A Q&A with Dan Gunn
Inside the Beckett Letters
Dan Gunn, one of the editors of The Letters of Samuel Beckett, is interviewed by Hynd Lalam, who assisted in research for the most recent volume as a student of Comparative Literature at the American University of Paris, and who is about to start an M.Phil. in Modern English Literature at Murray Edwards College, Cambridge.
HL: Do the letters of this third volume reveal a common thread, or a chief concern of Beckett’s over the years?
If I were a scholar or a man of letters it might be different. But what in God’s name have doctoracy and literature to do with work like mine?
DG: There are several common threads, but one of the most fascinating is developed in response to the international success Beckett is achieving during this period. This success has all sorts of implications. At the simplest level, it means he has lots of new acquaintances to whom he must write and respond, while continuing to write to his old friends (Beckett is the most loyal and dutiful of correspondents). Then it means that he is drawn more and more into the world – the world of theatre in particular. On the one hand, this is something he welcomes, encourages, enjoys, especially as he starts to cut his teeth as a director; on the other hand, he knows that for him to do new writing he requires solitude and silence. This tension is most typically dramatized by a to and fro between his two chief residences, Paris and Ussy-sur-Marne; the former being almost unavoidably sociable, the latter being indispensable for his work yet often experienced as oppressively isolating. A third way in which success causes problems for Beckett is more interesting still, as it makes it increasingly hard for him plausibly to promote his aesthetic of indigence and failure, when everyone around him can see that he is being fêted and heralded as one of the most important writers of his age. (This problem is set to become even more acute, when he wins the Nobel Prize in 1969.) What Beckett needs to find are new and increasingly inventive ways of indicating that failure – and all that goes with it – remains his true ground: not just that worldly recognition and fame are of little importance to him – that is the easy part – but that his work is itself still an attempt to give a space to something other than what has been recognized up to now as achievement in literature. As he protests to his old friend Con Leventhal when he is invited for an honorary degree by his alma mater, Trinity College, Dublin: “If I were a scholar or a man of letters it might be different. But what in God’s name have doctoracy and literature to do with work like mine?”
HL: If Tom MacGreevy was Beckett’s chief correspondent in Volume I of the letters, and Georges Duthuit had that role in Volume II, is there an equivalent figure in Volume III?
DG: Yes, there is: Barbara Bray. Beckett meets her through his work on his first radio play, All That Fall, made for the BBC where Bray was working. The relationship is first a professional one, but quickly becomes very much more than that. Bray was a highly intelligent, attractive, and accomplished young woman, and the attraction he felt to her was clearly mutual. Over the course of the following thirty years, Beckett sent hundreds of letters to her, and the early years of these letters form the backbone to the present volume. With Bray, he feels free as perhaps never before, to discuss his work in progress. This becomes especially interesting when he commits himself to the work that will eventually become that formidably difficult novel, Comment c’est (How It Is). Where before he has been very reticent about whatever work he was engaged in writing, now he feels – and part of this is certainly due to the confidence he felt in Barbara Bray – free to discuss almost every step in the writing, then the editing, then the production of this work, right down to his many hesitations over its title. For the first time, a woman becomes Beckett’s major correspondent; this trend, by which women become increasingly important as his correspondents, is one that continues to the end of his life.
HL: In this volume, what were the challenges in rendering the historical context of the time in which Beckett is living?
DG: There are several contexts that we the editors felt we needed to establish, but the trickiest one for this volume was surely that of the Algerian war. Beckett is typically reticent about it, just as he was about World War II; but it had huge implications for him, as his friends – and above all his publisher at Les Editions de Minuit, Jérôme Lindon– were so heavily involved in the protests against the use of torture by the French military, and then against the war itself. Beckett listens avidly to the radio news, he reads the newspapers cover to cover, and he is shocked when, for example, the apartment of his Sorbonne friend Jean-Jacques Mayoux is bombed, as a result of Mayoux’s protest against the conduct of the war. But in his letters he actually says remarkably little about events that are happening around him, leaving it to us the editors to assemble the crucial details of the conflict, as it spread to Paris, bearing in mind that these details were probably not going to be present to most of our readers’ – especially our younger readers’ – minds. In the case of Mayoux, I got lucky: the very day I was working on the letter Beckett sent him, in which he expresses his outrage in very uncharacteristically strong terms, I happened to meet Mayoux’s daughter at a dinner-party – the sort of coincidence that makes up for a lot of unfruitful research – and she was able to write us a first-hand account of what it was like to be in the flat that was bombed. This account has become one of the footnotes by which we try to give a sense of what life was like in Paris, for Beckett, during these turbulent times.