Tag Archives: samuel beckett

Writing Beckett’s Letters

A little more on the awesome pamphlet from the Cahiers series, which I discussed earlier this month.

The title of George Craig’s recent book, Writing Beckett’s Letters, is both playful and paradoxical. And it prompts the question: how can Craig claim to be the author of someone else’s correspondence? The answer is both simple and complicated: Craig is a translator. He has spent the last fifteen years as part of a band of scholars, translating literally thousands of letters written by Samuel Beckett from French into English. It is a job that few are cut out for, involving long hours of arduous transcription and the seemingly endless search for that most elusive of things: the right word.

The work forms part of a hugely ambitious project, culminating in a four-volume edition of Samuel Beckett’s Letters. The first part, released in 2009, covered much of Beckett’s early period: intellectual development, his move to Paris, his encounters with James Joyce and the European literary scene. Its publication ushered a new period in the scholarly appreciation of Beckett’s work, whilst offering a rare glimpse into the personal and artistic life of this most private of writers.

As Cambridge University heats up its Press for the second volume, to be published this September, Craig offers a privileged peek . . .

Translating Beckett

The second volume of Samuel Beckett’s letters will be published in October by Cambridge University Press. The Cahier series, which I mentioned a little while back, will be publishing a pamphlet by George Craig on his experiences translating letters for this volume, titled “Writing Beckett’s Letters.”

I would highly recommend this Cahier to anyone interested in Beckett, translation, or writing. What Craig does is to use his translations as a focus through which to draw a number of apparently divergent but in fact related threads: these would include handwriting (and an author’s physical interaction with a text); particular, in-depth translation questions; failure and futility; the uses of intellectual and cross-genre collaboration; the effects of writing in another language; and the ways in which the effects of writing in another language are transcended.

This is quite a bit of ground for a long essay that comes in at 36 pages (with illustrations), but Craig impressively remains light on his feet while treating each of these subjects with rigor. His method is to use many short, overlapping sections to build up a related set of ideas about Beckett’s writing and translation.

For instance, the section in the middle titled “International Language” moves like this: it starts with the idea of a pan-European language before dismissing it as unworkable, then praising those who:

not only take up this learning [of multiple languages] with enthusiasm who indeed rejoice in that gradual widening of their hold on more than one language, but create a supra-national situation in which they speak or write these languages in ways that suggest a new kind of pan-Europeanism: a recognition of each separate reality and its relation to other linguistic traditions.

Beckett is the outstanding example of such a person.

The section then concludes by bringing this back to the letters: whereas Beckett conceived of his books strictly in just one language, in the letters “the text may move from one language to another. It is, quite simply, his natural utterance: something increasingly strange to the largely monoglot English.” (italics in the original)

The way I have quoted this, the reference to the “monoglot English” appears gratuitous, but it is actually a foretaste of a subtle point Craig makes two sections later about English linguistic imperialism vis a vis Ireland. As such, it gives some indication of how this essay ties itself together, building up something complex and substantial.

The Three Obstructions

In the years when Beckett was tentatively creating his early work, three events stand out which helped to mold and shape his genius. The first took place in London, as Beckett was undergoing psychotherapy. In the autumn of 1935, as he was writing Murphy, he attended a lecture by C.G. Jung, who spoke of a patient, a young girl: “Of course, the truth of the matter is, as I realised afterwards, this young girl had never really been born.” The idea intrigued Beckett. Twenty years later, in his radio play All That Fall, Beckett’s character Mrs. Rooney would remember her own attendance at that lecture . . .

More from Colm Tóibín at the New York Review.

Life Big Read Question Thread 4

From the Operation Paperclip Wikipedia page

This week concurrently with Life A User’s Manual I’ve been reading Beckett’s trilogy starting with Molloy, and I noticed this interesting coincidence of thoughts. They deal with satisfaction, meaning, and hope, items that are certainly of central importance to Perec’s book. My emphasis in both quotes.

From Molloy:

But I do not think even Sisyphus is required to scratch himself, or to groan, or to rejoice, as the fashion is now, always at the same appointed places. And it may even be they are not too particular about the route he takes provided it gets him to his destination safely and on time. And perhaps he things each journey is the first This would keep hope alive, would it not, hellish hope. Whereas to see yourself doing the same thing endlessly over and over again fills you with satisfaction.

From Life:

That was one of the few occasions when two weeks were not long enough to finish a puzzle. Customarily, the alternation of excitement and apathy, of exaltation and despair, of feverish expectancy and fleeting certainties, meant that the puzzle would be completed within the prescribed schedule, moving towards it ineluctable goal, where, when all the problems had been solved, there was in the end only a decent, somewhat pedantic water-colour depicting a seaport. Step by step, in frustration or with enthusiasm, he came to satisfy his urge, but by satisfying it caused it to expire, leaving himself with no recourse but to open a fresh black box. [384]

Thoughts? Arguments? Questions? Give them to us here.

[Incidentally, Molloy is fantastic, far, far better than I might have expected. If you haven’t yet, do not deny yourself the aesthetic pleasure any longer.]

Beckett on Joyce

Be the best by learning from the best.

I was very flattered when Joyce dropped the ‘Mister.’ Everybody was ‘Mister’. There were no Christian names, no first names. The nearest you would get to friendly name was to drop the ‘Mister’. I was never ‘Sam’. I was always Beckett at the best. We’d drink in any old pub or cafe. I don’t remember which.

He was very friendly. He dictated some pages of Finnegan’s Wake to me at one stage. That was later on when he was living in that flat. And during the dictation, someone knocked at the door and I said something. I had to interrupt the dictation. But it had nothing to do with the text. And when I read it back with the phrase ‘Come in’ in it, he said, ‘Let it stand.’

These recollections are taken from this book.

VIDEO: Beckett Documenary

This is part 1.

Parts 2 through 6 here.

Beckett’s Silences

“Maurice Nadeau once told me that Beckett is quite capable of meeting somebody and sitting for two hours without uttering a word”. Charles Juliet remembered the warning when he met Beckett for the first time and Beckett is indeed silent. “I study him covertly. He is grave, sombre. Frowning. An expression of unbearable intensity.” In her rich and moving memoir Anne Atik contrasts loud, drunken nights she and her husband Avigdor Arikha shared with Beckett with “entire evenings when he didn’t say a word. “It was”, she says “like being in a tunnel with someone dear whose face you suddenly couldn’t see. Or who couldn’t see you.” . . .

I have been thinking of Beckett’s silence lately without knowing why; that is, why have I been thinking about his personal silence?

More at This Space.


More coverage for the big Beckett centenary edition from Grove Press.

Americans have for the most part read Samuel Beckett in a motley collection of very thin books. The average educated person typically owns the paperback of "Waiting for Godot" plus a select handful of the numerous other 50-to-60-page volumes, set in large type, that Grove Press issued over the years in a tireless effort to squeeze every penny from its star author, with his famous penchant for brevity. Those who have rationalized the cheese-slice books as apt vessels for Beckett's rigorous art of reduction and withholding may be shocked now by the appearance of a collected works that weighs in at more than 2,000 pages, in four thick volumes. . . .

Beckett, who died in 1989 and found celebrity obscene, obviously hasn't done much for our hype machines lately. As a result, one assumes, Grove has amped up his Centenary Edition with fresh star wattage. The general editor is Paul Auster, and the volumes are introduced by Colm Toibin (Novels I), Salman Rushdie (Novels II), Edward Albee (Dramatic Works) and J. M. Coetzee (Poems, Short Fiction, Criticism). These are heavy hitters, sticking their necks out to appraise the hardest act to follow in the literary generation before them, and their appraisals — mostly illuminating, not uniformly glowing — add a fascinating note of competitiveness to the volumes.

Beckett Centennial

The New York Sun has some info on Grove's forthcoming boxed set of virtually all of Beckett's works.

Grove Press, Beckett's original American publisher, has produced the most suitable tribute for so fastidious and ornery an author. The Grove Centenary Edition of his works, edited by Paul Auster in four handsome volumes ($24 each), contains almost all the extraordinary prose, poetry, and drama Beckett produced over half a century. Volume One (496 pages), with a superb introduction by Colm Toibin, offers the early novels ("Murphy" and "Watt"), written in English, followed by "Mercier and Camier," one of his first books composed in French. Volume Two (536 pages), introduced by Salman Rushdie, contains the great trilogy ("Molloy," "Malone Dies," and "The Unnamable"), together with "How It Is," all written originally in French and translated by Beckett himself. Volume Three (520 pages), with a rather perfunctory introduction by Edward Albee, brings together the dramatic works from "Waiting for Godot" of 1952 to "What Where" of 1983. And Volume Four (584 pages), introduced in dry academic mode by J. M. Coetzee, has the poetry, the short fiction, and the essays, including the remarkable 1930 study of Proust. For the diehard Beckettophile, there is also "En attendant / Waiting for Godot" (Grove, 368 pages, $22), a sumptuous edition of his most famous play with the French and English versions on facing pages.


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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