A philosopher in the ancient Greek city of Miletus posed a question. If somebody adds one grain of sand to another, and repeats the process, at what point do the grains of sand become a heap? The conundrum, known as the Sorites paradox, opens Samuel Beckett’s Endgame as part of Clov’s speech to the auditorium: ‘Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished. [Pause] Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day suddenly, there’s a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap’. The paradox asks us to confront the ambiguities of rational thinking and empirical observation, and in Endgame it frames the ‘impossible’ problem of being in the world, of what constitutes a life lived.
I was reminded of the Sorites paradox in 2016, when Cambridge University Press published the fourth and final volume of Samuel Beckett’s correspondence. On the instruction of Beckett himself, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld led an editorial team to assemble, transcribe and translate thousands of letters, telegrams, and postcards held in archives and private collections around the world. These traces of Beckett’s personal and artistic life have been ordered chronologically, and fully annotated with cultural and historical notes that are accessible to the scholar and layman alike. Surmounting this seemingly impossible task, The Letters of Samuel Beckett brings these documents together in one place for the first time to form a masterwork of academic scholarship and rigour — allowing readers to glimpse over the shoulder of one of twentieth-century drama’s most distinguished playwrights as he corresponds with actors, directors, and loved ones.
This is an excerpt from a review of The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume 4, 1966-1989, edited by George Craig et al., (Cambridge University Press, 2016), published in Studies in Theatre and Performance (July, 2017).