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Samuel Beckett: His letters are studded with genius (credit: REX/Ozkok/SIPA)

"I'm a poor fist at letter writing": so Beckett in August 1960 to Elliseva Sayers, one of his former students at Trinity College, Dublin, who had stayed in contact with the man she remembered as "handsome, distant, a reluctant teacher trying to find himself". This latest volume in the superb Cambridge edition of Beckett's letters discredits Beckett's diffidence. Even his mundane correspondence could be vivified by verbal touches that, for a moment, kept flatness at bay. The thank-you letter might be thought beyond redemption, but here is Beckett showing his appreciation for a gift of walking shoes and at the same time defying the torpedo-touch of that most jaded epistolary form: "Boots marvellous, never trudged in such comfort." The letters collected here are studded with such moments, and it is tempting just to anthologise them: "No drink only bad weak beer and not much of that. But smoke like a fish."

The years covered by this correspondence were years of burgeoning reputation and growing success for Beckett. Royalty cheques of gratifying size were beginning to arrive with some frequency ("Thanks for your letter, accounts, enclosure of handsome cheque and proof covers" he writes to John Calder in June 1963); though Beckett could be sometimes misled about what was due to him. An unintentionally funny letter finds him musing on quite how much he would receive when royalties of 72,000 Yugoslav dinars were converted into a currency he could use. (The deflating answer was about £36.) Inevitably, then, many of these letters are routine acts of business, relating to contracts and performances. An impressive number reveal Beckett painstakingly helping foreign readers of his work with difficult points of usage or language. But here the opportunities for inventiveness and flair were thin. Work too could be dispiriting: "The work drags on at snail's pace, the heart or whatever it is not seeming in it and the difficulties too great. I neither let light in nor keep it out, I only try to say as little more than I find as possible, that doesn't sound right somehow, and as little less." Not that Beckett allowed that to upset him unduly: "I have never seen things so dark for myself both physically and writing, never I think also with such indifference." "I am drowning in my inch of old ditchwater," he writes in another letter, evoking a situation at once very bad and also — this is the magic worked by the little tug of possessiveness in "my", and the openness of "old" to suggest both the stale and the companionable — consolingly familiar.

A topic which recurs in these business-like letters is censorship. The diction of Beckett's plays frequently offended the Lord Chamberlain, and this involved him in a running battle with the guardians of public decency.  Here, however, there were certainly openings for humour. Rehearsing Endgame in 1964, Beckett manage to wring a joke out of a situation he clearly found exasperating and humiliating:

L.-C. continues to refuse bastard & pee. Trying leak for latter. But arses accepted. Bollocks overlooked.

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