Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Samuel Beckett: Letters Between the Crash and the War

(Getty Image from New York Times)

The Irish novelist and literary critic Joseph O'Neill has published "I'll Go On" in the New York Times, a fascinating review of Martha Dow Fehsenfeld and Lois More Overbeck's Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume I, 1929-1940, a collection that offers us "a portrait of the artist as an unsettled, underemployed and relatively unknown young man" in all his acknowledged intellectual brilliance.

I never realized that Beckett was brilliant. I knew that he was an artistic genius, of course, but had no inkling of his being intellectually gifted:
This volume (three more are promised) auspiciously begins with two notes from Beckett to James Joyce, in the second of which (from April 1929) this 23-year-old lecturer at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris politely briefs the maestro on the distinction between the infinitive and substantive forms of a Greek phrase.
I'd have to look that up just to understand the grammatical point in question . . . though I suppose that this is as much an admission of my ignorance as it is a compliment to Beckett's intellectual gifts.

But we have, or have had, some things in common: "he is broke: he wears his shoes until they finally 'explode' on the Boulevard St.-Michel." I walked the steep streets in San Francisco until my own shoes went off like miniature land mines on some inconvenient hill or other. Like me, therefore, he was a "flâneur as well as a great hill-walker." So . . . I feel with him a cameraderie that I never before felt, for his nihilism had never appealed to me even though I appreciated Waiting for Godot, which I finally saw in Germany while waiting for Sun-Ae to come into my life, though I was until afterwards unaware of that great romantic fact upon which I waited, rather unlike Beckett's unawareness of what lay ahead for him and his Suzanne:
Suzanne is Suzanne Deschevaux-­Dumesnil. Here's how we learn of her: "There is a French girl also whom I am fond of, dispassionately, and who is very good to me. The hand will not be overbid. As we both know that it will come to an end there is no knowing how long it may last." Beckettists will know, of course, that in due time Suzanne and Sam married, and that the marriage lasted till their deaths.
Uncanny! That he knew it would end, I mean. How could he have known?

Ultimately, however, and altogether separately, we chose, and have chosen, different aims and ends and aimless ends, as one sees in Beckett's gnomic words:
Spend the years of learning squandering
Courage for the years of wandering
Through a world politely turning
From the loutishness of learning
The intellectually gifted Beckett chose aesthetics and eventual success. The mediocre me has chosen the academic world and is still waiting . . . and oft muttering, "Let us go."

At least, this waiting gives me time to straighten my own crooked tie and smooth out the irony of my wrinkled brow.

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