A lengthy and detailed interview published in The Quarterly Conversation
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.
- How did you become involved in the publication of Samuel Beckett’s Letters?
- 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?
- Over the course of such a massive project, what is it about Beckett’s correspondence that has kept you motivated?
- 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?
- 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?)
- 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?
- There comes a point where Beckett’s relationship to Duthuit becomes strained. Why did they drift apart?
- What will Volume III tell us about Beckett the novelist as against Beckett the playwright?
- 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?
- What might readers expect to see in the next volume of the series?
- Finally, in an age in which letters play so diminished a role, how does working on letters make you feel?
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