Letters, Literature, and Politics

A conversation about editing, narrating and translating Samuel Beckett and others


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  • Philosophy / Theory

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  • Translation

Slought is pleased to announce "Letters, Literature, and Politics," a public conversation with Daniel Gunn and Jean-Michel Rabaté about editing, narrating and translating the work of Samuel Beckett and others, on Tuesday, March 3, 2015 from 6-8pm.

If there is anything we can learn from Samuel Beckett's letters, it is arguably the greatness—the exemplary greatness—of Beckett the man. Beckett is not just an exceptional writer but also a quite exceptional man—one whose qualities, of generosity, determination, courage, modesty, are more important now than ever. As we are approaching the end of the four-volume effort to publish his letters, it is clear that Beckett's work derives much of its value from an ethical quality that has its roots deep within the author's life, and within the way he dealt with himself as a writer, and with his friends and acquaintances as human beings.

Beckett placed great value in loyalty, friendship, generosity, modesty, caution on all matters public, reticence, forgiveness, and above all humor; and this when the stable value system that traditionally might have been seen to uphold or reinforce these values is itself a thing of the past. However bleak Beckett's work may at times appear, however far it may be appropriable by some post-humanist worldview, it is indelibly colored by these values which he demonstrates and exemplifies in his letters.

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Lydia Davis: I wonder—you have piqued my curiosity—if you wouldn't mind, after all, giving one or two examples of the sort of choice or compromise involved, to take us "inside" the world of editing Beckett's letters. So many of us would like to be, if only vicariously—or perhaps I should say, given the amount of work involved only vicariously—handling this rich trove of personal papers, since Beckett is for so many of us a hugely important and inspiring writer.

Dan Gunn: One of the questions in transforming rapidly produced handwriting into print is what to do with anomalies. [...] An example of a decision we are presently facing may help focus the issues involved in transcribing Beckett's handwriting. On 21 April 1969 Beckett wrote to Harold Pinter to acknowledge receipt of Pinter's new play and to make a suggestion about it. The letter opens: "Thank you for sending me Silence. I like it greatly, the writing so precarious and [something]. Just one speech (p. 19 beginning 'A long way') I suggest you reconsider." One Beckett specialist, not of our team, has transcribed the missing word as "numinous." This would make sense, even if "numinous" doesn't sound especially Beckettean. But it simply does not fit the letters on the page. One of our team has suggested "numerous": a set of letters that looks plausible. But what could "precarious and numerous" possibly signify? The job of transcription requires one to commute between the evidence of the eyes and the semantic possibilities. Another suggestion was of a very Beckettean word—"umbrous"—but the first letter does not much resemble a "u." One further reading gives "cumbrous," a word that possibly fits with what Pinter says elsewhere of this play, that in it "There are two silences. One when no word is spoken. The other when perhaps a torrent of language is being employed." Many possibilities, but only one can be right. The editor-jury is still out, and it may be that in the end we shall have to indicate our doubts (which we do by including a question mark before the dubious word).

There is a always a violence in "translating" handwriting into printed text, because the very particular "feel" of each letter risks being lost. The colour and quality of the paper Beckett chose, the degree of legibility of the hand—my colleague Gérard Kahn, who has been so helpful in our transcribing, believes that Beckett writes most illegibly to Barbara Bray because of an ambivalence about being read and understood by her—are just elements of the letter that are eroded when it is mined for text alone. In our Cambridge University Press edition we have been able to present only a single letter in facsimile, in black and white, at the start of each volume. It was partly for this reason that I resolved to give a fuller impression of the material nature of the letters by publishing Writing Beckett's Letters in our Cahiers Series. In this I tried to give a very palpable sense of the letters as material objects—their colour, mood, and the handwriting as Beckett's recipients might have perceived it. I even included some of the picture-postcards whose images so mattered to Beckett, such as the one he sent to several friends of the Caravaggio painting of the Beheading of St John the Baptist, from St John's Co-Cathedral in Valletta, that came to be influential in his hatching of his play Not I.

-- From Music & Literature: A Conversation with Dan Gunn about the publication of The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1957-1965 (Cambridge, 2014).

Daniel Gunn is a Professor at The American University of Paris. Gunn has research interests principally in twentieth-century European literature, fiction especially, and has specialized in the work of Marcel Proust and Samuel Beckett. He regularly reviews works of fiction and texts on literary theory for the TLS. He writes and publishes fiction, and is particularly interested in the area between fiction and non-fiction.

He is the Paris director of the correspondence of Samuel Beckett, whose aim is the publication of a selection of Beckett's voluminous correspondence. He is the editor of the Cahiers Series and recently published his novel The Emperor of Ice Cream.

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