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Samuel Beckett, pictured in 1985: “I have not the right to renege on my work” (©Louis Monier/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)


This final volume of the superb Cambridge edition of Beckett’s letters covers the final two decades of the author’s life, when his existence might be said to have become more Beckettian in the sense of moulding itself to the conditions of enduring decrepitude which had for so long been an imaginative resource for him. The recurrent subject of these letters is, as Beckett put it, “tout mon petit avenir problématique d’écrivain finissant sinon fini”. In one sense, this was the condition he had been waiting for from the beginning: “I try to think, with what mind remains, that now is the time at last, the chance at last, in these remains, with those remains, though think is not the word, at last not the word.” The frustration of a wonderful opportunity that eludes being adequately grasped runs through these letters.

This is partly a matter of the physical ailments which accompany old age. Problems with his eyesight provoke some dry verbal drollery: “Off to Bern tomorrow for a few days only to see an eye specialist or rather have him see me.” And again: “Eyes not much change as far as I can . . . see.” Or again: “Nothing to be done about eyes for moment   . . . funny I didn’t see it sooner.” “I hope words have now failed me,” Beckett would write a few months before he died, in a paradoxical gesture composed equally of resignation and, in its refusal to permit words actually and finally to fail, resilience. These late letters are studded with such small and unavailing advantages gained over the inevitable and encroaching end.

A collapsed lung was a more serious episode, but once more Beckett turned the mishap into the occasion for verbal inventiveness: “Here all is as well as one can expect who does not expect much. Nothing left to boast of but a scarred lung and I suppose that much extra fragility. Haven’t resume[d] smoking and perhaps never will, though no longer forbidden. Strength pretty well restored, such as it was.” A ludicrous dental accident while on holiday in Tunisia moved him to a more baroque turn of words: “Had 3rd swim today in dulcet water. On emerging one quarter of upper stumps & appertaining Rialto fell to the sands. Makes speech and mastication night [for nigh] to impossible. But drink and silence unimpaired.” “Rialto” for “bridge” is a good joke, but it also perhaps has some literary resonance. Beckett’s youthful opinion of T.S. Eliot, expressed in a letter to his friend Thomas McGreevy in May 1933, was that he was a “nice man but bad poet”. Nevertheless, one seems to hear echoes of “Burbank With a Baedeker, Bleistein With a Cigar” in Beckett’s account of the failure of his dental work, a poem which is set on “the Rialto once”, and of which the first stanza reads:

Burbank crossed a little bridge
Descending at a small hotel;
Princess Volupine arrived,
They were together, and he fell.

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