Man from Babel 
by Eugene Jolas.
Yale, 352 pp., £20, January 1999, 0 300 07536 7
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No Author Better Served: The Correspondence of Samuel Beckett and Alan Schneider 
edited by Maurice Harmon.
Harvard, 486 pp., £21.95, October 1998, 0 674 62522 6
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‘Transition began and of course it meant a great deal to everybody,’ Gertrude Stein wrote in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, her story of ‘how two americans happened to be at the heart of an art movement of which the outside world at the time knew nothing’. The two Americans she had in mind, as so often, were Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. One reason the transatlantic review transition (founded soon after the demise of the Transatlantic Review itself) meant a great deal to Stein, was that its first issue included ‘An Elucidation’, her ‘first effort to explain herself’ (as she explained). Stein soon changed her mind (though not her priorities), prematurely using the Autobiography to announce the magazine’s demise: ‘In the last numbers of transition nothing of hers appeared. transition died.’

Stein’s obituary was premature. The last issue of transition appeared in 1938, five years after the Autobiography, and more than sixty years later it still means a great deal. Of all the little reviews which, as Stein loved to say, ‘died to make verse free’, transition is one of the very few to have made a permanent mark. It was founded and edited by Eugene Jolas (initially with Elliot Paul), and Jolas, too, was at the heart of art movements about which at the time the outside world knew little – Surrealism, Dadaism and Joyce among them. Few small mags have done as much to ‘make art free’. As well as Stein’s ‘Elucidation’, the first issue included an extract from a work that needed even more elucidation, Joyce’s Work in Progress. The writer most prominently identified with transition, and Stein’s arch-rival in the making of Modernism, Joyce is effectively airbrushed out of the story in Autobiography of Alice B. (‘Joyce is a third-rate Irish politician,’ she told Jolas, ‘the greatest living writer of the age is Gertrude Stein.’)

He is, however, reinstated as the Prime Modernist Hero in Man from Babel, Jolas’s autobiography, which he began drafting during the war and its aftermath but left unfinished at his death in 1952. Now painstakingly reconstructed and annotated by Andreas Kramer and Rainer Rumold, it should stand alongside Wyndham Lewis’s Blasting and Bombardiering and Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. as a crucial document in the history of Modernist fashioning and self-fashioning – the story of Axel’s tower or Babel’s, told in the first person. It should also make us think yet again about the legacy of cultural Modernism – and about its relationship to the larger fate of Europe in mid-century. The Man from Babel, like the Babel story itself, is a parable about language and culture in a period of historical crisis. Much of its fascination arises from Jolas’s inability to understand the force of his own parable – or the relationship between his utopian excitement about the Logos Unbound and the ‘nightmare of history’ which overtook it.

The man who oversaw the serial publication of Finnegans Wake, Jolas was one of the editorial entrepreneurs of Modernism; like Sylvia Beach and Harriet Shaw Weaver, a supporting player in the long-running and bloody saga of publishing Joyce that is central to the myth of the modern. Reminiscences of Joyce (or ‘Jouasse’) in his self-imposed ‘exile’, provide some of the sharpest individual images in the book: Joyce cutting up a birthday cake decorated to look like a copy of Ulysses saying, ‘Hoc est enim corpus meum’; Joyce at a fancy-dress party where he managed to wangle first prize dressed as Handy Andy, Joyce reciting Yeats and saying, ‘No Surrealist poet can ever equal this for imagination’; Joyce commenting on a picture of the Christ-child, ‘Doesn’t he look as if he had just robbed the hen-house’; Joyce weeping over his beloved daughter Lucia’s hospitalisation, asking: ‘Why should this thing have happened to us? ... And I am supposed to be writing a funny book.’ Joyce called the Catholic-educated Jolas and himself ‘Roaming Catholics’, and The Man from Babel places Joyce’s linguistic experiments within a geographical and historical frame that includes many other equally Catholic roamers. In Jolas’s narrative of his own life, being polyglot, culturally hybrid, and in some sort of exile was the norm.

The Man from Babel is the story of Jolas as ‘Neo-American poet’ and avant-garde editor but it is also a portrait of the journalist as hero, ‘a romantic of the Gutenberg mythos’. The two roles seem uneasily related. On the one hand, Jolas was an astonishingly adaptable, bread-and-butter journalist working for English, French and German-language newspapers, yo-yoing between the two sides of the Atlantic. On the other, he was the poet of ‘America Mystica’ and the promoter and editor of a journal that hardly acknowledged the existence of daily bread or butter.

Born in America but brought up near Forbach in Lorraine, Jolas calls himself a ‘nomadic newspaperman’. He started out working as a teenage reporter in New York, first for German-language papers, then covering the ‘secrets of Hell’s Kitchen’ or ‘immigrant yarns on Ellis Island’ for the Daily News; in the Twenties he wrote a weekly ‘Rambles through Literary Paris’ for the Chicago Tribune; having witnessed Hitler’s entry into the Saarland, he went back to the States; returned to France in the late Thirties with Joyce his closest companion; back in the States in 1940, he was working in the Office of War Information on West 57th Street (‘the greatest of my experiences as an American newspaperman’), where he sent ‘millions of words in all three of my languages, words that soon became explosive as rockets against the Axis war-machine’; over to London, working with Central European refugees for the Psychological Warfare Division in Wardour Street; finally returning to France and Germany at the end of the war as an agent of the American Government appointed to assist in the de-Nazification of the French and German press, writing copy for L’Est Républicain Libéré or acting as ‘editor, local reporter, war-news editor, headline writer, proof-reader and make-up man’ for the Aachener Nachrichten in 1944-5. ‘In three decades,’ he says, ‘I had passed through the German, English and French languages on a continuous voyage in the company of editors, reporters, printers and pressmen.’ Caught up in the ‘romance of news-gathering’, he loved reporting, headline-writing, make-up, ‘the tension of edition time, the fevered activity of jingling telephones, clanking typewriters, telescriptors’, the mechanical rhythm of Mergenthalers, ‘the aesthetics of information’. Everywhere he worked he met fellow exiles, refugees and expatriates, living in one kind of diaspora or another: Germans in the US, Americans and Irish in Paris; French and German Surrealists in New York; East Europeans in wartime London; Jewish refugees in France. With an eye for the headline, he sees himself as ‘part of a century of migrations’, a European raised to consciousness in the ‘titanic crucible of races and languages on the North-American continent’. In his last years he played a crucial role in exporting American tabloid journalism to postwar Germany. He was persuaded that in the wake of the Holocaust and Nazism ‘one of the prerequisites of a democratic revival in Europe would be the spread of objective reporting.’

Journalism was Jolas’s métier, but transition was his aesthetic raison d’être, a showcase for his own high-rate-of-inflation poetry (much of it recycled in his autobiography but more of it cut by his judicious editors) and a launch-pad for the ‘revolution of the word’. Whatever this meant, it was the antithesis of ‘objective reporting’ and wholly opposed to what Jolas thought of in his Hyde-like aesthetic self as the dreariness of ‘realism’ and ‘reportage.’ As well as work by Joyce and Stein, that first issue of transition of 1927 included paintings by Ernst and poems by the American Modernist Hart Crane, the French Surrealists Robert Desnos and Philippe Soupault and the German Expressionist Georg Trakl (in translations from French and German by Eugene Jolas). A decade later, the last issue was still churning out Work in Progress, now alongside work by Hans Arp, Beckett, Breton, Kafka (the first English translation of ‘Metamorphosis’, again by Jolas), Michel Leiris, Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Herbert Read, Soupault and Jolas himself. Glancing through its faded and disintegrating back issues or reading Dougald McMillan’s transition: The History of a Literary Era 1927-38 (1975), one finds an astonishing compendium of the most interesting avant-garde writing of the day as well as a storehouse of unconsummated aesthetic possibilities.

In ‘Frontierless Decade’, an editorial that turned out to be transition’s obituary, Jolas blew his characteristically apocalyptic trumpet for the last time. He described the magazine’s original mission as ‘bringing to the attention of Anglo-Saxon readers translated stories and poems from various camps, including expressionism, post-expressionism, dadaism and surrealism’ (a decade or so before these movements took off in New York and London), as well as publishing ‘original work by unorthodox writers of the British Isles and America’. He called it a ‘mirror of continental avant-garde movements’, conceived in opposition to the ‘then prevailing photographic naturalism’, but beyond that an attempt to create a ‘bridge between creative Europe and America’.

transition triumphantly realised those goals, publishing some of the most original and far-out writers and artists of Europe, America and Britain during that most adventurous of decades, 1927-37. It was an exuberant showcase of the international avant-garde and an intermediary between Paris and the States, English and other languages. ‘I was always pendulating between the two continents,’ Jolas wrote, characteristically pendulating between languages as he did so. However, he also described the magazine more idiosyncratically as a ‘search for the Euramerican language of the future’, and it has to be said that his linguistic utopianism (like his multilingual poems) still seems inherently high-falutin and implausible just as his catch-phrases – not only ‘revolution of the word’ but ‘verticalism’, ‘vertigralism’, ‘paramyths’ and ‘hypnologues’ – look more dated than most of the writers and texts he championed. The last issue typically included a section headed ‘Night, Myth, Language’, an enquiry into what Jolas, as promoter and disciple of Finnegans Wake and self-conscious successor to the German Romantics, called ‘the night-mind’ (a typical transitional object). Writing there in response to one of Jolas’s portentous questionnaires, the equally ‘Euramerican’ T.S. Eliot, editor of transition’s English anti-type, the Criterion, noted: ‘I am not, as a matter of fact, particularly interested in my “night-mind”. This is not a general assertion about night-minds, nor does it carry any suggestion about other people’s interest in their night-minds. It is only that I find my own quite uninteresting.’

Undeterred, Jolas wrote of his own night-mind with undiminished energy and hyperbole, suggesting the links between transition’s polyglot aesthetic free-for-all and his own autobiography:

All my life I have been haunted by the idea of the Night. All my life I have dreamed and day-dreamed. In the little border-town of Lorraine, where French and German civilisations sought and fled each other in a ceaseless tension, I spent my childhood before the World War dreaming of escape from the millenary struggle of languages and races. There I dreamed my boyhood away in the phantasm of an utopian America, where I was born and which my immigrant parents had abandoned for the ancestral loam, when I was two years old. I dreamed my days away, when I worked as an immigrant in my native-land – paradoxically my native-land – and wrestled with the Columbian reality, with the English language, with the ambience of a continent passing through an industrial revolution. I dreamed my days away as a vagabond newspaperman, gipsying through the North American cities, seeking to solve my inter-continental problem as a human being, as a linguist, as a poet.

The languages of romantic epic and the contemporary avant-garde came together in a heady cocktail of Jolas’s making. His prose, like his poetry, bubbles over with hauntings, millenary struggles, phantasms, revolutions, while simultaneously wrestling with Columbian reality and struggling to solve intercontinental problems. This steamy editorial style, combined with transition’s electrifying and eclectic content, made it the diametrical opposite of everything represented by the Criterion with its commitment to a revamped ‘classicism’ and ‘orthodoxy’ of sensibility. Though transition has never acquired the critical respectability of Eliot’s venerable organ, its legacy was infinitely more productive.

At the same time its innocent interest in the ‘night-mind’ now looks bitterly ironic in the wake of the darker night that fell over Europe soon after the final issue. A copy of transition with a cover by Arp was burned in Munich by the Nazis, and one evening during an excursion to Schaffhausen on the Swiss-German border, Joyce and Jolas were confronted in a tavern by ‘grotesquely garbed Nazi youths’ singing raucous German songs. ‘On the way home,’ Jolas writes, ‘Joyce, who seldom seemed to abandon his apolitical stoicism, whispered to me: “Did you get that whiff of Boetia?” ’ The Boetian historical and political forces largely displaced from its pages eventually overtook transition, and it is their return in Man from Babel that makes it such a fascinating allegory of the moment of Modernism.

Man from Babel relates Jolas’s mission as Pandarus to the avant-garde to the picaresque life of a ‘vagabond newspaperman’, in danger everywhere of being crushed in the clashing of cultures he was born into. Although by instinct he is as ‘allergic’ as Joyce to politics, his intense interest in the idea of language involves him in huge political forces. The propagandist for a post-Dada, post-Joycean ‘revolution of the word’ was also a pioneer of tabloid American journalism throughout his career, in both Europe and the States. Moving through Europe in the aftermath of the war, he is given the job of reporting the Nuremberg Trials in German newspapers and of importing American-style news reporting into Germany and territories until recently occupied by the Nazis. He launched the first ‘intellectual’ review to appear in the American Zone, arranged for the ‘publication of a new German lexicon which would replace the shoddy Nazi terms’, and in all the newspapers he worked on argued for ‘objective reporting’. He gives a vivid account of this work of reconstruction, yet never confronts the problem of relating his missionary commitment to ‘objective reporting’ to his role as a propagandist for American values in the new world order – nor to his old propaganda for the linguistic experimentalism and obscurity of transition. Jolas saw his life’s work as mediating and translating between different languages and cultures, bridge-building and synthesising, but his autobiography makes no attempt to reconcile the different parts of its hero’s own story: not only journalist and poet, patriotic author of the poem ‘Mystica America’ and Catholic seminarist from Forbach, but patron of Modernist Babel and of objective reportage. One of the most moving things about Jolas is his obstinate innocence in the face of the horrific confusion he witnesses. ‘It is difficult today,’ he wrote after the war,

to project oneself from the tenebrous era of the univers concentrationnaire, with its accompanying esthétique of epigones, to that period of felicity and effervescence in the Twenties and Thirties, when writers of the Anglo-American literary colony in Paris competed with their French contemporaries in imagining new landscapes, in an atmosphere of complete intellectual liberty. We seem now to have been living in a golden age of the logos.

Even so, the last chapters are shaking to read; ‘The Frontierless World’ especially, where he describes his return to ‘his native Lorraine again for the first time since 1939: a desert of ruins and misery, a wounded landscape, a symbol of world-end’. Returning home, Joyce’s phrase ‘the nightmare of history’ comes to him with the force of revelation. In ‘News from Babel’, he describes Europe’s ‘ruins and mutilations, reminders of the countless dead.’ His biweekly Mitteilungen, published in Heidelberg, provided firsthand accounts, photographs and documents, recording the realities of the concentration camps and the suffering of German Jews, as part of his mission to confront Germans with the horrific reality of the Reich. Yet at the end, while wondering whether his ‘wearisome voyage through language’ has ended in ruins, he remains weirdly sanguine, as he considers the possibility of ‘a United Europe, a frontierless Europe’ as the answer to Cold War Communism, and asserts once more the idea of forging a ‘migratory and universal tongue’ that will neutralise the ‘curse of Babel’. Quixotic to the end, Jolas died in 1952 – an absurd, but also seminal exponent of both the blessing of Babel and its ‘millennial curse’.

Beckett, whose stories and poems Jolas published, figures briefly in the autobiography as a ‘young Irish poet friend’ of Joyce’s, with comparable ‘verbal facility and inventiveness’. Jolas describes him incongruously as ‘un beau ténébreux, a Celtic visionary who was in love with France’. Beckett, like Jolas, was a survivor of the Paris avant-garde’s international brigade, and like him witnessed the devastation of wartime France. Speaking in 1946 on Radio Éireann about the Irish field hospital at St Lô, where he worked at the end of the war, Beckett said that he had become aware there of ‘a time-honoured sense of humanity in ruins, and perhaps even an inkling of the terms in which our condition is to be thought again’. He had spent most of the war in exile in the Vaucluse. On his return to Paris he abandoned both his mother tongue – and, with it, the Joycean extravagance of what Dylan Thomas called his ‘Sodom and Begorrah’ mode – and the brilliant procrusteanism of his avant-garde writing of the Thirties. Writing now in French, he produced the four nouvelles and the trilogy of Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable, books in which he began to imagine a new kind of fiction that would convey the ‘time-honoured sense of humanity in ruins’. These ventriloquial fictions eventually led on to Godot and Endgame and their successors, plays governed by a new conception of theatrical space as itself a ruin – in which survivors do the best they can in the worst conditions. In Endgame, the most publicly and theatrically self-conscious of these, Clov says to Hamm: ‘No one that ever lived ever thought so crooked as we.’ To which Hamm, more crookedly, replies: ‘We do what we can.’ To which Clov retorts: ‘We shouldn’t.’

It is easy (but misleading) to see the first half of Beckett’s career as simply a long waiting for Godot, a prelude to his entrance on stage. However, nothing of that earlier life surfaces in the first collection of his letters to be published, No Author Better Served, which begins with preparations for the first American Godot. We will have to wait for the correspondence with Thomas McGreevey and others for glimpses of the ‘Trinity scholard’, the young Joycean in the Paris of transition, the lover of Nancy Cunard, the interwar cultural tourist, the Londoner in therapy with Bion, the wartime evacuee in Southern France, the French writer in chastened post-World War Two Paris, the lover. If we are to judge from the extracts in biographies and the best moments in his letters to Schneider, Beckett’s huge correspondence will be one of the wonders of the age.

The letters to Schneider are overwhelmingly concerned with the details of the production and reception of Beckett’s plays in America. About these matters they are packed with information, making this an indispensable work. On the other hand, they tell us very little about the roots of Beckettian theatre. In general, Beckett the man and Beckett the artist are kept strictly off stage.

The first of Beckett’s letters to Schneider, written in December 1955, refers to his personal and artistic confidence in leaving the transatlantic premiere of Godot in Schneider’s hands. ‘I feel my monster is in safe keeping,’ he writes, speaking of his play, rather as Frankenstein speaks of his creature or Prospero of Caliban. But he also speaks of his text with characteristic intransigence: ‘all I ask of you is not to make any changes in the text without letting me know.’ Though he acknowledges that his texts are not ‘holy writ’, this is an author who is ruthlessly committed to his ‘monster’ exactly as it is in all its monstrous detail. He wants the play performed in complete fidelity to his textual directions. One particularly fierce letter of 1960 denounces the ‘taste for improving authors’ texts’ shown by German directors.

There were a few problems and transgressions over the years but by and large Beckett continued to think Schneider a safe pair of hands. On hearing that Hume Cronyn as Krapp had ad-libbed a few additional reactions to the tape, he wrote: ‘Please have him sit quite still when listening to the recording and refrain from any words that are not in the text.’ He was equally polite, equally peremptory on being told that Clov was carrying skis in the final tableau of Endgame:

I think I understand your idea, but feel this is wrong, stylistically and because ‘no more snow’. Load him down as much as you like with shabby banal things, coats, bags and a pair of spare boots hanging from his neck if you like, but not skis. He once asked Hamm for a pair and was told to get out to hell. I know it’s only a wretched detail.

Beckett never told Schneider to get out to hell (not ‘go to hell’, you notice: Beckett respects the wretched detail of the text as well as the stage directions). On the evidence of his doggedly faithful letters, Schneider did his damnedest to respect Beckett’s imperiously indigent theatrical texts. The result was that Schneider not only directed the American premiere of Godot but most of Beckett’s subsequent plays, right up to Ohio Impromptu, Catastrophe and Rockaby, which he discusses in his last letters, written nearly thirty years after the first. As the director of Film and impresario of many Beckett festivals and series, Schneider became Beckett’s quasi-official theatrical representative in the US, causing critics such as Martin Gottfried to argue that it was ‘desperately important to break his hammerjack on staging Beckett’. In the last letter, a euphoric Schneider reports back on Billie Whitelaw’s success in Footfalls and Rockaby (playing ‘an old hag’ twice in a row, as she says). ‘We are the talk of the town,’ Schneider exults in his most cheerfully un-Beckettian way: ‘Billie has found depths and intensity – in that tiny theatre – which leave an unforgettable image.’ With more than Beckettian irony, Schneider was killed crossing the street after posting that last letter to Beckett, on 2 March 1984.

No Author Better Served takes its title from a letter in which Beckett thanks Schneider for his work on the American premiere of Happy Days. Beckett had written earlier, saying he was ‘not nervous, just curious about the work’s viability’. He said he didn’t expect a commercial success or ‘much mercy from the critics’ but was interested in the ‘professional’ reaction. It might help him decide, he said, ‘whether this is really a dramatic text or a complete aberration and whether there is justification for trying to push further this kind of theatre’. This is one of the most interesting aspects of their correspondence. Schneider replied that the play was a ‘hit’, had been a ‘wonderful and rewarding experience’, and that there was ‘no question’ of Happy Days not being ‘viable in the theatre or possible or effective’: ‘Its effect on most people has been absolutely shattering.’ In the Dialogues with George Duthuit, Beckett had announced his commitment to ‘an art of failure’ and in another letter to Schneider wrote that ‘success or failure’ was a matter of indifference to him. It is one of the paradoxes of the relationship between this pessimistic, verbally abstemious playwright and his garrulously optimistic American director that Beckett is genuinely concerned with ‘whether this is really a dramatic text’ and requires if not ‘success’ exactly, then proof of a work’s ‘justification’. In response to Schneider’s upbeat report on the production, the normally downbeat Beckett wrote in September 1961: ‘I’ve the feeling no author was better served.’

Schneider worked tirelessly to promote and produce Beckett on the American stage (as he did other contemporary dramatists). There is something paradoxical about their relationship, not least in the conflict between Schneider’s pleasure in publicity and Beckett’s shyness of it. In autumn 1958 Schneider, happy to cash in on public interest in the author of Waiting for Godot, published an article called ‘Waiting for Beckett: A Personal Chronicle’ in the Chelsea Review. Beckett wrote back, saying he was ‘deeply touched by its great warmth of attachment for my dismal person and devotion to my grisly work’. Irony notwithstanding, he seems genuinely amazed and touched by Schneider’s devotion. There is nevertheless something comic about it, as if Frankenstein were writing a thank you letter to little Lucy for her admiration for his creature. However, in his next letter, Beckett, never himself a bean-spiller, showed himself to be wary of Schneider’s instincts for spillage: ‘I prefer those letters not to be republished and quite frankly, dear Alan, I do not want any of my letters to anyone to be published anywhere, either in the petit pendant or the long après.’ These are words which might (as Beckett’s words tend to) give us pause as we read. We (or rather he) is in the long après now and though ‘I do not want any of my letters to anyone to be published’ would be a less catchy title to this volume, it would be equally viable. As is the way of (almost) all literary flesh, in the long posthumous après Schneiderian instincts prevail over authorial reservations. Mercifully for the readers.

Maurice Harmon, the editor, doesn’t quote these less than encouraging words in his brief introduction. He does, however, note that the letters ‘have been edited in accordance with the wishes of the Samuel Beckett Estate, which stipulates that only letters, or parts of letters, relevant to Beckett’s work may be published’. This means that ‘material within letters of a personal nature has been omitted.’ The result is a peppering of dots, followed by a footnote, the effect of which is somewhat bizarre. One letter of 1962 begins ‘ ... ’ and ends ‘ ... ’ In between, it talks about the vagueness of ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ as a label and the difficulty of translating How It Is. And the excised bits? An editorial footnote to the first set of dots tells us ‘SB is sorry to hear that Jean’s mother is ill,’ and to the last one that ‘SB comments on the bombing of a friend’s apartment in Paris.’ It may be that the information withheld is confidential, but this form of withholding is absurd in itself, and leaves us unable to decide if there is any connection between ‘life’ and ‘work’. ‘I feel drained as dry as an old herring bone,’ Beckett writes drily in one letter. Dots follow with a footnote telling us: ‘SB reflects on his “mental weariness”.’ One is grateful to be thrown the old herring bone, but left wondering why the ‘mental weariness’ has been withheld – after all, the herring bone, too, is strictly personal too.

The editor is mainly concerned that he should not trespass on Beckett’s personal as opposed to professional life. But it’s not always clear which is which. Beckett notes in one letter that he is writing a prose piece ‘with ridiculous difficulty’, adding ‘it was always resisting or writing. But why not writing now? Too dignified I suppose.’ This is about writing all right, but it is highly personal. He then says, ‘Met Mrozek (Tango). Tired young Pole’, which is followed by the inevitable three dots, footnoted: ‘SB says his lung is “holding its own”.’ The remark on Mrozek is personal and professional, I suppose, but the quoted remark about his lung, though personal, does not seem exactly private. And if you can quote it, why not include it? The lung may be able to hold its own in the footnote, but the Beckettian body as a whole is largely censored in Harmon’s text. Too undignified, I presume. ‘SB has flu,’ ‘SB’s vision is improving,’ ‘SB comments on his mental state,’ ‘SB broke some ribs in a fall,’ ‘SB visits dentist,’ ‘SB comments on the results of his mouth operation.’ Schneider asks: ‘How are YOU? The eyes? The rest of you?’ This is precisely the kind of information that is embargoed in the letters. Yet, the relation between body and text is central to Beckett’s texts, as it was to his bodily life. In one letter he writes: ‘Deep in the play these past months, eyes & ears.’ In another: ‘Acute perception of mental bluntening. Final paradox.’ Severing body and text does no favours to either.

Murphy, the hero of Beckett’s prewar Irish novel, is a ‘seedy solipsist’ who desires his remains to be flushed down the toilet of the Abbey Theatre in an interval in the performance. But neither he, nor his ‘low-down high-brow Protestant’ predecessor Belacqua, nor his equally anti-social fictional successors Watt, Molloy and Mahood, can be imagined having anything to do with the exigencies and emergencies of theatrical production. Yet for all his calling himself a ‘monster of the solitudes’ the latter part of Beckett’s life was very largely taken up with what Yeats called ‘theatre business’. In Beckett’s case all the business of translating, staging, directing, negotiating with directors and casts in many countries, advising on productions, helping directors and actors, dealing with questions of rights and details of lighting. The painstaking professionalism evinced in these letters is remarkable. In 1959 he wrote that he was ‘struggling with new work in French, nothing to do with theatre or radio’ and said he hoped ‘to get back to that society game in about a year’. The tension between ‘the society game’ and Beckett’s writerly need for solitude – in the ‘Marne mud’ of Ussy, if possible – can be felt all the way through his scrupulous correspondence. Schneider is utterly at home in the society game and his cheerful dedication to contemporary theatre, reviews, family chitchat, can sometimes seem fatuous in the face of Beckett’s austere comic scepticism (though I liked his ‘There’s bound to be problems, so don’t get too cheered up’).

There are a few brilliantly precise letters of instruction and interpretation: on the filming of Film, on how to play Endgame, Happy Days, Not I in particular. Thereafter, Beckett, increasingly involved in directing his own work, held off from detailed instructions. He is rarely concerned with meaning, and asked traditional questions about motivation and so on, he replies: ‘All I know is in the text.’ Instead he is obsessively concerned with the precise visual realisation of his precisely envisaged script. Writing of Endgame, he says: ‘Faces red and white probably like Werther’s green coat, because the author saw them that way. Don’t seek deep motivation everywhere. If there is one here I’m unaware of it.’ He provides exact diagrams of the set of Happy Days, notes that it should show ‘the unsuccessful realism’ of a third-rate musical, and lays down detailed specifications of the props: Winnie’s specs (‘steel or goldrimmed spectacles preferable to horn’), bag (‘I see it like the big black capacious French cabas’) and hat, which should be ‘kind of fussy toque with long feather (what French call a couteau). Close-fitting, brimless, casting no shadow on face. Sorry to be so vague.’

At their best, Beckett’s letters read like his most ‘hard pressed’ fictional prose: ‘Rather hard pressed, what little to press’; ‘All we can aim at is to get through with as little scathe as possible’; ‘Things here are dark, to put it brightly. Something like the end of the last resort, for many.’ There are wonderful accounts of his own texts, too. Endgame is ‘an even worse affair’ than Godot, ‘rather difficult and elliptic, mostly depending on the power of the text to claw’; Krapp is said to have ‘nothing to talk to but his dying self and nothing to talk to him but his dead one’; That Time is ‘all knife-edge & hair-breadth’; Play, playing in tandem with Philoctetes, ‘all wound and moan’. At such moments the letters claw, too.

Beckett’s fastidious view of the Babel of language is the opposite of Jolas’s. Like Jolas, he was a tireless translator, a polyglot, an exile, a friend of Joyce’s, coming to consciousness in the era of hectic verbal experimentalism. Unlike him he seems incapable of writing a carelessly inflated or deflated word. Though he was launched as poet and prose-writer in the issue of transition which also published Finnegans Wake, after the war Beckett wrote in the aftermath of the Modernist euphoria about language that Joyce and Jolas in their different ways seem to share, ‘I can do anything with language,’ Jolas quotes Joyce as saying. Against this we could set Beckett’s: ‘Not an idea in my head for a new work of any kind – but then there never was.’ For Beckett, this exhaustion was the impetus to an astonishing corpus of new work, and a new attitude to language. The precision with which he operated dramatised not only the limits of language but its cavernous possibilities, its most intricately strange-adjustments. Schneider sent a letter wanting the playwright to OK various idiomatic changes to the text of Godot to suit it to a Greenwich Village audience; these ranged from changing ‘Then I go all queer’ to ‘Then I go all strange’ (in deference to the ‘special connotation’ of ‘queer’ in the Village), to changing ‘muckheap’ to ‘pile of crap’. This elicited one of Beckett’s many fine discriminations: ‘Pile of crap. OK with reluctance. Prefer pile of shit.’ News of Schneider’s father’s death in 1963 elicited one of his most haunting letters about the limits of language:

I know your sorrow and I know that for the likes of us there is no ease for the heart to be had from words or reason and that in the very assurance of sorrow’s fading there is more sorrow. So I offer you only my deeply affectionate and compassionate thoughts and wish for you only that the strange thing may never fail you, whatever it is, that gives us the strength to live on and on with our wounds.

The strangest thing is that, despite his vigilant scepticism towards words and reason and his jaundiced turn of mind, the strange thing never failed Beckett. Living on in the ruins suited him extraordinarily well.

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