13 April 2009

Coetzee on Beckett's Letters

First, Josipovici, now Coetzee -- Beckett's selected letters are getting reviewed by the best. Deservedly so.

Coetzee uses the occasion of a review to give a fine overview of Beckett's life and thought during the 1930s, as reflected in the letters. For instance:

Migrations of artists are only crudely related to fluctuations in exchange rates. Nevertheless, it is no coincidence that in 1937, after a new devaluation of the franc, Beckett found himself in a position to quit Ireland and return to Paris. Money is a recurrent theme in his letters, particularly toward the end of the month. His letters from Paris are full of anxious notations about what he can and cannot afford (hotel rooms, meals). Though he never starved, he lived a genteel version of a hand-to-mouth existence. Books and paintings were his sole personal indulgence. In Dublin he borrows £30 to buy a painting by Jack Butler Yeats, brother of William Butler Yeats, that he cannot resist. In Munich he buys the complete works of Kant in eleven volumes.

What £30 in 1936 represents in today's terms, or the 19.75 francs that an alarmed young man had to pay for a meal at the restaurant Ste. Cécile on October 27, 1937, is not readily computed, but such expenditures had real significance to Beckett, even an emotional significance. In a volume with such lavish editorial aids as the new edition of his letters, it would be good to have more guidance on monetary equivalents. Less discretion about how much Beckett received from his father's estate would be welcome too.

A bit of internetting can answer some of the questions about money equivalents. This currency converter, for instance, lets us know that the £30 Beckett spent on the Yeats painting equals about $2,880.15 today. Not a minor investment, and, indeed, it would have been nice information to have in the book. Nonetheless, as just about every reviewer, including Coetzee, has pointed out, the scholarly apparatus in the book is vast and in many ways astounding and overwhelming.

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