Beckett in Conversation, “yet again”

Angela Moorjani on co-editing a new collection which recounts Samuel Beckett’s meetings with scholars, translators, and theatre practitioners
Beckett in Conversation, "yet again" / Recontres avec Beckett, "encore" • Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd 'Hui, 28:1 (2016)
Beckett in Conversation, “yet again” / Recontres avec Beckett, “encore” • Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd ‘Hui, 28:1 (2016)

To begin, could you say a little bit about Samuel Beckett Today/Aujourd’hui?

SBT/A is a refereed academic journal that publishes essays in English and French on Samuel Beckett’s oeuvre.

When first launched in 1992 by the late Marius Buning and the present coeditor in chief Sjef Houppermans, it took the form of a bilingual annual review publishing selections from international meetings or solicited essays on special topics, but also featuring a section of submitted articles. By 2016, the year SBT/A morphed into a semiannual journal under a different academic publisher (Brill), twenty-seven handsome hardcover volumes had appeared under the Rodopi imprint. My association with SBT/A goes back twenty years with an essay in the “Crossroads and Borderlines” volume of 1997, further intensifying with my coediting the volume based on the “Beckett in Berlin 2000” symposium, after which I was invited to join the editorial board. I served as coeditor in chief from 2008 to 2016.

What was the rationale behind Beckett in Conversation, “yet again” / Rencontres avec Beckett, “encore”?

The well-known Beckettian tag “yet again” / “encore” recognizes the truly astonishing number of conversations with Beckett published over the years in book form in French and English, in Festschriften celebrating Beckett’s birthdays, in journals and newspapers, and, of course, not forgetting the volumes of selections from his extensive correspondence. For a writer suspicious of words this avalanche was one of the paradoxes for which he is famous. So, why still another “Beckett in Conversation?” In spring 2012, during an SBT/A editorial board meeting, I voiced my suspicion that there were notes on meetings with Beckett squirreled away in the private archives of academics. There were in fact such notes of my meetings with him as a young graduate student working on a dissertation on his fiction. As I suspected, many of the other eventual contributors to Beckett in Conversation, “yet again” were reluctant as I had been to shape their notes into a memoir for publication while Beckett was still alive in the fear of betraying his trust. Academics were in fact mostly missing from the already published recollections.  Now that more than twenty years had passed since the author’s death, I argued, it was time to avert the loss of such unpublished conversations and correspondence that illuminate his oeuvre.

Anne Madden le Brocquy and Samuel Beckett, Le Petit Café pml Saint-Jacques, Paris, 1988. Photo: Louis le Brocquy
Anne Madden le Brocquy and Samuel Beckett, Le Petit Café pml Saint-Jacques, Paris, 1988. Photo: Louis le Brocquy

How can such accounts help to enhance our understanding of the writer’s work?

When approached for a meeting by scholars, Beckett would warn that he does not discuss his work. When I thanked him at the beginning of our first meeting for this restraint because, otherwise, what would it leave students to do, he relaxed and engaged fully in a discussion of the questions I raised. It began with his paradoxical use of affirmations and negations and went on from there. The dynamics were not much different for other scholars: Beckett would drop hints about how to approach his work, have his say about interpretations, and counter with his own questions. About two-thirds of the memoirs are by academics, some of which, however, wear additional hats as translators, writers, and directors. Recollections of meetings and correspondence by translators of Beckett’s works into German, Spanish, Polish, and Arabic, for example, bristle with appreciation for the challenges of translating a wordsmith of Beckett’s acumen and wit and an aficionado of paradox to boot, and document the author’s expertise in self-translation. And finally, the intricate interactions between Beckett and theatre and media practitioners, as they labored jointly at approximating the way the author saw and heard his works for the stage, radio, and television from the inside make for enlightening reading. A number of excellent production photographs add to the understanding of the rehearsals chronicled. Beckett’s comments on productions of his works, which he followed attentively, add to the treasure chest of insights made available in this collection.

“Beckett’s comments on productions of his works, which he followed attentively, add to the treasure chest of insights made available in this collection.”

What were your impressions upon meeting Beckett in person?

Angela Moorjani, 1967. Photo: Kishin Moorjani.
Angela Moorjani, 1967. Photo: Kishin Moorjani.

For readers of these memoirs, one of the pleasures is sharing the exhilaration of meeting Beckett for the first time described by one after the other of the contributors to this volume. What is there about him that occasioned such unanimous homage? Was it only a matter of being overwhelmed in the presence of a world-renowned writer whose works had his interlocutors both puzzled and entranced? There was that, no doubt. But it was his thoughtful tentativeness – although not quite the right word – as he searched for possible answers to questions, as if he were looking for them in a far-off space, that particularly impressed me. (He did keep ready answers, though, for some questions and would repeat these in conversation after conversation.) I was awed by the knowing unknowingness shown at times by this extraordinarily complex writer, so far removed from the condescending gestures of authority and, equally, by his sensitivity to suffering apparent on hearing of an animal’s tears or comments on the war then raging in Vietnam. Not that there weren’t moments of laughter in the company of this writer adept at mixing laughter and tears. Further tribute is paid in the memoirs of this collection to Beckett’s concern for the lives of his visitors, his solicitude about the political tensions in their countries, and his extraordinary talent for friendship. Included are snapshots of the contributors at the age of their meetings with Beckett.

Did you encounter any shocks or surprises when assembling the issue?

There were a number of surprises! When the three coeditors of the collection – Danièle de Ruyter, Sjef Houppermans, and I – issued invitations to the prospective contributors on the list assembled with the help of the other editorial board members and colleagues in the field, much to our regret, the response from candidates on the Francophone list was unexpectedly sparse: Unlike their Anglophone counterparts, French scholars had not sought out contact with Beckett in person or in writing, and many of the directors, actors, and artists who had worked closely with him had either died or were otherwise unavailable. Our efforts came partly too late. There was one pleasant surprise: an inquiry addressed to SBT/A by a Francophone Egyptian academic brought to our attention that she had met with Beckett on his invitation after her letter to him about Cairo performances of several of his plays in her translation into Arabic. We were especially happy to include her recollections in an addendum. At the time of publication there were some snafus about format, but now that they have been resolved, Beckett in Conversation, “yet again” / Rencontres avec Beckett, “encore” is available both as a softcover journal issue and as a hardback book (2017) that makes it available to a more general readership, especially in academic libraries.

What’s next for you?

In several of my writings over the years I explore, but briefly, the notion Beckett shared with a number of modernist artists and writers linking a limbo of the unborn and the dead to a space of generativity. I traced this notion to Schopenhauer who found it in Indian thought. We know Beckett to have read the German philosopher as early as 1930 and, fifty-nine years later, he was still advising one of the contributors to Beckett in Conversation to tell her daughter, who was studying philosophy, to read Schopenhauer. Drawing on new archival evidence of the extent of Schopenhauer’s knowledge of Upanishadic and Mahayana Buddhist teachings and the recent upsurge of studies on his influential role in transmitting Eastern thought to the West, I am working on a book further investigating the traces of ancient Indian thought (through a mostly Schopenhauerian lens) in Beckett’s fiction and theatre.

Beckett in Conversation, “yet again” / Rencontres avec Beckett, “encore” is available both as a softcover journal issue – SBT/A 28.1 (2016) – at brill@turpin-distribution.com and as a hardback book (2017) from the Brill website.


About the Editor

Angela Moorjani is Professor Emerita of French and Intercultural Studies at the University of Maryland-UMBC and has been a visiting professor at Waseda University in Tokyo. She authored Abysmal Games in the Novels of Samuel Beckett in 1982 on narrative mise en abyme, the fort-da, and other playful repetitions; she has since co-edited seven volumes on Beckett, with the latest – Beckett in Conversation, “yet again” to appear in time for Beckett’s 110th birthday in 2016. Her other books on mourning and repetition in writing and the arts – The Aesthetics of Loss and Lessness and Beyond Fetishism and Other Excursions in Pragmatics – and numerous essays fuse psychoanalysis and pragmatics with gender theory. Her recent publications include a study of the trilogy in The New Cambridge Companion to Samuel Beckettand a series on Beckett’s French cultural ghosts leading her to grapple further with the clash between Beckett’s ghostly timelessness and embodied temporality in the space of writing. With Sjef Houppermans, she was co-editor in chief of the bilingual journal Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd’hui from 2008 to 2016.

Advertisements
  1. Diarmuid, Dublin Ireland

    hi, I’ve recently become besotted with Becketts work. I’ve been wondering where he did his writing and came across a photo of his room on your site. can you tell me more about his writing room and how you have a photo of it?

    • Rhys Tranter

      Hi Diarmuid!

      Fantastic to hear that you’ve become Beckett besotted! I share your fascination for his work, and have a similar interest in writers’ rooms and living spaces.

      I’m not sure which photograph you mean, but I suspect you are referring to one of two. There are images of his study in Paris, taken by a number of photographers (including John Minihan), and an image of Beckett at his country retreat in Ussy-sur-Marne (which is published in James Knowlson’s biography, Damned to Fame). I hope that answers your question, but do feel free to get in touch if you would like to know more.

      Best,
      Rhys

Add your thoughts, links, and recommendations

%d bloggers like this: