The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume 1: 1929-1940

Overview

The letters written by Samuel Beckett between 1929 and 1940 provide a vivid and personal view of Western Europe in the 1930s, and mark the gradual emergence of Beckett’s unique voice and sensibility. The Cambridge University Press edition of The Letters of Samuel Beckett offers for the first time a comprehensive range of letters of one of the greatest literary figures of the twentieth century. Selected for their bearing on his work from over 15,000 extant letters, the letters published in this four-volume edition...

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Overview

The letters written by Samuel Beckett between 1929 and 1940 provide a vivid and personal view of Western Europe in the 1930s, and mark the gradual emergence of Beckett’s unique voice and sensibility. The Cambridge University Press edition of The Letters of Samuel Beckett offers for the first time a comprehensive range of letters of one of the greatest literary figures of the twentieth century. Selected for their bearing on his work from over 15,000 extant letters, the letters published in this four-volume edition encompass sixty years of Beckett's writing life (1929–1989), and include letters to friends, painters and musicians, as well as to students, publishers, translators, and colleagues in the world of literature and theater. For anyone interested in twentieth-century literature and theater this edition is essential reading, offering not only a record of Beckett's achievements but a powerful literary experience in itself.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"[This book] makes a mighty thunk on the coffee table. But reading it is far from homework: the Beckett we meet in these piquant letters, most written when he was in his late 20s and early 30s, is rude, mordantly witty and scatological yet often (and this is perhaps the biggest surprise) affectionate and wholehearted."
-The New York Times

"This is an extraordinary work of scholarship on the part of its main editors... What Fehsenfeld and Overbeck have produced is a revelatory triumph."
-Los Angeles Times

“The letters of some of the greatest artists of their day, of Wordsworth and Cézanne, Proust and Eliot, for example, though occasionally moving and of interest because of who they were, would never figure in anyone’s list of the ten or twenty greatest books of their time. The letters of Keats and van Gogh, Kafka and Wallace Stevens certainly would. And so, on the evidence of this volume, would those of Samuel Beckett… Be in no doubt about it, if Godot and Molloy lit up the dreary landscape of writing in the immediate post-war era, these letters are set to do the same for the new century.”
-Gabriel Josipovici, Times Literary Supplement

“Since Samuel Beckett was incapable of writing a duff sentence, the first volume of his letters, 25 years in the making, has been awaited with high anticipation… There are, of course, some superbly dark Beckettisms among these letters. His most characteristic utterances are what he calls ‘shining agates of negation’.”
-Jonathan Bate,The Sunday Telegraph

"Another way of explaining Beckett’s exodus from English appears in the fantastic new The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1929-1940. The first of four projected, this first volume is a marvel."
-Harper's Magazine

"The prospect of reading Beckett’s letters quickens the blood like none other’s, and one must hope to stay alive until the fourth volume is safely delivered."
-Tom Stoppard

“Impossible to mistake these letters for anyone else's work. Parts of them read like a nonfictionalized version of a Beckett novel."
-Robin Moroney, The Wall Street Journal

"Knowing as we do that Samuel Beckett is the only writer who can sum up the agonies and ecstasies of the twentieth century, if we had any doubts as to his relevance today, they would be dispelled by the amazing treasure trove contained in his letters—at last we are made privy to the full range of his passion for art and beauty, which is neither naïve nor sentimental, to the pyrotechnics of his savage wit, and more lastingly perhaps, to his deep humanity."
- Jean-Michel Rabaté, Vartan Gregorian Professor in the Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania

"The editorial work behind this project has been immense in scale. Every book that Beckett mentions, every painting, every piece of music is tracked down and accounted for... The standard of the commentary is of the highest. . . The Letters of Samuel Beckett is a model edition. "
-J.M. Coetzee, The New York Review of Books

“Compulsively readable, these letters from Samuel Beckett’s most prolific decade show up all the Irish master’s literary virtuosity and playfulness.”
-'Books of the Year', The Economist

“This first volume of letters presents a young, itinerant Beckett at 22, living in Paris and writing to James Joyce. His first works are coming out: a study of Proust, a book of poetry, short stories and a novel, Murphy. In these letters, as in his career, he is warming up, assembling a style. Beckett grumbles better than anyone in the history of literature... Here is a Beckett absent from the more polished, public works: simultaneously feeling and writing, caring for words yet movingly unguarded.”
-Daniel Swift, The Financial Times

"If volume one is any indication of the whole, we can expect three more thoroughly researched and professionally documented volumes, arranged yearly with handy chronologies, useful indexes, intelligent translations, clear introductions, large print, and helpful profiles of the main characters. The editors correct ordering problems in some of the archival collections and they explain and corroborate an enormous amount of detail"
-Modernism/Modernity, James McNaughton, University of Alabama

“Admirers of Samuel Beckett, arguably the greatest writer in English of the second half of the 20th century, have grown used to waiting for Godot, who will surely come tomorrow or, just possibly, the day after. In the meantime, these similarly anticipated letters have quite definitely arrived, and in an edition more sumptuous than one ever imagined. Has any modern author been better served by his editors than Beckett?... Best of all, each letter is annotated in detail, with every person, event and allusion scrupulously identified.”
-Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

“It is hard to credit the magisterial scholarship and publishing expertise that has gone into the editing of this first of four volumes of the letters of Samuel Beckett. Reading the 780 pages is like rediscovering Beckett the man in high definition and hearing in full stereo the emerging voice that would, quite literally, transform the world of literature and theatre in the last half of the 20th century… a breathtaking and essential work of human understanding… This is a great book; simply priceless.”
-Gerald Dawe, The Sunday Business Post

“In literary annals, 2009 may well go down as the year that saw the publication of not this or that novel, set of poems, or ‘important’ theory book, but, quirkily enough, the first of four promised volumes of the letters of Samuel Beckett… Can a writer’s letters — occasional and ephemeral as these tend to be — really qualify as great literature? In Beckett’s case, yes. For here is the most reticent of twentieth-century writers, one who refused to explain his plays and fictions, wrote almost no formal literary criticism, and refused to attend his own Nobel Prize ceremony — revealing himself in letter after letter as warm, playful, unfailingly polite even at his most vituperative and scatological, irreverent but never cynical, and, above all, a brilliant stylist whose learning is without the slightest pretension or preciosity.”
-Marjorie Perloff, Bookforum

“For all of us who love Samuel Beckett, there can be no more thrilling book. These letters not only cast light on his life and work, they are a considerable addition to his writing… This is a volume to treasure, not just study. No Beckett reader will need it recommended, merely announced.” David Sexton in The Evening Standard “In the final letter of this astonishing volume Beckett reveals a startlingly self-aware perception to Marthe van Velde: ‘You think you are choosing something, and it is always yourself that you choose; a self aht you did not know, if you are lucky’… This edition is beautiful to red. It sets the very highest standards of presentation and organizes inherently complex and often partial material most coherently. For example, many letters written to Beckett are lost, yet the reader is able to infer the tone and scope of his correspondence through the editors’ meticulous annotation.”
-M.S. Byron, The Review of English Studies

“The editorial labor in this first volume is immensely impressive.”
-Denis Donoghue, The New Criterion “The most bracing read [of 2009] was The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1929–1940, a portrait of the Dubliner as a young European with a hard gemlike gift for language, learning and mockery. Beckett’s genius exercises itself most exuberantly in the correspondence with Thomas MacGreevy, another Irish poet more at home in Paris, his senior but his soulmate. Constantly Beckett is veering between certainty about his need to write and doubt about the results, all expressed in prose that is undoubting, delighted and demanding.”
-Seamus Heaney, 'Books of the year 2009', the Times Literary Supplement

“One of the highlights of the year was the publication of The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1929-1940… Every page is a hoot. Beckett comes across as even smarter, and more smarting, than one already knew.”
-Paul Muldoon in “Books of the Year 2009”, the Times Literary Supplement

“Above all, this volume is an opportunity to become acquainted with Beckett the writer before he was established.”
-Jane Shilling, The Daily Mail

“Beautifully edited and annotated.”
-Philip Hensher, The Spectator

“One can hardly wait for Volume Two.”
-John Walsh, The Independent

“For Beckett enthusiasts, these letters are crammed with unexpected treasures, including displays of his dazzling erudition as an amateur art historian and his charmingly impractical ideas for the alternative careers he might pursue: gallery curator? Advertising man? Commercial pilot? Assistant to the Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein? There will be three more volumes in this admirable series; the next will cover 1945 to 1956 (the year Waiting for Godot was first produced in Britain, and the unknown author suddenly became world famous). Like Vladimir and Estragon, we fans will find it hard to wait.”
-Kevin Jackson, The Sunday Times

“The youthful worrier of these compelling letters, who suggested that ‘the man condemned to death is less afraid than I,’ was not lying; Beckett was neither a poser nor a hysteric… In a magnificent letter of 1932, to McGreevy, Beckett had chastised one of his own poems for being facultatif, or optional. It did not, he said, ‘represent a necessity.’ These letters are a quest for necessity—for what must be written about, at whatever cost.”
-Anthony Lane, The New Yorker

“It would hardly seem possible were the evidence not right here: Samuel Beckett, that most taciturn and private of 20th-century writers — the man who said “every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness” — was in fact one of the century’s great correspondents… There are many moments in these letters when it seems Samuel Beckett can’t go on. But as we await Volumes 2, 3 and 4 of his busy correspondence, it’s exceedingly clear that, happily, he will go on.”
-Dwight Garner in The New York Times & The International Herald Tribune

“There is fluent and brilliant evidence here of Beckett’s development of his unique and irreplaceable voice… Unfalteringly brilliant, this volume is of the same order as The Letters of Van Gogh, or the diaries of Kafka.”
-Nicholas Foxton, Time Out (London)

“Here is the authentic early Beckettian tang, straight from the source, unmediated by artifice… Beckett's strong language is one of the things that give the letters their pungency and drive; it is a testament also to the suppleness, rigour and strength of his writing that they don't seem in any way dated, unless a wide frame of cultural reference is these days in itself passé… There are treasures upon treasures here.”
-Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

“The editors are to be applauded for their remarkable efforts in tracing every fleeting reference in the notes… Roll on volume two.”
-Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, The Daily Telegraph

"This is an important work of impeccable scholarship directed not only at Beckett academics but informed fans seeking the man behind Godot. This volume is a landmark in our quest to understand Beckett’s great esoteric works and has definitely been worth the wait."
-The Washington Independent Review of Book

Joseph O'Neill
…an elating cultural moment is upon us. It is also a slightly surprising moment. Beckett, in his published output and authorial persona, was rigorously spare and self-effacing. Who knew that in his private writing he would be so humanly forthcoming? We always knew he was brilliant—but this brilliant? Just as the otherworldliness of tennis pros is most starkly revealed in their casual warm-up drills, so these letters, in which intellectual and linguistic winners are struck at will, offer a humbling, thrilling revelation of the difference between Beckett's game and the one played by the rest of us.
—The New York Times Book Review
Dwight Garner
At nearly 800 pages, Volume 1, weighed down with scholarly apparatus, makes a mighty thunk on the coffee table. But reading it is far from homework: the Beckett we meet in these piquant letters, most written when he was in his late 20s and early 30s, is rude, mordantly witty and scatological yet often (and this is perhaps the biggest surprise) affectionate and wholehearted.
—The New York Times
Michael Dirda
Admirers of Samuel Beckett, arguably the greatest writer in English of the second half of the 20th century, have grown used to waiting for Godot, who will surely come tomorrow or, just possibly, the day after. In the meantime, these similarly anticipated letters have quite definitely arrived, and in an edition more sumptuous than one ever imagined.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Starred Review.

Shuffled among publishers for too long, the selected letters of the great Irish novelist and playwright Beckett (1906-1989) are finally here, the first in a projected four-volume set. Beckett, known for his love of silence and texts that attenuated to nearly nothing, was a veritable letter-writing machine, though only his letters to director Alan Schneider have been previously collected; this project may well represent the last great corpus of typed and handwritten correspondence from a literary giant. Beginning with two letters from the then-unpublished 23-year-old to James Joyce (helping the master with some Greek translations), and ending with a short note describing a Bram Van Velde painting seen just before the Nazis took Paris, Beckett struggles valiantly, endlessly, to find himself (included is a 1936 request for admission to the Moscow State School of Cinematography). There's much to discover, including Beckett's relations with forgotten Irish poet Thomas McGreevy and some explicit shop talk, including a 1937 letter to Axel Kaun in which he outlines his ambition: "to drill one hole after another into the English language until that which lurks behind, be it something or nothing, starts seeping through." Accompanied by smart, exhaustive notes, chronologies and solid bios of all correspondents, this collection will no doubt deepen Beckett scholarship, as well as fans' appreciation.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Library Journal

The first letter in this first of four volumes is by Samuel Beckett (1906-89) to the illustrious James Joyce, Beckett's muse and mentor. The letter is concise, informative, and gracious, nothing more-not unlike many of Beckett's letters to friends and associates. The countless letters collected here are newsy, chatty, sometimes caustic, challenging, and even disillusioned. Other times, they are charitable, hopeful, and actually sweet in tone. The subject often deals with business matters, but also with poetry, music, and art. It is obvious that Beckett appreciated writing and receiving letters; his way of handling practical matters was another way of being creative. Most of all, letter writing for Beckett was the best way of staying engaged. The reading of the letters is benefited by the thorough research and care of the editors, including a chronological presentation, the naming of the recipient, and the place of origin. Of course, the soul of the book is Beckett himself: his will, his doubts, his intransigence, his need for recognition, his angst, his mind, and his heart. Recommended for all libraries.
—Robert Kelly

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521867931
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 2/28/2009
  • Series: Letters of Samuel Beckett Series
  • Pages: 882
  • Product dimensions: 8.78 (w) x 5.86 (h) x 1.99 (d)

Meet the Author

Martha Dow Fehsenfeld was authorised to edit Beckett's correspondence in 1985.

Lois More Overbeck is Research Associate in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Emory University, Atlanta.

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Table of Contents

General introduction; French translator's preface George Craig; German translator's preface Viola Westbrook; Editorial procedures; Acknowledgments; Permissions; Abbreviations; Introduction to Volume I; Letters; Appendix; Profiles; Bibliography; Index.

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  • Posted May 30, 2009

    Perfect Book

    This collection of letters is the missing ingredient in Beckett scholarship; the perfect companion to Knowlson's bigraphy. Beautifully researched by a team of bona fide Beckett experts and presented by Cambridge Press in a quality example of modern book construction (as a physical object alone, it is worth the money), it is a great read besides, a historical document of these creative times. Makes my Beckett library a work of art.

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