Anticipating a new production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot at New York City’s Lincoln Center, Colm Tóibín shares his observations on the iconic play.
Just received James E. Montgomery’s Loss Sings in the mail, the thirty-second volume to be published in the excellent Cahiers Series by Sylph Editions:
“In this deeply personal cahier James E. Montgomery contemplates memory, loss and the consolatory power of words through the prism of his personal circumstances. His thoughts are refracted by his own translations of the dirges of the 6th-century poetess al-Khansa’, lamenting the battlefield death of her two brothers. Each section of Montgomery’s text is dated and spans over a period of two weeks with the final entry strangely ending on 11 September 2017, exactly 16 years after he himself witnessed, from his Greenwich Village window, the haunting and ‘strange beauty’ of the day’s portentous spectacle. Still, throughout the text Montgomery never loses touch with his vocation as a literary translator. He considers the practice more akin to trauma than it is to memory: ‘Translation is also mourning for what we want to retain, what we value and cherish; it is, equally, mourning for what we know we must lose’, all of which is relayed by Alison Watt’s wondrous images that accompany the cahier.”
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How did you come to be a writer?
I began writing fiction seriously near the end of my doctorate, in 2011 or so. At the time I was preparing to leave Oxford for a lectureship in Australia. The writing I did in Oxford and then in Wollongong (a coastal town in New South Wales), over summers at an archive at UT Austin, and elsewhere, eventually became a book project: Three Pioneers. I finished the project in 2013, in the UK.
The book clearly had a lag before it saw publication; it ran through a long list of publishers and agents who, when they replied at all, uniformly classed it as ‘too difficult’ or, less often, ‘too philosophical’ (I’m aware that in the vocabulary of many of these gatekeepers these are euphemisms, to put it mildly).
You ask how I ‘became a writer’. As transparently as I can, permit me to say that writing, the kind of writing we are talking about, was and remains an obscure urge for me. I am not writing, in any case, to become a ‘novelist’ or a ‘writer’ in the sense of someone who is an authority on writing, a cultural authority, or a practitioner of a certain genre; if I were, I would have written (would be writing) differently. As an academic, too, there are other routes, other forms of writing that are open to me to pursue such aims, in however limited a manner. Nor does being an ‘artist’ attract me (I will let that term remain vague). Again, I could have been an ‘artist’ otherwise, and to my mind, more directly – I could have wholly devoted myself to painting, for example, to which I once partially devoted myself.
Why write, then? What can still be called the novel, in the loosest possible sense of the term, is a way of thinking and feeling that allows me to stage problems that I otherwise find difficult to articulate. As this response perhaps suggests. (more…)
Could you tell me a little bit about yourself and your research interests?
My research revolves around modernism and post-1945 literature, and the essays and books that I have published on Beckett’s work explore its relation to politics, its historical dimensions, and its Irish and European influences. I have been working in the Department of English at the University of York for over ten years.
How did you first encounter Samuel Beckett’s writing?
I must have been about fifteen, I think, when I first heard about Beckett. A friend of mine told me about a play that she had seen in which two actors were trapped in rubbish bins, and I was intrigued! Soon after I came across copies of the early absurdist plays, in the lovely Editions de Minuit versions. I was particularly struck by Oh les beaux jours, with its memorable cover featuring Madeleine Renaud stoically holding her umbrella.
It seemed to me remarkable that a whole play could be made to unfold from that situation, from that image. The author was of no concern to me then, but from that first reading I recall being convinced that the work dealt with colonialism and with colonial wars, and I remember seeing a very literal political dimension within it. The French texts have a peculiar texture; they refract much of what is unsaid about colonial history, and much of what is culturally unsayable about historical injustice, and I was sensitive to that. These were powerful impressions, which stayed with me thereafter. When I began to study Beckett’s work properly, many years later, I did so in light of its Irish literary and historical contexts, and my first monograph was a reappraisal of Beckett’s relation to Ireland. For me, the work is never abstract: it is inseparable from war memory and from the long colonial histories that it invokes. In a sense, this new book was a return to my first impressions: when I started researching, I worked on what is now the final chapter on Beckett and the Algerian War of Independence. (more…)