George Craig & Dan Gunn: Samuel Beckett's Letters

Edinburgh International Book Festival

On 19 August 2016

Review by David Chadderton

Academics George Craig and Dan Gunn were at the Book Festival to talk about the fourth and final volume that they have edited of the letters of Samuel Beckett, covering the last 24 years of his life from 1966 to 1989. Craig read out some of Beckett's letters in a voice which, according to some in Beckett's own family, was very much like the writer's own.

Beckett's later letters tended to be short and dense like his work at this time. His editors had a difficult job reading and contextualising some of his letters, not just because of having to decipher handwriting but because he may switch between two or three languages in mid-sentence and use obscure or poetic language—it took a long time before they realised that when he mentioned "falls" he was referring to his cataracts, which caused him sight problems for many years.

Another issue that Gunn and Craig mentioned was gauging the correct level of annotation for an edition that would be read all over the world—something that would seem too obvious to mention in some countries may be difficult to interpret in others.

Beckett was seen as an apolitical writer, as opposed to his friend Harold Pinter, whom he influenced, advised and often drank with. However, where friends or principles were concerned, he didn't hesitate to take a stand. For instance, he refused to allow any performances of his plays in front of a segregated audience in Apartheid South Africa.

He avoided publicity and literary prizes and was apologetic towards his publisher for refusing to enter them—he wasn't against them in principle; they just weren't for him. However he couldn't refuse the Nobel Prize for literature, but he did send his publisher to collect it on his behalf.

This avoidance of publicity and the celebrity limelight gave him a reputation as a bit of a hermit, but he was far from it, having a very full social life and lots of friends.

One interesting quote was, when asked "why do you write?", a question he would normally refuse to answer, he wrote back simply, "All I'm good for".

This fourth volume, available in September 2016, doesn't have any salacious details of his various affairs or personal revelations, not, according to his editors, because they have cut such things out but because he never wrote about them in his letters.

What it does contain is more examples of Beckett's very carefully honed prose that stand beside his literary and theatrical works to give a broader insight into the man and his work.