Interview given May 2016
I should start by making it clear that the Beckett Letters project has been going for a lot longer than the AUP Center for Writers & Translators (CWT). Former AUP Dean Bill Cipolla saw that it was worthwhile for AUP to be involved in what promised to be a long-term academic project, namely the collecting and publishing of the letters of Samuel Beckett. That was back in the early 1990s – a long time ago indeed! Of course, none of us realized just how much time would be required to bring the project to completion; such uncertainty often affects academic endeavours where there are many factors – in our case legal, contractual, intellectual, financial, to name just the most obvious – not within our control. What Bill Cipolla saw, and what subsequent AUP administrators have also recognised, is that even before there were concrete outcomes in the form of published books, it was to the university’s benefit to be involved in a large project of this nature, which meaningfully links Ireland (Beckett’s home country) to England (where he spent years during the 1930s, where one of our editors is based, as well as our publisher, Cambridge University Press) to America (the chief home of the project is Emory University in Atlanta).
I myself became involved through my friend Catharine Carver, who was the éminence grise of Anglo-American publishing and a world authority on the publishing of letters and biography. She was approached for advice by Martha Fehsenfeld, whom Beckett has asked to publish a selection of his letters bearing on his work, and Lois Overbeck, who had been chosen by Martha to assist her. I was a close friend of Catharine, and she realized that I could be of help to the American editors. This proved to be the case, and I proposed as chief translator for the project – about one third of the letters Beckett wrote are in French – my own former teacher George Craig, who had very recently retired from the University of Sussex. Those who would like to know more about the ins and outs of the process, and to learn a little more about the extraordinary person that was Catharine Carver, can read about it in an interview I gave to Rhys Tranter at the Quarterly Conversation. It has been a long, arduous, but endlessly interesting and rewarding journey, and one that is due to end later this year with the publication of Volume IV of the letters, which stretches from 1966, when Beckett was 60 years of age, to his death in 1989.
From the very start of my involvement in the project I envisaged it as a learning opportunity for students. More than 50 students have worked with me as “interns”, their chief role being that of seeking out information to inform the notes that allow the letters to be read with greater comprehension. The information sought could range, to choose some recent examples, from what weather it was on a particular day, to the date of a manifesto signed during the Algerian War, to reading a book on brain surgery that Beckett had enjoyed. For the past thirty years we have been gathering copies of Beckett’s letters, transcribing them (his handwriting is notoriously illegible), translating them, and pursuing information concerning their context, in a period that goes from 1929 to 1989 – in other words much of the twentieth century. We could not possibly have done all this without the assistance of students at AUP, where they have, with the support of the ever-helpful staff of AUP’s own library, carried out research at the Archives Nationales, at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, and at countless other smaller French archives.
For the students, doing this original research was often a useful experience and provided a good foretaste of the sort of work they might have to do in graduate school or in their future jobs (several interns have gone on to work as lawyers, for example, and have told me that they found the research experience invaluable). I never issued requests for information about something I already knew, and in this sense the work was somewhat different from much of undergraduate student life, where a teacher who issues a question often has some notion of the response s/he is expecting. Though they are slowly becoming more welcoming to young researchers, Paris archives and libraries are not known for being easy to access. My student interns had to brave their way into many spaces where they were initially viewed with suspicion, and they needed to hold their nerve when asked about their credentials and research motivations. Let me give a recent example.
I have long intended to include in Volume IV a letter Beckett wrote to the Libération newspaper, in 1985, in answer to the question “Pourquoi écrivez-vous?” I knew that this question had been sent to scores of internationally celebrated writers, and I was already in Paris when the “hors-série” that contained the responses was published. I remember being amazed to see that Beckett, famed for his reticence and his unwillingness to speak to the media – he did not even go to Sweden to pick up his Nobel Prize – had responded. I enjoined my student intern Hynd Lalam to contact Libération in order to find the original of Beckett’s response. What she learned, after several enquiries – one almost never gets anywhere in Paris on a first attempt, as anyone who has lived here any length of time will testify – was that the letter had in fact been sent by Beckett not to the newspaper but to one of its journalists, Mathieu Lindon. Suddenly I understood why Beckett had responded: because Mathieu Lindon is the son of Beckett’s publisher at Les Editions de Minuit, Jérôme Lindon, incomparably the most important figure in Beckett’s relations with the publishing world (the man who went to Sweden to accept the Nobel Prize on his behalf). As so often, Beckett had responded because he liked the person who was asking the question.
What Hynd had then to do was to find out how to get hold of Mathieu Lindon, himself by now one of France’s most famous journalists, and then to explain to him why we were trying to get hold of the letter he had been sent. All this in French, of course. Hynd persisted, received a copy of the letter, and then obtained the permission to publish it. Just last week I met Mathieu Lindon for the first time, and he could not stress to me too strongly that, if he had responded positively to the enquiry, it was in no small measure because he had been so charmed and impressed by what Hynd had told him of our project, as well as of her own background. (Hynd’s parents are from Algeria, and as it happens Les Editions de Minuit, under Jérôme Lindon’s leadership, was the most important publishing house in France to take a stance against the use of torture by the French military during the Algerian War of Independence.) Mathieu asked me to set up a meeting for the three of us – himself, Hynd, me – for next time Hynd is in Paris (after AUP she went to do her Masters at the University of Cambridge, where she is still living).
I hope this anecdote gives some sense of what has been involved for the students in the work that has given rise to the four volumes of our edition. I hope too that they, from the four corners of the globe where they now reside, have followed the reviews that our edition has received, and felt proud to have participated. I can say with some satisfaction that these reviews have been very positive, that the project is viewed as an example of success in research and publishing in the humanities, and is taken as a model by the National Endowment for the Humanities. What has become clear to me is not only that working in Paris archives has allowed students to cut their teeth in carrying out original research, but has also allowed students to see what goes in to making a large scholarly edition – everything from transcription to proofreading. And the fact of having worked on the letters project has certainly proved a significant addition to student CVs, one that I know has been noticed by graduate school committees on the look-out for promising students for their programmes. One of my other most recent interns, Chloe Elder, discovered a real talent and passion for scholarly editing, and is currently doing her Masters in Book History and Material Culture. Several alums of the project have gone on to study at Emory University, and others have gone elsewhere with the certainty that they have made a significant contribution to a project that has produced fruits that will be appreciated by the community of Beckett scholars, as well as by more casual readers, for decades to come. And not just by Anglophone readers, since all four volumes of our edition are being translated for publication in French (with Gallimard), in German (with Suhrkamp) and in Italian (with Adelphi).
In September, as I have mentioned, the final volume of our edition will be published. We plan to host launch parties in Paris, in Dublin, and in Cambridge, to which members of the AUP community will of course be invited. Given the unwavering support AUP has offered to what Publishers Weekly has described as a “landmark project”, what The Spectator described as “the most significant literary correspondence of its time”, it is only appropriate that it will be central to the festivities that will surely surround the launches.
The Center was started in 2007 when Gerry della Paolera was President of AUP, with the purpose of galvanising the literary culture that already existed at the university and giving it a more permanent and durable presence in the larger world. I’m proud to say that I think it has succeeded in its mission, helped as it has been by my wonderful colleagues in the Comparative Literature Department and in particular by Daniel Medin who has given new life to our image and our publicity beyond the university. The Center has numerous followers on Facebook and Twitter. Events are also announced and reported on through the Comparative Literature blog. The CWT has hosted well over 50 such events, with major writers and translators, including most recently with the head of English Pen, and professor at Warwick University, Maureen Freely. We have so many interesting writers passing through Paris, and we have many among our own ranks whose work is gaining recognition. Our role has been to seek to make the most of this. One of our earliest invitees, to take a single example, was the great American writer and translator Lydia Davis. Several of us teach her stories and I myself teach her translation of Marcel Proust. I was fortunate enough to be interviewed by her a couple of years ago, and those who are interested to read more about how I envisage the relation between the different elements of my own work.
From the start, we decided to create a series of publications, and I’m glad to announce that numbers 27, 28, and 29 of the Cahiers Series are just about to be printed. These will be by the writer Kirsty Gunn and the artist Merran Gunn, by Javier Marías and Wifredo Lam, and by Georgi Gospodinov and Theodore Ushev. We have published writers and artists who are relatively unknown and we have published writers and artists who are internationally renowned (including two Nobel Prize winners in Literature). We are constantly seeking to innovate, and to find interesting new relations between the texts we publish and the images that accompany them. We seek to be resolutely international, and when no.29 comes out we will have published writers and artists from the following countries: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, China, Cuba, England, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Poland, Russia, Scotland, South Africa, the US and Vietnam. Readers interested in learning more about how the Cahiers Series grew, and about how each cahier is produced and distributed can read a Q & A I did with “Book Culture Blog”.
Of course, the Center also worked hand in glove with the Masters in Cultural Translation at AUP, and I’m proud to say that several of the graduates of this programme have gone on to publish books that emerged directly out of their study, at least two of which are currently up for major international translators’ prizes. And we have tried, throughout the life of the Center, to make it a place where literary creativity is promoted, which is one of the reasons we are so pleased about the new major in Creative Writing at AUP. There have been several events already this semester that have brought together the CWT and the Creative Writing major, and of course the professor who has been most instrumental in breathing life into the new major, Jeffrey Greene, is himself a cahier author.
There is so much more to say about the literary life at AUP, such as the new series of events we are planning with the cult bookshop Shakespeare & Company, or the events with various authors that we will be hosting in the fall. But for now let me just say that I think our Center, with its Cahiers Series that is distributed through Seagull Books and Chicago University Press, is really helping to put AUP on the literary map.