Lois More Overbeck (Emory University)
The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Perspectives on his Work
Although not of the same realm as the work itself, an author’s letters are fertile ground for discovery of ur-texts and identities between the life and the writing. Beckett’s are especially so. Herein lies both the “snare and the delusion.” At our best, we can only be “secondary readers” of an overheard conversation that was originally addressed to a specific audience of one. As such, our desire for insight should be tempered by perception of our own middle distance.
Beckett writes about the problematic role of experience in art, when he considers the work of the painters Bram and Geer Van Velde, Tal Coat, and André Masson in his “Three Dialogues” with George Duthuit:
The analysis of the relation between the artist and his occasion, a relation always regarded as indispensable, does not seem to have been very productive [...], the reason being perhaps that it lost its way in disquisitions on the nature of occasion [...]. But if the occasion appears as an unstable term of relation, the artist, who is the other term[,] is hardly less so, thanks to his warren of modes and attitudes (Disjecta, ed. Ruby Cohn, Grove, 1984, p. 144).
Acceding to the instability of both terms, Beckett here sees experience as a “composite of perceiver and perceived” (p. 97). It is the “relation” that is central, yet that is “shadowed more and more darkly by a sense of invalidity, of inadequacy.” In the “Three Dialogues,” Beckett observes of Bram van Velde, “to be an artist is to fail [...] to make of this submission [...] a new occasion, a new term of relation” (p.103).
In a letter, the relationship between writing and occasion is expression of fictive evocation of self. In one kind of letter, a writer writing himself chooses to unfold life stories in the safety of the friendly recipient’s gaze. The intended recipient is trusted to bridge the gap between expression and occasion with what he knows of the writer’s person and his moods, as these are informed by shared experience. A secondary reader of letters lacks such a personal context, yet needs to find a way to take a similar sort of perspective - balancing the immediate occasion with an awareness of the writer’s work and an appreciation of his world at that time. In another kind of letter, the writer may project fictions of a world or a life in which he hopes to matter. Here he may, himself, make assumptions about his recipient’s expectations, and he may write a fandango of a letter to compensate for what he perceives to be his own shortcomings, or preface submission of a poem with a self-deprecating remark as if to ward off the sting of rejection. In short, between writer and original reader there is always a gap that the letter intends to fill, even as the instability of both terms conspires against this.
How much more, then, do secondary readers need to mind the gap and remain alert to the subjectivity of their own reading. The letters invite and compel attention. The key to reading them with perspective may be to stay open to the nuances of a changing voice, to let the letters pose new questions, and to avoid haste in concluding new terms of relation. Beckett’s letters will open spaces and resonances, they will enrich our understanding of the writer and our appreciation of his work, but they may do so precisely because they are not always what we might expect to find.