Overbeck on Editing Samuel Beckett's Letters

Stefano Rosignoli asks Lois M. Overbeck about the ongoing four-volume edition
Samuel Beckett. Photograph: John Minihan
From Stefano Rosignoli (New Dublin Press):
At the end of a summer rich in events on Samuel Beckett, scattered largely between Dublin, Belfast and Enniskillen, academic research was encouraged in October with the publication by Cambridge University Press of the third volume of the writer’s correspondence. As in the previous volumes, Beckett’s statements about his own work, as well as the many intertextual references expanded on in the dense notes appended by the editors, demonstrate the scholarly value of the publication, which will become a primary resource especially for young researchers with no opportunity to explore public archives and private collections on both sides of the Atlantic. It is Beckett’s mocking depiction of intellectual life, however, rather than the crowded web of literary and artistic influences, that strikes the general reader and ensures that the letters are an enjoyable, rather than purely informative reading experience: “On m’a demandé un livret d’opéra bouffe! J’ai écrit une ligne – ‘J’ai pas envie de chanter ce soir’ – puis j’ai renoncé.” (“I have been asked for a libretto for a comic opera! I wrote one line: ‘I don’t feel like singing tonight’. Then I gave up.” SB to Jacoba Van Velde, 12.04.1958; in LSB III, 130-131). This trenchant tongue doesn’t appear to spare Beckett himself. In the same letter he declares, exhausted: “Il y a deux moments qui valent la peine, dans le travail, celui de la mise en route et celui de la mise en corbeille” (“There are two worthwhile moments in my work: the opening up and the basketing”; ibid.). This is just one of the many accounts of Beckett’s distress when facing the creation of new work, something that continues to spring at the author from the white page itself even during the years of his belated success.

I met Lois M. Overbeck, research associate at Emory University and general editor of The Letters of Samuel Beckett, to discuss the series, which is now approaching its conclusion. The interview took place just a few days after a public lecture given in Reading by Dan Gunn, professor at the American University of Paris and editor of the Cambridge collection, and before a reception at the Irish Embassy in London, which hosted a reading of the letters given by Barry McGovern.

Samuel Beckett was particularly reluctant to acknowledge that archival material could shed light upon his published works. In his later years, he authorised the publication only of those letters “having bearing upon my work” (LSB III, xviii), which became the principle guiding the selection and annotation of his vast correspondence. How would you summarise the editors’ interpretation of Beckett’s guidelines?

That’s a big question. It occupied us greatly, because it is different for each volume. In the first one, we had a very difficult time drawing a line between life and work. Especially in this volume, all of Beckett’s writing in his letters is also his work. And because he was generating unfinished work, his letters – especially those to Thomas MacGreevy – are directions toward finished writing, or comments on the writing he was struggling to do. But, as time goes on, the difficulty doesn’t come from the distinction between life and work, but from the large number of letters about the work. So the questions are: how are we going to choose the ones that are most useful to readers but also the most representative of the body of the letters that we cannot include? There are hundreds of invitations for a coffee at the PLM [the Petit Café PLM at the Hôtel Saint-Jacques on Boulevard Saint-Jacques, Paris]. Which of these do we use? You know, they are virtually the same letter, or card. But this is not a decision related to work and life. We realised that all we could publish was a sample. We wanted this to be as good, representative, and literary as possible. But that doesn’t close the door to all the other letters. We do say where all the letters are, so that people will know where they can go for more. I think we have judged it right.

The Cambridge University Press edition has published so far “60 percent of the total corpus for the years 1929-1940, […] 40 percent for 1941-1956”, and “a little over 20 percent” for 1957-1965” (LSB III, xvii). What has been considered irrelevant to Beckett’s work and consequently left out?

In the third volume, it’s pretty clear what the major correspondences are. Of course we don’t impose a narrative, but rather try to discover the narrative that Beckett’s own creative cycles establish. Our job is to think of: where was he at this point? Who were the key people? What letters will tell the stories of his work? Several important narrative patterns are given by the alternation of language, for example. It’s pretty clear, in volume three, that his plays were begun in English, but that he translated them fairly quickly afterwards. If you look at the chronology, you realise that he was working in some way with his plays in every language, every year. And this is also because he not only wrote a play, but he directed it or helped to direct it. Part of that was due to his worldwide exposure, and his worldwide audience. He might have been writing primarily in English, but Comment c’est, for example, was clearly a struggle in French, and French was the language of greatest discipline for him. So the bifurcation may be dramatic versus fictional, meaning that he found one language more suitable for the kind of very precise control that he desired in his prose. The stage instead gave him a sense of freedom – though he managed this freedom tightly, in terms of the rigours of the theatre. He loved the three-dimensional aspect of the stage; the absorption he had for the visual is critical to see in the drama. You will see in volume four, particularly as he interacted with other playwrights (and especially Pinter), how central the visual and the stage performance was to him. What he found in the work for the stage was a kind of three-dimensional sculpture, made up of light, sound and movement.

Several letters reveal Beckett’s recurrent concern with his own body, most of all when health issues are involved. What kind of self-portrait emerges from the author’s correspondence in the period covered by the third volume, and how does it differ from earlier or later stages of his life?

In 1957, Beckett was fifty-one years old, so he started creaking at the joints as we all do… but I think he was much more accepting of that. He complained, of course! He did have serious issues, such as the anticipation of cataract surgery, then more of an ordeal than it is today. His brother died of lung cancer, so whenever he got a bronchial infection… it worried him. He had an area in his jaw that was very badly infected, and of course that was on his mind. And people die, all through this volume. He mourned, but there is a matter-of-factness about death in the letters. I think he was growing more mature about these elements in life. It really depends to whom Beckett was writing. He wrote very personally about his health to his family in Ireland, where there were people who wanted to know about his health. He always wrote to the person. As readers we are outside of this correspondence, and we only know what we read, and perhaps what the footnotes suggest is also happening. It depends on the recipient, how much Beckett needed or wanted to express about something, including his health.

The involvement of Samuel Beckett, of several authors at Les Éditions de Minuit and of the publisher himself, Jérôme Lindon, with contemporary history resurfaces in more than one passage. How would you describe Beckett’s response to the Algerian struggle for independence and to the following turmoil in France?

Well, he was there. He was in the middle of it. In the letters, he wrote that he was listening, anxiously, to the radio, that there were explosions and rioting in the streets, etc. He was physically there at the time this was all occurring. Suzanne, of course, was also very involved, in terms of her strong sense of what was right or wrong in any of these political struggles. Beckett didn’t feel, for instance, that he could sign a petition on behalf of Jérôme Lindon, who was accused for his publications and for his political positions. But this was because he was not a French citizen, and not because he lacked passion about injustice. Indeed, he circulated a petition among his English friends and literary affiliates, and encouraged them to address the situation, to create an international response to the political problem. So, he was not a-political, but you’re not seeing it written about in letters as much as that he was living through it. It was part of the fabric of what was happening. We have these wonderful rose-coloured glasses of time, but he didn’t have them. I mean, he was aware of what was happening, but one doesn’t take a longer view of history in the middle of it. We cannot sense the ultimate shape of history until after it has been experienced. Sometimes our expectations as readers are not realistic or fair.

Many passages in Beckett’s letters refer to convivial gatherings with friends and colleagues, including Avigdor Arikha and Patrick Magee, and to a few trips abroad, such as the 1958 trip to Yugoslavia, also motivated by the need to spend his royalties locally. To what extent did Beckett’s quality of life improve during these years and how did this affect his writing?

He was always generous, and liked to be able to take people to dinner. Hospitality was part of his rapport with people, and he enjoyed doing that. So I don’t think that the trip to Yugoslavia is particularly a benchmark about lifestyle. He and Suzanne regularly took holidays, and they gravitated toward warm, dry climates, because Beckett needed, physically, to get out of Paris. All along, Suzanne tried to make sure that he got into a place where he could relax, without his energies being completely absorbed by people wanting to see him. You can see that very clearly in volume two as well, but in the period covered by volume three, it is more possible to afford regular travel. Beckett used the Nobel Prize funds to help others rather than enrich his lifestyle, as you will see in volume four. When he moved to the apartment over Rue Saint-Jacques in 1960, he was just around the corner from where the Arikhas lived, so he could walk over and have a drink, or listen to music with them… their apartment was a kind of second living room, in a way. With other people, of course, it was different. He liked and enjoyed the company of all his publishers: John Calder was a very congenial person, Barney Rosset was much the same but out of a different milieu completely. Both of them came to their full bearing in the Sixties, and they naturally gravitated to the radical fringe. Challenging censorship was at the core of their publishing values and ventures. He was very close to his Irish friends as well: Pat Magee was a wonderful person, full of stories… and very strong. Jack MacGowran, on the other hand, was talented and delightful but more fragile.

The large number of letters to contemporary writers testifies to Beckett’s growing international fame. This is also proven by the enthusiasm aroused in the younger generation, represented in volume three primarily by Harold Pinter and Aidan Higgins. Among his followers, the closest might have been Robert Pinget: how would you describe their friendship, leading to the adaptation of La Manivelle into English (The Old Tune)?

Pinget had difficulty with his publisher and so he moved to Les Éditions de Minuit. Beckett encouraged him, having him commissioned with the translation of Embers for the Italia prize, for example, and suggesting he write for the BBC. Beckett knew how important it was to be known to an English-speaking audience. Barbara Bray was instrumental in getting Pinget’s connection with the BBC worked through: she was very gifted both as a translator and as an adapter. She worked closely with Beckett on the translation of Pinget’s La Manivelle; although he did not always accept a suggestion, it freed him to know that he had a partnership going. Beckett and Aidan Higgins met through John Beckett. When Higgins asked Samuel Beckett for advice, Beckett suggested, rather, that he consult Arland Ussher “for wisdom”. There are wonderful letters at Trinity College Dublin, between Higgins and Ussher, both of them interested in Beckett’s work. Higgins for a time was in London, and so was John Beckett; they saw the plays and wrote to each other about them. Their corollary correspondence is very interesting, and very helpful. Sam’s friends were also friends with other friends, so if you did the sociological mapping, you would find a lot of interlocking circles, and that’s crucial to understand. As Martha Fehsenfeld and I began our research, we found a different kind of community in Dublin than in Paris and London. In Ireland, particularly, the circles were very tight. Beckett was willing to help Higgins, and arranged for the French translation of Langrishe, Go Down. Is it a coincidence that Harold Pinter decided to write the screenplay for Langrishe? Beckett suggested that Higgins work with Calder to publish his work in English [Felo de Se, issued by Grove Press in the US as Killachter Meadow; LSB II, 705]. Beckett was a mentor. I think the word “influence” is always a difficult word for writers: they don’t like to admit being influenced, but how can you help but be? [Read More]

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