Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Regretfully Yours

One of culture's most salient ironies is the innate cosmopolitanism of the rube. People reared in the most provincial circumstances often become more worldly than their urban or suburban counterparts.

The preeminence of Irish writers in world literature illustrates this paradox. Joyce, Wilde and Yeats all lived and loved on the continent rather than the drizzly backwater where one must "set his watch back five hundred years." Samuel Beckett joined this pantheon of Irish-Universal titans, and his recently published letters confirm his place in world literature. In his youth he always sought an escape to Europe, although he also feared that he would "probably crawl back with my tail coiled round my ruined poenis."

This is the first volume in a promised series of three, culled from over 15,000 different missives. It's an enormous editorial task that gets creative with the author's wish that only letters "having bearing on my work" be published. When your work encompasses little foibles like mortality, annihilation and the futility of human endeavor, it's not really a hat that you can take on and off, as Anthony Lane points out.

So chronologically, this is Beckett the underemployed, frustrated, dead-broke student and dropout. He halfheartedly tries out several careers including, terrifyingly, airline pilot. He wanders Paris until his shoes "explode" on the Boulevard St. Germain. The rising tide of fascism and the troubled global economy do not seem to make an impression on this passionate aesthete. Though Beckett became a staunch anti-anti-Semite and joined the French Resistance, he couldn't take Hitler seriously in the 1930s.

Joseph O'Neill, himself an Irish-born itinerant, notes Beckett's astounding multilingualism. Beckett claimed that writing in English made him feel "depersonified." He felt freer to express himself within the scope of German, Italian or French, in which he wrote one of the 20th century's great plays.

An exile on good terms with his family, Beckett presumes all the same that his mother seeks "to keep me tight so that I may be goaded into salaried employment. Which reads more bitterly than it is intended." Beckett was a polite and reserved genius, fixated on decay, so it is natural to find him nonplussed in the springtime of love:

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.

This is the woman he would wed and remain with until death.

J.M. Coetzee laments that Beckett and James Joyce often lived in the same city, Paris, and thus had no cause to correspond. Beckett apparently had some kind of affair with Joyce's daughter Lucia.

The author also employed many scatological terms (his poems are "turds") and underwent psychoanalysis, then a novel and subversive practice. He had a knack for neologisms: "daymare" being a real-life bad dream, and "eyedew" meaning tears.

All in all, a feast of humanism, anger, longing, and radiant pessimism.