch die Sierra de Gredos. But contain yourself, it isn't out until next Summer.

Also, next year, but (happily) in January, Samuel Beckett: Anatomy of a Literary Revolution (Verso): "A radical new reading of Samuel Beckett, by the author of The World Republic of Letters":


In this fascinating new exploration of Samuel Beckett’s work, Pascale Casanova argues that Beckett’s reputation currently rests on a pervasive misreading of his oeuvre, which neglects entirely the literary revolution he instigated. Reintroducing the historical into the heart of this body of work, Casanova provides an arresting portrait of Beckett as radically subversive, doing for writing what Duchamp did for art, and in the process providing the key to some of the most profound enigmas of Beckett’s work.