The Letters of Samuel Beckett

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) was one of the most extraordinary writers of the twentieth century. Born to a prosperous Protestant family in Dublin, Ireland, he excelled as a student of languages and literature at Trinity College. This first volume of The Letters of Samuel Beckett comprises correspondence taken from the period during which Beckett published his first works of fiction, criticism, and poetry.

In 1928, Beckett accepted a position as English instructor at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, the city that eventually became his permanent home. He soon made the acquaintance of fellow Irish expatriate writer James Joyce (1882-1941) and became one of a circle of younger writers who assisted Joycewho suffered from failing eyesightand collaborated on a volume of essays devoted to the author’s “Work in Progress,” the sprawling manuscript that would eventually be published as Finnegan’s Wake (1939). Beckett also contributed the first essay, “DanteBrunoVicoJoyce,” to the collection published in 1929 as Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress. This was Beckett’s first published criticism, to be followed a year later by his short book Proust (1930).

During the following decade, Beckett’s life was one of peripatetic shuttling back and forth from Paris to Dublin, then to London, and also to a variety of German cities. He was beset by worries over employment, especially whether he should continue to pursue a career in teaching, something for which he had a steadily dwindling appetite. He felt a great deal of pressure from his family, especially his mother, to follow such a path.

As he struggled to establish himself as a writer, Beckett’s first publications (such as More Pricks than Kicks, his 1934 volume of short stories) brought him scant notice and even scanter income. His lack of immediate literary success produced even more importuning from his impatient mother, May. The height of the family drama came with the death of Beckett’s beloved father, William. It fell to brother Frank to take over the family business. Beckett considered following suit as his own prospects dimmed. However, no matter how great the pull he felt toward Dublin, his need to escape was even greater.

Beckett’s letters show a tender concern for his mother, but they make it equally clear that he needed to maintain a certain level of distance between them. By early 1938, Beckett had planted himself firmly on French soil. The early months of that year featured three dramatic developments: the publication in London of his first novel Murphy (1938), a stab wound delivered by a derelict on a Paris street, and the beginning of his relationship with Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil (1900-1989), who was later to become his wife.

Beckett’s name is associated with a set of stereotypes about the author that have developed into a mystique. He is thought of as having been almost pathologically private, if not reclusive, having thoroughly scorned the value of his own writings, and having been profoundly indifferent to the question of their publication. He often seemed to shun the spotlight, as in his peeved response to receiving the 1969 Nobel Prize in Literature (although, unlike Jean-Paul Sartre, he did accept it).

The letters published in this volume demolish such stereotypes. They reveal that Beckett was keenly and affectionately interested in a wide network of friends and relations, longing for news of and from them. Also, even though he could not resist frequent disparaging or dismissive remarks about his literary output, it is clear that he felt a sense of urgency about having his work read and evaluated. Moreover, he yearned fervently to see each manuscript through to publication, writing constantly to far-flung friends and acquaintances who might have been able to facilitate that process. Beckett’s letters show that, like his mentor Joyce’s fictional alter ego Stephen Daedalus, he had a growing conviction that he was meant to embrace the vocation of writer.

Also like Joyce, Beckett was intoxicated with language, and he would not confine his use of language to his mother tongue. He was fluent in French and very nearly fluent in both Italian and German. He wrote most of his letters in English, but quite a number of them are in French or German. He frequently peppered his letters with phrases and brief passages from the languages he loved, often inserting lines from his beloved Italian poet Dante.


(The entire section is 1866 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

Library Journal 134, no. 4 (March 1, 2009): 72.

London Review of Books 31, no. 15 (August 6, 2009): 14-20.

The New Republic 240, no. 8 (May 20, 2009): 32-36.

The New York Review of Books 56, no. 7 (April 30, 2009): 13-16.

The New York Times, March 5, 2009, p. C23.

The New York Times Book Review, April 5, 2009, p. 1.

The New Yorker 85, no. 7 (March 30, 2009): 64-68.

The Spectator 309, no. 9418 (February 28, 2009): 28-29.

The Times Literary Supplement, March 13, 2009, p. 3-7.

The Washington Post, April 2, 2009, p. CO2.