When Cambridge University Press published the first volume of Samuel Beckett’s letters back in 2009, it broke a long and enigmatic silence. Letters by the writer had been published before, scattered here and there, but were often of largely academic interest, and focused explicitly on some aspect of his work. With the first volume, readers were granted access to a wider range of correspondence that follows a young Beckett from Ireland to London, and ultimately to Paris. While popular with many critics and academics, the collection offered the general public a privileged peek into the writer’s day-to-day life.
The second volume (of a projected four) finds Beckett in Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War. The letters provide a rare glimpse of Parisian life during a period of rapid cultural and historical change. We gain a sense of the books he read, the music he listened to, and the galleries he visited. There are intimate exchanges with colleagues and friends that suggest what was going on in the mind of the writer during this time. But, perhaps most significantly of all, the letters allow us to look over his shoulder as he writes some of his best-known works: The Trilogy (Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable) and Waiting for Godot.
Dan Gunn, one of the editors of the letters, sheds light on the process that brought the collection into the public eye. The conversation touches upon the crucial role that letters often play in the lives of writers and poets, and how technology is changing the way we access and understand them. Gunn shares the difficulties and rewards of working on such a large project, expands on the cultural and artistic climate of post-war Paris, and the role that one friend played in Beckett’s development as a writer.
Rhys Tranter: How did you become involved in the publication of Samuel Beckett’s Letters?
Dan Gunn: My involvement in the project that had as its goal the publication of a selection of Samuel Beckett’s letters came about, like most good things in my life, through friendship. Not long after moving to Paris in 1984 to take up a post as a lecteur d’anglais at the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Saint-Cloud (not the same Ecole Normale that Beckett attended, but a more recent version of the institution), through my friend Gabriel Josipovici I got to know Catharine Carver, who herself had recently moved to the city from England.
For those who did not know Catharine Carver personally, or even by reputation, it will be hard to understand what a powerful effect she had on most people she met. She was, quite simply, the best literary editor of her generation, and the most insightful, meticulous, and imaginative reader one could ever hope to encounter. Catharine was American but had moved to England in her thirties and never returned to the US. She was the editor of great writers, including, among many others, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Ken Kesey, Leonard Cohen, Flannery O’Connor (whose letters make clear how important she was to the author), Iris Murdoch, and Richard Ellmann. She was also considered one of the world authorities on the editing of biographies and letters. Whenever I would meet Catharine, her first question was always, “So what have you been working on?” If I hadn’t been doing some of my own writing, she did not conceal her disappointment at how I had been wasting my time. And whenever I had finally written some new essay or story, she would take it away, returning it to me two days later—however long it was—covered in marks in blue pencil—marks that I came both to long for and dread.
When Martha Fehsenfeld and Lois Overbeck, the former of whom had been chosen by Beckett to work on his letters, and the latter of whom had been chosen by the former to assist in this huge project, consulted literary editors in the U.S., they heard the same story from many: try to get Catharine Carver to give you assistance. I still remember the evening when Catharine told me that she would soon be visited, in Paris, by Martha and Lois, and that if she liked what they were doing then she might introduce them to me. Clearly, she did like what they were doing, and the introduction was made.
While already a Beckett enthusiast, I did not consider myself a Beckett “specialist,” even if I had written a large part of my Ph.D. thesis on his work. (I have never aspired to be a specialist of anything, in fact, and have tried to cling to being a “generalist” for as long as possible.) After the initial introduction to Martha and Lois, for several years I helped out informally on the project, which was still in its early stages, assisting mostly in matters concerning France and French. When it became clear that this assistance was not sufficient, I encouraged my university, the American University of Paris, to become involved in the project, and by the early 1990s we had established a center here, with myself directing student interns who helped with some of the research (the seeking out of references, many of which have proved dauntingly obscure).
I can not fully be said to have answered your question, however, until I explain how the editorial team was completed, through the addition of George Craig. I first met George in 1976 on a squash court at Sussex University. Some time after that I found myself in one of George’s classes on French literature. For me, as for so many of his students, this was the experience that I had been waiting for, the spark that made my choice of going to university, and to Sussex in particular, the right one. I proceeded to sign up for every one of George’s classes that I could, and that must have included at least one that considered Beckett; and in the meanwhile we became regular squash partners and friends.
When I began to realize the amplitude of the Beckett letters project, and to see just how much French material would need to be translated—and how very difficult much of it was—I knew that the one person up to the task was George. Not only is he an Irishman who went to Trinity College, Dublin, and then to the Ecole Normale Supérieure (Beckett’s Ecole, exactly 25 years later), but he has an incomparable mastery of the two languages required for this task: French and the curious sort of Anglo-Irish that Beckett writes. And so it was that I suggested to Lois and Marty that we invite George to join our team. We have now been working together for twenty years or so, and while many of these years were lost in complex legal wrangling and complications over rights, we are still going strong.
RT: Beckett’s letters are addressed to recipients all over the world, and form correspondences across several languages. What kind of challenges has this posed to the editorial team?
DG: Let me try to answer your question in two parts: the finding and collecting of letters first, and then their several languages.
As you say, Beckett had friends and colleagues all over the world to whom he wrote. And then, these individuals often either gave or sold their letters to archives and libraries which themselves are scattered worldwide. In the case where the letters are in public collections, the problems have mostly been logistic, requiring travel to the archives and then transcription of the letters in situ. My fellow editors Martha Fehsenfeld and Lois Overbeck have done most of this legwork, and it has required them to spend a lot of time, for example, at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, at the Beckett archive of the University of Reading, at the IMEC in Normandy, or at the Suhrkamp Verlag archives in Germany.
Those cases where the letters Beckett wrote to an individual are still in private hands pose other challenges. It was necessary, first, for the editors to contact the individual and to apprise him or her of the project. Then it was necessary to explain why letters written for one particular friend by the rather private Samuel Beckett might appropriately be made available to a much wider audience. In the case of Beckett’s friends, this has often been no easy case to make, as all his intimates were of course aware of his aversion to publicity. To speak only of my own recent experience, in the past couple of years three of Beckett’s old friends decided to share their correspondence with me, yet they had been contacted years, even decades before, in the hope that they would do this. A great deal of patience and understanding has been required, as the sharing of letters involves Beckett’s friends in what can feel like the breaking of a bond—even if it also often involves a great sense of relief and pride in the sharing of what was hitherto a private relationship. The crucial element in this sharing is unquestionably trust: until a Beckett friend comes to feel trust in the editors and what they are attempting, then the archive, and sometimes even the door, remains closed.
That Beckett was such a superb linguist is a source of great delight for anyone interested in languages, but it is also the source of numerous challenges. Firstly, it makes his letters even harder to transcribe than they would otherwise be—and they really are mind-numbingly hard at times—as one can never be sure that the word which one cannot quite discern is in the principal language of the letter surrounding it. In the middle of a letter in French to Avigdor Arikha, for example, Beckett suddenly writes, in an almost impossibly obscure hand, “drifting around.” Why did he choose to write these words in English? Presumably because they came to him in English—these English words matched most accurately his particular sense at that time of how he was idling. I won’t tell you how long it took me to figure out that these words were not in French!
The greater challenge, of course, lies in how best to present Beckett’s foreign-language letters to a principally English-language audience. We had first to decide if we wished to present Beckett’s letters in translation only or in their original languages with the translations following: the decision to present them in their original languages (French letters in French, German letters in German) may seem obvious, but in fact it was not, and there are few publishers that would favour such a decision (the French, German, and Italian editions of the volumes that are currently being prepared will present the letters only in the target language). Once the decision had been made to present Beckett in the language of composition, and Cambridge University Press had been persuaded that this was the right decision, the challenge was of course the translation itself, particularly from French, in which language about one third of the letters were written (something over 6,000 letters, including some of the longest and most important—and difficult—such as those to Georges Duthuit).
I don’t wish to say much here about how that challenge was met: I have already explained that it was when I saw its scale that I decided to invite George Craig to join our team; George has explained his strategies and his practice in his Translator’s Introductions to Volumes I and II (and he has a lovely introduction in the forthcoming Volume III) as well as in his Writing Beckett’s Letters in the Cahiers Series. Suffice for me to say here what I could not say in the volumes themselves, that I do not know another person who could have met this challenge quite as well as George has done. I have met many French readers who turn to his translations of the letters to Duthuit in search of understanding as to what Beckett might have been intending. I know that George feels that more than sixty years of experience with French and with translation have equipped him for this task, and that even with such experience he feels at the limits of his capacity when translating letters such as those to Duthuit. I firmly believe his translations to be one of the triumphs of our edition.
RT: Over the course of such a massive project, what is it about Beckett’s correspondence that has kept you motivated?
DG: It is worth bearing in mind that when the project was launched, back while Beckett was still alive, nobody, least of all Beckett himself (who had no notion of how many letters he had written over his life), suspected the scale of it. I myself could not have imagined the number of letters that we would find, or just how hard they would be to transcribe; or all the contractual and legal problems we would encounter that have slowed us down. Had I done so, I might well have hesitated. Fortunately for our project, Lois Overbeck, who has been working on the project for longer than me, has never doubted that it was realizable, even when the odds seemed stacked most heavily against it. Her confidence and determination have stood us all in good stead.
The satisfactions of working on such a project are many and varied, of course. In my role as a professor at the American University of Paris I have the pleasure of watching students cut their teeth on original research, as they find their ways in the—often hostile—environment of Paris libraries. I get to witness their delight when they discover an answer after persistent searching. Let me give an example from this very week. In a letter of 1 April 1960 to Jacoba van Velde, Beckett, who has read the reviews of Krapp’s Last Tape then playing in Paris (in French) that has just opened, writes that the actor Chauffard has been found to be “prodigieux” in the title role (where he himself finds him very poor indeed). I assumed that this word “prodigieux” had appeared in a review of the play, but could not know this for sure, or if so in which one. It took a student of mine who is working on the project, Hynd Lalam, three visits to the Bibliothèque Nationale, before she finally tracked down the review in which the word was indeed used. A small discovery, of course: but of many such small discoveries are our footnotes made.
I have mentioned the difficulties posed by Beckett’s famously erratic handwriting; corresponding to this difficulty is the satisfaction of finding what has in fact been written, a pleasure analogous perhaps to that of cracking a code or solving a crossword puzzle. And this is just one of the many rewards that anyone who is doing this type of editorial work will experience—work that feeds, but also goes some way to satisfying, that particular type of obsessional character that I am. As the background research started to yield to the drafting of the first volumes, there was the great joy of feeling something of shape and proportion come into being; there was the sense of getting better at what I was doing, of having served an apprenticeship in a long-established—and I hope honourable—craft of literary editing.
I had written critically on Beckett prior to becoming involved in the letters project, and as recently as last year I published a long piece on Beckett and Shakespeare in the Great Shakespeareans series edited by Peter Holland and Adrian Poole. I continue of course to read quite a lot of the books that are published about Beckett and his work. However, even twenty years ago I had already started to wonder just how much I had to offer of a strictly interpretive nature on Beckett: his work seems to lend itself almost too readily to every theory that one might feel tempted to employ. Most of my work on other writers remains interpretive, and I also try to find time to write fiction, and I enjoy the contrasts between the different activities. What gives me particular pleasure in editing is the sense that we are adding something finite to the body of Beckett’s words in the world, to a corpus on which others, critics more able than myself, can then exert themselves.
It would be misleading, however, to suggest that the principal motivator in this project has been scholarly or strictly literary. The principal motivator has been human: the chance to work in an international team where a goal is shared, to continue to learn from my teacher George Craig long after he retired from Sussex University, and of course to meet many of the people for whom Samuel Beckett was such a crucial figure. Let me give just one example—an example to which I have already alluded.
Three years before he died in 2010, Avigdor Arikha, who had heretofore been reluctant to become in any way involved in the project, agreed to meet me. For reasons that I would be unable to explain, after meeting me he changed his mind and decided to share his huge collection of Beckett letters with us. For over a year I regularly visited Avigdor and questioned him about what I had scanned and transcribed. This was an immense privilege, not just because he was one of Beckett’s very closest friends during the last thirty years of the author’s life, but because he was one of the most learned men one could imagine meeting, and one of the most passionate. What he was at pains to explain to me, every time I met him, was that encountering Beckett the man—the man even more than the work—had been one of the two or three key events in his life. The pleasure of learning from Avigdor about Beckett—not to mention about art and literature—is one that has been extended to the present, as I have been fortunate enough to be befriended by his widow, the poet Anne Atik, who was a great admirer and friend of Beckett’s in her own right.
Underlying all these various sources of motivation is one further one, perhaps so obvious as scarcely to need mentioning. This is that it is a pleasure, a privilege, a delight even, daily to be in the company of Samuel Beckett. Let me be clear here: I do not believe this would be the case for me if I were working on almost any other writer, or not to the same degree (I am a huge admirer of Proust’s work, for example, but I would not wish to spend my days in his entourage or around the edges of his life). I think that this is the most mysterious and perhaps the most wonderful thing about Beckett: one admires the work, one admires the man, and one would have to—at least I would have to—try very hard properly to distinguish where admiration of one ends and of the other begins (and this when “admire” is a pusillanimous way of saying “love”). There is in Beckett some moral quality—pace those who will accuse me of hagiography—that is an essential aspect of his greatness; that makes his company the company one seeks out and cherishes. While it is doubtless unfashionable to claim something so patently old-fashioned, the greatness of the person is certainly the chief motivation for me in my work on his letters: to spend time with this man who, for all his complexities and hesitations and pentimenti, acts in ways that are so exemplary.
When I asked Avigdor Arikha, on one of the last times I met him shortly before his death, if he could tell me why it was that Beckett had mattered so much to him—he had told me he missed him more and more every day—he explained to me that he was the one person he had ever met—in such a full and dramatic life—who in some part of him “n’était pas touché par le monde” (was not touched by the world). By “the world” he intended, as he went on to explain, all that is low and dirty and nasty. Every time I sit at my desk to work on the letters, or almost every time, I feel I am experiencing the truth of what Avigdor told me that day.
RT: Beckett’s work can be read alongside works by other writers living in Europe during the same period, but he remains a strangely elusive, even removed figure. What do the letters suggest about his engagement with the intellectual and artistic communities of post-war Paris?
DG: I think there may be two aspects to your question: the first relating to Beckett’s work, the second to Beckett the man. Let me try to address the second before trying to say something—it is harder—about the first.
The volumes of letters that we have edited serve to expand what was already clear from James Knowlson’s excellent biography: that Beckett was never the mythically isolated figure of the “siege in the room.” What the letters make clear once and for all is just how connected Beckett was, not least during the period of his greatest productivity in the post-War years. His aversion to the media and publicity was anything but mythical, however, so it is understandable why the image of the solitary man of granite emerged; his countenance contributing to it of course.
I believe that the letters to Georges Duthuit—letters to which I am particularly attached—show abundantly that Beckett tested his aesthetic and elaborated its possibilities not alone but in company. He contributed, albeit rather reluctantly, to Transition, and knew most of the other contributors. Though Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, his companion, was the one who made the initial contact with the Editions de Minuit, Beckett was very active in getting himself published and in ensuring that his texts, later his plays, reached his audience in the best form possible. He became close friends with Jérôme Lindon, his French publisher, and later wrote long and detailed letters to his American publisher Barney Rosset. Once academics started to approach him with questions, he usually tried his best to answer them. He went to galleries, visited artists’ studios, followed the news very closely, particularly in Combat. So in this sense he was anything but removed or distant from his milieu, even if it is true that unlike many of the intellectuals of the post-War period in Paris, he was reluctant to become involved in institutionalised politics, in the Communist Party most obviously to which so many were drawn. All in all, Beckett the man is revealed in his letters as very approachable and engaged with his surroundings, anything but remote—except where the media were concerned.
The post-War work of Beckett can be, and has been, usefully studied in relation to artists of the time such as Bram van Velde, or to the dramatists whose work he went to see such as Jean Genet or Eugène Ionesco, or indeed to the other novelists of the Minuit stable such as Claude Simon or Alain Robbe-Grillet. However, I do agree with you that his work remains elusive, in the sense that it is hard to detect much direct literary influence upon Beckett emerging from the writers around him in Paris (or elsewhere in Europe). His post-War work really is thoroughly singular, and no amount of influence-seeking can account for more than a fraction of it (especially if the search is conducted amongst his contemporaries). What the letters reveal is that while Beckett was in active contact with many of his literary contemporaries, and while he supported them in their artistic endeavours, he rarely found in their work a source of inspiration for his own. Yet what they also reveal is that this fact did not lessen his engagement with them, and with their counterparts the painters and musicians; perhaps, even, the contrary.
Let me give just two examples of what I mean, from Volume III which we are currently preparing (that covers the period 1957-1967). When he hears Marguerite Duras’s Le Square on the radio Beckett is deeply moved by it; then, when he sees the play a year later, he makes a point of encouraging his friends to go and support it. I am sure he hears an echo of what he is himself attempting, in a play where speech does the job of everything else. But from this to suggesting that Beckett was influenced by Duras—that is not a step that the letters encourage us to make.
When he is introduced to the aspiring novelist Robert Pinget, Beckett goes out of his way to help—and continues helping for years, reading and praising Pinget’s texts in his letters, writing to introduce him to his friends when Pinget travels to London and the US; there is even one marvellous letter in which he enjoins the younger author to stop thinking about literary prizes and to concentrate on the essential. The influence of Beckett upon Pinget is patent; influence in the other direction I find harder to discern. I don’t believe that even if we were able to publish a Complete Letters the deep mystery of Beckett’s work would be essentially dissipated. But perhaps something similar might be said of any literary genius, and it is true that Beckett’s letters do give more insights into his literary practice than do many correspondences.
RT: If the poet Thomas MacGreevy was Beckett’s chief correspondent throughout the first volume, Georges Duthuit appears to dominate the second. Why was his friendship so important to Beckett during this period? (And what prompts your own personal attachment to their exchanges?)
DG: Your first question is one that I have repeated to myself almost daily over the last several years. Despite thinking a lot about what Georges Duthuit’s son Claude described as the “volcanic friendship” between his father and Beckett, I still do not feel I have answered the question to my own satisfaction. There remains an enigma at the heart of any friendship, perhaps, and all the more so at the heart of any romance. But of all Beckett’s friendships this is the one that is most elusive to me, the one that is most surprising. It might be overstating it to suggest that Beckett’s correspondence with Duthuit dominates the period, as throughout the years 1948-1952—such fertile years for Beckett’s work, of course—he is in touch with many other people. Yet it would surely be accurate to say that where it does practically dominate is in the scope of its content and the intensity of its expression.
Let me make a few suggestions as to why this may have been the case, and some suggestions also as to what is equally puzzling, the break that occurred between the two friends, when Beckett is someone who is intensely loyal in his friendships and from whom a radical or permanent break—think of the example of Georges Pelorson/Belmont—seems almost unthinkable.
That Beckett always writes to Duthuit in French seems to me a determining choice—and it was a choice, when Duthuit’s English was more than competent (he had spent the War years in New York). Briefly, let me set this choice, which eventuates in Beckett’s first fully-fledged correspondence in French, against what he says of English (in French) a little later to Duthuit: “Horrible langue, que je sais encore trop bien” (Horrible language, which I still know too well).
Prosperous and opinionated as Duthuit certainly was—the son-in-law of Henri Matisse, after all—it might be easy to caricature his distance from the Beckett of this era, who was struggling to make a living even as he was espousing an aesthetic of loss. One anecdote lest that happen, told me by Georges’s son Claude, recollected from when he was nineteen years old, when his father was in daily contact with Beckett; an anecdote in which Duthuit’s concept of “le vide” or “the void” makes a very literal appearance—a concept close I believe to Beckett’s “indigence.” One day, a guest at the Duthuit house, as he was leaving, expressed admiration for a small painting by Max Ernst that was hanging by the doorway. Georges Duthuit immediately unhooked it and handed it to the guest as a parting gift. When Claude complained to his father that he was giving away his “patrimoine” (his inheritance), his father rounded upon him severely, cursing his bourgeois soul. “Je m’en fous de ton patrimoine!” (I don’t give a damn for your inheritance!)
The scholar who has devoted most time to Duthuit in recent years, Rémi Labrusse, finds an echo of Beckett’s despair before the finitude of the art object in Duthuit’s own writing. To this I would add that the echo works the other way round as well (in what follows of the Beckett-Duthuit exchange I shall cite George Craig’s translation): “I feel so clearly what you say about space and the Italians,” Beckett writes to Duthuit, indicating, I think, that he has already read and absorbed his friend’s book Les Fauves, much of which soon after he will feel obliged to retranslate. In the opening pages of this work Duthuit launches one of his most uncompromising assaults upon the art he spends his whole career vilifying, an art that emblematizes the Western tradition of mimesis he so abhors, from the Romans through to the Impressionists: the art of the Italian Renaissance masters. Duthuit writes—or Beckett writes, since Duthuit’s is the French, Beckett’s the retranslated English: “To imitate a mountain, the sun, the sea, would be an impressive achievement. But nothing at all is imitated. Life is not imitated. None of the functions of life are admitted in the airless, heartless space of the mathematician.” The terms are almost identical to Beckett’s: art not as part of the continuum of life but as lethal “mathematics.” “The painter,” Duthuit continues, “cannot fill the holes that open up horribly before his eyes. It is in vain that he waits for the void to diminish every time he pastes a form on top of it . . . And that is why it became necessary to impeach the lofty tenors and noble bases of the Italians.” Never does Beckett come closer to Duthuit than here, I think; unless it is in the internalising of Duthuit’s words required by the retranslation that he shortly after undertakes, of Les Fauves—the single longest and most difficult translation he has undertaken in his life to date.
In 1937, to the man who was (as you say) his single most important correspondent before Duthuit, Thomas MacGreevy, after visiting Dublin’s National Gallery, Beckett writes: “How I wish we could have a few hours together in the newly hung Italian rooms. You would get a shock & here & there the pleasure of something for the first time. Of course the Dutch pictures are to all intents & purposes lost to the Gallery. But that wd. not trouble you the way it does me.” Twenty years later, as MacGreevy is inching toward becoming Director of the same National Gallery, a post to which he is appointed not least because of his love for and expertise in Italian art, Beckett repeats the pattern; echoing a reservation about Italian art, promoting the Dutchman Van Velde. Yet not by chance did Beckett and MacGreevy remain soul mates for so long: there is a point to which Beckett cannot go with Duthuit in his trashing of the Italians. “I am less irritated by the Italians than you are,” he writes in May 1949, one year after echoing his friend on Antonello, “no doubt because I do not feel so keenly the break that you speak of.”
RT: It can be surprising to see how expressive and affectionate Beckett appears towards Duthuit, when letters to other friends and colleagues seem, by contrast, more reserved. Why do you think Beckett opened up to Duthuit in the way that he did?
DG: Beckett to Duthuit, from Dublin, August 1948: “I keep watching my mother’s eyes, never so blue, so stupefied, so heartrending, eyes of an endless childhood, that of old age. Let us get there rather earlier, while there are still refusals we can make. I think these are the first eyes that I have seen. I have no wish to see any others, I have all I need for loving and weeping.” Extraordinary enough in itself, almost as striking is what follows, without so much as a paragraph break: “Send me texts for translation, yours as far as possible.” Beckett seeks to be Duthuit’s translator into his native tongue even as he asks him to be, in turn, his privileged witness to the extreme difficulty he is experiencing in achieving distance from what is most native to him. For this brief period Duthuit is the one with whom he can mourn.
You are right in what you intimate: only rarely does Beckett say how much his friends mean to him, preferring to demonstrate it through actions, attentiveness, the innumerable ways he found to offer his support. The exception being Duthuit. “Write to me, dear old friend”—he has known him only four years when he says it—“that is the only post I have any wish for.” Or: “I have other friends, but only one Georges Duthuit. I feel it. I know it.” Or again: “Back home . . . I find your long letter which makes up for everything, or many things, including not being drunk enough to go straight to sleep.” And in a further sign-off: “Yes, a tankard with you, beneath any sign you like, those are the moments, too brief, that matter to me. And feeling that affection which needs no words and is stronger than those I do spew out in all directions.” This comes from one of the very last letters Beckett was to send Duthuit. “Which needs no words,” he writes. Am I wrong to hear a valedictory tone? Would I be over-reading to find in the uncharacteristic protestations of affection an anxiety about the durability of relations? What is less hypothetical is that Beckett, for whom (Protestant in this as in so much else, as he often reminds Duthuit) to be in debt or indebted is a painful position—Beckett is very aware of being in Duthuit’s debt. When that debt is partially paid off, through translation of Les Fauves, and when the opportunity of further repayment is reduced by the folding of Transition, the relation of debt, of protégé to patron, begins to change.
RT: There comes a point where Beckett’s relationship to Duthuit becomes strained. Why did they drift apart?
DG: Your question is one that has intrigued me for a long time. I cannot answer it definitively, but here is my best attempt.
Duthuit’s passionately sustained anti-mimetic aesthetic, drawing heavily on Matthew Steward Pritchard and Henri Bergson, proposed an art not of imitation but of participation: a continuum, at times bordering on the sacred, between life and its elemental forces, best exemplified in Oriental and Byzantine art, then rediscovered by Matisse and the Fauvists. There exist therefore fundamental reasons why he would have been indisposed toward theatre as a medium, public spectacle as it necessarily is, latter-day incarnation of a baroque he so abhorred—even a theatre such as Beckett’s which was set on unworking theatre’s conventions. To which theoretical objection should be added the inevitable social aspect of theatre—what Beckett himself derides as “the programme and the choc-ice”—which for Duthuit, infinitely more the bourgeois than Beckett ever could be, constituted an affront to his ideal of an art of contemplative inwardness.
Duthuit son’s Claude told me that his father, so long Beckett’s patron, felt jealous when he saw his protégé mixing with such bastions of the establishment as Jean-Louis Barrault and Jean Vilar. But even before Beckett’s theatre achieved success there was experienced, I suspect, some sort of lèse-majesté, in the very turn to theatre, perceptible in Beckett’s letter of 3 January 1951 in which he seeks advice on the name of “Godot.” Here it is that Beckett rejects what Duthuit, a champion of Nicolas de Staël, has presumably promoted, a set by the Russian artist for the as-yet-unproduced Godot. Beckett writes: “Frankly, I’m totally opposed to Staël’s ideas for the set, maybe wrongly. He sees the whole thing with a painter’s eye. For me, that is aestheticism.” As the letter continues, it is Duthuit’s even more than de Staël’s aesthetic that is being repudiated, as Beckett insists on his “Protestantism,” on a theatre, as he puts it, “reduced to its own means, speech and acting, without painting.” Concluding his defence of his newly adopted medium, he is surely right to intuit Duthuit’s reaction, concluding as he does his peroration: “Please do not mind my unloading all this: it must really irritate you.”
By the time Godot is produced, in 1953, letters from Beckett to Duthuit have virtually ceased. Yet Claude Duthuit told me that in the early days of January and February of that year, before the play became a hit, his father would round up friends and family, himself included, to dragoon them into the empty seats at the Théâtre de Babylone. Once the play began to enjoy success, however, his father’s attitude changed. One year later, in March 1954, Beckett—being Beckett—is still trying to attribute purely artistic reasons to the growing distance between them, writing: “There is no serious dispute between us . . . In the end, I think that our preoccupations are of two very different orders as if separated by a zone of shadow where, exiled from each other, we vainly seek a meeting point.”
The play Beckett would begin to write not long after this short note, Fin de partie—Endgame as it will become—opened in London in April 1957. Duthuit read the play weeks before, and expressed himself on it—he vented his pent—to their common friend Mary Hutchinson: “I have received Beckett’s latest play, ‘Fin de Partie’, which I find mindless and nasty, not in the sense that he hoped this play would be.” The aesthetic judgement cedes to a moral one, the whole inflected with what I take to be a classic projection of the bitterness of jilted affection: “He sent me a dedicatory note with the word ‘friend’ in it, but there’s a choice to be made: either ordinary feelings are valid, or, as he sees it, they are no more than a macabre and shameful absurdity, as he sees it, to his own advantage.” What Duthuit offers is a conflation of art and life of the very sort that Beckett had spent his existence to date resisting, everything that the word “Ireland” comes to stand for him—which makes Duthuit’s next dismissal particularly ironic: “I’ve had enough of these thick Irish strings, pulled too tight, and I’ve told him so, trying not to hurt him. Let him hold on to his bourgeois audience.”
RT: Was that the end of Beckett and Duthuit?
DG: Five years later, in 1962, the year before Duthuit suffers the near-fatal stroke that leaves him bed-bound for the final decade of his life, Mary Hutchinson has the temerity to return to the subject of Samuel Beckett. Duthuit’s response is withering, again consigning his former friend to an Irishness he has strenuously shunned. Duthuit writes sarcastically: “That Beckett, and his ‘great denunciation of life’, or captivating Irish lament, should lead his public to open its eyes wider, and paint his love of the things of this world, as you so generously put it, for this no praise is too great.” Note how Duthuit, even in the moment of condemning him feels the need to appropriate him, turning Beckett into a painter (“peindre” is the French word he uses). Again it is the theatre, if not the literary per se, that is stigmatised, as he continues: “Yet I should be greatly surprised if that were to be achieved by way of the theatre and the novel.”
What is the context in which, for the following forty years, most people learn of the name “Georges Duthuit”? Anticipating exactly this, Duthuit continues: “and it would still be the case that the pages devoted to Bram van Velde by this earnest writer, and which this other goes on repeating, alongside mine, are [as] pretentious and ridiculous, in the grim style . . . This, as it happens, to a certain, rather unenviable extent, has had some general success, and I would ask you to believe that these aesthetic absurdities are not without their proponents. . . this interminable and most banal Jeremiad spiced with humour; this endless harping, this self-satisfaction.” His reason for having evoked the dialogues, as he puts it in a phrase that reverberates with anything but indifference or disinterest: “it was solely in order to dispel a moment of connectedness, which was succeeded by pure and simple boredom.”
Almost exactly ten years later, in March 1972, one year before his death, with as far as I know no exchange between the two men in the interim, Duthuit writes to Beckett from the bed to which he has been confined for so long: “What has become of our friendship?” Given Beckett’s dominant trait of loyalty, it can only be by projection once again that Duthuit continues: “I very much fear that it is a one-way affair, from my side, that is.” Follows a small charge he would have Beckett perform—an alibi for getting back in touch, one suspects. Then a question: “Where are you with the writing?” And then, painfully, agonizingly perhaps, as close to an apology as this very headstrong man may have felt able to come: “All the same, I remain faithful to your doctrine: for ten years now I’ve been mouldering in my bed, receiving care that is always hard to bear, and sometimes actually painful. To comfort myself I get myself read to: from Tolstoy and from works by S. Becket [sic], whose passion and sense of dereliction have, for me, endlessly new riches.”
One year later, Duthuit is dead. Asked by his son Claude to contribute to a volume in honour of his father, what does Beckett offer? Unaware of the animus, or aware of it perhaps and forgiving it, he offers the “Three Dialogues with Georges Duthuit.”
RT: What will Volume III tell us about Beckett the novelist as against Beckett the playwright?
DG: Volume III of the Beckett letters will contain a lot of information about Beckett’s work as a dramatist, and increasingly, over the years between 1957 and 1967 as a theatre director. Yet what has become clear to me—and not everyone will agree with me—is that however absorbing work for and in the theatre becomes for the author, it remains at the deepest level a distraction from what he feels to be his most profound and essential literary exploration. This is not to say that work in the theatre was not itself crucially important to Beckett, just not important in quite the same way as was the writing of fiction.
Despite asseverations to the contrary, when Beckett first sets to writing drama, he is very well versed in it, both on the page and on the stage. Drama and dramatists matter to Beckett, no doubt about it. As he becomes known as a dramatist and drawn more and more into theatre directing, Beckett rails against the inevitable sociability this enjoins. However, my own sense is that it is precisely this sociability, this requirement to be in the world and often working with men and women considerably younger than himself, that serves to keep Beckett’s spirits up (often with the assistance of other sorts of spirits, given that many of his preferred actors were great drinkers), and that this is especially the case the older he becomes and the more strongly the instinct to withdraw into solitude and silence asserts itself.
That said, readers of Volume III will find some wonderful passages from letters where Beckett, fresh—not that fresh is quite the word!—from writing Fin de partie, declares that now it is finally time for some real literary work, for something essential to get written; a commitment that leads him into the laborious process of drafting, over and over, Comment c’est. Nowhere is it clearer to me than here, the way in which the writing of prose is exploration for Beckett; while the writing—and a fortiori the staging—of drama offers a sort of consolidation, even of consolation.
RT: What impact do you think a wider access to Beckett’s private correspondence might have?
DG: This is an interesting question, but one that, despite all my years of working on Beckett’s correspondence, is rather hard to answer.
At its simplest level my answer would have to be: I do not know, nor am I likely ever to know. For the fact is that many of Beckett’s letters which one might presume to be most “private” appear not to have survived. One of the more interesting (not to say irritating) aspect of reviews of Volumes I and II, was the way in which reviewers felt inspired to imagine letters they would have liked Beckett to write, letters they then presumed had been withheld from them. The most flagrant example of this was Philip Hensher’s fatuous review of Volume II in The Guardian, which amounted to one long rant about all the letters—for example on cricket—that must have been suppressed; a view expressed without the slightest research having been undertaken into whether or not such letters in fact exist. As we have stated in our Introductions, to the best of the editors’ awareness, letters have not survived to many key figures in Beckett’s life: to his mother, his father, his brother, his wife—for a start. Why they have not survived is open to speculation, but my own presumption is that Beckett destroyed them. It may of course be the case that stashes of such letters to his family will emerge, in time, but I fully believe the representatives of the Beckett Estate when they tell me that to the best of their knowledge such letters no longer exist.
The second way in which I might seek to answer your question would be to say: Not a lot. The fact is that, despite what Hensher educed about how the editors had “suppressed” a lot of letters, the edition in fact makes access to the letters much easier, as readers are now aware where most of the letters are currently stored. As most of the major collections are in public archives such as at the Beckett International Foundation of Reading or Trinity College, Dublin, researchers can have and have had ample access to many letters that we did not publish, and their scholarly work quite rightly reflects this. There are of course a few exceptions to this general rule. The letters to Georges Duthuit are not in a public archive but remain in private hands. But I can assure readers that in the case of Duthuit, nearly all the letters to him were published in Volume II—nearly all if not quite all (a matter to which I shall return). A further exception would be, for example, the letters to Henri and Josette Hayden. These were sold at public auction at Sotheby’s, and neither we editors nor the Beckett Estate are aware who is the current owner of the collection. Through Sotheby’s I contacted the current owner and explained that by refusing to share these letters the owner was depriving the Beckett community of a potentially rich source of information, and some moving letters too, no doubt, given how fond Beckett was of the Haydens. My overtures met with a blank wall.
A third way in which I might respond would be to say: Not a change in understanding but a deepening of appreciation. It is the case that in Volume I there was a certain number of letters that we selected which were not permitted by the Beckett Estate. It is also the case that there was a much smaller number of letters which we chose for Volume II that were not permitted. I regret this. However, I do not think that had the letters been included—for example, a letter I alluded to, written to Georges Duthuit on the death of Beckett’s mother—it would have seriously altered our perception of Beckett the man or the letter-writer. Only, it would have deepened our appreciation. The same is true of the series of letters that was much discussed in the press (including by myself in the letters pages of the TLS), sent to Beckett’s young American lover, Pamela Mitchell. I greatly admire these letters and find there to be nothing the least exceptionable in them. I succeeded in convincing the Beckett Estate to include some but not all of these letters in Volume II. I deplore the loss. However, these letters were already quoted from James Knowlson in his authorised biography and they are available for consultation at Reading. The very fact that their absence caused such disturbance among reviewers is a testament to how many scholars had already read and appreciated them. In this sense I think I can say that their inclusion would not have radically altered our perception of Beckett, the man or the writer.
RT: Multi-volume editions of letters by Beckett and T. S. Eliot have recently drawn much public and critical appreciation. As technology changes the way writers work and communicate, do you have any thoughts on future publications of this kind?
DG: I have thoughts but no certainties, and in this I suspect I am in the same boat as many academics and publishers. Clearly, great work is being done in relation to Beckett by bringing his texts and manuscripts into the digital domain—I am thinking for example of what Marx Nixon and Dirk van Hulle are achieving in their Digital Manuscript Project. I am sure we shall see more and more of such initiatives. However, the risk inherent to such initiatives cannot fail to strike one too: a sort of super-saturation of information.
Let me explain what I mean through my own experience. It is a source of occasional frustration but also of great relief to me that we the editors and Cambridge University Press do not have electronic rights to the letters of Samuel Beckett. The frustration derives from the agony that is experienced whenever selection needs to be made: of course it would in one sense be wonderful to be able to make available to scholars the entire corpus of Beckett’s letters in so far as we have been able to assemble it, something like 18,000 letters. As no publisher would take on the project of publishing, so close to an author’s death, a Complete Letters in conventional paper form, it is easy in idle moments to fantasise an open-ended, digital version giving access to an ever-growing corpus. The relief is the mirror-image of this fantasy: preparing four volumes to a high academic standard of exactitude, with all the fantastically difficult transcribing, dating, translating, annotating that has to go on, is already a monumental task that has taken up a large chunk of my life. Imagine if there were no end to that task, and the corpus to be prepared was virtually bottomless . . .
RT: What might readers expect to see in the next volume of the series?
DG: I hope I have given a hint of what readers may expect to see in Volume III of the letters: an increasing investment in the practicalities of theatre as well as an impassioned return to the writing of prose. Readers will be pleased to see that Beckett is once again reading a lot, including from contemporary fiction, and commenting upon what he is reading. He travels often during the years 1957-1967, and with increasing prosperity takes numerous trips to holiday destinations, writing letters and cards from the tranquillity of the places he visits. Perhaps most surprising to me, and the major shift in my view, is that in this period Beckett writes much more freely about whatever work is in progress. Readers may well have been surprised to find that when he was writing the “Trilogy” and Godot Beckett referred only very occasionally in his letters to what he was doing. This reticence is quite altered when it comes to the writing of, say, Comment c’est. For now he is ready to share the details: the preparations, the drafts, the worries about readability, the re-workings—it really is a radical shift, by which he finally feels that a work will not disappear if he shares its making with his friends.
I say “his friends” but of course what I really mean is principally a single friend, and lover, Barbara Bray. What readers can expect to see in Volume III is Beckett connecting intensely and intimately with someone who enters his life when he is already fifty years old, and with whom he will remain connected until the end of his days. Where for Volumes and I and II his chief correspondents were men (Tom MacGreevy and Georges Duthuit, respectively), now his chief interlocutor is a woman. This change, and what it opens up, is not the least of the delights of the volume which we are currently working to complete.
RT: Finally, in an age in which letters play so diminished a role, how does working on letters make you feel?
DG: I find it utterly astonishing that within my own lifetime I have witnessed the demise of a tradition that dates back to the Middle Ages and beyond, a tradition by which—think of Dante’s letter to Cangrande—individuals expressed what was most dear to them in the form of a letter which they addressed to a single individual but which they, however secretly, knew was always also addressed to something beyond or before both the one writing and the one reading. I say I have “witnessed” this demise, but of course I have also participated in and contributed to it: as an adolescent I used to write long detailed letters, and I maintained the habit well into the era where it came to seem almost quaint to be letter-writing at all; only to succumb to the conquering force of email. People worried in the past that the telephone would be the death of the letter (and one of the reasons Beckett’s letters are so rich is because of his antipathy towards the telephone). But letter-writing survived the phone, only to be devastated by email.
When I work on Beckett’s letters I am in touch not just with a great writer and a great spirit, but with an era that, though so recent, is no longer. I am moved to wonder if, in time, the digital media will permit a writing that encourages the depth of introspection and discovery that the letter form, for centuries, achieved—to wonder and to hope, but also to doubt. Working on Beckett’s letters does not make me nostalgic for the era of the letter, exactly, nor does it have me longing to smash my computer. But it does make me feel especially privileged to be partaking in what amounts to a late flourishing of a genre on the eve of its virtual extinction.
Rhys Tranter writes on A Piece of Monologue , a website that promotes literature, philosophy and the arts. He is also a member of the editorial board for The Beckett Circle , the official newsletter of the Samuel Beckett Society. Dan Gunn is a professor of comparative literature and English at the American University of Paris, where he is also the director of the Center for Writers and Translators. He writes regularly for the Times Literary Supplement and is editor of the chapbooks collectively entitled The Cahiers Series (Sylph Editions). His novel The Emperor of Ice-Cream is forthcoming from Seagull Books.
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