In May, 2009, I greeted with considerable enthusiasm the publication of the first volume of Samuel Beckett's letters. Now the group of editors has continued the process with the publication of the second volume, The Letters of Samuel Beckett 1941-1956. As others have already pointed out — and as the general editor concedes in the introduction — the title is something of a misnomer since the actual correspondence begins only in 1945; during the war years Beckett was living in the French countryside (and participating in the resistance) and presumably had few opportunities for correspondence.
But the years that followed were the great period of Beckett's creativity: the decision to write in French and then the writing of Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnameable; and in theater, the writing of Waiting for Godot and Endgame (the production of the latter is to take place just as this volume ends). From total obscurity he became one of the most important writers in the world, and although he always resisted requests to furnish the "meaning" of one or another of his works he was a patient and polite correspondent.
Especially notable are the letters to the art historian Georges Duthuit from the early 1950's (their well-known "Three Dialogues" were published in 1949), in which he grappled with such questions as the nature of art and the nature of fame. I was also much taken with a letter from 1955 to a prisoner in a German jail who had taken on the task of translating and producing Waiting for Godot in the prison (the production itself is described in some detailed footnotes); the letter has an elegiac quality one does not normally associate with this writer.
Many letters deal with the vexing matter of translating his works into English, showing the frustration of allowing someone else doing this, measured against the loss of creative time in doing it himself; he also felt, as he says at one point, that after so many years in France and writing and speaking in French, his English was "queer".
This is a work of scholarship but the footnotes and other supplementary materials are helpful and not intrusive; letters originally written in French are presented first in French and then in an English translation.
Readers of the first volume will recall that Beckett had consented to the publication of his letters only to the extent they were of professional, rather than purely personal, interest and the editors have of course lived with this limitation (although there are hints that he had an affair with one correspondent, an American woman). I frankly do not find this a detriment: it is Beckett's writing that made him a great man, and any romances he might have had are surely of secondary interest. This is an essential aide to understanding the work of this writer, one of the greatest of the last century.
— Jeremy Nussbaum