In case you wonder why, apart from the presence of two authors so world-famous that an enormous number of Atlantans have read them, a performance of the early letters of Samuel Beckett (being published by Cambridge as an international project under the aegis of the Emory University graduate school) might be of interest, I offer this extract from Gabriel Josipovici’s review essay in the TLS:
“’My dear McGreevy, The abominable old bap Russell duly returned my MSS with an economic note in the 3rd person, the whole in a considerably understamped envelope. I feel slightly paralysed by the courtesy of this gesture. I would like to get rid of the damn thing anyhow, anywhere (with the notable exception of “transition”), but I have no acquaintance with the less squeamish literary garbage buckets. I can’t imagine Eliot touching it – certainly not the verse. Perhaps Seumas O’Sullivan’s rag would take it? If you think of an address I would be grateful to know it.’
“This [extract from one of Beckett’s early letters] might remind readers of two other ambitious and irreverent young men writing to each other for support and to try out their literary skills: Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin. But what follows certainly will not. After quoting two lines of Dante in Italian to make the point that his sunburn makes sleep impossible, Beckett goes on to comment on Proust, whom he was reading with a view to fulfilling a commission to write a short book on him:
“’I have read the first volume of “Du Côté de chez Swann”, and find it strangely uneven. There are incomparable things – Bloch, Françoise, Tante Léonie, Legrandin, and then passages that are offensively fastidious, artificial and almost dishonest . . . . His loquacity is certainly more interesting and cleverly done than Moore’s, but no less profuse, a maudlin false-teeth gobble-gobble discharge from a colic-afflicted belly. He drank too much tilleul. And to think that I have to contemplate him at stool for 16 volumes!’
“This ability to tear into what he dislikes but not let it blind him to what is admirable in a work or artist would remain typical of Beckett.”
I am tempted to go far beyond fair use (but it’s all available online in any case: http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/the_tls/article5885981.ece ) as I discover fresh joys in Josipovici’s essay (in this passage, I've altered for American sensibilities one jarring anglicism):
“At some point in the 1930s Beckett toyed with the idea of becoming an art dealer. His comments on works of art are therefore slightly different from those on music and literature. He spends hours in the National Gallery in Dublin, relaying to McGreevy (who was himself to become, in time, Director of that gallery) what the new Director has done with the rehang and commenting in detail, especially on his beloved Dutch and Flemish masters. In London it is the same with the National Gallery, and in Paris he often drops into the Louvre to examine this or that work or artist he has grown interested in, duly reporting his impressions back to McGreevy. Among the most surprising and fascinating letters are those Beckett sent back to family and friends when he undertook a six-month trip to Germany, from September 1936 to April 1937, specifically in order to study the art on view there. He travelled from Hamburg to Berlin via Hanover and Brunswick, to Leipzig, Dresden and on to Munich via Bamberg and Nuremberg. Everywhere he went he tried to see all that was on show and much that wasn’t, for under the Nazis much art was starting to be withdrawn as “decadent”. Beckett badgered directors to give him access to these pictures in the vaults, and made friends with (usually Jewish) patrons and collectors, who invited him to their houses and introduced him to some of the banned artists. The weather was bitter; Beckett was depressed both by his health and by what he saw happening to Germany; finally, exhausted, abandoning plans to visit Stuttgart and Frankfurt, he flew home. The letters not only tell us a great deal about Beckett, but form an invaluable record of the state of German museums and art galleries in the 1930s, and include descriptions of paintings, by artists from Signorelli to Van Gogh, which have since disappeared, the victims of Nazi looting or Allied bombing.
“By the end of the decade friends were showing him pictures they had purchased with queries about provenance and authentication. But Beckett could no more become an art dealer than he could become a lecturer in French, a commercial pilot, a student of Eisenstein or any of the other careers he briefly toyed with but either resigned from when they became a reality, or simply left to drift in the realm of possibility.”
And by a lovely coincidence, that bit about “victims of Nazi looting or Allied bombing” segues into my final topic of the day, Michael Kimmelman’s New York Times essay today on the reopening of Berlin’s Neues Museum.