Book Review - Emory delivers The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1929-1940

Samuel Beckett was never interested in clearing up confusion around his writing. The Nobel Prize-winning author, best known for Waiting for Godot, wrote in a tone that could swing from playful and absurd to devastating and tragic, often confounding those interested in hashing out simple meanings. When asked point blank to explain who exactly Godot was, he famously replied, “If I knew, I would have said so in the play.” This unwillingness, or inability, to discuss his work left some readers feeling like a character on one of Beckett’s notoriously sparse stages — alone and in the dark.

The publication of The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1929-1940, part one in a four-volume series of correspondence from 1929 until his death in 1989, arrives with a certain degree of intrigue. Beckett stipulated that only letters pertaining to his work could be published, perhaps in anticipation of the gossipy questions surrounding posthumous letters: “Who did he insult?” “Which cricket bat did he prefer?” “Did he harbor any unrequited man-love for James Joyce?” For readers, the collection’s finally a chance to hear the tight-lipped author communicate with friends and fellow artists about the work he struggled to discuss publicly.

Emory’s Lois More Overbeck and Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, along with George Craig and Dan Gunn, edited the collection from a cache of about 15,000 letters. When asked about Beckett’s stipulation, Overbeck says, “We actually didn’t leave that much out.” Volume One, published last month, runs nearly 900 pages and contains a surprising variety of voices from Beckett. “People need to understand that letters are always written to a single person,” Overbeck explains. “A letter always reflects the person to whom it is written.” The intimacy of Beckett’s correspondence is both enviable and antiquarian, so much so that it might convince a few readers to rethink their Twitter accounts.

On Tues., March 17, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Edward Albee will join Emory’s distinguished writer in residence Salman Rushdie, and local actors Brenda Bynum and Robert Shaw-Smith to read aloud from the first volume. Albee, author of the brutal classic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, is among the generation of writers directly influenced by Beckett’s innovations. This time around, Beckett’s words should shed more light on that famously dim stage.

The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1929-1940 by Samuel Beckett. Edited by Martha Dow Fehsenfeld and Lois More Overbeck. Cambridge University Press. $50. 882 pages.