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 into one of Beckett’s most fertile creative periods. The next in the series will span 1941 to 1956, covering the writer’s war years, his famous Trilogy (Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable) and the first performances of Waiting for Godot. Writing Beckett’s Letters offers an almost tangible sense of Beckett’s artistic notions during this period, no doubt aided by the abundance of high-quality colour reproductions of letters and postcards that illustrate the volume. Craig’s dedication to the project is apparent from the beginning, and the book becomes a meditation on the importance of language in Beckett’s writing, and the task of the translator.
Craig begins with an overview of Beckett’s correspondence with art historian and critic Georges Duthuit. The letters begin in pre-war Paris, span the Occupation, and culminate with Beckett’s post-war experiments with French prose. For Craig, Duthuit was something like the ‘ideal interlocutor’ to Beckett, a person to whom ‘anything could be said’. As a result, the letters grant a very rare insight into Beckett’s artistic development throughout this crucial period, and form the basis of what was later published, in drastically abbreviated form, as the Three Dialogues. Craig suggests that these letters be considered a powerful and creative body of work in their own right, ranked alongside Beckett’s revolutionary work in drama and prose.
Alongside reflections on Samuel Beckett’s literary work are observations on the process of translation. To begin, for instance, is the challenge of an accurate transcription: at times, nothing short of impossible. Craig writes that ‘Beckett is the first to recognise how difficult his hand is (“my Ogham”), and the letters abound in promises to be more careful, to do better. But these are like New Year resolutions: well intended, but never binding.’ The task of the translator is further complicated by Beckett’s use of multiple languages, a common practice in his correspondence that is never signalled. Craig addresses these problems engagingly with examples from the letters themselves, and manages to make the tricky elements of his work into fascinating points of discussion.
There are also several interesting insights into Samuel Beckett’s character. There’s a hint of his fondness for gardening, for instance. An impression of his opinions of criticism and academic discourse: ‘Even Maurice Blanchot, one of the very few critics of whom he speaks with real approval, will lose him by being, in Beckett’s view, too theoretical.’ And, among several of Beckett’s quirks, Craig identifies his tendency to resist flattery whenever possible: he scanned ‘descriptions of human behaviour (particularly his own) for signs of flattery, or indeed of anything complimentary, and [replaced them with] correspondingly unfavourable descriptions’. Beckett’s self-deprecatory gestures are finely illustrated by an anecdote concerning French publisher Jérôme Lindon: Beckett suggested that if Lindon would insist on publishing his unsatisfactory early work, Mercier et Camier, it might comprise part of a larger compilation entitled Merdes posthumes (posthumous shit).
“The post-war European landscape held a profound and inevitable influence on Samuel Beckett’s writing, whether in prose, poetry, or performance, and Craig draws attention to its fragmentary, spectral presence in the letters”
The post-war European landscape held a profound and inevitable influence on Samuel Beckett’s writing, whether in prose, poetry, or performance, and Craig draws attention to its fragmentary, spectral presence in the letters. Twentieth century violence and atrocity hover in the margins of some of Beckett’s signature texts, from Waiting for Godot and Endgame to The Lost Ones and Catastrophe: but contemporary historical or political issues are never discussed explicitly in the work. Craig identifies a similar pattern in Beckett’s letters, where references to the Holocaust are briefly mentioned, but never expanded upon. In one letter, Beckett writes ‘Robert Desnos (Corps et biens) died like Péron on his way home from deportation’. As Craig rather hauntingly puts it, ‘There is no further comment’.
For me, the most fascinating elements of George Craig’s slim, compact volume are his comments on the influence of French on Beckett’s body of work. From the mannered speech of the Parisian intelligentsia to the rural argot of farmers and manual labourers, all voices find a home in Beckett’s texts.
Whilst George Craig’s book is neatly timed to anticipate the next volume of Beckett’s Letters, it is more than just a preview of things to come. To Beckett scholars and enthusiasts, the appeal of this book is obvious, tightly-woven with rare insight and beautiful reproductions. But it is also a thoughtful and engaging introduction to the problems of translation, and a testament to the status of correspondence as a kind of art-form. To paraphrase Craig’s description of Beckett and Duthuit’s correspondence, this is a work that abounds in strange, unexpected things.
An abridged version of this review was posted by The Spectator in 2011.