The letters allow 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
The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume 4, 1966-1989 (Cambridge University Press, 2016)
The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume 4, 1966-1989 (Cambridge University Press, 2016)

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).

A 2011 review of the luxurious Sylph Edition
Archives: The writer Samuel Beckett in France in April, 1997.
Samuel Beckett

The title of George Craig’s recent book, Writing Beckett’s Letters, is both playful and paradoxical. And it prompts the question: how can Craig claim to be the author of someone else’s correspondence? The answer is both simple and complicated: Craig is a translator. He has spent the last fifteen years as part of a band of scholars, translating literally thousands of letters written by Samuel Beckett from French into English. It is a job that few are cut out for, involving long hours of arduous transcription and the seemingly endless search for that most elusive of things: the right word.

The work forms part of a hugely ambitious project, culminating in a four-volume edition of Samuel Beckett’s Letters. The first part, released in 2009, covered much of Beckett’s early period: intellectual development, his move to Paris, his encounters with James Joyce and the European literary scene. Its publication ushered a new period in the scholarly appreciation of Beckett’s work, whilst offering a rare glimpse into the personal and artistic life of this most private of writers. (more…)