This month, Music & Literature pays tribute to the great translator George Craig. A professor of French at the University of Sussex for thirty years, Craig translated and co-edited the four volumes of Samuel Beckett’s letters published by Cambridge University Press. His former student, co-editor, and friend of over forty years, Dan Gunn, delivered this eulogy at Craig’s funeral on 1 April 2019 in Lewes, Sussex.
An excerpt from Craig’s Writing Beckett’s Letters (The Cahier Series no. 16) will appear next week.
If I were to ask you to close your eyes and tell me what, of George, comes uppermost to your mind, I wonder what it would be. I wonder for how many of you it would be, as it is for me, not an image – not that I don’t have a host of images of George, from the time I first met him in February 1977 until I said goodbye to him in the Royal Sussex County Hospital six weeks ago. But what floats uppermost is rather a sound – the sound of his voice. From which sound, gradually, words – words and their meanings, meanings of a sort that nobody but George could articulate.
What I am lacking more painfully than anything, now, as I stand here to pay tribute to the friend, the husband, the father, the step-father, the grandfather, is the music of George talking. In English, of course – English English, I should say, since the accent George adopted when he came to Sussex was of course not his native one. Talking in Irish English – I travelled to Ireland often enough with him to hear how his accent adapted; often heard him read the writer who brought us so close in the past twenty-five years, Samuel Beckett, whose work he only ever read in his Irish accent. Talking in any one of the other tongues which he spoke with such facility and with his faultless ear – Russian, Spanish, Italian, and above all French. Nobody – no native either – spoke French like George did, coaxing every last nuance out of every syllable, caressing the sentences, celebrating the cadences.
What I long to be able to summon for you here is George the Man of Words: the most brilliant and original man I ever encountered, who knew how to translate his most obscure thoughts into words – No, let me correct that: he didn’t know. Very rarely did George speak from a place of knowing, even though he knew an awful lot about an awful lot. No, George spoke, and wrote, from a place of radical unknowing: from his passion, from the strange and singular location he inhabited that was made up of his vulnerability, his acuity, and his refusal to be tied to any fixed position. Talking, for George, was almost never expository; it was always exploratory, was discovery. Those of us who studied under him learned to note the word that recurred again and again, the word venture – venturing forth, venturing out. George believed in speech – and writing too – as venturing, far from the comfort zones of erudition conventionally prized by academe.
I’ll have to ask you to forgive me if I mention Samuel Beckett rather a lot this afternoon. He is the writer whose letters gave me the ideal opportunity to work with George during the last twenty-five years of his life, pretty much from the moment he retired from his post at Sussex University. Over those years, often, when I thought of Beckett I would find myself thinking of George – and vice versa. They did of course share so much: their Irish origins; Trinity College Dublin; their stints at the Ecole normale supérieure in Paris; their ability to absorb languages; their love of France, and of French; their modesty; their introverts’ dislike of personal publicity. Many of you will know how George almost got to meet Beckett when he was in Paris in 1952 – and how characteristic were the reasons he did not... He had an introduction, to this still almost unknown Irish writer resident in Paris, from the TCD tutor who had taught both Beckett and himself. George, intensely shy at that age, was steeling his nerve to follow up on the introduction when, in January 1953, En attendant Godot became an improbable success, turning Beckett almost overnight into something of a celebrity. Too much of a celebrity for George to feel he could go and see him... Hence the fact that the two men never met. Not that George ever really regretted this, saying in his equally characteristic way that this allowed him to focus all the more fully on Beckett’s work.
When, in the mid-1990s, I needed to find a translator to turn into English the thousands of letters Beckett had written in French, I knew there was only one person fully qualified for this task – and there’s no hyperbole in what I’m saying, I really do mean only one. Some twelve years later, the first volume of the letters came out, and three further volumes followed, the last coming out in 2016. And as was noted in review after review, George’s translations are utterly amazing, as if he had got inside Beckett’s head and spoken in his person. And, as George always insisted, of Beckett and of himself, appealing first and always foremost to the ear: sound before sense. For as long as Beckett is read, George will be read, as the letters are now an integral part of the oeuvre, and George’s translations will never be bettered.
I edit a set of chapbooks called the Cahiers Series. Let me read you three sentences from George’s introduction to his contribution to the series, which bears upon what I’ve been trying to say. George starts by explaining how he was asked to translate Beckett’s letters:
I was coming to the end of an academic career teaching French, and was delighted at the chance to put such skills as I had in the service of a writer for whom I had boundless admiration. It happened also that I was Irish, and familiar with Beckett’s world, above all with the paths by which his linguistic idiom, in both English and French, had evolved.
So far so standard-explanatory. But now note how George instantly qualifies what he has formulated:
No one should make such a claim unless he or she recognises that acquaintance, however detailed, brings no certainties – except one: that anyone offering certainties about language in general or translation in particular is either knave or fool.
When I read this again since George’s death, I remembered a moment during a lunch I had organised at which I introduced George to André Topia, head of the English department at the Sorbonne Nouvelle and translator of the first two volumes of our Beckett edition into French. A more dry and hard-nosed academic than André would be hard to imagine: rigorous, scrupulous, famous for making girls cry. Over dessert, after an hour of conversation – in French – André finally had to ask George how it was that he spoke such astonishing French – where did he live in France? George explained that in fact he lived in Lewes in Sussex. André was the more mystified. So how was it that he spoke the way he did? Clearly, André was waiting for some account of George’s academic qualifications that would unpack the mystery for him. George’s answer was the following: “André, je vais vous expliquer: le désir”: “André, I’ll explain to you: desire.” I’ll never forget the look of total bewilderment on André’s face, that was only somewhat attenuated when George went on to explain how, when he was young and went to Dublin, his accent was so thick that the locals had trouble understanding him. At which point he decided that, wherever he went, he would, to the best of his abilities, fit in, make himself if not invisible then at least inconspicuous... George’s chief qualification, then: the intensity of his desire.
Despite my occasional deployment of dates, I know I’m probably not doing what is customary in a eulogy, not giving a full chronology of George’s life and its achievements, not exploring all the other aspects of George’s character that will have endeared him to you. It’s not just that I don’t feel well qualified for this, nor is it just that the customary never held much allure for George. It’s that George the boy of words, who later recounted to me the excitement he felt when he started to learn Latin, was the George who, when he came to teach French literature, would start a seminar by staring fixedly at the floor while he spoke at high speed, uninterruptedly, for ten minutes – before catching himself, apologising profusely for talking too much, then falling completely silent until one of us, his students, dared to pipe up. For a man of words, he was preternaturally attuned to and at ease with silence.
This George was one and the same as the George who would stand in a packed amphitheatre and, without notes, talk about and cite Baudelaire for an hour – his lectures were the only occasions I ever witnessed in my eight years at university where the audience rose spontaneously to its feet at the end in a standing ovation. We knew we had just witnessed something entirely special, and quite unrepeatable.
And this was the same George who, in the forty-two years I knew and worked with him, never misspelt a word or proper name – not in any one of the languages he knew or claimed he only half-knew – a gift for which he expected no approbation. Being a perfect speller seemed to be, in his view, something he was born with, like ginger hair or a total recall for music... But there’s something more than that, more than just modesty, as the following anecdote may perhaps make clear.
In 2002 I handed to George a book I’d just published – I who have a dyslexic lurking within me. George opened the book at random, pointed, and delightedly said, with not a hint of irony: “Ah, I didn’t know you could spell this word like that!” In less than five seconds he had spotted my bloomer. But in an entirely typical manner, it did not occur to him that I could be so ignorant or negligent. He assumed – George always assumed – that his interlocutor was on his level, his word-level. Maybe this is why George never, ever, spoke down to anyone. He simply didn’t know how to. And of course, as a result, there are many of us – friends, colleagues, and former Sussex students who came to love him for this, even as they struggled to stay with what he was saying – who never felt quite as intelligent and insightful as when in his presence. George elevated us.
This same George who, when faced with a translation problem that would have stumped anyone else, would go quiet, his fingertips touching each other, sometimes for half an hour or more. Then declare: “How about this – it’s not great but maybe it will do?” This George who, when Volume II of the Beckett letters was launched at a big gala at the Sorbonne, gave a speech that utterly entranced and confused those in his audience – and that was most of us – who had both English and French. For George gave his speech in both languages, and we all recognised that it was the same speech. Yet also that it was not, since in each language it was utterly of that language, had grown out of that language. Nobody knew which was the original, which the translation. Nobody knew what same or different meant any more. And nobody forgot the feeling – it was almost uncanny.
These Georges I’ve tried to summon here were not subject to time or chronology or even adverse circumstance. True, he lost some of the force in his voice after the operation on his larynx. But even with a voice reduced, once he got going, he could fill a large hall, reaching to the audience at the back in a way that seemed almost to defy nature. George was consistent, consistently intense, focused; and he was as alert to words coming from the outside as he was to those from within – he was the very best listener, not just because of his astonishingly acute sense of hearing.
I met him during my first year at Sussex University, not in class as it happens but on a squash court. I’d played a lot of squash as a teenager and would go up to the courts for some practice, though I didn’t know anyone to play with. I felt such an outsider in that first year, very much from the wild north, surrounded by all these – as they seemed to me – posh Home Counties girls who had been spending their summer holidays in France since their infancy. Maybe George spotted that in me, the pronounced feeling of not being English? What I spotted was someone almost as thin as me knocking up on court by himself as he awaited the arrival of his partner. I proposed we knock up together. Then, as his partner was late, we played a game or two together. All we said was hello, and for some reason it fixed in my mind that this skinny red-head was a lab technician – I would occasionally pass him on campus and we would wave to one another.
Then, towards the end of my first year, I had to decide which courses to choose for the coming years. I noted several with names and descriptions that appealed to me, taught by one George Craig. I duly asked a couple of lecturers who had already taught me – not that I’d particularly enjoyed their classes. I recall exactly what one of them said to me. “That’s taught by George Craig,” he said. “I don’t understand a word he says, but there’s some who think he’s a genius.” The “genius” part I had confirmed by my personal tutor Gabriel Josipovici, and so I duly signed up for every one of George’s courses. And it was only when I walked in for the first of them – on the Modern European Mind – that I realised that the lab technician was in fact a lecturer in French – this lecturer in French, George Craig.
Within a month we had a regular Sunday-morning slot on the squash courts. I could usually get the better of George on court as he had come to squash from tennis, and that big tennis swing put him at a disadvantage. But he could always get the better of me in the pub, the Swan, after our game. Hard to imagine how, after the number of pints consumed, George made his way home heading west and I meandered east on my bicycle back to Brighton.
In those classes to which I’d signed up George taught me to love Beckett. He somehow managed to convince me to drag myself through the several hundred pages of Sartre’s L’Être et le néant, though I doubt I understood more than two words of it. He taught me to have the patience required for Proust – Proust from whom I can borrow a phrase that strikes me as perfectly suited to the present occasion. It goes: “Le comble de l’intelligence est la bonté” – “The apogee of intelligence is kindness” (though I bet George could have translated it better).
I could go on for hours about the kindness George showed me, and the kindness I’ve seen him show others. Not that he was anybody’s fool – not that he didn’t have a sharp wit. But always he saw the good side; invariably he gave the benefit of the doubt. But as I need soon – however reluctantly – to finish, let me summon for you once again, as you will all have been summoning in your minds since he left us: George’s apogee of intelligence that was his kindness.
Beckett, one final time. A year before his own death, which came twenty years after Beckett’s, the painter Avigdor Arikha spoke to me of his friendship with the man who had, as he put it, made his life meaningful. I think it’s fair to say that Avigdor was the Irishman’s closest friend during the last thirty years of his life. He was surely the only one who was Beckett’s intellectual peer, with his seven languages and his encyclopaedic knowledge of Western literature and art. Suddenly, Avigdor broke down in tears. Here was a man who had known unimaginable hardship in his life, a deportee and camp survivor, now eighty years old himself and sobbing before me. “I miss him more and more every day,” he told me through his tears. I had the temerity to ask him: “What in particular do you miss?” He summoned the words, though he knew they were not quite right, that Beckett was no saint and would have been appalled to hear his friend attribute any special quality to him. “He was the only one,” Avigdor continued, “the only person I ever met on whom the dirt of the world, the nastiness, had left no trace. It could not touch him.”
When, at two in the morning of Thursday 7 March, I learned that George had left us, I thought of Avigdor’s words. “He was the only person I ever met on whom the dirt of the world, the nastiness, had left no trace. It could not touch him.” I know that we’ll be missing you, George, more and more every day.
Dan Gunn is the author of Psychoanalysis and Fiction, of Wool-Gathering or How I Ended Analysis, and of the novels Almost You, Body Language and The Emperor of Ice-Cream. 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.
George Craig was born in Belfast in 1931 and studied at Trinity College Dublin and the École Normale Superieure in Paris. After working as a journalist, translating Russian broadcasts for Agence France Presse in Paris, he joined the University of Sussex, where he taught French for thirty years. He translated and co-edited the four volumes of Beckett’s letters published by Cambridge University Press.
Banner image: George Craig at the Montreale duomo, Sicily, April 2011.