A Q&A with Dan Gunn
Dan Gunn, co-editor of The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume 2: 1941-1956 discusses Beckett’s relationship to fame, his engagement with the French language, and his unexpected bond with one of his chief correspondents. For more on the letters, visit the Cambridge Book Club.
What were some of the biggest surprises to you in reading these letters and assembling this collection?
There are several surprises specific to Volume 2 of the letters. First is Beckett’s extreme reticence about the War. He worked in the Resistance, but there is not a single mention of this; he risked his life, but you would never guess it. His horror of melodrama wins over all, plus the fact that he had friends who he feels have suffered much worse than he has. Second is the strength of his bond with the chief correspondent of the volume, Georges Duthuit. The two men are very different, yet it is to Duthuit that Beckett writes with an unparalleled abandon. Third is Beckett’s rush into French language, which is clear from his fiction of the period, but is also demonstrated in the letters.
Beckett’s letters to Georges Duthuit form the foundation of this volume. Why does Beckett address some of his most intense and emotional writings to him? What role did he play for Beckett during this time?
That is a very good question but one that is very hard to answer. Duthuit was also something of an outsider to France, having spent the War years in the U.S. There was clearly a very strong bond between the two men, even if – unusually for Beckett – it did not last. Much of the bond was based on their intense engagement with the visual arts. I think that, in Duthuit, Beckett found someone with even more radical views than his own; Duthuit basically thought most of Western art was a disaster and that, after the Byzantine period, it was only with the Fauvist painters that art came alive again in the West (I exaggerate slightly). Beckett found this challenging. Certainly Duthuit, Matisse’s son-in-law and a very wealthy man, was enormously helpful to Beckett in this period.
How do you think Beckett’s experience in France during the War years, during which there are virtually no letters, influenced his correspondence afterward?
During the War years Beckett is immersed in a France, and a French, that is very different from the world of Paris intellectuals he knew. He works in the fields in the South of France, and lives simply and with difficulty. I think that there is also a great need to communicate after the War, and he finds himself having to console and help a lot of friends who have lost loved ones, which he often does through letters. But most of all there is a new tone of deepened compassion in the letters, a sense that he is a “sadder and a wiser man”.
As Beckett becomes internationally renowned, he sometimes seems to reject his fame. Do you think this is genuine? How would you characterize his relationship with his newfound notoriety?
I think it is entirely genuine, but only part of the story. Beckett wishes his work to be known and goes to great lengths to make it known. I think that the fact it is successful gives him a new lease of life. However, he did not himself wish to be famous or in the limelight, and shunned publicity. He is therefore deeply grateful to those who help his work to be known, and deeply uneasy with the light shone upon him, while realizing that this is not an entirely tenable position.
How can we expect to see Beckett’s correspondence changing in the next volume?
In Volume 3, Beckett has a much wider ranger of correspondents, as he is now an internationally famous author. He is involved in new media – radio, film, television – and writes to friends and colleagues about this. But the biggest change of all is that Beckett becomes much more open in writing about the work in progress. Whereas before he was decidedly reticent about whatever he was working on, now he becomes quite eloquent, giving detailed explanations of where he is with the work, what he is intending, the problems, challenges, and rewards. This is especially the case with the key correspondent of Volume 3, Barbara Bray.
Do you have a favorite letter in this collection?
I have many letters that I love, but if I had to choose one it might be from 3 January 1951 to Georges Duthuit, in which Beckett talks about the winter in Ussy (where he has his country house) and about the peasants in the area; then talks about his hesitations over the title of En attendant Godot; then launches into an explanation of why he thinks the set for Godot – as yet unproduced – must be simple. It is a letter that contains most of what makes Beckett such a superb correspondent.