Beckett and Hemingway
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Season’s greetings from Samuel Beckett: ‘Allow me to wish you – well brought up as I am – much happiness in this bloody awful coming year.’ Or if you prefer the French: ‘…dans cette putain d’année qui vient.’

Assiduously gloomy. Inimitable. This is how the King of Nothing welcomed in 1957, in a letter – the final item in The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume II (1941-1956) – to Jacoba van Velde, younger sister of the painters Geer and Bram van Velde, friends of Beckett. This is Beckett the pen-pal, chirpy and inconsolable, scurrying between the Rue des Favorites, Paris, and the house that success built in Ussy-sur-Marne, 30 miles outside ‘Paname’, from where, in between bouts of hole-digging, paroxysms of ataraxy and many no doubt meaningless ablutions, he wrote this letter.

Despite his protests, by 1956 Beckett is thoroughly absorbed in administrating his genius – in proofs, in translation, on the stage, but also in evading interviews, declining honours and shooing nosey hermeneuts off his artistic estate, while quietly, sedulously directing and enlightening his apostles. Although he is over-worked, as his own manager Beckett is peerless. He operates through defensive, dignified self-promotion. He understands the lasting allure of enigma. He knows who his real friends are. And he is principled, though not intransigent, when it comes to the editing and censoring of his prose and plays. He has had local critical success with his novels, and now worldwide commercial success with En Attendant Godot. Materially speaking, he is as far away from the poverty of the war years as he has ever been.

Predictably, none of this has made him happier. Often, it is to his lover Pamela Mitchell that he confides. Famously, on the success of Godot, in October 1953: ‘I went to Godot last night for the first time in a long time. Well played, but how I dislike that play now. Full house every night, it’s a disease.’

Imagine waiting for Godot every night. And knowing he will not come. Beckett also despairs of his prurient audience, again to Mitchell in August 1955: ‘I am really tired of Godot and the endless misunderstandings it seems to provoke everywhere. How any thing so skeleton simple can be complicated as it has been is beyond me. People are never happy unless they are digging.’

This is the slow-creep Beckett PR-machine at its subliminal, perhaps unwitting best, teasing in the same breath it resists: ‘skeleton simple’ maybe, but then surely one has to ‘dig’?

James Knowlson’s biography Damned To Fame is more equable than its title suggests. Beckett was not, Knowlson argues, the ‘miserabilist’ he is often caricatured as, nor was he a saint. A wilier Beckett also emerges from the second volume of letters. And this returns us to the New Year’s blessing, because there is an increasing sense, across these two volumes, that Beckett has written and managed himself into self-awareness, and perhaps even brand-awareness. Lugubriousness is no longer an occasional effluence, or even a signature; no matter how felt, it has become the Beckettian stationery set, as quotidian as a New Year’s greeting.

The final letter of 1922 leaves young Hemingway – Ernest nice, clean, fine, straight, brave, lovely Hemingway – in a more mundane impasse, short of cash in Switzerland, paying his expenses out of a modest journalist’s salary, moving too fast for his employers to help him, and busily working himself into a sepsis of rage. When Swiss francs are not forthcoming, his response to Frank Mason, his justifiably wary employer at the International News Service, is laconic even by telegram standards:



(A locution borrowed for a telex message in Night and Day by Tom Stoppard, a Hemingway aficionado: ‘UPSTICK PROTEST ARSEWARDS.’)

The Hemingway of these early letters (1907-1922) sounds every bit as boisterous as the mythic Hemingway. Beckett recalls meeting him in 1938, at Sylvia Beach’s introduction, in a letter to Tom MacGreevy: ‘The Beach introduced me to Hemingway in her shop. Exactly like Alan’s Packard.’ That is, Alan Duncan’s Packard, a large American car. It’s an apt likeness for a static Hemingway, built square like an automobile. But it doesn’t stretch to Hemingway’s locomotion, at least in these early years. Like the déraciné of déracinés, Money’s John Self, he goes ‘bullocking’, over two continents, through Kansas City, through Toronto, through Chicago, into one World War, across Europe, back over to America, and even as far as Russia. He travels further and more violently than the young Beckett; and, like Amis’s Self, suffers and reports all with remorseless vivacity. He claims to drink his way into and out of jaundice. He smokes his tonsils into shape. He rises larger than life from these letters, like the Tarzan of the famous Miguel Covarrubias caricature, virile, brutal, endearing.

Unlike the older Beckett, Hemingway’s lifestyle cost him as much as his writing. Yet he was sure to talk like a legend even when he was not living or feeling like one. In a letter to his mother he paraphrases Flaubert’s words to Louise Colet: ‘You know what Flaubert said, “The artist must live like a bourgeois and think like a demi-god”.’ Hemingway, though by no means poor, did not yet live like a bourgeois. He traveled. He still had, in his own words, ‘a need of seeds’. His stories and poems were written around his job as a journalist, often late at night; his letters home, especially those from his American reporting days, were typed out without looking back in his lunchbreak. Towards the end of the volume he confesses to Pound: ‘I’m quitting the sheet. [This is between us]. I know what I’m after in prose, now anyway, [meaning for the present] and hope to give you a couple of samples of it at the end of six months.’

He stayed on the Toronto Star for another year, before returning to Paris in 1924. Still, at 23, he had lived almost all the archive from which the next six or seven years of work were generated: as a soldier, as traveler, as returning son. He was well connected in Europe and America. And, as in his letter to Pound, he was confidently forming a style – a style extravagantly bald, with no ‘ten-dollar-words’, as he famously put it to Faulkner.

The publication of Beckett’s letters has gone ahead with an authorial embargo on those letters that do not touch his writing. Is such a distinction possible? Here he is, to Georges Duthuit, the French art-critic and reviver of Transition, the Parisian literary journal for which Beckett produced a great deal of work as translator:

‘One must shout, murmur, exalt, madly, until one can find the no doubt calm language of the no, unqualified, or as little qualified as possible. One must, no that is all there is, apparently, for some of us, this mad little tally-ho sound, and then perhaps the shedding of at least a good part of what we thought we had that was best, or most real, at the cost of what efforts. And perhaps the immense simplicity of part at least of the little feared that we are and have. But I’m starting to write. It has just struck midnight. Until tomorrow.’

This, surely, comes express from Molloy-country, that dark land of syntactical indulgence. Even its serendipitous end sounds like a Beckett coda. Moran’s closing words in Molloy are: ‘Then I went back into the house and wrote, It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining.’ There are also in this letter, as always in Beckett’s prose, two voices: the over-talking, onrushing idiot savant, the bravura babbler Lucky, and the arch crack of its master’s writerly whip (‘But I’m starting to write’), the voice of sterner Pozzo. In Beckett’s prose and correspondence, these two voices go everywhere together, never emulsified, always in conspicuous, unhappy suspension.

Beckett’s life and work, on the other hand, are often impossible to separate, especially in the early letters of this volume. Hemingway is, as you would expect, more exposed by his estate. He did not, and could not maintain his authorial iceberg principle when it came to his correspondence. His letters were never intended for publication, and there is a very good reason: unlike Beckett, Hemingway did not care strongly about them as works of art. They were an important medium for the Hemingway performance. Here is seventeen-year-old Ernest transcribing a cold in a letter to Emily Goetzmann: ‘On pended gknees I peg your bardun vor the ladness of this legger. Bud a gombination of monthly examinachugs and Bad goldt are my eggscuse, or to quote “them immortal lines” the brooks are ruggig – also my gnose.’ The letters’ youthful, confrontational verbal exuberance distinguishes Hemmage the correspondent from Hemingway the ‘one-dollar’ author.

His letters, in that sense, offer few obvious leads for investigating the formation of his style – its lexis, its taxis, at least – and speak more readily about his experiences and personality. And perhaps, for Hemingway’s writing, experience and personality are more important clues. Ironically, the more exaggerated and inconsistent the letters are, the sharper the portrait of young Hemingway is. Monumental, well-tended Beckett is not, by contrast, obscure: the shape of his archive and the impression of the man are altogether more consistent. His letters speak inseparably about the man, the myth and the work. Why then Beckett’s embargo, his posthumous distinction between the man and the artist? Perhaps because he felt, as a writer, that, far from being extraneous, his personal correspondence was too revelatory.



The familiar melody of the Beckett myth goes something like this. Life is a struggle. A struggle against death, against time, against illness, against silence, against lassitude, against ignorance, mainly of others, against his own success and fetishisation, against convention and, of course, against nothing. And Beckett is a struggler. But not just any old struggler. He is quiet, determined, modest, principled, enfeebled by his own brilliance, charming, droll within his own comitatus. He is also sincere in all the proper places, wise, learned. Like a water cooler, he dispenses refreshment only on demand. Yet is crucially retiring, inscrutable, just beyond reach. In short, inhumane. The Beckett that ultimately emerges from these letters, although they very often endorse the myth, is far more interesting than the severe but sympathetically creased Penguin postcard portrait, the agnostic’s Father Christmas.

A little Beckettian virtue goes a long way. To each correspondent, with natural intervals, his monotony would have seemed palatable, perhaps even reassuring. En masse, though, each virtue shades into its obverse. Beckett can also be straightforwardly nasty, patronising and snobby.

One of the most moving passages in this volume is the description of his dying mother (to Georges Duthuit, August 1948): ‘…I keep watching my mother’s eyes, never so blue, so stupefied, so heartrending, eyes of an endless childhood, that of old age. Let us get there rather earlier, while there are still refusals left to make. I think these are the first eyes that I have seen.’ Beckett is most poignant on death when he accents what is still alive – here, his mother’s eyes, ‘jamais si bleus’. He loses great friends, like Alfred Péron, to the war, and later his brother Frank in September, 1954. Understandably, he cannot always find the same equipoise he achieves in the description of his mother. Often, instead, morbidity fixes him, as he admits to Pamela Mitchell towards the end of Frank’s illness: ‘Sometimes feel like letting myself be sucked in by this exquisite morass, just lie down and give up and do nothing more. Always felt that temptation here but never so strong as in these last weeks.’

Beckett’s skewed reading of Dante, a consistently consoling prism for his own morbidity, is telling. He is fond of quoting the purgatorial cry ‘Io fui’ [I was]. But Beckett’s Dante, as he is invoked, is a foreshortened, miserable shade. T S Eliot’s great medieval advocate E R Curtius is a more accurate and balanced reader:

One of the most striking things in Dante is his delight in the beautiful structure of the universe, in the glorious spectacles of nature, in the splendour of human life. When he meets acquaintances in Hell or Purgatory, they talk with longing and love of the sphere of earthly existence to which he is to return and where they wish to be remembered. His poetry teaches a joyful acceptance of our sojourn here.

(‘The Medieval Bases of Western Thought’)

Complaints about his health are, by and large, fewer than they were in Volume I. His vocation is his major ague – Godot the ‘disease’. In September 1953, he complains to Tom MacGreevy about his translator’s duties: ‘…this will go on for years, until 1955 anyway, an indigestion of old work with all the adventure gone. I tell me take art easy, but nothing will come any more, all contracted and unhappy about it.’ The constipatory allusion is fitting in Molloy’s case: it had taken him six months to write it in 1947, and roughly seventeen-and-a-half months to English it with Patrick Bowles. In January 1954 he complains to Barney Rosset, his New York editor at Grove Press, of ‘all this old vomit’; in September he claims, occasionally, to have ‘premonitions of a brief & final haemorrhage prior to what condolers call the higher life’.

His War on Silence – a struggle he tried to dramatise with the stuttering vaudevillian routines of Vladimir and Estragon – is voluble.

Beckett aspires to a better theatre, especially for a play as popular as Godot. He resents his audience’s ignorance, but also, paradoxically, their curiosity. Misunderstandings depress him, but he is equally reluctant to explain. This is certainly his prerogative. And yet he goes so far as to advertise his abdication in a letter to Michel Polac, a radio presenter who had written to ask for Beckett’s ideas about the play. Beckett’s response went on air, read by Roger Blin, the first Pozzo and a critical agent in galvanising the original production:

I have no ideas about theatre. I know nothing about it. I do not go to it. That is allowable.

What is less so, no doubt, is first of all, in these conditions, writing a play, and then, having done so, having no ideas about it either.

This is unfortunately my case.

It is not given to everyone to be able to move from the world that opens under the page to that of profit and loss, then back again, unperturbed, as if between the daily grind and the pub on the corner.

I know no more about this play than anyone who manages to read it attentively.

I do not know in what spirit I wrote it.

I know no more of the characters than what they say, what they do and what happens to them. Of their appearance, I must have indicated the little I have been able to make out. The bowler hats for example.

I do not know who Godot is. I do not even know if he exists. And I do not know if they believe he does, these two who are waiting for him.

The two others who pass through towards the end of each of the two acts, that must be so as to break the monotony.

All that I have been able to understand I have shown. It is not much. But it is enough, and more than enough for me. I shall even say that I could have made do with less.

As for wanting to find in all this a wider and loftier meaning to take away after the show, along with the programme and the choc-ice, I am unable to see the point of it. But it must be possible.

There is something odious about those choc-ices, ‘les Esquimaux’ – a snobbishness worse even than the fondled myth of the dark artist, with his inspired, unthinking Orphic utterances.

Among the initiated, he is less diffident. With Niall Montgomery, a Dublin-based architect, he is more expansive: inspecting Montgomery’s report on his work for New World Writing, he ushers him towards the keynote of Murphy: ‘The heart of the matter, if it has one, is perhaps rather in the Naught more real than nothing and the ubi nihil vales, already in Murphy – I imagine so.’ And yet on 14 December 1953, a fortnight later, he reports back to MacGreevy on this same essay with which (to Momtgomery) he had declared himself generally ‘impressed’: ‘I did not expect anything very penetrating from Niall. What impressed and touched me was the trouble he seemed to have taken and the evidence of at least having read the books, no easy or pleasant matter as you know.’ The earlier ‘impressed’ is meanly qualified. Duplicity is often a necessity of politeness, but there is something unappealing here about Beckett’s condescension.

Beckett pursued critical success, and he was sensitive to criticism, especially before he had acquired a lacquer of reverence. He was by no means indifferent to the literary establishment in these years. He certainly knew how to work a press-force. After the publication of Molloy he writes personally to reviewers Maurice Nadeau, Max-Pol Fouchet and the influential Jean Blanzat, even though he claimed privately to dislike his article. On the publication of En Attendant Godot he rewards both his loyalists and certain celebrities with signed copies. In England, he goes to watch the Lord’s test match with Harold Hobson. And he submits to chin-wagging with Kenneth Tynan.

Though he is principled when protecting his own work and image, he is not inflexible: when Godot comes to England he navigates several of the Lord Chamberlain’s censorship concerns. He sends several ‘stinkers’ to editors, notably Simone de Beauvoir and later Alexander Trocchi, the editor of Merlin, when his authorship is abused. He intervenes to spartanise the French set for Godot. He insists to Blin that Estragon’s trousers fall all the way down. He is also dubious about Peter Hall, director of the first English production, and the tenor of his production. Alan Schneider, the original American director, recalls Beckett’s audible whisper during the production of Hall’s they saw together – ‘It’s ahl wrang’. Beckett later writes of his relief that Hall is unavailable to take the show to America: ‘I am rather glad, having seen photos of Criterion set-up and heard echoes of their Anglican fervour especially during Act II.’ Among the copious (mostly voice) notes given to Hall, subsequently copied to Schneider, are several related recommendations: ‘34     In the loft. Simply. No pointing to heaven.’ And similarly: ‘59     Christ have mercy on us. Almost unintelligible ejaculation.’ There is a history here.

VLADIMIR: [Softly.] Has he a beard, Mr Godot?

BOY: Yes, sir.

VLADIMIR: Fair or…[He hesitates]…or black?

BOY: I think it’s white, sir.


VLADIMIR: Christ have mercy on us!


Harold Hobson pronounced: ‘“Christ have mercy upon us,” [sic] is the most solemn thing heard in our comic theatre for many years.’ But he had heard it wrong. Cyril Lucas had previously written to Beckett claiming he had checked the French for the sequence from the very end of the play. The final line, Lucas complained, was ‘the less committal, unparticularised and entirely comprehensible “Miséricorde” ’. Beckett agreed that the English inflection was part of a larger ‘redemptive perversion’. So much for Peter Hall.

But when he wrote to Barney Rosset on 15 March 1956, all was roses once more: ‘I quite like the idea of the London director for New York. I talked with him in London and gave him notes and I think he is now in a position to do a rather better production.’ Were there sterner words behind this encouraging, schoolmasterly glaze?

To Beckett’s famous reserve, finally. While he must have been initially unpopular in the Edition de Minuit’s publicity department, he ultimately served himself and his publishers better by conducting public relations on his own terms. He successfully coerced his long-time partner and, later, wife Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil into secretarial duties, at least for a time. A letter written by Suzanne arrives with Jérôme Lindon, his publisher, pointing inaccuracies in Blanzat’s review of Molloy: ‘There are a few gross errors of interpretation. It is hard to imagine that he should have confused Moran’s victim with poor old Molloy.’ Three days earlier, on 16 April 1951, Beckett himself wrote to Mania Péron on the same subject: ‘It took some serious inattentiveness to confuse Moran’s victim with poor old Molloy.’ In French ‘le père Molloy’, the same phrase in both letters. Indeed, Beckett’s back-seat-authorship lends the letters a third-person stiffness, like a reply to a formal invitation: ‘Beckett’s attitude to literary prizes is difficult to define. What he dreads, above all, in the very unlikely event of his receiving a prize, is the publicity which would then be directed, not only at his name and work, but at the man himself.’ Or here, again to Lindon (supply offstage row): ‘Beckett will not hear of being interviewed whether orally or in writing. I fear that on this he is not to be budged.’

Every so often, Beckett skulks a little conspicuously.


The Hemingway myth is essentially more plausible because it is partly cautionary. Its hero is powerful but flawed – more of a demi-god. Hemingway, like Achilles, is an avatar of virility: pugnacious, ebullient, instinctive, garrulous, outward-bound, and easy, breezy, boozy in an anodyne, functional 1920s all-American fashion. But the heroic stock from which his legend is cast has historic flaws: hostility, indifference, recklessness, jockishness, mendacity and alcoholism. Because of this, his letters, unguarded and exposing as they are, seem less revelatory than those of Beckett.

Hemingway grew up in Oak Park, Illinois, a rarified retreat outside Chicago, nicknamed ‘Saint’s Rest’ by Frank Lloyd Wright because it had more churches than taverns. Apart from the occasional brawl, the major outlet for his youthful aggression was as a boxer. The letters are scattered with the names of boxers, fights, predictions, bets and losses. By the end of the volume he is fighting Ezra Pound, whose efforts he affectionately disparages in a letter to the American novelist Sherwood Anderson (9 March 1922):

‘He habitually leads wit his chin and has the general grace of the crayfish or crawfish. He’s willing but short winded. Going over there this afternoon for another session but there aint much joy in it as I have to shadow box between rounds to get up a sweat. Pound sweats well, though, I’ll say that for him.’

Ten days later Pound ‘has developed a terrific wallop’, though Hemingway is quick to reassure: ‘I can usually cross myself though before he lands them and when he gets too tough I dump him on the floor.’ Mentally, Hemingway is hardly ever out of the ring. He is only half-joking when he applauds Pound in the letter to Anderson: ‘it’s pretty sporting of him to risk his dignity and critical reputation at something that he don’t know nothing about.’

Hemingway is notoriously, ruinously, competitive, as Anderson would find out in 1926 when The Torrents of Spring is published, a parody of his Dark Laughter. Eventually, in May 1926, he joshed Anderson in the most natural Hemingway terms: ‘…if we have to pull our punches and if when somebody starts to slop they just go on slopping from them on with nothing but encouragement from their contemporaries – why we’ll never produce anything but Great American Writers.’

Hemingway liked to think of himself as Scott Fitzgerald’s personal trainer also. Think of the opening pages of The Sun Also Rises, the audibly nervous, reflexive voice of its narrator Jake Barnes, so unlike the rest of Hemingway, but so like the beginning of The Great Gatsby. He joked to Fitzgerald that the eighth impression would read:


A greater Gatsby

(Written with the friendship of F Scott Fitzgerald, Prophet of THE JAZZ AGE)

With writing, as with boxing, he hated to lose and loved to crow.

Central to this volume are Hemingway’s wartime letters, written around the time of his service as an ambulance driver on the Austro-Italian front in World War One, experiences that would later nourish A Farewell To Arms. His letters home exude the same invincibility as his protagonist, Frederic Henry: ‘Well, I knew I would not be killed. Not in this war. It did not have anything to do with me. It seemed no more dangerous to me myself than war in the movies.’

What Hemingway gives us is a voice talking itself into immortality, or at least bragging its way out of anxiety. He assumes a similar swagger, a similar perspective, in his letter home (18 October 1918): ‘All the heroes are dead. And the real heroes are the parents. I’ve looked at death, and really I know. If I should have died it would have been very easy for me. Quite the easiest thing I ever did.’ The axiomatic sincerity of this passage is quite unlike anything else Hemingway sent home from the war. It sounds eerily like someone else’s voice, a standard-issue army peroration. Frederic Henry is, in this sense, a brilliant resuscitation of that bravado: an attitude that props itself up, mitigates some deeper nervousness.

When Hemingway feeds his style with a high voltage episode – the rape of ‘Up in Michigan’ for instance, or the violent vignettes from In Our Time – the result is usually mesmerising, because his flatness naturally amplifies any violence. In the celebrated war-wound sequence of A Farewell To Arms, for instance:

I sat up straight and as I did so something inside my head moved like the weights on a doll’s eyes and it hit me inside in back of my eyeballs. My legs felt warm and wet my shoes wet and warm inside. I knew I was hit and leaned over and put my hand on my knee. My knee wasn’t there. My hand went in and my knee was down on my shin.

Here, it is the triple repetition of ‘inside’, and the further jar of ‘inside in’; the missing punctuation and the disguised chiasmus, the mimetically liquid syntax of ‘My legs felt warm and wet [comma omitted] my shoes wet and warm inside’ – plus the matter-of-fact missing knee. The word ‘knee’ is there three times – which makes its absence the more shocking. The sequence feels at once lived and out-of-body.

The reality of Hemingway’s wound is a little more obscure. Frederic Henry is lionised partly because he is young, likeable and American – ‘il giovane Americano’ – and feels at first undeserving. Ted Brumback, Hemingway’s superior, informed the family of their son’s wound, and the silver medal for valour he was shortly to receive, on 14 July 1918:

There was an Italian between Ernest and the shell. He was instantly killed while another, standing a few feet away had his legs blown off. A third Italian was badly wounded and this one Ernest, after he had regained consciousness, picked up on his back and carried to the first aid dug-out. He says he does not remember how he got there nor that he had carried a man until the next day when an Italian officer told him about it…

This is also the story of A Farewell To Arms, with one salient difference: Henry does not carry anyone, but is helped to the first aid dug-out by two Italians, where, despite his reluctance, he gets preferential treatment. Several versions also exist as to the quality and quantity of wounds. Happily, Hemingway’s fiction is more credible than its source.

The voice in the letters is that of a pal, full of in-jokes and hokey little circumlocutions. Here, to Dale Wilson, a fellow staff member on the Kansas City Star:

Dear Wilse –;

Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Tis none other than the greatest of the Hemingsteins that indicts this epistle. Woodrow me lad, comma how are you. Much obliged for your sending ye old Liberty Bond. In the words of Smith ye beamer it was most good of you. And the great Hicks. He of the tortoise shelled disposition and the sad lack of anal covering. What of him?

And so on. A young journalist, hooting at his typewriter, wallowing in copiousness, flexing his verbal muscles. Occasionally it’s irritating, but largely it’s winning: he does not write with the spectacles of posterity, or if he does it is a prescription he will soon outgrow.

There is evidence of delightful nastiness, the fallout of that exuberance. He stops boarding with Y K Smith (and in doing so hobbles precious relationships with Smith’s siblings, Bill and Kate) because he disapproves of his wife Doodles’s infidelity. When he leaves, he takes time to rescind Smith’s invitation to his and Hadley Richardson’s approaching wedding. He ends his letter (1 October 1921):

‘So mote it be

So mote it be

Go hang yourself on a Christmas tree’

Many of the letters enthuse about the outdoor life, or reminisce about Hemingway’s North Country nostos around Lake Michigan. He records many of his catches in letters home to his father: ‘…caught a mess of the big perch that come in from Lake Mich. None under 1/4lb and up to 1lb. Bill S. and I caught 75 and sold 25 for 50¢ and split the rest to our families.’ But sadly, there is not much description beyond adjectives like ‘large’ and ‘brutal’. Nothing as compelling as the Edenic fishing scene in The Sun Also Rises: ‘He was a good trout, and I banged his head against the timber so that he quivered out straight.’

Hemingway’s youthful sense of humour is slightly more crass and anecdotal than it will appear in his writing. For instance, Frederic Henry reflects on the essentials of retreat: ‘The thing to do was to be calm and not get shot or captured.’ At fifteen, he is cultivating a nose for pretension (compare Elvis Presley): ‘This is how they say one for the money two for the show in Boston. “One for the currency, two for the Exhibition, three for the preparation and four for the execution”.’

Such urbanities are rare in an otherwise blokey fug. More typical:

Brummy and Dick were wading down the stream and Brummy was tired and wet and about two miles below camp. Brum’s beard was blond and curly and Dick sez, ‘Gosh Baugh you do look like Jesus Christ!’

‘Well,’ the Baugh comes back at him, ‘If I was I wouldn’t wade. I’d get right up on the water and walk back to camp!’

That wasn’t such a bad one Nespah?

You can almost hear the howls in the country club.

Great raconteurs are given latitude to exaggerate, so it should cause little surprise that Hemingway is also a born liar. But his lies are almost always interesting lies: to his sister Marcelline he claims he is involved with Mae Marsh, a silent-film actress who, when asked if she had ever met Hemingway, replied, ‘No, but I wish I had’; then, at eighteen, he tells his parents he is engaged to her, only to telegraph them ‘JUST JOKING’; he lies about his age to John Bone of the Toronto Daily Star; and, perhaps most fabulously, he claims to have boxed Henry Cuddy (‘a middleweight from Salt Lake City’) on a boat off the coast of Spain when Cuddy was still nursing his wounds from a fight the day before in Utah.

And all this with a famous thirst: ‘Liquor is all that has carried the enditer through the last month. By Gawd Liquor is a fine thing. Let there never be any throwing off on it.’



Although Beckett wrote several great plays, everyone, including Beckett himself, agrees that his prose is ultimately punitive, however interesting its premises might be. The tedious stone-sucking routine in Molloy, for instance, in which Molloy attempts to suck sixteen stones one after another (but each one not more than once) using a system of four pockets, is, as Molloy concedes, purgatorial. In the hands of a genius like Peter Cook it might come off; but then Peter Cook had his own material. The greatness of Beckett’s plays pays off the often forgotten mortgage on his prose. The short stories – ‘The Expelled’ and ‘The End’ in particular – benefit from greater shapeliness, but mostly from brevity.

At the centre of this volume is an exchange – ‘staggering’, according to the editors – which brings us as close as we will probably ever get to explaining the prose. Several admissions on Beckett’s part – ‘This evening, having drunk no more than three double whiskeys with my old golf teacher…’ – make it clear that they are quite literally staggering. That does not mean they are gibberish. Rather, they offer long-winded pretension:

This evening, among the dripping bracken, in this light from the setting sun, illuminating the storm from below, I had the feeling that we need a motive to blow up all this dismal mixture. It is surely to be sought where everything must be sought now, in the eternally larval, no, something else, in the courage of the imperfection of non-being too, in which we are intermittently assailed by the temptation still to be, a little, and the glory of having been a little, beneath an unforgettable sky. Yes, to be sought in the impossibility of ever being wrong enough, ever being ridiculous and defenceless enough. You speak of all those closed, achieved worlds that give off a grinding of solitudes, prides. And at the same time of a possible totality of being.

Still there? In toiling drafts like these Beckett and Duthuit lurch towards an aesthetic of renunciation. In discussing Bram van Velde’s work, Beckett concedes ‘…I shall tend irresistibly to pull Bram’s case over towards my own’. He admires Bram’s painting because it ‘is the first to repudiate relation in all forms’. He applauds the triumph of its non-figurative essence. He disdains the ‘definition of the artist as he whoisalwaysinfront­of’. And we hear distinctly Beckett’s own agenda, as well as its impossibility. The letters simply confirm what any reader apprehends if they have read Beckett’s trilogy: translated into the novel, such an agenda means no real plot, only vague arcs, no firm characterisation, and obscure, dilatory attempts at perspective. Essentially, no firm lines, only emphatic instabilities. Beckett’s prose is a struggle to elude form.

All of this can be made to work. Beckett had read some Kafka: ‘All I’ve read of his apart from a few short texts, is about three-quarters of The Castle…I felt at home, too much so – perhaps that is what stopped me from reading on…’ The world of Beckett’s novels, however, is fatally distinct from Kafka’s. The Castle, avant-garde though it may be, is partly powered on old-fashioned reader-friendly principles: we know, for instance, all K’s desires, all his aspirations, even as, chapter by chapter, they change. And, crucially, although K lives in a world where authority appears to intervene randomly, inscrutably, formlessly, K is constantly scrutinising and schematising the conditions in which and the reasons for which he suffers. And so, although nothing really ‘happens’ in The Castle, that deadlock is the product of a recognisable and compelling struggle. We care about K. Beckett’s creatures are not only incapable of rationalising clearly, they give up rationalising too easily, and crumble into incoherence. Or, worse, they are press-ganged by their author into saying droll philosophical things. Here is poor Molloy: ‘What I liked in anthropology was its inexhaustible faculty of negation, its relentless definition of man, as though he were no better than God, in terms of what he is not.’

Beckett’s agenda no doubt licenses such inconsistency; but to any reader it is clear which voice is Beckett’s and which is that of his creature. We do not care about the struggle of Molloy or Moran or Malone or the narrator of The Unnamable partly because they do not always care, but mainly because we do not feel it is their struggle, but Beckett’s.

The result is that the straining philosopher’s project is always visible, and the countryside of the novel looks more and more like a landscape of Beckett’s mind. And if his landscapes, so ersatz, so perfunctory, resemble the topography of medieval dream poetry, or some thought-experiment, more closely than they do anything lifelike, can it be any surprise that they fielded symbolic enquiries? They may not be symbolic, but they emphatically court symbolism.

The other problem with denying the novel its traditional pleasures, insisting on discomfort, disjunction, is that all its effects are inevitably local: there is no place for longer-term satisfactions. Molloy does have, in Moran’s degeneration, some parallels between its two sections, but these are no more than faint trajectories. Malone Dies and The Unnamable follow one long dilapidating line. Beckett’s novelistic palette is therefore reduced to cliché-molestation and rhetorical tricks. In terms of rhetorical ornament, he cannot use certain schemes, because they might appear too formal; that leaves him mainly reliant on tropes. But the first prescription of rhetorical figures is: use sparingly, and vary. Aporia, true or feigned doubt, features heavily; hyperbaton, the disturbance of regular word order, is another favorite. His absolute weakness, however, especially with these low-lifes, is for poicilogia, overly ornate speech, especially when yoking lofty and base: ‘And I am perhaps confusing several different occasions, and different times, deep down, and deep down is my dwelling, oh not deepest down, somewhere between the mud and the scum.’

The rhetoricians formalised their art for a good reason; and although no writer should write to satisfy that art, it does describe why Beckett’s prose can be so enervating.


Hemingway found Cicero easy: ‘Cicero is a pipe,’ he wrote to his parents. His style, on the other hand, keeps well away from the hypotactic sentences for which Cicero was so famous. He thinks Ulysses ‘a damn wonderful book’, and it is tempting to suppose ‘Penelope’ influenced the Hemingway sentence. Stylistically his letters are, by and large, very unlike his novels and short stories. Yet there are some signs of the famous gait. His earliest letters sound strangely inimitable:

Dear Papa

today Mama and the rest of us took a walk.

We walked to the school house.

Marcelline ran on ahead.

Wile we stopt at Clouse’s.

In a little wile she came back.

She said that in the Wood Shed of the Scool house there was a porcupine.

So we went up there and looked in the door, the porcupine was aslleep.

I went in and gave It a wack with the axx.

Then I cave It anthor and another.

Then I crald in the wood.

Wrane to Mr Clous and he got his gun and Shot It.

This reminds us of the labours Hemingway made to return to that supple, innocent-sounding simplicity. He has not quite returned by 1919, as he remembers Taormina, Italy: ‘…strolling through that great old place and the moon path on the sea and Aetna fuming away and black shadows and the moonlight cutting down the stairway…’


If Beckett is a genius he is, in the words of Christopher Ricks, a ‘high narrow genius’. Narrowness is all, with Beckett. Especially in these years. He guards himself, his work and, ultimately, his estate. As a correspondent, he is humane and monotonous. In his prose, he is drawn towards a project that ineluctably narrows his talents, and the effects he can produce. And he is, unfortunately for Beckett, a novelist who always works in front of you:

But my fingers too write in other latitudes and the air that breathes through my pages and turns them without my knowing, when I doze off, so that the subject falls far from the verb and the object lands somewhere in the void, is not the air of this second-last abode, and a mercy it is.

This from Malone Dies. Why is it hard to read at first? Because the subject – ‘the air’ – governs two verbs, the second of which – ‘is’ – is suspended beyond a sub-clause including the words ‘the subject falls far from the verb’. A mimetic success, but one that betrays a mind, cloistered at his desk, working mainly from the page, enjoying and indulging himself, as his agenda permits. This is the Beckett of the trilogy.

Worldly Hemingway comes richly from life. When Frederic Henry takes Catherine Barkley to a hotel room for sex in, Hemingway finds the exact, telling details:

I went to the window and looked out, then pulled a cord that shut the thick plush curtains. Catherine was sitting on the bed, looking at the cut glass chandelier. She had taken her hat off and her hair shone under the light. She saw herself in one of the mirrors and put her hands to her hair. I saw her in three other mirrors. She did not look happy. She let her cape fall on the bed.

Catherine complains she feels like a whore, but Hemingway has already given us all we need: the shutting of the curtains, the mirrors, the atmosphere of gaudy opulence, the cape falling carelessly. And the look at the chandelier. It has to be the chandelier. Out of the window is too wistful, removed; at the floor is too sulky, ostentatious. The chandelier, though: the attempt to disguise unease in the company of someone you love with an inspecting, upwards look. So few brushstrokes and so much achieved. Each sentence a diacritic for something supra-literal. Each detail contagious.

'Arete is a journal as exquisite in its execution as in its intentions.'
John Updike

'Vous m’avez donné un grand plaisir … votre revue m’est très sympathique et proche.'
Milan Kundera