From a nice essay on Beckett in the Boston Review:
This thought coalesced into a conviction. Thereafter, Beckett, who so valued control over his work and the paring down of language to its essence, chose French as his primary writing medium because he was afraid his wild Irish English would run away with him, as it had with his mentor, Joyce. The ironic result was a great writer in two languages who was a true master of only one. The contrast was pointed out by Beckett’s fellow exile Vladimir Nabokov, American novelist and Russian aristocrat, who admired Beckett as “the author of lovely novellas”—in English. Himself fluent in French, Nabokov observed that Beckett’s French was “a schoolmaster’s French, a preserved French, but in [his] English you feel the moisture of verbal association and of the spreading live roots of his prose.”
In Kamby Bolongo Mean River our protagonist is confined in an observation cell containing only a bed and a telephone. Behind the two-way glass, white coated doctors observe the incarcerated narrator as he chooses to answer or not answer incoming calls. The sudden ringing of the phone occasionally terrorizes the man whose frequent masturbation spells may or may not be a subject of interest to whoever these observational authorities are.
In the opening pages of the novel, the narrator describes the method he has developed for communicating with the wrong numbers and probable impersonators calling on his phone. Implicit in his method is a primer for the reader on how to read this book . . .
As Pozzo, the sadistic master who controls Lucky with a whip and a long rope, John Goodman is a huge, startling figure. He plays the tyrant with the ferocity and impetuousness of a big baby who wants an audience. “Is everybody looking at me?” Pozzo says, jerking the rope to raise Lucky’s head. “Will you look at me, pig!” In the first act, Goodman is all British tweeds and bombast; in the second act, he reappears, still connected to Lucky by a short rope but now blind and beached like a whale. He flaps helplessly on the ground. Vladimir and Estragon toy with him; in a struggle worthy of Sisyphus they try to get the behemoth Pozzo to his feet, which gives the production a superb opportunity for fun. Badgered with questions by the tramps, Pozzo, in his disarray, finds genuine eloquence: “When! When! One day, is that not enough for you, one day like any other day, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we’ll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that enough for you.” The speech has a Shakespearean ring, and it is worthy of Shakespeare.
Calder’s efforts to make these plays available to audiences have an almost missionary zeal. Yet he is anything but democratic about their interpretation; he speaks with scorn of those who do “perverse things” with them. “If you try to set Endgame on the Moon [as one American company apparently did], or in some such different environment, the play just loses all its meaning.” There is room for manoeuvre, he insists, but his scale of what is “acceptable” is particularly subtle—even obscurely so. “People say that the Beckett Estate is very tyrannical, insisting that the [stage] directions are followed exactly. But there’s always room for little differences here and there, for little interpretations. But the words mustn’t change. The stage directions mustn’t change.”
The result of this approach was evident in both the Gate’s Godot and Calder’s Endgame: scrupulously faithful productions, performed with passion and insight by committed casts, but dominated by imagery so familiar that all surprise was absent.
Perversely, it seems to me, familiarity has made these plays more inaccessible: their visual motifs are so well known beforehand that they are more easily dismissed. Godot is “the one where nothing happens”; Endgame is “the one with the old pair in the bins”; Happy Days is “the one about the woman buried in the sand.” Like conceptual art, the point becomes the idea, not engagement with the work.
That's a powerful point: what interest would Beckett's heirs have in promoting his plays as cliches? And why such worry? After everything that's been done to stage and manipulate other classic UK theatrical works, the likes of Wilde and Shakespeare haven't been perverted. In any event, leave it to the audience to decide what works and what doesn't.
Luckily, we have the Internet to bridge the trans-Atlantic gap. The TLS:
And though many of these letters have been in the public domain for years (some of the letters to Tom McGreevy, for example, already quoted by Deirdre Bair in her Samuel Beckett of 1978), the effect of reading them all together is completely different from reading extracts embedded in a biography. For biography, no matter how tactfully it is written, has the effect Sartre described years ago, of imposing a false teleology on its subject, of giving a shape and meaning to the life which it did not have for the one who was living it. Letters, on the other hand, are so moving because we live each moment with their author and time takes on the dimension it has in our own lives: of being more like a well into which we are perpetually falling at a deceptively slow pace than like a well-lit road along which we travel, our destination clearly visible ahead.
The quotes from the letters themselves in this review are just incredible. Here's Beckett rejecting a rejection:
My dear McGreevy, The abominable old bap Russell duly returned my MSS with an economic note in the 3rd person, the whole in a considerably understamped envelope. I feel slightly paralysed by the courtesy of this gesture. I would like to get rid of the damn thing anyhow, anywhere (with the notable exception of “transition”), but I have no acquaintance with the less squeamish literary garbage buckets. I can’t imagine Eliot touching it – certainly not the verse. Perhaps Seumas O’Sullivan’s rag would take it? If you think of an address I would be grateful to know it.
And I'll let you guess which author Beckett is referring to here:
His loquacity is certainly more interesting and cleverly done than Moore’s, but no less profuse, a maudlin false-teeth gobble-gobble discharge from a colic-afflicted belly. He drank too much tilleul. And to think that I have to contemplate him at stool for 16 volumes!
To drill one hole after another into [language] until that which lurks behind, be it something or nothing, starts seeping through – I cannot imagine a higher goal for today's writer.
Or is literature alone to be left behind on that old, foul road long ago abandoned by music and painting? Is there something paralysingly sacred contained within the unnature of the word that does not belong to the elements of the other arts? Is there any reason why that terrifyingly arbitrary materiality of the word surface should not be dissolved, as for example the sound surface of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony is devoured by huge black pauses, so that for pages on end we cannot perceive it as other than a dizzying path of sounds connecting unfathomable chasms of silence? (Translated by Viola Westbrook)
While reading Watt I came upon this YouTube of Samuel Beckett reading from Watt. The performance embodies a couple things I think Beckett is trying to do with the book, and, as such, I think it better conveys a sense of these things than I might have by spitting a few paragraphs of verbiage at you here. I’ll simply mention that what I got from this clip was the euphony of the nonsense language and the act of separating words from any meaning.
To speak of my reading of Watt, I got the sense throughout that the book was continually trying to prevent me from attaching any meaning to it, on a word-by-word basis. I didn’t like this, as I prefer for my words to have meaning, and I feel that the book and I wrestled to a manly stalemate until I reached this section, about 5/6 of the way through:
Three hundred and eighty-nine thousand and seventeen, said Louit, not and seventy, and seventeen. Oh, I beg your pardon, Mr Louit, I heard and seventy, said Mr de Baker. I said and seventeen, Mr de Baker, said Louit, as I thought distinctly. How extraordinary, I distinctly heard seventy, said Mr de Baker. What did you hear Mr MacStern? I heard and seventeen, with great distinctness, said Mr MacStern. Oh you did, did you, said Mr de Baker. The n is still ringing in my ears, said Mr MacStern. And you, Mr O’Meldon, said Mr de Baker. And I what? said Mr O’Meldon. Heard what, seventeen or seventy? said Mr de Baker. What did you hear, Mr de Baker? said Mr O’Meldon.
This brief excerpt comes pages and pages into this discussion, which also goes on for pages and pages. It was here that I simply stopped reading for sense and abandoned myself to the flow of sounds, and what came next was such a pleasant experience that I wasn’t sure it was correct to not have done it earlier.
This is, emphatically, not to say that I think all of Watt is nonsense, or even that one should read Watt completely as an accumulation of sounds, though I do think this section is correctly read as such.
I don’t know what he’s saying, but I like how he says it.
If you’d like to see what I mean, the book is Watt, the page is 58:
Thanks be to God, an opinion in which in tones that haunt me still my poor old mother would acquiesce, sighing, saying, Amen. Or is there a coming that is not a coming to, a going that is not a going from, a shadow that is not the shadow of purpose, or not? For what is this shadow of the going in which we come, this shadow of the coming in which we go, this shadow of the coming and the going in which we wait, if not the shadow of purpose, of the purpose that budding withers, that withering buds, whose blooming is a budding withering? I speak well, do I not, for a man in my situation?
Americans have for the most part read Samuel Beckett in a motley collection of very thin books. The average educated person typically owns the paperback of "Waiting for Godot" plus a select handful of the numerous other 50-to-60-page volumes, set in large type, that Grove Press issued over the years in a tireless effort to squeeze every penny from its star author, with his famous penchant for brevity. Those who have rationalized the cheese-slice books as apt vessels for Beckett's rigorous art of reduction and withholding may be shocked now by the appearance of a collected works that weighs in at more than 2,000 pages, in four thick volumes. . . .
Beckett, who died in 1989 and found celebrity obscene, obviously hasn't done much for our hype machines lately. As a result, one assumes, Grove has amped up his Centenary Edition with fresh star wattage. The general editor is Paul Auster, and the volumes are introduced by Colm Toibin (Novels I), Salman Rushdie (Novels II), Edward Albee (Dramatic Works) and J. M. Coetzee (Poems, Short Fiction, Criticism). These are heavy hitters, sticking their necks out to appraise the hardest act to follow in the literary generation before them, and their appraisals — mostly illuminating, not uniformly glowing — add a fascinating note of competitiveness to the volumes.
Grove Press, Beckett's original American publisher, has produced the most suitable tribute for so fastidious and ornery an author. The Grove Centenary Edition of his works, edited by Paul Auster in four handsome volumes ($24 each), contains almost all the extraordinary prose, poetry, and drama Beckett produced over half a century. Volume One (496 pages), with a superb introduction by Colm Toibin, offers the early novels ("Murphy" and "Watt"), written in English, followed by "Mercier and Camier," one of his first books composed in French. Volume Two (536 pages), introduced by Salman Rushdie, contains the great trilogy ("Molloy," "Malone Dies," and "The Unnamable"), together with "How It Is," all written originally in French and translated by Beckett himself. Volume Three (520 pages), with a rather perfunctory introduction by Edward Albee, brings together the dramatic works from "Waiting for Godot" of 1952 to "What Where" of 1983. And Volume Four (584 pages), introduced in dry academic mode by J. M. Coetzee, has the poetry, the short fiction, and the essays, including the remarkable 1930 study of Proust. For the diehard Beckettophile, there is also "En attendant / Waiting for Godot" (Grove, 368 pages, $22), a sumptuous edition of his most famous play with the French and English versions on facing pages.