Postal Modernism

By Michael NorthJanuary 17, 2012

Postal Modernism

The Letters of Samuel Beckett by Samuel Beckett
The Letters of Ernest Hemingway by Ernest Hemingway

CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS has been advertising these two volumes of letters together, and, sure enough, Amazon reports that readers who bought one also tended to buy the other. There are a number of obvious reasons for linking the two writers, since they were both famous modernists, each one master of his own idiosyncratically spare prose style, his own particular way of not saying things. Hemingway and Beckett both received the Nobel Prize, fifteen years apart, and when Hemingway won in 1954, it was in the same general atmosphere of international existentialism that made Beckett famous that year, the year in which Waiting for Godot was published by Grove Press. The book that is generally considered to have put Hemingway over the top, The Old Man and the Sea, seemed to many international readers the same sort of bare existential drama that Beckett was just then putting on stage.

Still, readers who actually do buy these two volumes of letters together and read them more or less at the same time are likely to suffer from significant disorientation, for the two authors, although famously associated with the same literary circles in Paris, seem to have inhabited different planets. Some of this is due to the fact that publication of the first volume of Hemingway's letters has coincided with the second volume of Beckett's. Hemingway's are the letters of a boy, who remains just as juvenile at the end of the volume when he has unaccountably become pals with Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound. Beckett's letters come from the period in which he completes his most accomplished works, Godot and the trilogy of novels MolloyMalone Dies, and The Unnamable. At this time he perfects the somber, despairingly negative, attitude toward fame and accomplishment he was to maintain for the rest of his life. Reading the two sets of letters together is therefore a bit like stopping an Andy Hardy movie to read a few pages of Civilization and Its Discontents.

The mystery the Hemingway letters present is how this relentlessly upbeat adolescent could have produced, just a few years after the close of this volume, perhaps the most famous literary picture of disillusionment ever published,  The Sun Also Rises. In fact, these letters do cover the period in which Hemingway had the crucial experiences he was to pour into Jake Barnes and Frederic Henry: being wounded at the Italian front; falling in love with one of his nurses; suffering her rejection once the war is over. But the writer of the letters shows none of the emotions, shares none of the reflections, that make these experiences significant when they reappear in the novels. The Hemingway who comes home from the Italian front is, apart from some stiffness in one leg, much the same shallow adolescent who left, with much the same myopic concentration on having a good time. "Won't us kids have fun," is the essential theme of the letters in this volume, just as much at the end, when Hemingway is married and has come to Europe, as at the beginning, when he first begins to hunt and fish in Michigan.

It is likewise difficult to find evidence in these letters of the literary understatement for which Hemingway was to become famous. His favored style as a very young man is in fact an elaborate facetiousness, the sort of thing that turns a simple concept like "the last two days" into "the last brace of diurnals." This is most particularly true of the letters sent to male friends, so that male camaraderie is not a matter of simple grunts and groans but of obscure periphrasis, as if it had to protect itself from something. But this is also the style that Hemingway resorts to in writing to his sisters and to the various high school girls he palled around with in his early twenties. Frosted with an extra layer of baby talk, it is the excruciating manner of the early letters to Hadley Richardson, his first wife. In other words, as a letter-writer, Hemingway hides deep emotion with a smokescreen of overstatement, a technique that is exactly the opposite of the one he was to use as a novelist.

At the very end of the volume, there are some early glimpses of the writer Hemingway was to become, which sometimes set up a rather peculiar resonance with the later writing. The most striking such instance is an innocuous comment sent to his mother that Gertrude Stein is "very large and very nice." The ordinary blandness of a word like  nice is apparently spacious enough to cover the very considerable difference between bohemian Paris and middle-class Oak Park, Illinois, and between the largeness of Grace Hall Hemingway and the very different largeness of Gertrude Stein. But it is also one of the most wickedly used of all the tiny words in The Sun Also Rises. An Amazon search turns up 43 instances of nice in that novel, including the exhausted and bewildered epitaph delivered on the disastrous bullfight party: "It seemed they were all such nice people." The studied ambiguity of that simple word displays the real genius of Hemingway, who was not nearly as good at straightforward description as he was at the routine vagueness of everyday conversation. Writing letters home may have been good preparation in this sense, as it taught him the value of the elastic in ordinary speech.

Another difference between these two books of letters is that Beckett's editors have respected his desire, enforced by the estate, that any such collection be limited to letters relevant to his work. Readers hoping for some insight into the puzzles of Beckett's personal life, such as the exact nature of his relationship with Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, are therefore bound to be disappointed. Since there are no letters to Deschauvaux-Dumesnil in this volume, there is no profile of her in the otherwise very informative appendix, and thus she remains even more of a tantalizing blank than Pamela Mitchell, with whom Beckett had an affair in the early 1950s.

On the other hand, given Beckett's growing aversion in these years to language and thus to writing, which he came to see more and more as a regrettable necessity, it is somewhat remarkable that there are any letters at all. In a way, the most appropriate section of this volume is the first, dedicated to the years from 1941 to 1945, which includes only a bare handful of letters, all of them from 1945. There is something appropriately eloquent about the silence of the war years, which Beckett spent living more or less in secret, first as an operative in the French Resistance, then in deep exile in the countryside, where he passed the time "clodhopping." Despite the sarcasm, a life of mute clodhopping suited Beckett better than any of the occupations he tried, so that one of the real joys of these years of international literary success is the freedom it gave him to spend weeks at a time in his drab house at Ussy, digging holes for fruit trees.

The letters written from Ussy often sound as if they had been plucked from abandoned drafts of Molloy: "Fifteen or twenty years of silence and solitude, brightened up by gardening and walks, shorter and shorter, I feel this evening that that would suit me, and suit me the least badly possible." The stage props of his life there are as spare as those of the plays, and yet they also yield a disproportionate pathos: "I have bought a wheelbarrow, my first wheelbarrow! It goes very well, with its one wheel." The rhythm and the sound of these sentences, the way they chip away at their already minimal certainties with clause after clause of sad qualification, is so reminiscent of the novels and plays that it is a shock to remember that in the case of literature and letters the words familiar to English-speaking readers are not the original ones at all. Most of the letters, like almost all the works after Watt, were written in French. After Molloy, Beckett wrenched the works into English himself, and sometimes into German as well. Even in such a simple case as that of the wheelbarrow, something is lost in the process of translation, where the French provides a humorous echo from the verb to the noun: "Elle roule bien, avec sa seule roue." For this little effect, the translator has chosen a fairly good substitute, near-rhyming "well" and "wheel." In the course of making dozens and dozens of such decisions, George Craig has done a remarkable job of making the English of these translations sound like the English into which Beckett translated himself.

Given Beckett's situation at this time, in which even the wheelbarrow seems to be doing its best against significant odds, any real joy or enthusiasm would seem to be out of the question. But the letters are often enthusiastic and even fervent, especially in a series exchanged with Georges Duthuit in 1948 and 1949. The general subject of these is the painting of Bram Van Velde, and the exchange culminates in the "Three Dialogues: Samuel Beckett and Georges Duthuit," published in  transition in 1949, which has always been one of the best sources of insight into Beckett's work. The additional context supplied here is probably the most truly useful part of the entire volume, since the dialogues are almost gnomic in their concision. Again, the letters are written in much the same spirit and even the same language as the work: "One must shout, murmur, exult, madly, until one can find the no doubt calm language of the no, unqualified, or as little qualified as possible." But the language of the no (or "le langage calme sans doute du non sans plus") is qualified quite a bit in these letters to Duthuit, which are sometimes so heartfelt that Beckett feels compelled to apologize. Between the message of renunciation and the warmth of the words that express it there is an inspiring tension, which is one of the most engaging characteristics of these letters that sometimes send off their stark philosophy with a salutation like "Votre Sam."

Both the Hemingway and the Beckett volumes are scholarly productions, which means at least that they are packed with information. The question for non-professional readers in such cases will always be whether the information helps or hinders. In the case of the Hemingway, the casual reader is likely to be astounded at the sheer investigative energy of the Hemingway industry. How much effort to find the exact name of Koulis' Kandy Kitchen in Petoskey, Michigan, when Hemingway himself could not be bothered to remember it correctly! But the Beckett volume far outstrips the Hemingway in sheer fussiness, to such an extent that many letters have nearly a footnote per sentence. Too many of these footnotes are nothing more than shamefaced admissions that the item in question is unidentified, as if it were a given that everything can be known and that any gap in the record must be owned up to as a bitter editorial failure. And yet, on the other hand - a footnote that ends in ignorance - what could be more appropriate in a work by Beckett?


LARB Contributor

Michael North teaches English at UCLA. His recent publications include Novelty: A History of the New (2013), What Is the Present? (2018), and “The Afterlife of Modernism” (2019).


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