Editing Beckett at a Crossroads of Cultures

The event of the rentrée at The American University of Paris (AUP) was the publication of Volume II of The Letters of Samuel Beckett, co-edited by our own Daniel Gunn, Professor of Comparative Literature.  A splendid Franco-British, American, Irish venture, this volume has already been called, by the London Evening Standard, “the book of the year,” by the Irish Times “one of the great productions of literary scholarship of our time,” and by the Sunday Times, “one of the most valuable feats of literary scholarship to appear in the past fifty years.”

Just two years ago, the editors, the publishers, the students who had worked on the edition, as well as a host of literary admirers of Beckett, gathered in the gorgeous penumbra of the library of Trinity College Dublin to fête Volume 1.  How fitting—given the French turn Beckett’s letters have taken in this second volume—that we convened two years later in the elegant garden of the Bibliothèque Ste.-Barbe at the Sorbonne-Nouvelle in Paris.  On one of the last summer evenings, we gathered again for the pure pleasure of hearing French actor Rufus and Irish actor Barry McGovern read from the letters in their respective, alternating languages.  Beckett’s nephew Edward was present, as was the wife of the recently deceased George Duthuit (grandson of Matisse and executor of his father’s estate).  The Irish Ambassador to France, His Excellency Paul Cavanaugh, a great reader of Beckett and lover of literature, graced our soirée with heartfelt words.

The American University of Paris situates itself at the crossroads of cultures, and this project sits perfectly with our mission to educate international citizens and scholars.  For nearly 20 years, AUP has been the French home of the edition. Professor Daniel Gunn is the energy behind it, modest to a fault, assuring me always that his task has been made infinitely easier by the support of his faculty colleagues.  But Dan has borne, on our campus, the Herculean weight of the project for nearly two decades, adding to his portfolio more recently the stunning Cahiers Series, the last volume of which is devoted to George Craig’s Translating Beckett.

But it is not only through its professors that the University has been intellectually engaged in the editing of Beckett’s letters.  More than sixty students have worked as interns over the past decade, doing research at Paris’s great libraries and archives–research that has found its way into many of the notes accompanying the volume launched this fall. Students who have worked on the project are now studying or are themselves teaching all over the world, changed by their experience of the reading of and research on Beckett’s life and oeuvre.

One specific example of AUP student influence on this project is very dear to me.  There is a crucial series of letters to Georges Duthuit that Beckett neglected completely to date and that contain only one external reference, this being to a skier named Claude Laroche who had just won a junior championship. The editors were under the impression that these letters probably dated from early 1952.  It took one of AUP’s student interns to solve the mystery, Lilyana Yankova, now a graduate student herself at the Sorbonne Nouvelle.  After nearly three months of scouring the press for the winter of 1952 at the Bibliothèque Nationale, she ascertained that the editors must be wrong; going back to the winter of 1951, she found the key reference dated 1 January 1951.  Suddenly the whole series of letters had to be reassessed and understood afresh, a whole generation of Beckett scholars the wiser for it.  This is how an editing project as deep and consuming as this one hands off to younger scholars—indeed how scholarship itself becomes a loving generational and collaborative act—and I can assure you that our University has been the better for it. As the old Talmudic saying goes: “ From our students, we have learned.”

The book launch on September 29, 2011

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