Beckett’s letters: “the scale of it”

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Transcribing Beckett’s letters (here’s the Cahiers version)

I met Dan Gunn in a crowded little Paris café at one of the more crowded hours of the day back in 2011. It was supposed to be an “English” café, but I remembered nothing English about it.  I can’t remember what I had, except a cold … perhaps a hot toddy … well, that’s kind of English.  Or did Dan have the cold?

Finally. I heard what he has to say.

 I can’t remember.  In any case,  Daniel Medin had spirited me to the place, and one or another of us was late, or lost.  I also can’t recall what Dan or anyone else said – far too head-throbbingly noisy for that – so it comes as something of a relief that the current issue of Quarterly Conversation (which also has my British Academy talk from December) has a long interview between Dan by Rhys Tranter, of A Piece of Monologue blog fame.  That will have to serve in place of a real conversation.

Dan is one of the team of editors working on Samuel Beckett’s letters.  Volume 2 (of a projected four) has just come out.  George Craig, another of the editors, explains the arduous process in a Cahiers Series booklet – read about it here.  Now at Quarterly Conversation you can read another editor’s articulate take on it.

“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,” Dan explained.  “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.”

So why did he carry on?  According to Dan:

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.

The project immersed Dan in the lost art of letter-writing.  Here’s what he says about that:

My Virgil in Paris

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.

Read the rest here.


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