"I've the feeling no author was ever better served," wrote Samuel Beckett in September 1961 to Alan Schneider, who had just directed the first American production of Happy Days. It is a feeling compliment, and these letters bear out Schneider's long, painstaking devotion to Beckett as a playwright and love of him as a man.
Generosity was doubtless the motive when the editor of this exchange of letters pared the compliment down to form a title that sounds suitably Beckettesque (a little like those other titles that Beckett never chose, Nohow On and As No Other Dare Fail). Unfortunately, and inadvertently, this serve-yourself title raises the issue of fidelity to the author's wishes - the responsibility of directors, editors and publishers - which we know concerned Beckett acutely.
"I prefer those letters not to be republished and quite frankly, dear Alan, I do not want any of my letters to anyone to be published anywhere, either in the petit pendant or the long apres." No author better served? This whole book is a betrayal of a wish that could scarcely have been more clearly stated.
"Samuel Beckett's letters have been edited in accordance with the wishes of the Samuel Beckett estate, which stipulates that only letters, or parts of letters, relevant to Beckett's work may be published," says the editor's note. Where there are excisions, what may not be printed is summarised or even quoted in the notes, but the estate's proviso has excluded little, because it could be argued that every paragraph that tells us where Beckett went, whom he saw or how he greeted news about productions of his plays enables us to glean something about his working methods. If, however, only letters that contribute substantially to our understanding of his work had been selected, this 470-page book would have been slimmed to perhaps 100 pages. But selection means the exercise of that much suspected thing, judgement.
During a correspondence stretching from 1955 to 1984 Beckett becomes world famous and Schneider gradually learns how desperately he wanted to protect himself and the forms his work took. He learns not to improve on his author, not to omit a specified recapitulation, not to shift his work from one medium to another, not to expect him to come to rehearsals in America, not to print his remarks, not to ask him to give interviews, not to televise bits of his plays, not to ask him to elucidate his meaning.
There is dreadful comedy in the ordeals Beckett is put through, when directors ignore his directions, actors ad lib their own dialogue and censors alter his. After Schneider had seen off those who would remove some everyday words from Godot, he wrote with relief: "So glad you have been able to preserve the text in all its impurity." Imagine how he must have felt when he heard that at the end of a production of Endgame Clov was carrying skis.
Misapprehensions continue here among the notes. When Schneider writes, on 13 August 1976, that it is a "nice lucky number of a day", he is referring not to Beckett's birthday, 13 April, but to its being Friday the 13th (as he does on two other occasions). And when Beckett looks forward to a transfer of Endgame "with Pat and Jack and perhaps the stumps going into Aldwych rep in June", he is referring not to cricket, but to Nagg and Nell, stuck like amputees in ashcans throughout the play.
By the time of his death, Schneider probably realised how inappropriate it had been to ask Beckett to translate Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? into French, or whether Endgame might be filmed with all the parts played by Charlie Chaplin. He may even have realised that "God bless" was not the best possible salutation to Samuel Beckett. His appreciation, insight and gratitude deepened, and they were reciprocated warmly; so it is startling when Beckett abruptly writes: "I'm sorry to be of so little help. The remains of some convention seems to lie between us." Schneider's account of directing Footfalls and That Time while his mother lay dying brings home how very direct and literal these plays are. Happily, just before his own death he managed, after a great struggle with American Equity, to direct Billie Whitelaw in Rockaby in New York. It was a triumphant end.
Foolishly one had hoped that Beckett's would be among the great last literary correspondences, crafted as carefully as his prose and with every sentence, as he put it, "viable". Of course not. He had to answer letters incessantly, arranging meetings, passing on news, congratulations, consolation and adjudications. True, his work is much concerned with stretches of waste and void, but not like this. Only once every 50 pages or so is there a remark that is properly his: "Fin de partie gains unquestionably in the greater smallness of the studio"; "Things here are dark, to put it brightly"; "I am writing an even worse affair"; "Footfalls to boot"; "Acute perception of mental bluntening. Final paradox"; "That shd about finish me if all goes well".
Most of these are hardly "relevant to Beckett's work", and least relevant of all is a two-sentence letter after the death of Schneider's father. The first sentence reads: "I know your sorrow and I know that for the likes of us there is no ease for the heart to be had from words or reason and that in the very assurance of sorrow's fading there is more sorrow."
This is not about Beckett's work, but compassionately and completely part of Beckett's work. It is because of these things that the copyright notice in this book is right to indicate that Samuel Beckett has never died. Beckett, Samuel, 1906- .
Jim McCue writes for the "Times"