Waiting for the postman
Samuel Beckett’s work was centrally concerned with a paradox: the impossibility of finding any meaning in the universe, but the simultaneous need to say something. He was not an optimist about human communication skills. He wanted his art, he told the editor of Transition, to deal in “the expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express”. Despite these ideological obstacles, he was a prodigious writer of letters and postcards.
He corresponded on a massive scale over several decades. He wrote in minute detail to theatre producers and directors, to actors, editors, publishers, literary acolytes and well-wishers all over the world. Part of his 30-year correspondence with the American theatre director Alan Schneider, published in 1999 as No Author Better Served, alone ran to 500 letters. Every day he fired off thousands of small cards, arranging meetings, passing on news, congratulations and anathemas. As his fame grew, after he won the Nobel Prize in 1969, people wrote on any pretext in order to secure a valuable thank-you note in his instantly recognisable angular handwriting.
Yesterday, a collection of his correspondence went under the hammer at Sotheby’s auction house in London. They were expected to fetch between £150,000 and £200,000. Instead they went for a cool £243,200. Lot 95 – as the glowing collection of envelopes and cards, with their postmarks from Paris, Dublin, London. Berlin, Stuttgart and Ussy-sur-Marne, was reductively termed – were the missives he sent over a 40-year period to his friends Henri and Josette Hayden, both painters. Beckett scribbled in French about everyday matters, his health, his family and his work.
Beckett’s lifelong friendship with the Haydens dates back to a significant time in his life. He and his wife, Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, were on the run from the Nazis in the south of France in 1943. They met the Haydens in the village of Roussillon d’Apt and hit it off. It was during this anxious period, as he and Suzanne travelled the dangerous French roadways, trying to keep a conversation going and their spirits up, that Beckett had conceived a play about two tramps travelling in a desolate landscape, exchanging badinage and waiting for something to happen to give their lives meaning¿