Samuel Beckett: the man and his afterlives

Actor Patrick Magee (1922-1982) in Krapp’s last tape.  (MS 11314) © BBC

Today’s post, by guest author and student of English literature Grace McLoughlin, is the sixth and final one in our series revealing undergraduate students’ reactions to working directly with the Library’s world renowned Samuel Beckett literary manuscripts. Again the Library thanks Dr Julie Bates, Assistant Professor in Irish Writing, in the Department of English.

Beckett’s archived work opens up new vistas for understanding the concept of an ‘afterlife’. Not only do his remaining manuscripts provide insight into his working life and creative process, but also his archived correspondence with others allows us a personal insight into the lives he touched, and how he touched them, revealing something more of him (more true?) than what the ‘after-images’ of the artist, encapsulated in both criticism and common lore, portray.

Following an artist’s or an author’s death, their personality and personal lives often become conflated with their work to a greater degree than before. As the person is now dead, they can no longer argue for themselves, and their writing provides the most direct access the average reader or literary follower has to them.

This is especially true in the case of Samuel Beckett. His work, ethics, and beliefs were ambiguous in life, and have posthumously become more hotly contested. Beckett refused to be associated with specific schools of thought or artistic practice during his lifetime, and the debate surrounding his philosophical views has spanned decades, to the extent that one of the most popular contemporary views is somewhat of a fudge, arguing that his worldview was ‘anethical’ — neither entirely active nor apathetic.

The commonly-held view of Beckett as an eccentric and highly individual genius , while enticing and exciting, is also somewhat alienating and limiting. Beckett himself warned against simple explanations: ‘the danger is in the neatness of identifications’ of him with a simplistic idea of unconventional prodigy.

The Beckett Archive has a unique and redemptive role to play in broadening our perspective. Interacting with some of the remaining physical expressions of Beckett — to see the things that he wrote and created with his eyes and hands and not just with his brain, which is what printed pages preserve — allows for a kind of resurrection of him as a real, thinking, feeling person.

Interacting with some of the annotated manuscripts and personal letters, doodles, copybooks and unintelligible handwriting of a man at times elevated to the status of a literary ‘secular God’ provides an instantaneous feeling of oneness with him. To see that Beckett’s works were worked upon — that they are more of a travail than a spontaneous and effortless oeuvre — and to learn that he did not lead a solitary existence, but rather had many treasured correspondents and confidants, creates a kind of personal sympathy and accord with Beckett which may be lacking when one’s experience of him is confined to his works, and to the myths which surround him.

Beckett’s correspondence is revealing of his personality and regard for others – visible, for example, in the great care he took to ensure that Pat Magee would understand him in their initial letters. He began by typing, and later wrote in a hand comparably more careful to the writing in his personal notebooks.

Envelope addressed by Beckett to Patrick Magee (MS 11313/22)

Furthermore, the archive provides insight into a depth of character and personal experience which would otherwise be closed to us. The content of Beckett’s letters are often moving in their melancholy nature, and demonstrate of the good-humoured mettle required to admit private challenges while simultaneously making light of them.

The material aspect of the archive plays a special role in providing this insight, however. Encountering the written word of another and their explicitly chosen materials, stamps, postmarks and scribbles allows for a vivid, intimate reading experience. It is possible to insert oneself as a kind of partial onlooker, a semi-participant in the exchange, positioned somewhere between writer and receiver. Reproduced letters are more lonesome — the awareness of there ever having been a lively and running exchange is more abstract — and they never achieve that imaginative event of ‘meeting’ the people involved. Instead, imaginative energy is squandered trying to envision that there were two people engaged in exchange in the first place.

The physicality of those preserved fragments of a person’s life and relationships, and the insertion of oneself into the material one is reading, colours and enhances one’s interpretation of the reading material to an unusual degree. One could argue that the use of imagination in academic research is precarious, even wrong — that to interpret ‘history’ from a personal perspective is corrupting of fact. Beckett himself wrote that ‘[t]here is no escape from yesterday because yesterday has deformed us, or been deformed by us’.

The archive paradoxically both enables and prevents such deformation of history and memory. It physically preserves documents, allowing them an ‘afterlife’ in the absence of their author or original proprietor, but also allows for a more personal, interpretive approach to academic research. Maybe that is the true nature of ‘afterlives’. Our interpretations (or deformations) of Beckett’s work are what allow it to continue to have meaning in the present. Perhaps it is what Auden meant when he wrote that ‘[t]he words of a dead man / Are modified in the guts of the living’. Reading Beckett’s handwritten words allows us to become more aware not only of who Beckett was, but also that he is dead and that we are experiencing the remaining physical pieces of a lived life and a life lived.

Grace McLoughlin