Samuel Beckett’s first sight of the words in his head would have been as they flowed from his pen, not as his typewriter’s typebars left their individual ink ribbon marks. His first drafts were in notebooks with a pen (or pencil in the case of Watt). From these handwritten notebooks he then used a typewriter to prepare typescripts. These then underwent often protracted proof-reading and correction, but Beckett never bypassed that pen and paper stage. For the Nobel laureate, the pen was indeed a mighty thing. One can see these famous notebooks displayed on the website of the University of Antwerp’s Samuel Beckett Digital Manuscript Project. They have been lovingly digitized in a nerd storm of collaboration with Reading University who hold the majority of the Beckett corpus. Scholars who shell out the requisite subscription can pore over every word of Beckett’s difficult-to-read script. It tips forward at an angle of forty-five degrees as if a gale of creativity blew on the letters as Beckett’s hand pulled them over with his advancing nib. The letters are miniature Molloys with one leg shorter than the other.
To illuminate this manual creative process, photographs of Beckett are a boon - not because he was captured in the act, so to speak, but because there are other details that are intriguing. People appeared drawn to capturing him. His fame would have explained a lot of this, his appearance perhaps more. Tall with a famously furrowed brow, and with a complexion often seen of those who work outdoors, he was undoubtedly photogenic. His hair seems brought to life in a charge of static. The aquiline nose and piercing eyes are difficult to unsee. Beckett gave Murphy his own eyes, “cold and unwavering as a gull’s”. He was described as lean, even ascetic-looking. When we view these photographs, it is Beckett’s face that attracts our gaze, a magnetic force that risks obscuring other details within the photographic rectangle. But look again and note the man’s hands. In most images, they are tucked into pockets or clasped into a pair, revealing little. Further into the search, one hand rubs an eye under a pair of pushed-back spectacles. In another, both hold up a roll of film for inspection. In another, both are gesturally lending weight to an utterance. In one more, seen in profile, his right hand holds what looks like a half of stout. Elsewhere, caught unawares, he emerges from a theatre’s stage door, his right hand ready to take something pulled from his coat pocket by the left hand. Who knows what this extraordinarily private man felt about being photographed so frequently.
Although Beckett bowled a cricket ball as a left-hander, he was a right-hander with a pen. There are enough photographs out there that show just that (although one is shown flipped horizontally, wrongly suggesting that he held a pen in his left hand; elsewhere that image is shown the correct way around). In most of his notebooks the right-hand page is written on, with doodles and jotted afterthoughts occupying the left-hand page. A right-hander would prefer not to rest the hand on the binding of the opened spine to write over on the left page, unless paper was in short supply, which occasionally happened with Beckett. These books are those of a right-hander.
So look again at the hands in these photographs, particularly at Beckett’s right hand, the writing hand, and you will see the ring finger of his right hand is crooked inwards towards the palm. The little finger of that hand slightly so, but not noticeably - until in later life. This is Dupuytren’s contracture, a progressive condition, usually afflicting only men, and often hereditary. Lumps first develop in the palm, then become hard nodules that tighten and contract the little and/or ring fingers. These stiffened fingers get pulled in to the palm and cannot be straightened. Dupuytren’s contracture robs the sufferer of the ability to lay an afflicted hand fully palm-down on a flat surface. Knowlson’s biography mentions Beckett being first aware of these stiffening tendons in 1964. By the winter of 1979 to 80, the contracture was beginning to plague him. He used to grip a chestnut in his palm to try and keep his fingers flexible. Throughout the 1980s, we are told, “his restricted grip made practical tasks increasingly difficult”. None of the doctors whom Beckett consulted could help. In 1982 he wrote to Knowlson saying that the condition “reduces hands to claws”.
As a sufferer of Dupuytren’s contracture myself, I can identify with this. It indeed runs in families. My father had the condition and was advised to periodically plunge his hand into molten wax and let it dry before peeling it off. It didn’t change the course of the contracture. I have an elder brother with it. My own little finger is tipping towards the palm and is impossible to straighten, and a little crookedness shows on my ring finger for good measure. Thankfully, although uncomfortable, the condition is painless. The contraction I have is less than that suffered by Beckett - so far - but the condition is progressive. Above all, it’s my left hand that’s afflicted when I’m a right-hander with a pen (and a mouse). It’s but a small step, therefore, for me to appreciate what Beckett went through with a writing hand that was afflicted with Dupuytren’s.
It’s no surprise that for me Beckett’s Dupuytren’s stands out in those photographs. The hand that won’t stay palm-flat, the obstinacy of a finger that doesn’t lie parallel to those alongside it, one that gets in the way, the necessity to be aware of a digit’s abnormal position when doing the most basic of things - all these come to mind in a flash. Yet for anyone compelled to pen-push, accommodating this condition to the grip of the pen must be an ever-present tedium. The inability to flex the palm and fingers after an extended bout of writing no less so.
The condition is there too when typing. On our electronic keyboards, my left hand’s little finger dangles dangerously close to keys. I now raise my left hand and lower its unafflicted fingers to better clear keys from the unplanned path of the contracting dangler. On a mechanical typewriter, that crooked ring finger of Beckett’s right hand would have been forever risking collision with the keys on the right of the machine. One wonders whether Beckett accommodated his Dupuytren’s by reducing the incidence of letters found on the right of the machine - no man would have been better equipped to do so - save that the right-most key on an AZERTY keyboard is M, repeatedly essential in Murphy, Molloy and Malone Dies. Further research anyone?
In Beckett’s writing, hands are to be found everywhere. In Watt (written on tissue paper - often with blunted pencil - between 1941 and 1946), Mr Hackett stretches out a hand and fastens it on a rail, a gentleman’s hand rests on a lady’s thigh, whilst the other dangles over the back of a seat. Hands hold objects - and each other. They meet, they lead an infant, they are raised, buried in pockets, guide other hands, flash to and fro, press and fasten. There is a firm unhurried hand, a pair that ply a great iron rod and one that reaches out for hammer, chisel or kitchen utensil. Watt’s hands are big red bony ones. Mr Nackybal’s hands are hairy mottled knotted. Other hands partner the narrator in a clinched back-and-forth, both holding each other’s shoulders. Hands are emptied, they shake, pat, are astonished, pass through hair and rub against one another, sustain a chord. They balance and contrast one hand with the other. People and things are handsome, oral traditions are handed down, clothes and the kennels of famished dogs are handed over. A handkerchief is left behind, a handcomb is taken from a pocket. The novel’s texture is close-up, intimate, interpersonal and tactile.
In Molloy (written in 1948), whereas faces brighten, grow longer, are familiar, are calm and joyful, they are outnumbered by hands almost two to one. (One needs to exclude verb and adjective forms to arrive at these counts.) Hands tremble, clutch, clench in vain and clasp. They are helping and anguished. Text is written with a firm, even satisfied hand, then with a weaving hand that moves inexorably back and forth devouring a page with the indifference of a shuttle, performed, Molloy tells us, with his intellectual’s white soft hands. For good measure, Molloy tells us about his fountain-pen and his propelling-pencil. In Malone Dies and The Unnamable (both written in 1950), the count of hands again beats that of faces nearly two to one. The latter are floury or bewildered, searched for but not found; the former are limp and empty in trepidation, expert at wrapping, huge and exasperated. Bedridden Malone has a green Venus pencil, pointed at both ends and just long enough to fit between his thumb and two adjacent fingers, gathered together in a little vice. It gradually wears out and falls to the floor, though the narrative continues to be written. Eventually, the eponymous unnameable is bereft of hands.
In Imagination Dead Imagine (written in 1965), a year after Beckett first became aware of the tendons in his right hand stiffening, left hands hold left legs, right hands hold left arms. In Enough (the same year), there is the enigmatic “when the pen stops I go on”, perhaps suggesting a developing slowness of hand. In Fizzles (written between 1970 and 1974), hands are encountered fist rigid, then agape. They weigh on a stick. One rests on a wall before a window, the other clutches a shirt. Both are clearly trembling. Arms on armrests, hands are lightly clenched. A hand offers shelter. A helping hand pushes from behind. In Ill Seen Ill Said (written in 1979), a left hand lacks its third finger and has a swelling no doubt of the knuckle between first and second phalanges, vividly preventing one panic day withdrawal of the ring. In Worstward Ho (written in 1981), a head is sunk on crippled hands, an old man advances with a child, hand in hand, an empty hand reaches up to a free hand, holds the old holding hand. There is holding and there is being held. In Stirrings Still (written between 1984 and 1987), by which time Beckett’s Dupuytren’s was becoming very awkward to tolerate, hands supported the body’s head, but the head can barely lift itself to look at the hands. Instead, the past head lifts just enough to see the past hands. Decrepitude advances, hands being but one aspect of that.
The occurrence of so many hands in the work of a writer is perhaps no surprise. They feature intimately in the life of all writers, dominating the close field of view more for those who make marks on paper than for those who conjure symbols onto a screen. The attention of the creators of manuscripts has less diversion in this regard. It is more direct, certainly more physical. Indeed, after due apprenticeship, speed typists can delegate the task to their hands without much further supervision. The ploughman may have weighed his steadying hands on the plough’s handles, but his eye looked over them to the horse or the line they followed. For the writer, the pen and the hand that holds it have to be central. Beckett seems to draw on that centrality, that closeness and reflects it in his work with great intensity. An excision of personality and character in his work there may be, but hands are ever-present.
It would be trite to say that Beckett’s advancing Dupuytren’s forced him to thin his written output. Whilst it is true that many of his later prose works have a distinctive brevity, he had already practiced this degree of concision in his pre-Dupuytren’s writing of L’Expulsé, Le Calmant, Premier Amour, and La Fin of 1946. Rather, one should think of Beckett’s Dupuytren’s as just another of the physical ailments that so plagued him throughout his life, albeit one that he looked at daily as his pen moved across his papers.
That list of ailments is lengthy, and Beckett was unusually frank about them, a frankness in matters of health that I recognise as being very French. He complained to his friend Thomas MacGreevy (who incidentally had the distinction of introducing Beckett to James Joyce) that he had a bitch of a heart that kept him awake. He was plagued with cysts (on his neck, on the roof of his mouth, and on a palm, although which is not recorded) which needed repeated attention and cutting. He suffered abscesses and infections on a finger and thumb (again, whether on the left or right hand is unrecorded). He needed dental work for years, with bouts of pain followed by extractions. His eyesight started troubling him at the young age of 42, deteriorated to the extent that he fell into a garage pit he’d not spotted, breaking two ribs, and didn’t recover until he’d had two cataract operations only in his late 60s. Flu visited him too many times, pleurisy twice in his 30s, and an abscess on his lung nearly finished him in his early 60s. He further confided to Thomas MacGreevy that his anus caused him to come to the boil out of his sleep, perhaps linked to the pruritus that bothered him. In another letter to MacGreevy he described how a very painful lump between, as he put it, his wind and his water immobilised him.
It is hard to reconcile this litany of afflictions with the author of so many works, each of which was written, corrected, typed, re-typed, proof-read and then self-translated - only to be put through the same process once more - in a blizzard of creativity. Add to that a lifetime output of perhaps 15,000 letters and a habit of replying to every single one that he ever received. One of his biographer’s most telling observations was that as “a Stoic himself, Beckett was at his best when reassuring, advising or consoling others”. Biographies of Beckett do indeed attest to him being a man who, whilst preferring privacy and solitude, engaged with genuine courtesy and often conviviality.
Beckett’s Dupuytren’s condition would have been an affliction of a different order to those listed above, painless yet increasingly awkward during the process of creativity. It marked the hand that gave the world one of the most distinctive literary legacies, his pen held by an increasingly contorted grip. It was part of the hand that this friendly scholar would have extended in greeting to the world he inhabited - more so in his adopted France where the shaking of hands has long been de rigueur. Some exemplary coup de main.
With one exception, I have left out all inverted commas. Readers should spot that I have been quoting Beckett verbatim, and may have appreciated the improvement in text flow without such marks. For the same reason, nailing which page of any quoted text I was drawing from has also been deliberately omitted.
Photographs of Beckett’s hands
- 1961: Michael Peto’s photograph held by the National Portrait Gallery, showing little or no sign of Dupuytren’s contracture in Beckett’s right hand
- 1964: Steve Schapiro’s photograph of Beckett examining a roll of film, in Elle, showing Dupuytren’s contracture evident, but not pronounced
- 1964: Bruce Davidson’s photographs for Magnum, in an interesting article by Mark Nixon, show Dupuytren’s contracture evident and pronounced. The second one, with fingers of the right hand on his chin, and the last one with that same hand with its palm facing the camera, both show the condition clearly. (Note Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photograph of Beckett in his book-lined, Paris study on that page. Note the pen on the desk but no typewriter.)
- 1984: John Minihan’s photographs at the National Portrait Gallery: Beckett’s grip on a glass of stout, his hand reaching across to a coat pocket, the right hand raised in the act of theatre direction, and holding a pencil, fingers on forehead, all showing Dupuytren’s contracture.
- Did Beckett ever type a first draft, as opposed to writing it?
- Did Beckett use typewriters with both QWERTY layouts and AZERTY layouts? We know from Knowlson’s biography and his own letters that typewriters were lugged from A to B, but no mention I can spot is made of their language layout.
… and answers
I am indebted to Professor Laura Salisbury who, with the assistance of fellow Beckett scholars in The Samuel Beckett Society, helped provide me with answers to the above questions. Although Beckett did indeed write his first drafts by hand, for the typing of his manuscripts he used both QWERTY and AZERTY layout machines. (Whilst one of his QWERTY machines was a Remington, one of his AZERTY ones was a Japy.) Aside from Beckett’s literary output, for his correspondence, again most of this was handwritten although Beckett did type letters to those of his correspondents whom he knew found his handwriting hard to decipher. His American publisher Barney Rossett was one such correspondent. In his letters, he said that he either couldn’t face the typewriter or couldn’t stand it, but these grumbles pre-date the first appearance of the stiffening tendons in his right hand.
One detail that needs further research is the fact that Beckett’s handwriting apparently became more legible with age, not less. Did increased inflexibility lead to this? Do stricken fingers that become so bent that they fold into the palm and therefore further out of the way, leading to less of an impediment when writing, this apparent amelioration coming after years of progressive inflexibility? Corroboration of this from sufferers of advanced Dupuytren’s where the affliction has struck the writing hand would be of great value in this matter.
- Dupuytren Foundation: a photographic gallery of afflicted hands.
- Dupuytren Foundation: results of a brief survey answered by sufferers of the condition.
- Samuel Beckett Digital Manuscript Project: genetic editions (subscription required but thumbnail images visible).
- Samuel Beckett Digital Manuscript Project: the notebooks (subscription required, but thumbnail images visible).
- Samuel Beckett Digital Manuscript Project: free sample - the manuscripts of Krapp’s Last Tape (subscription NOT required, view Beckett’s handwriting close-up, 1958).