Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


An interview with Dan Gunn on The Letters of Samuel Beckett (Part 1)

CUP: The 29th September 2016 sees the fourth and final volume in The Letters of Samuel Beckett series publish. Can you talk about your experience editing the series and the difficulties you have faced?

DG: Each stage of the project has come with its own challenges and rewards. Finding the letters in the first place was quite a task since they are located all over the world, both in private collections and in archives and libraries. Then there was the major difficulty of transcribing them, when Beckett’s handwriting is often practically illegible. In Volume IV, 95% of the letters are handwritten rather than typed, and so the task of transcription was very challenging indeed; adding to this problem was the fact that Beckett can, at any stage in a sentence, throw in words that are foreign to the principal language of the letter…

Then there is the difficulty of selecting the best and most representative letters within the constraint of a volume, even a fat 950-page book such as Volume IV can only hold so many letters. There followed the writing of the notes, which was never easy: partly because it was rather hard to judge how much knowledge one could assume in one’s readers, and partly because Beckett’s range of acquaintance, of knowledge, and of competence, is so very very broad. Then of course there were the introductions and appendixes to write, culminating in the composition of the General Index.

CUP: What do we now know about Beckett that we didn’t know before?

DG: The first, most obvious, and possibly most important thing that we know is that Beckett was an assiduous correspondent, and that he wrote a vast number of letters – something approaching 20,000 have been found and transcribed by us, the editors. This fact alone completely dispels the myth of Beckett the hermit, cut off from and repudiating the world. It affirms the much more accurate vision of Beckett as the deeply involved correspondent, the man who was close to a vast array of friends and who, though he chose to live far from Ireland, remained very close to his extended family.

And, almost as significant – and this comes through very strongly in Volume IV where his energies are declining but he still feels he needs to reply to practically every letter he is sent – is that for Beckett writing literary work was something done, as I might put it, “on the back of” his letters. By this I mean that he really did not feel comfortable settling down to compose some new literary work if his correspondence was not in order. My personal view is that the extreme isolation writing required of him (even when he was working in Paris) — that he go within himself to uncharted areas where a sort of solitude reigned — was mitigated or even rendered bearable by the “safety net” his letters provided for him. To put it rather crudely: writing took him away from the world; writing letters kept him in the world (even when he was away from it).

To put it rather crudely: writing took him away from the world; writing letters kept him in the world (even when he was away from it).

CUP: Do you have any favourite letters, and if so, what are they?

DG: Every reader will have his/her favourite letters. Some long ones I practically know by heart. I have met many readers over the years since Volume I was published who have told me that certain letters are as precious to them as their favourite passages from the greatest of Beckett’s literary works.

In Volume I there are several letters to Tom McGreevy that are breathtaking in their range and directness. I’m thinking of, for example, 18 October 1932 where he talks of why he rates his own literary work so poorly and that of the greats –  “Homer & Dante & Racine & sometimes Rimbaud” – so highly. I’m thinking of 2 July 1933, where he speaks of the death of his father: “I can’t write about him, I can only walk the fields and climb the ditches after him”. There are hugely important letters dealing with visual art (for example 8 September 1934 and 14 August 1937, the latter not to McGreevy but to Cissie Sinclair). The letters sent from the trip he made to Germany are marvellous, and absolutely key for me is 10 March 1935 in which he takes issue with McGreevy over Thomas à Kempis and then goes on to try to explain why his psychoanalysis is so important to him…

Volume II contains so many great letters that I would hardly know where to start. Closest to my heart are those to Georges Duthuit, as there is a lack of inhibition, such a complete letting-go that I am swept away by their flow and rhythm even when I’m failing to grasp all their meaning. If I had to choose a single Duthuit letter to take to my desert island it would probably be 3 January 1951, as it contains nearly all the elements that go into a great Beckett letter: humour, warmth, acute local observation, intense speculation on art and on theatre… But to my desert island I would also smuggle, from Volume II, a letter I find it hard to recite in public without tears: on-or-after 14 October 1954 to Karl-Franz Lembke. Lembke was a prisoner in Lüttringhausen prison in Germany who had translated and staged Godot in the prison. In his letter, Beckett thanks the prisoner in terms that are quite astonishing, terms that reveal the very deep sympathy he always felt for those who were incarcerated.

Volume III sees many – perhaps most – of the great letters being written to women, foremost among whom is Barbara Bray. There are two letters to her in the volume to which I’m especially attached: 17 March 1958, where, at the start of their relationship, he tries in his own singular way to console her – “I can’t talk about solace of which I know nothing” – on the loss of her husband; and 17 February 1959, in which he writes while still inebriated from the night before in a prose that strikes me as closer to his French in its lack of stops and its almost complete abandonment to its forward momentum.

For Volume IV I don’t think I should anticipate readers’ responses by signalling my personal favourites. But what I can say is that in times to come I shall regularly be returning to the letters Beckett wrote in the final years of his life, letters of the 1980s. For in these I find, again, so many of the qualities which endear me to him as a letter-writer, not least his fortitude in the face of loss and adversity; the fact that these letters are short and not numerous makes them all the more precious to me.

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