I researched and wrote this article during my time as Communications Coordinator for the American University of Paris. It was published as a news piece at aup.edu on October 8, 2014.
Professor Dan Gunn has been working on the editing of the third volume of Beckett’s letters, which is being published this month. The letters showcase Beckett’s grappling with fame as well as his relationships, most notably with Barbara Bray, an English critic and translator.
During this period, as Gunn describes it in his Introduction to the Volume, Beckett struggled to reconcile his “aesthetic of failure” with his newfound success as a writer; he was achieving worldwide recognition and was well on the way to winning the Nobel Prize. Gunn suggest that the challenge was not so much that of displaying his disregard for success as much as that of “giving space to something other than what has been recognized up to now as achievement in literature.”
Gunn also highlights the importance of Beckett’s blossoming relationship with Barbara Bray, whom he had met while working on his first radio play, All That Fall. Over the course of thirty years, Bray and Beckett exchanged more than seven hundred letters, early examples of which are featured in this volume. Their relationship marks a turning point in Beckett’s life and letters, as he starts to open up about his work in progress. Gunn explains: “Where before he has been very reticent about whatever work he was engaged in writing, now he feels […] free to discuss almost every step in the writing, then the editing, then the production of this work, right down to his many hesitations over its title.”
One of the many challenges faced by Gunn and his co-editors has been in establishing contexts for the letters, particularly that of the Algerian War. Many of Beckett’s friends were involved in the resistance to the war, such as his publisher at Les Editions de Minuit Jérôme Lindon, as well as Sorbonne friend Jean-Jacques Mayoux. When the latter’s apartment was bombed as a result of his political activism, Beckett was outraged. However Beckett’s letters reveal little of these events. Luckily, Gunn was able to collect one of the missing pieces when he met Mayoux’s daughter by chance at a dinner-party. She provided a first-hand account of the bombing, and this has become “one of the footnotes by which [the co-editors] try to give a sense of what life was like in Paris, for Beckett, during these turbulent times.”
Gunn has been a Professor of Comparative Literature at AUP since 1989 and is the Director of the Center for Writers and Translators. He teaches, amongst others, the class Proust and Beckett: The Art of Failure. Professor Gunn has also co-edited Volumes I and II of Beckett’s letters, to widespread critical acclaim. Volume IV is due for 2016. The letters are also being published in French by Gallimard.