Probably the best review yet of the recently-published first volume of Sam Beckett's Letters is this one, by J.M. Coetzee in the NYRB, although John Walsh's in the Independent comes pretty close. What I find interesting is the concentration, in Coetzee's essay, on the crisis period of Beckett's life, after his father's death, when he underwent psychoanalysis in London and wrote Murphy. Some of the letters were also quoted by James Knowlson in his definitive biography of Beckett, Damned To Fame, which I read several summers ago, when I was with my family on holiday in Belgium. What I found most interesting was the emphasis, throughout the book, on the warmth Beckett's friends felt for him - his tendency, in company, to joke and laugh raucously, the openness he displayed to so many people, his abiding kindness towards friends and others (he was a supporter, until the end of his life, of political prisoners in the Eastern Bloc and South Africa). At the time I was trying to deal with the aftermath of a number of extended depressive episodes; the appearance of unrelenting bleakness in Beckett's books had been, as teenagers are wont to do, exagerrated by me, and had formed a kind of catechism for that state: "I can't go on I'll go on", etc. Re-reading parts of the Trilogy in the light of Knowlson's book, the sense of bitterness and cynicism was replaced by a feeling of genuine pain, and, oddly, tenderness. Reading biographically sucks ass, I know, but the knowledge that Malone's memories of the lights on a hill across the valley were Beckett's own, of the nocturnal gorsefires at Foxrock, or the images in later work of a man diving with a boy, or leading him, hand-in-hand, down the road, were memories of Beckett's own father, changed them. Even the photo of Beckett on the front of my Calder edition of the Trilogy - sat in a Paris cafe, face lined like a geographical feature, white hair caught with a shadow or black streak, like a skunk's fur in negative, his torso a black void except for the mass of scarf cutting down it - seemed different, the look now that of a man wearied with having seen too much of the world's suffering.
The period, from late 1933 to 1935, of Beckett's psychoanalysis, makes for similarly intriguing reading. His therapy had been precipitated by nervous tremors, heart problems, panic attacks (which I myself used to have), apparently causeless stabbing and aching pains. A letter from his friend and Trinity compatriot Thomas MacGreevy, advised him to "find comfort in 'goodness and disinterestedness', drawing on Thomas à Kempis's Imitation of Christ". Beckett's reply finds him making a concentrated attack on "his own deliberate immersion in self and isolation from others":
"For years I was unhappy, consciously and deliberately... I isolated myself more and more, undertook less and less and lent myself to a crescendo of disparagement of others and myself... The misery and solitude and apathy and sneers were elements of an index of superiority and guaranteed the feeling of arrogant 'otherness'... It was not until that way of living, or rather negation of living into such terrifying physical symptoms that it could no longer be pursued, that I became aware of anything morbid in myself."
I notice that in my copy, this section is so much read that it falls open at the page. In Knowlson's narrative, it represents a turning-point - "the first convincing explanation of how the arrogant, disturbed, narcissistic young man of the early 1930s could possibly have evolved into the man who was noted later for his extraordinary kindness, courtesy, concern, generosity, and almost saintly 'good works'". It would take another decade, and the experience of war, occupation and paramilitary resistance work, for Beckett to come out of his shell to the extent that he could get married and settle down to a life of continuous writing. As Coetzee puts it, he was "lay[ing] the artistic and philosophical—and perhaps even experiential—foundations of the great creative outburst that came in the late 1940s and early 1950s". That the transformation, and the vault into productivity, would take so long - a slow movement tailed the entire time by misery, a sense of futility as to his actions - in spite of his good intentions is, to say the least, perturbing. That it was not his learning, but a gradual surrendering to instinct, that finally moved him into the possibility of productivity and something resembling happiness, is not in the least comforting. (It's also somewhat depressing that it took being stabbed in the lung for him to find out that "he was not as alone in the world as he liked to believe", as Coetzee puts it). I personally think that the melancholia that afflicted Sam throughout his later life - bouts of depression that afflicted his writing, the remark he once made to a friend, reported by Knowlson, that he sometimes considered "Rowing out in a boat and just letting it sink" - have something to do with this: the knowledge that life steals away life, that the best years are gone forever, and the mechanisms of the human being are always turned against the man who wants to make and do good (the old mind/body split if ever we saw it - think of Molloy and Moran's legs inexplicably failing as they journey towards their goals). Nothing - not even the security of success that came after Godot - could repair it, the knowledge of this systematic fuck-up, this ontological deficiency, this grand cosmic joke. And hence, perhaps, my own bitterness, and lack of comfort at the knowledge that the future will come, whether we will it or not, and that the wait will have to go on.