The Letters of Samuel Beckett:
Volume 1, 1929-1940, Ed. Martha Dow Fehsenfeld & Lois More Overbeck
Cambridge, £30, 782pp
'Dear Tom," wrote Samuel Beckett to Thomas McGreevy in 1931. "I wish I could write you a cheerful easy newsy letter like yours to me. I'm inextricably morveux and I beg your pardon." As Beckett readers know, he didn't really do cheerful, or easy or newsy – mostly he did melancholy, opaque and allusive – but by God, he did letters. Did we think he was taciturn, diffident, uncommunicative? On the contrary. The trove of his extant correspondence amounts to 15,000 missives, sent between 1929 and his death in 1989. This book is the first of four volumes which will select 2,500 letters from the torrent of communication that surged through his 60-year writing career.
Beckett approved the project in 1985, on the understanding that the editors would concentrate on "those passages only having bearing on my work". They have done him proud, tactfully avoiding comment on his state of mind, while providing hundreds of pages of context, even if we already knew that "Kia-Ora is "an orange fruit drink, originally lemon, created in Australia and marketed in Britain since 1913".
In the years covered by this volume, Beckett was a struggling young writer in London, Germany and his home in Dublin; and a soul in torment. Having resigned from his teaching post at Trinity College, he was wrestling with the elusive Dream of Fair to Middling Women, whose sections were plundered for the stories in More Pricks Than Kicks (1934) and his wonderfully light and likeable first novel Murphy (1938).
He spent most of the 1930s plunged in frustration and depression, spewing poems and stories while professing himself unable to write, reading voraciously, sending work to publishers (including Virginia Woolf's Hogarth Press) and magazines, collecting rejection slips, bolting for home and exquisite boredom in Foxrock, alleviated by bicycle rides and solitary pints.
Racked by self-disgust, he applies for jobs in Milan, Manchester and South Africa, with neither conviction nor success. He contemplates the horror of a job in his father's surveying firm. He wonders if he might give advertising a go. Doomed to inactivity, he comes across as a friendless, self-tormenting solipsist, and far from healthy: he complains of rheumatism, pleurisy, impetigo, hammer toes and septic cysts. "I'm depressed," he writes, "the way a slug-ridden cabbage might be expected to be."
The main recipient of his fuming self-criticism and egomania is Thomas McGreevy, his friend from their days at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, who introduced him to his mentor James Joyce, Richard Aldington, Jack B Yeats and the editor Eugene Jolas. For long periods, McGreevy seems to be Beckett's only correspondent; the neurotic Sam becomes unbuttoned, colloquial and funny writing to him.
These are not records of action-packed years or political engagement. Beckett seems hardly to notice the Spanish Civil War and the rise of Nazism. He lived through this decade as a devoted, voracious culture vulture, haunting galleries, attending operas and recitals, reading day and night.
His literary tastes are surprisingly conventional. As a boy he read Treasure Island and Oliver Twist. In his 20s, he reads The Mill on the Floss and Moby-Dick. He's a big fan of Keats, Fielding, Lawrence and, amazingly, Jane Austen.
But he's hilariously negative about so many things. He attends a lecture by Jung and concludes, "I can't imagine him curing a fly of neurosis."
"You haven't a good word to say for anyone but the failures," he is told by an almost-girlfriend, Nuala Costello. "I thought that was quite the nicest thing anyone had said to me for a long time," he remarks.
What works for him is psychoanalysis. The key letter in this volume is a wonderful epiphany, in March 1935, about the roots of his "misery & solitude & apathy... an index of superiority" which he now locates in "a diseased condition that began in a time which I could not remember, in my 'pre-history,' a bubble on the puddle..." The whole future schema of the Trilogy, and its matchless "pot-holing of the soul", lies in these words. One can hardly wait for Volume Two.