Launch of the Fourth Volume of “The Letters of Samuel Beckett”
Remarks by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charles Flanagan T.D.
Iveagh House, 22 November 2016
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Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,
Welcome to Iveagh House this evening on the occasion of the launch of the fourth and final volume of “The Letters of Samuel Beckett”.
Before we start proceedings I’d like to mark the passing of William Trevor. One of the great Irish writers, his passing is a great loss to the Irish writing community.
I would like to express my appreciation to the editors for inviting me to speak this evening. The name of Samuel Beckett resonates in the pantheon of great Irish writers, and it is an honour for me to play a small part in a project which has captured the essence of Beckett the internationally acclaimed writer, and Beckett the man. I am also grateful to welcome members of the Beckett family here this evening; Samuel Beckett’s nephew and the keeper of his estate, Edward and his wife Felicity.
Congratulations to editors
To begin this evening I think it is important to recognise the enormous efforts of editors on this project – Lois More Overbeck and Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Dan Gunn, and George Craig. Please join me in giving them a round of applause.
Compiling the four volumes of Beckett’s letters is a project undertaken over three decades. The first volume was published in 2009 with subsequent volumes published in 2011 and 2014. Publication of the four volumes represents a final step in a long journey. The editors and support staff have undertaken countless hours of research, editing and collating. At times the scale of the challenge may have seemed overwhelming. A phrase written by Beckett himself must have echoed in the editor’s minds time and again. He wrote ‘You must go on, I can’t go on. I’ll go on’. However, we all thank you for your perseverance.
While looking through the volume I came across one particular letter in response to Deirdre Bair, she was embarking on her first biography, whose subject was Samuel Beckett. Not an easy endeavour and made even less so by Beckett. When Deirdre asked him for some insight into his work, he responded: ‘I have nothing to say about my work. Think again before you embark on such a thankless job’. I doubt Deirdre would have had the same response had she made the request of a diplomat, or indeed a politician.
A sentiment again echoed soon after Beckett authorised Martha to edit his correspondence. He wished her ‘courage for this awful job’.
While this was undoubtedly a challenging task I imagine that living so long with the words of one the great modern writers must have had its pleasures for you, Lois, and for your colleagues. You must also take satisfaction in the exceptional quality of your output and the legacy you have bequeathed to future generations of readers, dramatists and academics. You have brought light to the letters of one of the great literary correspondents.
Both individually and together the volumes represent a significant piece of scholarly work that greatly adds to our combined knowledge and understanding of Beckett. We thank you and your colleagues, and of course the publisher, Cambridge University Press, for bringing this project to fruition.
There are many more people in this room far more qualified than me to discuss the artistic output of Beckett, however, I am very happy to speak to his significant international appeal.
As Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade I am very much aware of the value of culture in presenting Ireland to the world. The new Culture 2025 policy, currently being developed by my colleague Minister Heather Humphreys, captures this well. Through our culture we celebrate our heritage and traditions, we foster creativity and international collaboration, we showcase our talents internationally and we forge lasting ties around the world. As The Global Island states “Irish culture is a global commons, recognised and followed by people who may have no other connections to Ireland.”
Samuel Beckett’s exceptional talents were of course recognised by the decision by the Nobel Committee to award him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969, but they are also recognised in the on-going interest for his work both at home and internationally.
Almost 30 years after his death, Beckett is still central to an appreciation of Irish literary culture and very much part of the repertoire of Irish theatre companies, particularly those with an international focus. This year for instance, as part of its 2016 International Commemoration programme, Culture Ireland, supported Irish theatre company Gare St Lazare, to tour some of Beckett’s most iconic work across Britain and the United States to widespread critical acclaim. In Beckett’s second home, Paris, the inaugural Beckett Festival “Commencez! Beckett”, was a highlight of the Centre Culturel Irlandais’s 2016 cultural programme. Further afield, Mouth on Fire, another Irish theatre group, presented three of Beckett’s short plays in Tokyo, again highlighting his international appeal.
In recognition of Beckett’s considerable talent, achievement and international acclaim my Department in 2006 commissioned an exhibition to mark the centenary of Beckett’s birth, telling the story of his life and work. The Beckett exhibition has travelled to more than 20 cities including Abu Dhabi, Paris, Sydney, and Buenos Aires. It has been translated into French and Spanish. The exhibitions are still travelling the globe and I believe that one is currently in Atlanta at a series of events celebrating Emory University, and Lois’s involvement in this great project.
When we speak of his international perspective we must also remember the particular fondness with which he is remembered in France for his activities during World World Two for which he received the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille de la Résistance. In recognition of this a bust of Beckett sits proudly in the Irish Embassy in Paris.
This final volume of Beckett’s letters covers the period in which he won the Nobel Prize for literature, a prize not necessarily coveted by the writer. In the speech presenting the award to Beckett he was described as ‘one man, two languages and a third nation’. He was, as Ireland is today, deeply European and global in his outlook and approach.
It is more important than ever for us to hold on to that Beckett perspective – to be proud in our indigenous traditions, to emphasise our European heritage and to embrace the world beyond the horizon.