Letter by letter

Lois More Overbeck finds collecting Samuel Beckett’s correspondence endlessly engaging.

By Elizabeth Station

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In 1985 Lois More Overbeck, AM’67, got a phone call that would steer the next 25 years—and perhaps the rest—of her professional life. The call came from her Emory University colleague, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, who had just been authorized by Irish-born dramatist Samuel Beckett to edit and publish his correspondence. Fehsenfeld hoped that Overbeck would assist her in the task. Was she interested?

Although a private person, Beckett authorized the publication of his edited correspondence.

“I was amazed,” remembers Overbeck, a modern-theater specialist who included chapters on Endgame and Waiting for Godot in her Penn doctoral dissertation, edited the international Samuel Beckett Society newsletter, and collaborated with Fehsenfeld on the U.S. productions of Beckett’s radio plays. She signed on, but her first reaction was, “Beckett is such a private person. Why would he want his letters published?”

Indeed, Beckett—who famously could not be reached for comment when he won the 1969 Nobel Prize for literature—restricted publication of the letters to “those passages only having bearing on my work.” Still, in the four years before his 1989 death, he supported Fehsenfeld and Overbeck’s efforts to gather his voluminous correspondence. “He always apologized to us whenever we met with him,” says Overbeck, a research associate at Emory Graduate School and a visiting lecturer in theater studies, “because he had no idea how many letters he’d written and what a big job it became.”

Scouring public and private archives, the two found and transcribed more than 15,000 letters penned over Beckett’s 60-year career. The first volume of their collection, The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1929–1940, was published by Cambridge University Press this year, in what the New York Times called “an elating cultural moment.”

The letters in this first volume provide a window into the writer’s early, hungry years. From 1929 to 1940 he corresponded mostly with friend, poet, and art historian Thomas McGreevy, but also with publishers and writers such as James Joyce. He taught languages at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris and Trinity College Dublin, but by age 24 he yearned to escape what he called “this grotesque comedy of lecturing.” He wrote poems, short stories, and criticism but complained to McGreevy: “You know I can’t write at all. The simplest sentence is a torture.” Publishers on both sides of the Atlantic initially rejected Beckett’s first novel, Murphy. Before finishing it, he wrote, “Sleeping very badly, I suppose because of the book. How hard it is to reach a tolerable arrangement between working & living.”

In 1932 he quit teaching for “private study and composition.” In London, Paris, and Germany he wandered art museums, attended concerts, and read books from Kant to “the divine Jane” Austen, scribbling lively critiques in his letters. Ill and short on cash, he also underwent treatment for anxiety at London’s Tavistock Clinic. “Three times a week,” he noted, “I give myself over to probing the depths with my psychiatrist.”

In low moments Beckett considered abandoning his craft to work in advertising, to become an airline pilot, or to study filmmaking with Moscow director Sergei Eisenstein, whom he begged in one letter “to consider me a serious cinéaste worthy of admission to your school.” The letters also reveal bright, confident flashes of the modernist-in-waiting: Beckett trades English for French, cares less and less about how mainstream audiences respond to his work (“where literature is concerned, a thing is either worth it or not worth it”), and experiments with a spare style, taking his first steps “on the road toward [the] very desirable literature of the non-word.”

To frame what Fehsenfeld and Overbeck call “one of the great literary correspondences of the twentieth century,” the inaugural volume features translations, extensive chronologies, biographies of Beckett’s major correspondents, and explanatory notes. Three more volumes and a single-volume edition are planned. In all the set will include 2,500 letters with another 5,000 quoted in annotations. In deciding which letters to publish, Overbeck says, “our main principle has been to follow a policy of inclusion.” Financial support permitting, they plan to publish a new book approximately every two years and to create a Beckett Web portal with aids for finding existing correspondences and links to international collections of related material.

Coordinating the project has been demanding and “endlessly interesting” for Overbeck, who lives in Atlanta with her husband, librarian James A. Overbeck, AM’67, AM’75, PhD’75. “The letters are scattered worldwide, so it’s not like we can just settle into a library and sit there and do it,” she says. “It’s a matter of finding them, making arrangements to copy them, transcribing them, and doing the research necessary to understand what they represent.” They’ve also had to decipher Beckett’s “fairly awful handwriting.”

Far from being burned out by more than 25 years with Beckett, Overbeck looks forward to deepening the relationship. “We began in 1985, and we haven’t stopped gathering letters—in fact, we have at least 300 new letters that we picked up in the first two months of this year. It keeps growing,” she laughs, “like mushrooms.” As for her future, she predicts, “there might be some things as well as Beckett, but there will never be an after-Beckett.”

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