Lydia Davis: To start off with, Dan, I have a long question. I’d like to ask you something I’ve been curious about for years, actually. It has to do with your work and your life. You teach full time at the American University of Paris, with all that entails, including directing the University’s Center for Writers and Translators and editing its beautifully produced Cahier Series on translation. In addition, you have, for many years now, been one of four editors in the monumental (and highly labor-intensive) ongoing project of producing a multi-volume selection of Samuel Beckett’s vast correspondence, three fat volumes of which have to date appeared. You regularly give public lectures or take part in conferences on this ongoing project as well as on other subjects as various as Muriel Spark, the Scottish Gothic, translation, Primo Levi, etc. You have written a number of articles on writers including Flann O’Brien, Georges Perec, Thomas Bernhard, to name just a few. You have translated numerous works from the French, and written a study of psychoanalysis and fiction, as well as what I found to be a very engaging and thought-provoking—not to speak of amusing—memoir of your last days of psychoanalysis. As if this were not enough, you are also a writer of fiction, with, now, three novels to your credit, the latest being the imminently forthcoming Emperor of Ice-Cream. You also have a life quite apart from literature, of course—family, friends, dinners, outings to concerts and museums, travel.
So, my question is, how do you do it? More exactly, how, in fact, do you apportion your time: how do you set aside time for university work, editing, writing, and do you have some orderly or at least systematic way of compartmentalizing what you do, and what you think about, since clearly you have been working on this new novel at the same time as you have been teaching and editing the Beckett letters and much else? I'd love to know how you manage it.
DG: A very orderly Greek friend visited me recently, and on stepping into my office and seeing the state of my desk, cried out “Dan! What is that?” He was genuinely shocked, perturbed even, at the sight of the books, papers, unopened envelopes, and assorted debris that flows from several piles over my desk, threatening at any moment to spill off the edges (as it regularly does) and onto the floor. My response was not, I hope, unduly defensive: “It’s a sign that I’m being productive.” Indeed, my desk is clear and tidy only ever for a brief moment after some task has just been completed (or at moments when I remember some unopened bill that needs to be paid). I do like to observe something organized emerging from the apparent chaos; and when that chaos threatens to become a liability, I turn to photos of the studios of artists I admire, of Francis Bacon or Alberto Giacometti, and protest: Now their mess really was a mess.
When I was seventeen, I chose to leave Edinburgh, where I was raised, for the University of Sussex, not least because I had read a book by Gabriel Josipovici entitled The World and the Book; it said on the cover that he was teaching there. What I admired (and still admire) about this wonderful critical work was that it dealt openly and freely with different periods and authors, from different cultures and languages, from Dante to Proust to Saul Bellow. Also mentioned on the cover was that Gabriel Josipovici wrote fiction as well as criticism. In some quiet place within me I seized hold of this as a model: a critic who also writes fiction; a novelist who also writes criticism. I had eight fantastic years at Sussex, taught in an ideal setting by the best teachers imaginable. As it happens, on my very first day I was introduced to my “personal tutor” (what in America would be called my “academic advisor”): Gabriel Josipovici. We quickly got to know each other and have remained friends ever since. The Sussex of those days confirmed for me that one did not have to be (only) a specialist, that one could draw inspiration from many sources, refusing to be boxed in to a single discipline or period or language. I still find that the criticism emerging from this openness suits me best. I have recently been rereading with delight Tony Nuttall’s Shakespeare the Thinker—a book by a former Sussex professor that emerges out of precisely what I’d call the “Sussex spirit.”
By multiplying my directions and intellectual investments—this is as true for me of sporting activity (of which I have done a lot)—I tend not to disperse but rather to gain energy. I avoid what I most dread, being bored. I spent a lot of time as a child being bored in classes in which I had absolutely no interest or flair; I vowed to attempt to lead a life in which I would never be bored again. I can honestly say that I’ve virtually achieved that, but only because I’m constantly varying the sort of word-activity I’m doing. Another relevant analogy might be language-learning. There are ways in which learning a new language can interfere with the language(s) one already knows, but in general I’ve found—and I’m surely not the only one—that learning a new language, even if it requires time and energy, pays back doubly, opening a space in the head/brain/sprit that feels and feeds very much like freedom. I am currently learning Bulgarian, and doing this somehow makes the other languages I know vibrate and hum in echo, as if the words of the new language were watering the words grown dry in the languages less practised.
Of course, there are only so many hours in the day, and several of the activities in which I’m involved, such as editing the Cahiers Series or the Letters of Samuel Beckett, are seriously time-consuming. But more important than the time spent is concentration available; and I can only really concentrate when I am excited by what I am doing. Perhaps I am lucky too, in that before I was reading Gabriel Josipovici, my childhood provided earlier models: my mother was always a voracious reader, and though she worked full time (my father having died when I was six years old) and had to raise me and my two older brothers, she would go to the municipal library every week and take out four or five novels; novels which I would then watch her consume. (She is now eighty-six years old, but retains that capacity for concentration that allows her to read a novel in a day.) And though in some ways I loathed my schooling, which was unnecessarily severe, punitive, and even sadistic (I was of the last generation to suffer the full rigours of the British “public school” system, in which being beaten was an everyday reality), it’s blindingly obvious to me, especially since I myself am a teacher, that I learned how to learn at a very young age. The school I attended was intensely academic, and it regularly strikes me how my students are struggling to learn patterns (such as grammar or essay structure) in their early twenties that were being driven into me when I was barely ten years old.
I still haven’t really answered your question, however, about how I allot the time to my various projects. I’m not sure I can do so adequately since this is rather instinctual. Teaching has to come first, since I find it humiliating to teach a class for which I don’t feel thoroughly prepared or to hand back a student’s essay that I have not marked up as completely as I judge to be helpful. (And could it perhaps be that I feel the need, in some barely reachable part of myself, to prove to the ghosts of my own schoolmasters that it is possible to teach in a demanding and informative way without becoming punitive or worse?) After teaching, the other activities somehow find their space and time—though not always simply I must admit. One example: two years ago I was asked by the TLS to review the first two volumes of Marguerite Duras’s Oeuvres complètes which had just come out in the Pléiade edition. I confidently took this on, only to lug these two volumes around with me wherever I went for the following two years, failing completely to get on with the reading, not to speak of the review. I was lucky enough to have an indulgent editor who ceded to my request made earlier this year, to add the final two volumes of the complete works, making up nearly eight thousand pages in total. For some reason this extra load made the task easier for me, and I managed to write my review while we are still in the centenary year of Duras’s birth. I often invoke the wisdom in a remark once made by Muriel Spark, one of my very favourite twentieth-century writers, when in a BBC interview she was asked if she ever had trouble with writer’s block. She said she never did, that she was always delighted to be writing. Her interviewer (John Tusa, I believe) persisted rather incredulously, asking if she really never found herself in trouble when writing her novels. Spark hesitated a moment before admitting that she did occasionally find that her plots became too complex and that as a result she could not find a way forward. “And what do you do then?” asked the interviewer. “Make them more complex.”
At the risk of going on far too long, I have to admit that there is a hierarchy in the writing and editing projects I undertake: not a hierarchy of importance but of difficulty. Here the sporting analogy may be apposite again. For someone who does not train, a run round the block is a challenge, where for one who trains, it is as easy as a stroll. For me, writing fiction is the hardest thing: nobody can indicate how long a story or novel should be, nobody can tell me in what accent or with what tone the characters should speak, nobody can tell me when I’ve written (or edited) enough, and in any case nobody is demanding the novel of me in the first place. Writing fiction is the toughest sort of training. But alongside that, keeping up with Samuel Beckett offers an arduous workout too, for he is surely one of the most intelligent and learned writers, and even to begin to do him justice requires very serious intellectual training, retraining, expansion, investment. If one spends one’s morning trying to write fiction, and one’s afternoon trying to say something about a writer as difficult and important as Beckett, then if one has a few minutes left over in the evening to attend to words in other contexts, one may indeed feel a little like a trained sprinter taking a jog round the block.
LD: This overview of your intellectual and academic awakening and evolution is fascinating. I had no idea, for instance, about the importance of Gabriel Josipovici in your formation early on, nor that you had experienced such traditionally punitive school discipline (even earlier). And your willingness to undertake the review of such a large oeuvre as Duras's bespeaks, indeed, a faculty for concentration and sheer hard work—a wonderful thing to have.
May I ask another basic question, and that is how you became involved in editing the Beckett letters?
DG: I’m glad to answer, as this gives me a chance to expand upon the little I have said publicly in the past about another key figure in my development—someone I in fact met through Gabriel, and a key figure too in the history of Anglo-American publishing of the last forty years of the twentieth century; someone who, while being of almost mythic stature to those who worked with her, remains, for reasons that will become clear, little known to the larger public.
I had been living in Paris for three or four years when Gabriel introduced me to Catharine Carver, who had recently moved to Paris from London. Since she did not have many acquaintances in the city and was in most ways ill-equipped for life there, I realized I could be of service to her. Very soon she started asking to read whatever it was I was writing. Hesitantly, I would pass her it; two days later she would return it covered in blue pencil marks. Always she started our conversations with the same unavoidable question: “What are you working on now?” If the answer was evasive, she would cast a disapproving look and shake her head as if to ask, did I really think I had time to waste.
For several years I was fortunate to work closely with Catharine, on various editorial projects, and to benefit from the work she did on my own criticism and fiction. Only slowly did I come to understand that she was widely considered—widely within the narrow world of publishing, that is—to be the great literary editor of her age (when I met her in the late 1980s she was already in her late sixties). Nobody who worked with Catharine could quite understand how she could take an essay, a poem, a story, a novel, an academic study, and transform it from its error-ridden and unfulfilled state into what it had the potential to be; and the miracle was that she did this, day in day out, without adding anything of herself. Catharine had an almost preternatural ability to see what every work required in order to realize its inner ambition. The result was that she was ruthless in her criticism, but that she was also sought after by many of the greatest writers of the recent past. Looking through the Letters of Flannery O’Connor recently, I was touched to see that O’Connor says she would not consider moving publishing house without “Katy” going with her (“Katy” being how Catharine was often known during her American years).
Because Catharine was so experienced and clever and generous in the help she gave me and my writing, I would try hard to dream up ways of thanking her. She led an extremely ascetic life, working sixteen hours a day in her tiny studio flat on rue Daguerre; it contained little of anything, not even many books, as she didn’t need dictionaries or works of reference, having all she needed in her head. But I managed to figure out, over time, that she did enjoy three things: the company of attractive young men, eating out, and going to the cinema. I recollect a hot summer’s day in 1989 on which I had invited her for lunch: the windows were open in my apartment in the 18th arrondissement, and I had a friend staying with me, an exceptionally handsome man with eyes like a young Paul Newman’s. Catharine was a shy, grey-haired, birdlike figure who never raised her voice above a few decibels. I don’t remember anything special about that lunch, but an hour after she had left I received a call from Catharine. “But you didn’t tell me!” she protested. I ran rapidly through a list of possible omissions. “What didn’t I tell you?” “About your friend!” I tried to think what he could possibly have done to offend. “What about him? What did he do?” “You didn’t tell me”—her voice rose far about its usual volume—“that he’s an angel!”
I recollect vividly one occasion when I invited Catharine to the cinema. “What shall we see?” she asked me, enthusiastically. “What if we go and see The Remains of the Day?” She looked at me almost scornfully. “You really think that I would wish to see a film about a butler?” I still cringe when I remember how slow I was to twig: I had proposed to an editor, who scrupulously tried to efface herself as she improved other people’s words, to see a film about another in an oppressively similar role. In my defence I can only say that another of Catharine’s great abilities was to make what she did seem so easy; she never complained about her work, and I did not quite realize until that moment what it cost her to follow her genius, her vocation, the price she was paying for her invisibility—for to be invisible was the absolute condition, for Catharine, of the editor’s art. (I remember her once mumbling to me that she “didn’t want it known that she had told Saul Bellow to change . . .” The remainder of her sentence was inaudible.)
If she was discreet about her work, then Catharine was even more so about her past. I slowly pieced together that she had been born in a small town in Ohio in 1921. She told me once that her “fate was sealed” when at the age of eleven she beat the local minister—representative of high culture in her home town—at the annual spelling bee. She still remembered the last time she had misspelled a word—was it “herbaceous”?—which had occurred a few years later. I gathered that she had moved to England when she was about thirty-five, travelling by ship (she never once took a plane, as far as I know, though she travelled widely), and that she had never gone back. Gradually, over the years, I established an incomplete list of writers with whom she had worked. It included: Leonard Cohen (on the early novels), Ken Kesey (on Cuckoo’s Nest—“Such a talent, and such a waste,” I remember her saying), John Berryman, e. e. cummings, Elizabeth Bishop, Bernard Malamud (she was very proud of having “discovered” him and published him in the Partisan Review), John Berryman, Richard Ellmann (she was in no small measure responsible for the coherence of the Oscar Wilde biography); and, after she moved to the UK, Iris Murdoch, Leon Edel (she was tickled at how she had condensed his multi-volume Henry James biography into a single volume), and countless academic authors while working for Oxford University Press.
Because she had made a specialty of letters and biography, she was indicated as a crucial potential helper to Martha Fehsenfeld and Lois Overbeck when they were getting going on the project of gathering Samuel Beckett’s letters. I still remember the way that Catharine announced to me that she would be meeting “two American women” who wanted to consult her about Beckett’s letters. They would be coming round to her studio flat, she explained, adding, “If they’re feminists, I won’t let them in!” It was another of her throwaway remarks that amazed me, given she was one of the toughest, most independent-minded women I had ever met, and who had made her way without the slightest patronage or patronizing from men. “How will you know if they’re feminists?” I asked. “I’ll know,” she said—knowingly.
As even the most experienced writers feared as well as desired Catharine’s blue pencil, it is no disloyalty to say that it was exercised vigorously on the first draft of the Beckett letters that were submitted to her. Martha and Lois turned out not to be whatever Catharine feared they might be, and I was introduced to them as Catharine believed I might be of help in their navigation of Paris and the French language. For several years I assisted informally, before becoming more fully involved and involving my university, the American University of Paris; and I introduced them in turn to George Craig, who had been my tutor at Sussex, and whose participation I knew would be essential if the project of translating and publishing Beckett’s letters was ever to going to be a success.
Catharine was obliged to return to London after the first of her strokes that so debilitated her. When she named me her literary executor, I was initially nervous, imagining that I’d have a lot to do to take care of her papers and the requests that would flood in, for use of her own letters and papers. I should have known better: after she realized she was in decline, she set to with her shredder, so ensuring that the grise in her éminence would be perpetually maintained, just as she surely—so frustratingly—wished it.
LD: Fascinating about Catharine Carver. I have known these essential but invisible wordsmiths—who prefer not to be seen, yet are so important to good and even great literature. But of course it is still a shame that we can’t actually leaf through more of her papers. You have mentioned to me before the painstaking work being done by George Craig. I’m interested to hear that he was your tutor at Sussex. Sussex reappears, as it will reappear in the late pages of the novel, too. As though it were a character not only in your life but also in your fiction and your scholarly work—or if not strictly a character, certainly an agent, an active force. Once you were fully engaged in the Beckett project, what were the chief processes involved?
DG: I’d say there are six main activities involved in preparing an edition such as ours: gathering, transcribing, translating, selecting, annotating, publishing. All but the first of these involve us in questions and processes that will be very familiar to you, as they are similar to those confronting the translator. Every choice that is made implies a loss, and every general rule or principle that one establishes is going to become an intolerable burden within a few pages. I could give scores of examples, but they would all serve to tell the same tale, of how editing and translating are closely proximate activities, where the risk of betrayal is always high. When the writer is as intelligent and as loveable as Samuel Beckett, then that risk becomes downright perilous.
LD: I wonder—you have piqued my curiosity—if you wouldn’t mind, after all, giving one or two examples of the sort of choice or compromise involved, to take us “inside” the world of editing Beckett’s letters. So many of us would like to be, if only vicariously—or perhaps I should say, given the amount of work involved only vicariously—handling this rich trove of personal papers, since Beckett is for so many of us a hugely important and inspiring writer.
DG: One of the questions in transforming rapidly produced handwriting into print is what to do with anomalies. Is it useful or interesting to show where Beckett makes typos, or where he crosses something out and amends it? Is it worthwhile to show where he misspells a name (as he regularly does, for instance, when he adds a circumflex to the second “e” in the surname of Jean Genet), or confuses a French transliteration of a Russian name with an English one? What we finally agreed was to present Beckett’s letters as their recipients would have read them, but retaining the oddities of his spelling, punctuation, and syntax.
If this required compromise, at least it offered a principle that we editors could follow. But during the early 1950s, after his great “siege in the room” that produced the core of his mature texts (to name just the most significant: the four early French stories, Mercier et Camier, the trilogy of Molloy, Malone meurt, and L’Innommable, and his first masterpiece for the theatre En attendant Godot), Beckett had no inclination to hawk his wares or indeed to have anything whatsoever to do with agents or publishers; it was his partner Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil who sent his scripts around. It was Suzanne also who, when Jérôme Lindon at Les Editions de Minuit read Beckett’s texts and was enthusiastic, initially corresponded with him. Our question was, therefore: should we include these letters even though they were not written by Beckett, knowing that without them a whole period of dealings crucial to Beckett’s career would be lost? Once we decided that we should indeed include them, we had then to decide where to place them and how to present them. We considered placing them in the Appendix, but realized that this would not help give continuity to the narrative. In the end we inserted them into the body of the text, in their chronological place, but put them in italics so as to avoid the risk of readers thinking that these letters were written by Beckett himself. We transcribed them using our usual principles and sent them to the representative of Suzanne’s estate for approval; only to hear back that we had not transcribed them correctly. We posted the originals, and it was confirmed that our transcriptions were accurate: Suzanne, writing in haste, was highly idiosyncratic in her style. We were asked to correct what she wrote to more standard French, thus breaking one of our hard-won cardinal rules; a policy we then adopted for all letters written by anyone but Beckett (the letters of Georges Duthuit contained many small “errors” too, which his estate would doubtless not have been happy to see repeated in print). So, you see the contradictions and the compromises?
I forget who said that Beckett produced the most illegible handwriting of any twentieth-century author, but it was no hyperbole. In general, transcription requires a lot of experience, some inspiration, and an ability to predict what letter or word may be coming next. In Beckett’s case the whole task is rendered massively more challenging because the expected word may be in a language other than that of the letter—in German within an English letter, in English within a French letter, and so on. Of all the letters, those written to Barbara Bray in the late-1950s and early-1960s are perhaps the hardest of all to decipher—Beckett’s eyesight is impaired by cataracts and his fingers are suffering from the Dupuytren’s Contracture that will later render them “claws.” In the middle of one letter to Barbara (from 1 December 1960), he writes (about his cousin John Beckett the musician): “John wrote, having been with his sister in All That Fall disaffected station and [something] line. Seems pleased at idea of collaborating.” The gist is clear enough: John Beckett has been back in Ireland and has been visiting the haunts around Dublin where Beckett’s first radio play, All That Fall, takes place. But what could the word be between “and” and “line”? I believe we tried “attached,” “adjacent,” as well as many more fanciful alternatives. None of them fitted with the letters we were able to discern in the handwritten word. After an hour of staring at it, and having gone through every word in our collective—and not inconsiderable—lexicons, George Craig suddenly exclaimed: “Attenant!” In the middle of his English sentence, Beckett had gone for the word that expressed most fully and concisely the idea he wished to express; that word happened to be a French one.
An example of a decision we are presently facing may help focus the issues involved in transcribing Beckett’s handwriting. On 21 April 1969 Beckett wrote to Harold Pinter to acknowledge receipt of Pinter’s new play and to make a suggestion about it. The letter opens: “Thank you for sending me Silence. I like it greatly, the writing so precarious and [something]. Just one speech (p. 19 beginning ‘A long way’) I suggest you reconsider.” One Beckett specialist, not of our team, has transcribed the missing word as “numinous.” This would make sense, even if “numinous” doesn’t sound especially Beckettean. But it simply does not fit the letters on the page. One of our team has suggested “numerous”: a set of letters that looks plausible. But what could “precarious and numerous” possibly signify? The job of transcription requires one to commute between the evidence of the eyes and the semantic possibilities. Another suggestion was of a very Beckettean word—“umbrous”—but the first letter does not much resemble a “u.” One further reading gives “cumbrous,” a word that possibly fits with what Pinter says elsewhere of this play, that in it “There are two silences. One when no word is spoken. The other when perhaps a torrent of language is being employed.” Many possibilities, but only one can be right. The editor-jury is still out, and it may be that in the end we shall have to indicate our doubts (which we do by including a question mark before the dubious word).
There is a always a violence in “translating” handwriting into printed text, because the very particular “feel” of each letter risks being lost. The colour and quality of the paper Beckett chose, the degree of legibility of the hand—my colleague Gérard Kahn, who has been so helpful in our transcribing, believes that Beckett writes most illegibly to Barbara Bray because of an ambivalence about being read and understood by her—are just elements of the letter that are eroded when it is mined for text alone. In our Cambridge University Press edition we have been able to present only a single letter in facsimile, in black and white, at the start of each volume. It was partly for this reason that I resolved to give a fuller impression of the material nature of the letters by publishing Writing Beckett’s Letters in our Cahiers Series. In this I tried to give a very palpable sense of the letters as material objects—their colour, mood, and the handwriting as Beckett’s recipients might have perceived it. I even included some of the picture-postcards whose images so mattered to Beckett, such as the one he sent to several friends of the Caravaggio painting of the Beheading of St John the Baptist, from St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta, that came to be influential in his hatching of his play Not I.
LD: This is fascinating. Thank you for your patience in going into such detail. I am glad the editors decided to preserve Beckett’s mistakes. I would have liked to see his crossouts, too—his second thoughts—but I can well understand why this would have made the whole task much more “cumbrous,” to use his (possible) word. The reason I would have liked to see all his marks is that in the case of such a finished or polished stylist, it is all the more interesting to witness how he thinks when he is writing in a more relaxed mode. I once had the excitement of browsing through some of his notebooks in the Lilly Library in Bloomington and stared long and hard at each of his revisions. But I did not think to copy any of them down to ponder further.
I would like to ask one last question about this work, a more personal one, before we move on to talk about your new novel.
I know you had already lectured about Beckett, written about him, and taught his work. Has this extended immersion in his letters nuanced or shifted your sense of him and his work, or your feelings about him, in any way?
DG: I think I was lucky in the way I encountered Beckett’s work, in that my first association with it had nothing to do with learning, schools, or the academy. I was aged sixteen, and I was looking through the Fringe program of the 1974 Edinburgh Festival. As you know, Edinburgh hosts one of the biggest—if not the biggest—arts festival in the world, and as a youngster I tried to see as many shows as I could afford. My eye was caught by a play that was set to be staged by a group of prisoners from the San Quentin Prison in California. This seemed a really interesting prospect, and so with my closest friend, Nick Martin, I went along. The theatre was tiny and the actors were nearly as numerous as the members of the audience. My friend Nick and I have never forgotten that performance—Endgame was the name of the play, by a writer called “Samuel Beckett” (it was the first time we’d registered that name). Nick, who is an excellent mimic, can still impersonate the voices we heard that evening, and the refrains. Naturally, we didn’t “understand” the least thing about the play; but we were hugely moved and disturbed by it. By a nice twist, just this past month I’ve been working on a Beckett letter from 1974 and sent to Edinburgh—to Rick Cluchey who was starring in Endgame, and who had settled in Edinburgh after being released from San Quentin.
The reason I put the word understand within inverted commas is that I think my friend and I were responding to Beckett’s words in an appropriate way, possibly more appropriate than the intellectual reactions inevitably favoured by the academy. What my own years of working on his letters has confirmed is that Beckett’s work—and in this it contrasts rather obviously with that of James Joyce—does not require explication or exegesis to be enjoyed and understood. It requires an openness to oddity and an alertness to voice and sound; and it requires patience—something prisoners have in abundance.
In that letter to Cluchey, Beckett signals that he is waiving his royalties for the San Quentin cycle in favour of the prisoners on parole. If there is any single thing I’ve learned from working on the letters, it is the greatness—the exemplary greatness—of Beckett the man, typified by this letter. “Exemplary greatness” may sound like incipient hagiography, but I’d be wrong if embarrassment caused me to retreat before my conviction that Beckett is not just on an exceptional writer but also a quite exceptional man—one whose qualities, of generosity, determination, courage, modesty, are more important now than ever. As we are approaching the end of our project to publish a four-volume selection of his letters, I feel I can be rather more daring in my statements than I would have been in the past. I can say, now, that for me Beckett’s work derives much of its value from an ethical quality that has its roots deep within the author’s life, and within the way he dealt with himself as a writer, and with his friends and acquaintances as human beings. I think it will be a job for critics of the future, to explore this quality further—without, of course, trying to draw him back into any sort of Leavisite “Great Tradition.” (I know that my friend Jean-Michel Rabaté is soon to publish a critical work on Beckett that will be pushing in this direction.)
The privilege for me, over the years, has been to spend nearly every day in the company of Samuel Beckett the man and the writer, and to learn from both. It cannot be said often enough, that while he is most definitely not a saint, and clearly gets himself into all sorts of knots with women, he steers his way through a nightmare period in history while making remarkably few mistakes. He quits his job at Trinity College when he needs to, though it causes his family great anguish; he leaves Ireland when he needs to as well, even if it takes him years to find (or found) a new home; he joins the French Resistance though his Irish citizenship means he could have safely seen out the war without raising a finger; he does not join in the postwar waves of recriminations, and is never tempted by the Communism so popular amongst French intellectuals (still less the Maoism); he avoids the media but is unfailingly present for his friends and family when he senses them in need; he encourages countless young artists and writers, putting his fame at the service of their futures; and when he feels himself declining, he goes on working almost until the end, turning out in his final years some of his most beautiful texts. This may not sound so exceptional, put like this. But contrast it with the life of just about any other writer in France during this era . . .
What working on the letters has revealed to me is also the tonal range of which Beckett was capable, the very different registers in which he could write, his ability to find the words that would put his interlocutor at ease and make him/her feel recognized. With his intellectual multilingual friends such as Avigdor Arikha he could deploy the five or six languages that they shared—often mixing them. But on the very same day, to his family members back in Ireland, he could write in the simplest possible terms, evincing interest in their minor ailments and achievements (this is why I was very keen to include in our Volume III one example of such a letter, to his cousin Molly Roe). What working on the letters has also confirmed for me is the value Beckett placed in loyalty, friendship, generosity, modesty, caution on all matters public, reticence, forgiveness, and above all humour; and this when the stable value system that traditionally might have been seen to uphold or reinforce these values is itself a thing of the past. However bleak Beckett’s work may at times appear, however far it may be appropriable by some post-humanist worldview, it is indelibly coloured by these values which he demonstrates and exemplifies in his letters. One does not need to be any sort of a scholar to understand this; indeed, while in order to produce an edition such as ours one does need to have a not inconsiderable academic training, the academic’s urge to seek for explanations may be something of an impediment to such understanding.
LD: I am very glad to hear that your long immersion in Beckett’s letters have only increased your admiration for him—it is such a very personal exposure of him, over and over again, in the letters. And how amazing that your first experience of his work was via a performance by transplanted San Quentin prisoners! Surely an extraordinary introduction. (Mine, if I remember accurately, was more mundane—on a Cape Cod sand dune when I, too, was a teenager, reading Malone Dies.)
If you don’t mind switching gears abruptly, I’d like to move on from your work with Beckett’s letters to your own new novel, The Emperor of Ice-Cream. I find it quite exceptional in its choice of setting and cast of characters—the Italian immigrant community of Edinburgh in the years leading up to and into the Second World War. There is a fascinating mix of cultures responding to ever-increasing political tensions—and sexual tensions, too, as it turns out. Punctuated by delectable descriptions of the eponymous ice-cream!
Was this novel a long time in the making, a slowly evolving idea, and plan, or did it come upon you suddenly?
DG: I’d be embarrassed to let on when I started working on the novel, especially after claiming that I’m capable of working on several projects at once! Let’s just say that the idea for it came to me several years ago. I had long known of what happened to the Italian community in Great Britain when, on 10 June 1940, Mussolini declared war: that the adult men were rounded up and interned; that from their number more than 700 were selected to be sent off as “enemy aliens” to Canada on the SS Arandora Star; and that this ship was sunk one day out of port by a German U-boat, with massive loss of life. The mother of my childhood friend whom I’ve already mentioned was Italian, and she had relatives on that ship, as did nearly every Scottish Italian family. But of course knowing something is not enough to make one feel the need to write about it.
Then one day I was hiking on the deserted coast of the Hebridean island of Colonsay, a spot inhabited by seabirds and sheep, when I came across something that startled me. There, fixed to a rock face, was a marble plaque, staring out to sea, with nobody near to regard it, that read as follows: “Sacred to the memory of Giuseppe Delgrosso and more than 800 others who perished with ‘Arandora Star’ July 2nd 1940” What had until then been very slightly abstract, the sinking of the Arandora Star, was suddenly all too real, with the image of the body of the poor Italian washed up on the shore below me.
So it was around this moment of disaster that the novel formed itself, as I researched into what exactly had provoked it. As my understanding deepened, so too did my sense of outrage at what was surely one of the most shameful episodes in Britain’s conducting of the war, and at the part played by Winston Churchill in particular, who was active and vindictive in his persecution of the British Italians (a group that included the leading anti-Fascists of the era, as well as men whose children were fighting in the British services).
LD: I did not know about this horrendous event. It has its parallel, of course, in the internment of the Japanese in the U.S., also during World War II, another shameful episode, though not with the same dramatic loss of life.
You are a translator from not only the French but also the Italian (besides being a fairly recent student of Bulgarian—in fact, we could have an entirely different engrossing conversation about the learning of languages and the difference among languages, something we both think a lot about, obviously!). Your novel involves an Italian family transplanted to Scotland (your own native land). Can you say something about your attachment to Italian language and culture and geography?
DG: It probably started with my first taste of a fresh peach when I was aged three. But to understand how surprising that was to me, I have to ask you to imagine yourself back to Scotland of the early-1960s.
I was in no way an underprivileged child, on the contrary, but back then the diet was resolutely Scottish, and the shops didn’t sell much except local produce. Every dinner was accompanied by potatoes; peaches—“cling peaches” as they were called, for a reason I still could not explain—might as well have grown in cans for all I knew. Shops closed, as did everything else, on Sundays, people didn’t eat out much in restaurants, there was something vaguely sinful about hotels, and there was barely a foreigner to be seen on the streets of Edinburgh.
My father’s family came from Brough, the most northerly village on the mainland of Scotland, and his own father had been a merchant seaman—nearly all the lives up there are connected to the sea. When he returned from service in the RAF after the war, my father set up a construction company; by the time I was born, in 1958, it was quite successful, and so on my holidays we would travel the thirteen hours by car to his ancestral home in Caithness. I loved it there, but to say the landscape is bleak would be a serious understatement. My father must have felt the bleakness too, as he was determined that every summer we would also go abroad for two weeks in the sun. It was the Italian Riviera which provided me my first glimpse—my first taste—of the foreign, and I think a lot of my life is explicable by the intensity of the pleasure I experienced there: the blazing sun and the colours, the heat, the scents, and no doubt the sight of my parents at ease, relaxing. My brother, four years older than me, was a very pretty child with long blond curls, and I was fair then too. In those days tourists from the UK were rare, and it was not common for Italian children to spend much time on the beach. My brother and I were therefore spoiled by countless Italian women in swimsuits who were amazed to find blond children, and who insisted on picking us up and offering us treats. (Much of this I still remember, but I also have the home movies my father made, on which the brightness of the colours has hardly faded.) My skin would burn within the first few days, and the sand and salt would irritate it; I built sand castles, floated in my rubber ring, and wondered (I imagine) why all of life could not be like this. And best of all, along the beach would walk sturdy young men, crying out “Gelati gelati!” at the top of their voices. Across their muscular shoulders were slung iceboxes from which they would remove little tubs of flavoured ice-cream; I collected the small plastic spoons, and in the grey depths of Scottish winter would count them and remember.
Something of that exoticism could be rediscovered back in Scotland by visits to the Italian ice-cream parlours that had sprung up in the city or nearby. Occasionally, as a treat, my father would drive us out to Musselburgh, home of Luca’s brightly lit ice-cream parlour. It’s hard to transmit now, in this era where the exotic is so instantly available, just how big an impression these places made on me as a child, the sense that I was entering a world—a language and a group of people—that I could barely begin to understand. I don’t know if you’d agree with me, but I suppose that most of us who are driven to learn foreign languages are fleeing something in our origins; I certainly know that I was fleeing that dreadful pall of grey Presbyterian Sundays. But we are also reaching out, and for me that reaching was towards different tastes, colours, light; when I began to learn French, it was towards something glamorous and insouciant, some intellectual freedom. The drift of my life serves only to confirm my father’s insistence on that foreign holiday: I travel further and further south—and east—as I grow older. For several years I learned modern Greek, perhaps searching for a Homeric afterglow left over from the Ancient Greek I had learned as a child. Now I am learning Bulgarian—and hoping that the drift will stop there.
Though staunchly anti-religious herself, for a season my mother took me and my brothers to Edinburgh’s St Giles’ Cathedral so we could learn what religion was like and judge for ourselves. The place terrified me, with its freezing pews and its dark hints of some not-so-distant damnation. Above us (I saw in a recent visit that these have now been removed) hung the pennants and flags from Scottish regiments, tattered and—in my mind at least—blood-spattered, at which I would stare and which I imagined falling onto and suffocating me. It will come as no surprise that the family in my novel is Catholic, as ever since I was a child I have been drawn towards Catholics and the brightness and images of Catholic churches. The reason for this has little directly to do with doctrine or belief. No surprise either that my novel tries to explore the different sorts of oddity or perversity that each of Scotland’s two principal systems of faith, Protestantism and Catholicism, can give rise to—since to every belief its own particularly piquant form of perversity.
LD: Your narrator and main character is an Italian-Scots girl growing up into a spirited, intellectually curious, charming, and complex young woman with whom we are glad to be involved as we progress through our reading of the novel. Why did you choose to inhabit a female narrator—in fact, not only a young woman through most of the novel but, in the framing story, an elderly woman looking back on her youth? And did you have a model for this woman?
DG: I mentioned the trigger for my novel, the disaster of the Arandora Star. As soon as I realized I wanted to write about this, I heard a woman’s voice in my head—an elderly woman’s voice. Why, I’m not sure, but I imagine it is partly because the chief victims of the tragedy of that ship were men, and this woman’s voice offered distance, a distance required for me to explore more fully the mechanism of grief.
My novel is much concerned, as you know, with politics (which is odd, as I do not think very politically or consider myself a very political being). And back in the 1920s and 30s, when most of the novel takes place, politics—especially the Fascist politics that the novel explores—was very much a man’s business. All that dressing up in black shirts and jackboots, and the strutting and posturing. I wanted my narrator to be something of a sounding board for the sensibilities of her very much more opinionated (and therefore also misguided) three brothers. Above all, perhaps, I wanted the centre of the book to contain sympathy, empathy even: I wanted it to become clear what Fascism offered to Italians abroad, how thoroughly complicit the British government was with Fascism right up into the mid-1930s; as I wanted also for it to become clear that in Italy there were those who suffered for their opposition to Fascism . . .
But all this is retrospective rationalization, really, since the novel came to me, gradually and unmistakably, in the voice of an elderly woman who is trying to write the story of her youth before it is too late, and thereby to record the love she felt—the confused and hitherto unutterable love—for her brother the gelataio who perished on the Arandora Star.
LD: Thank you, Dan. After having lived with the novel, and well inside the thoughts and feelings of Lucia, for some weeks, since I preferred to savor the book and read it a few pages at a time, I find it very interesting—like looking backstage—to hear how the novel itself and the character of Lucia in particular came into being. It always strikes me as something of a miracle, close to supernatural, the way a rather quiet or undramatic event or incident, such as your coming upon that commemorative plaque by the sea, can lead to the creation of a work of fiction which grows into a fully peopled world unto itself. My experience in my own work is that the starting point for a story is often a piece of language coinciding with a feeling and sometimes a touch of humor. In the case of your novel, the conjunction seems to have been the potent childhood memories combining with a general knowledge of historical events and then the strong emotion aroused in you by the sight of that plaque somehow acting as catalyst or electric charge.
Before we close, could I ask you if you see any contemporary relevance in your novel? In the light of what is currently happening in the UK? In Scotland?
DG: As I mentioned, I don’t instinctively think in a very political way. However, with a bit of distance from the writing of the novel, I begin to see that it is dealing with issues that have made a worrying reappearance in recent times.
I’ve spoken of the tragedy at the heart of my novel, in which a community that had been resident in Britain in many cases for more than a generation suddenly found itself the object of hatred and violence. Because of the loose way in which the word “fascism” is used nowadays, synonymous with whatever one does not like, and often conflated with Nazism, it’s easy to forget the degree of support that Mussolini received through the 1920s and well into the 1930s, including from such figures as Winston Churchill himself (who frequently expressed his admiration of the Italian dictator). The former American ambassador to Italy, Lawrence Washburn Child, wrote the foreword to Mussolini’s autobiography, published by Scribner’s Sons in 1928, where he states the following: “Time has shown that he was neither violent nor absurd. Time has shown that he is both wise and humane. [ . . . ] In terms of fundamental and permanent effect upon the largest number of human beings—whether one approves or detests him—the Duce is now the greatest figure of this sphere and time. One closes the door when one leaves him, feeling, as when Roosevelt was left, that one could squeeze something of him out of one’s clothes. He is a mystic to himself. I imagine, as he reaches forth to touch reality in himself, he finds that he himself has gone a little forward, isolated, determined, illusive, untouchable, just out of reach—onward!” Attitudes changed in the mid-1930s, of course, but only after Italy began to emulate the great colonial powers by annexing parts of Africa. The fact that it committed horrendous atrocities in Abyssinia was far less important to the international powers than the threat posed by this upstart nation’s belated bid to become a major imperial power.
The authorities in Britain were aware of the dreadful way in which German immigrants had been treated during the First World War and vowed not to repeat the errors. Yet from the moment that Mussolini declared war, this vow was forgotten, while the press—the Daily Mail was the worst offender—whipped up public hostility against the “enemy aliens”; whether they were practising Blackshirts or anti-Fascists made no difference, Italians now had to suffer.
Given what I’ve also said, about how my life has been oriented towards the foreign, given that I’ve been abroad for the past thirty years, and given that I would only ever want to live surrounded by a mix of languages and cultures, it won’t surprise you to know that I wrote my novel partly from a sense of embarrassment at what eventuated in my own country. The embarrassment is related to the apprehension I share with many in the UK and in Europe right now, at the current rise of xenophobia—not so very different from what was experienced by Italians in 1940. At the heart of the present debate in Britain around migration—a debate catalyzed in the UK by Nigel Farage (a figure who in a more rational age would be viewed as a mere buffoon), and in France by the even more sinister Marine Le Pen—is the envy of the xenophobe, the conviction that the foreign(er) is stealing something that is properly (if inexpressibly) ours. Until recently it was the Poles, and now it is Romanians and Bulgarians—these new “Italians,” new “enemy aliens”—who have come to our country to steal something that is ours by right.
When the authorities and the press turned against the Italians after Mussolini declared war, Britain had its back against the wall and, after Dunkirk, found itself terrifyingly alone. America had not yet entered the war, the Battle of Britain was yet to be fought, reports of “fifth columns” were rife, there was every reason to believe that defeat was imminent. Whereas today? Today the UK is not under military threat; it has (or at least its government claims it has) one of the most thriving economies in Europe; immigration and emigration are rather evenly balanced; it has been proven that recent arrivals in the country have contributed far more than they have taken from the nation’s finances. (Though, even as I say this, I’m falling into today’s prevalent trap, of judging things principally by finances.)
Where an Auld Alliance with France dates back to the thirteenth century, the ties to Europe are often felt in Scotland much more strongly than they are in England. You’ll remember that, after your appearance at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August this year, you and I watched on television the second of the debates on Scottish independence, between the representatives of the “Yes” and “No” campaign, Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling. I recall that you were quite impressed by the level of the debate, as compared with what you find in America; while I was disappointed that so much of it centered on currency and economics, when the issue of what makes a national identity—which itself is partly dependent on what constitutes the foreign—involves so much more than this. Away from the politicians, what the broader debates seemed to indicate was that a Scottish national identity did not need to be atavistic, could be inclusive in its ideals, did not have to anchor itself in a rejection of the foreign. Indeed, as Scotland is a country that is depopulating, it actively needs immigrants, young immigrants especially. Yet if the Conservative Party wins the next general election in the UK, there will be a further referendum, this time on withdrawal from the European Union (precisely Nigel Farage’s agenda). Were the vote to result in withdrawal, I think—I hope—that Scotland would somehow try to demur; the push for independence would perhaps then be reactivated, with potentially different results this time.
Lucia, my protagonist and narrator, is Scottish but she is also Italian. What I hope my novel to be, amongst other things, is a plea for the importance, and the acceptance, of all such alsos. I can still feel the delight I experienced when, as a teenager studying Ancient Greek, I learned that the word “xenos” meant “foreigner,” but also meant “guest”—that for the Greeks the two notions were indistinguishable. If my novel is indeed political, then I hope it can serve to remind us of what the Greeks, so long ago, had understood.
LD: How surprising, that “xenos” meant not only “foreigner” but also “guest”—I had no idea. My mind jumps from this to the rather strangely polite term “guest worker” for one who is often, in fact, the victim of considerable xenophobia. The envy, or fear, felt by the xenophobe, who is convinced that properly “native” privileges, property, jobs are being co-opted by the foreigner, would seem to lie at the source, historically, of much anti-Semitism, too. It is a form of territoriality, of course, which I brood about because it is and always has been such a cause of strife, not only between neighboring countries or intermingled cultures, but on the most local level between neighbors on the same street. Where I live, sooner or later every neighbor in the village has quarreled, sometimes irreparably, with the neighbor sharing a boundary line.
But to take up another part of your answer, the history of Mussolini’s reception in the U.K. and particularly in Scotland, it seems to me vital to keep nuancing, and when necessary denying, our oversimplified conceptions of historical events and periods. We do tend to reduce figures as immensely important as Winston Churchill almost to caricatures, rather than seeing them clearly as fallible individuals acting with great vision at certain times and quite wrongheadedly at others. What is so vital about reimagining all this in fictional terms, as you have done in The Emperor of Ice-Cream, is that only through fiction can we more completely reenter a historical period, with full empathy, rather than with merely intellectual appreciation. Through Lucia and her emotional as well as intellectual responses to the demands of her situations, we engage ourselves emotionally with some of the complexities of that very complex historical period. Thank you for your creation of that novel, as well as, today, for your very illuminating and thought-provoking answers.
Dan Gunn is the author of Psychoanalysis and Fiction, of Wool-Gathering or How I Ended Analysis, and of the novels Almost You and Body Language. He is editor of the Cahiers Series and co-editor of the four-volume Letters of Samuel Beckett. He is Professor of Comparative Literature and English at the American University of Paris, where he is also Director of the Center for Writers and Translators.
Lydia Davis is the author of one novel and five story collections, the most recent of which, Can’t and Won’t, was published earlier this year. She is also the acclaimed translator of Swann’s Way (2003) and Madame Bovary (2010), both of which were awarded the French American Foundation Translation Prize. She is the winner of the 2013 Man Booker International Prize.
Banner image: Giolitti Ice-Cream parlour, Rome. Courtesy Dan Gunn.