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1.3.09

'Mountains of mail': The Letters of Samuel Beckett

The first volume in an ambitious new series
A young Samuel Beckett
'While Beckett complained of the onerousness of writing, he answered his 'mountains of mail' in a scrupulous manner. His letters were composed on various typewriters but more often in a longhand that became notorious for its difficulty, though when he took pity on the postman it could be quite readable. Ink blotches are relatively few, but pens and pencils differ widely in their legibility. One manuscript specialist proffered what was for the editors the less-than-encouraging opinion that Beckett had the worst handwriting of any twentieth-century author.'

The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume 1: 1929-1940,
ed. Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Lois More Overbeck.
I pre-ordered the first of four volumes of Samuel Beckett's correspondence in sweet anticipation, and had it waiting for me on my doorstep the day it was published. It came in a nicely-designed hardback edition, a comprehensive selection of letters with copious and detailed footnotes. But although I had been anxiously waiting for the book to arrive for over a month, when it finally did I was at something of a loose end. Where could I possibly begin such an unmistakably and unavoidably massive tome?

The answer was not a simple one. In fact, even now, some two or three weeks since the item's arrival I've yet to take the plunge. There's nothing stopping me, per se, but the sheer bulk of this thing, this entity, this all-consuming monstrous beast. As it turns out, I've decided to start at the beginning; or, rather, before the beginning with a general introduction by the editors. Looking over the letters, I think it would be a good idea to be reacquainted with some of the historical and biographical context that grounds them. There are also translator's introductions for me to mull over, before I take the final step into the 'work' itself. (That's not to say I'm avoiding reading the letters altogether, of course. I've already been known to skip through here and there, thumbing the index for keywords and picking up trivial tidbits here and there.)

But the introduction has proved fascinating in and of itself, beginning with an outline of the correspondence as a whole:

'The Letters of Samuel Beckett is a selected rather than a complete edition of the letters owing principally to three factors: the terms of Beckett's authorization; the impossibility, so near n time to his death in 1989, of fixing the corpus definitively; and the practical difficulties of publishing in print form what would require more than a score of volumes to present in extenso. The four volumes of selected letters will present about 2,500 letters with another 5,000 quotes in the annotations. [...] The Letters of Samuel Beckett will, therefore, be the first to integrate letters to the full range of recipients and to sample them over sixty years of Beckett's life and work.'
The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume 1: 1929-1940,
ed. Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Lois More Overbeck.
It's a wonderful achievement, spanning twenty-years of diligence and hard work, while encountering thousands of difficult decisions and tricky transcriptions along the way: 'Typed letters might promise to be a transcriber's boon, but in fact Beckett often wore a ribbon to shreds; in their amendments and corrections, typewritten letters often show more changes of mind and expression than do handwritten ones. Beckett also availed himself of any letterhead or paper at hand: tearing a page from a notebook, using the back of an invitation, writing out poems on an envelope or a match book.' A match book!

It won't be long before I finally begin the correspondence proper, and I suspect I'll be reading it intermittently between other projects and interests. The introduction, and the promise of the letters themselves, has given me a renewed sense of interest and excitement in these mighty tomes, and I'm looking forward to getting started:
'Samuel Beckett was one of the great literary correspondents of the twentieth century, perhaps of any century. His letters, which stretch over a period of sixty years from 1929-1989, are not only numerous (more than 15,000 have been found and transcribed by the editors) but of an extraordinary range and intensity. They demonstrate his numerous commitments: to reading in a systematic way the classics as well as the literatures of several cultures; to training himself in music and the visual arts; to learning languages, becoming fluent in at least five and familiar with many more; to keeping up with a broad range of acquaintences, friends, and professional associates; to answering in polite and timely fashion practically every letter that was addressed to him, even when he became famous and the inquiries grew in number; to writing, of course - criticism, fiction, poetry, drama; and perhaps more surprisingly, a commitment to getting published and to seeing his dramatic work realized on stage. The letters also show the author's endeavor to lead the life that would make all these commitments realizable.'

The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume 1: 1929-1940,
ed. Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Lois More Overbeck.
What are we waiting for?