Letters editor Martha Dow Fehsenfeld remembers Samuel Beckett
Written by: Martha Fehsenfeld
Martha Dow Fehsenfeld
Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Founding Editor, of the Beckett Letters project was authorised by Samuel Beckett to edit his correspondence in 1985. Here she recalls her first meeting with Beckett and how his attitude to publishing his letters changed as he neared the end of his life. (Pictured clockwise l-r: Samuel Beckett, Lois Overbeck and Martha Fehsenfeld)
When did you first meet Samuel Beckett?
I first met Samuel Beckett in the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1976. It was during the time Billie Whitelaw was performing Footfalls. I knew this was an important technical rehearsal and I was lucky to be there. Sitting with Dougald McMillan (American literary scholar) in the back row of the theatre, I saw that Beckett had turned his head, raised his gaze to recognize that I was out there. He walked up to the last aisle, entered the row, put out his hand to me and said, “I’m Sam Beckett.” No warning. Our first connection. It was during this time Dougald and I were co-editing the publication: Beckett in the Theatre. (1988, John Calder/Riverrun) I had just signed the contract with Dougald and he said something like, “Looks like he’s not coming” but I said, “Of course he is, its a Technical Rehearsal”! This first encounter was the onset of many meetings Sam and I had from this point on.
One day, much later in the 1980’s, Barney Rosset, Sam’s American publisher phoned me and said, “Are you sitting down?” I said, “Why, is Sam alright?” as I knew he had been with him that day. “Sam is going to let his letters be published,” Barney paused. “Are you still sitting? He has asked that you edit them. What shall I tell him?” I said, “I’ve never been so terrified and excited at the same time in my life.” Sam had originally put Barney in charge of the letters project, making him General Editor. Frankly, Barney never knew what to do with me.
What was Beckett like to work with?
Electric. Without warning. Immediate. Innate politeness. Victorian decorum. Extraordinary. Memorable, I can quote so much about what he said to me even today. I asked Sam at the outset, “Why me to edit the letters? There are many more qualified people than I.” He said, “Rubbish, I picked you because I trust you.” It’s extraordinary because for so long I had a feeling that he really did not like me, not having occasion to have a particular feeling for me one way or the other!
Why was he initially reluctant to have the letters published?
He was an intensely private man who kept his private feelings to himself. Even after he asked me to edit the letters he knew he could not disguise himself. I said, “All you need to say is ‘Stop’ and it will be done.” His answer was, ‘Ah, it’s gone on too long, its gone on too long, Martha.” A kind of regret, inevitable resolution, ergo, ‘I’m stuck with it and have to stay with it’. It was always ‘Yes’ and ‘No’, always together. But he was always a man whose word was his bond.
He cautioned me, “You’re going to need some help.” I said, “You bet I am.” And then I mentioned Lois (Lois Overbeck, co-editor) because we had worked closely together on earlier Beckett projects and I knew her proficiency and dedication to his work. He said, “Just as long as you get along.”
Why did he eventually agree to publishing the letters?
As we have published in the introduction to Volume 1, Beckett wrote to me….”you know that I can rely on you to edit my correspondence in the sense agreed on with Barney, i.e. its reduction to those passages only having bearing on my work.” (18-3-1985, Paris). Following this there was a second letter, addressed to me in 1985 that he left undated, in which he wrote, “M.F. has my permission to consult my letters and take copies, in view of eventual publication, of such passages as are relevant to her research. This permission applies to all my letters, to whomsoever addressed and wheresoever preserved.” This letter is included in Volume 4.
I don’t think anybody knows for sure why Sam finally agreed to the letters being published. He could have been influenced by our mutual friend Alan Schneider in whom he had great trust (Alan’s letters are held in the UC-San Diego at La Jolla Library), or perhaps Deirdre Bair’s unauthorized biography may inadvertently have persuaded him. Sam knew it was inevitable, as he said to me, “One day it will all come out.”
The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1966-1989, edited by Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Dan Gunn, George Craig and Lois Overbeck is out now.