From: Dan Gunn, Hydra, Greece
To: Jan Steyn
Monday 12 April 2021
As I slid into the thought-numbingly cold Aegean yesterday afternoon, I tried to imagine you on the plains, so far from any sea; when I returned, shivering, to my desk, I even confirmed my impression on Google maps since my grasp of US geography is tenuous. I’ve only once been so far from the sea as where you are now, where you live, in Iowa City – when I visited a friend in Stillwater, Oklahoma (an experience from which some part of me has never quite recovered). When you visit Lake Michigan, if that ever happens, does the vastness of the lake make it feel like the sea?
My eyes lingered on the map longer than intended. I presumed it was just the scale – the distant overview – that made nearly every road in your state look so undeviating. But then I tapped on the + on the map, and the roads appeared even straighter. Trying to imagine driving on any road is hard at the moment, for reasons you can imagine: on Hydra, where we are doing lockdown, there is not a single car, and no motorbikes or scooters either. No roads, in fact, to speak of, and I can’t even think of a path that propels itself in a straight line for more than fifty yards.
Given that the alleys and paths here are either cobblestones or rubble, every step is a negotiation, with a twisted ankle or a broken knee only a mis-step away. But that imminent threat is, as you’ll have guessed, just the foreground to the background menace of Covid – a menace that occasionally steps into the foreground as cases are located, never far from home given how small the island is. Nothing feels straight at the moment, least of all the line linking past to future.
Longplayer is a project, as you know, that is conceived as a means of altering our relation to time. It makes an almost Pascalian wager, where Time replaces God; it does take a leap of faith to believe that anything at all on our planet, not least a piece of music, will still be around in one thousand years. And if this was the case when Longplayer was conceived, then how much more is it the case now, if I’m right in suggesting that the relation between past and future has been so seriously shaken by the current pandemic. A colleague of mine at the American University of Paris who has studied and written extensively on the plagues that beset the late Middle Ages and Renaissance tells me that this sense that Time itself has been distorted was already noted back then as typical of what happens during plagues. I suppose that Boccaccio’s The Decameron, before being a collection of marvellous ribald stories shared by seven young women and three young men who have retreated from Florence to Fiesole to escape the Black Death, is a way of giving a shape to time – through numbers, with its ten days of ten stories, adding up to an ideal Dantesque one hundred.
Exactly one year ago, a time that feels like yesterday and like an aeon ago, I put some thoughts down on how I was living through the first confinement – strange French choice of word – in Paris. Our two-year-old was recovering from life-threatening Kawasaki disease that had hit him in January, and I had been ordered by the cardiologist to take him out twice a day for exercise in order to restore his heart to full health. It wasn’t easy when the public gardens were all closed and the streets were littered with uncollected rubbish. Here’s some of what I jotted down:
Yesterday I took our toddler down the steps from our flat to the street, then chased him as he careered down the pavement on his tiny bicycle.
“Crush cans!” he cried, as I ran to keep up with him, shouting my inane instructions to be careful to avoid people, to be careful not to touch anything, to be careful not to fall off. (My mind, what remains of it, is weary with interrogating itself over how long it is going to take him to unlearn the hygienic and social-distancing habits I’m busy inculcating.) For more than two weeks now, our daily outings have had the clearest of missions: to find discarded beer or Coke cans which he can then crush under the wheels of his bicycle. He is henceforth able to spot a can at a hundred yards. And while I wish our activity were more salubrious, this is what the streets have to offer us, and in abundance since they are filthy.
Shortly before the end of the hour permitted for our outing, just as I was trying to repress the envy I was feeling at his single-minded sense of purpose, “Can-Crusher” (as he now calls himself) chalked up his 187th can.
Today, for a change, in a pause between can no.201 and no.202, we played football on the beautiful, and beautifully empty, Place des Petits Pères whose café, orchidéiste, and shop selling religious artifacts – rosaries and reliquaries– are all now closed.
After half an hour, from the Basilique de Notre-Dame-des-Victoires whose railings were our goalposts, there walked a beautiful young nun dressed in a perfectly white habit and jet-black wimple. She looked at us quizzically, smiled, and asked what the le petit was called. It’s true, she maintained the sanitary two metres. Yet there was no denying it: our lady had stopped, she had smiled, she had spoken to us – une victoire, yes, a victory.
My suspicion that a little miracle might just have transpired was shared by the wee one, to judge from the fact that he suddenly dashed into the church (I was surprised to see it was still open to the public; it must have received its attestation from on high) and, by the time I had caught up with him, was pointing.
“Light a candle!” ordered Can-Crusher.
Light one we did – light two.
One year on, the wee one’s heart is restored; he has shed whatever hygienic social-distancing habits he may have learned; having reached the grand total of 461 cans before we left Paris, now he is crushing lemons, which are so abundant on the trees here that locals have given up picking them. He likes to see the juice squirt, and the older and softer the lemon, the better it squirts. It does feel like an improvement on cans, and I’m aware almost every minute of the day how fortunate we are to be here. As of a fortnight ago, we can even visit the churches and continue to light our candles, as we think about those who have fallen to Covid or friends who are still struggling with the symptoms.
I think about letters, too, and how much I miss them even as I fill my slivers of spare time with them.
I have my two laptops open, on which I depend for my teaching, and on which I am pursing my current editorial task. I thought that when we finished editing Samuel Beckett’s letters – a task with which you were involved when still a student – after more than 25 years of toil, there might be a hiatus. But then came the request that I edit the letters of another writer I hugely admire, Muriel Spark.
I’m still at the gathering stage, compiling the corpus of letters from which a two-volume selection will emerge; and that gathering has been interrupted repeatedly by the lockdowns in archives and the subsequent back-up of requests for scans. As these scans arrive, I do the transcriptions, with the help of two other former students, and once again I thank my lucky stars. For while Beckett’s handwriting was justifiably described as the most difficult of any twentieth-century author, Spark’s is impeccable, leaving me in doubt only rarely, usually around a proper name. From the late-1950s when she was given a typewriter, Spark enjoyed using it, where for Beckett typewriting was always a chore; the result is that a far greater percentage of Spark’s letters than Beckett’s are typewritten – and in the typed pages I can usually verify any proper names over which I had doubts in handwritten letters.
These are superficial differences, I know, but for me they are crucial. Had I been stuck where I am, however pleasant island life may be, I believe I would surely have gone mad in attempting to decipher handwriting as inscrutable as Beckett’s. Instead of that, the act of transcription has been a wonderful antidote to the anxieties that the loss of straight lines induced by lockdown has produced in me. Transcription requires almost no imagination but lots of focused attention, and the passage from eye to hand to eye is immensely satisfying. And there is even some judgement required, as, after I have transcribed a letter, I ascribe to it a coloured “tag”: green for essential, red for possible, yellow for definitely not, and blue for vital bits but not the whole. By viewing these tags on the files in the folder containing my transcriptions, I can start to obtain a sense of the balance of letters that may finally make it into the edition, one of the problems being that when one reads thousands of letters, by the time one reaches the end one has forgotten what one read at the start. Now I think about it, this obsessive yet calming activity is not unlike our toddler’s can/lemon-crushing, and I’m just as keen as he is, counting every addition to the corpus.
Some of the less superficial differences between these two correspondents, both of whom had long lives in which letters played an essential role, are of course occurring to me as I take a breather between transcriptions. In fact, the two personalities could hardly be more different, while sharing the one defining trait of being, both, utterly committed to their art. Beckett was retiring, withdrawn, loathed publicity, was utterly unconcerned by the commercial aspects of being a writer, and thought the success of his work to be based on some terrible mistake. Spark was extrovert, courted publicity (even as she also shunned it), was intensely involved in the commercial aspects of her career, and was supremely confident of her own talent and of the importance of her novels. Beckett was a man, of course, and was born into a privileged upper-middle-class Dublin family which never wanted for anything when he was a child; even when he went hungry, during and after the War, he never seems to have doubted that he would make ends meet – an assurance bolstered by the fact that he was extremely frugal in his tastes, and later was determined to give away the little he earned once the world recognised him and his work. Spark was a woman – a woman making her way in the man’s world of publishing – who had spent her childhood if not in dire poverty then in a family whose financial insecurity never left her, not even when she was making serious quantities of money through her fiction, and through adaptations of it for radio and film; and she was extravagant in her tastes, with a fondness for the sort of luxury that she felt she had earned through her genius.
As I progress in my task of transcription, and then pass on to annotation and selection, I presume that other, yet more significant contrasts and overlaps will occur to me – I hope so, at least.
You may be wondering why, Jan, with so much of my time taken up with letters, I said that I am missing them. I don’t do any social media, yet even so I struggle to keep up with the emails that arrive each day, and to those are now added the messages and meetings on Zoom and Teams. But do any of these compensate for the lack of letters, real letters?
When I first lived on Hydra during a sabbatical in 2003, before the digital world replaced the one I had lived in for 45 years, my trip to the local post-office was one of the highlights (or lowlights) of my week – sometimes I would venture two or even three times a week, though at the risk of incurring the displeasure of the postmistress, upon whose verdict my day would rise or fall. There is no distribution of post on Hydra, so it’s a fifteen-minute walk into the port. Usually, back in those days, there was a queue, and given the extreme slowness of all transactions, the wait could last up to an hour. Then, as I’d finally arrive at the head of the queue, so full of expectation and longing, for that letter – those letters! – awaiting me, the postmistress would look up, frown, and raise her chin in that crushing gesture which here means an emphatic Oxi – No!
“But check! Please do at least check! How can you be so sure? I’m convinced there is a letter for me, sent from the UK ten days ago, it must have arrived!” (Thoughts not articulated, since to incur further postmistressly disfavour was the dread of all of us who did not have their own PO box.)
No letter: abjection.
Or, as I reached the head of the queue, she would raise her eyebrows and turn to her drawer and rifle in it for a minute or more, on golden days fishing an envelope – or even two – from the pile.
A letter: elation.
When I was thinking about Beckett and his correspondence, it occurred to me that letters were in a sense an ideal medium for him, as through them he could maintain intact the web of interlocutors he required to feel alive in the world, while at the same time giving himself the quiet and space required for his work. Letters kept people at a distance without letting them disappear altogether.
I’ve tried quite hard to locate what is most awful for me about these awful lockdowns we have been experiencing for more than a year now – awful even here on a small Greek island – and my conclusion relates both to my ideas about the role of letters for Beckett – if in ways I’d find hard to explain – and to my sadness at the fact that nobody writes letters any more.
What I have located are two acknowledgements that have established themselves in my brain as unimpeachable facts:
What the lockdowns have taught me is how much I need other people;
What the lockdowns have taught me is how little I need other people.
The truly awful thing being, of course, that there is no straight line or path, nor even a crooked one, linking these two facts.
I’d better take the wee one out now to crush some more lemons. I’ll ask him to wait on the pebbles as I creep back into the Aegean where, as the body’s core temperature drops, the pain induced by the disconnections and contradictions between facts – what I’m calling facts – becomes somewhat less intolerable.
As Beckett liked to close:
Dan Gunn is a novelist, editor, and translator, Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature and English at the American University of Paris, and Director of AUP’s Center for Writers and Translators.
Jan Steyn is a translator and scholar of literary works composed in Afrikaans, Dutch, English, French, and variants of those languages. He teaches in the Iowa Translators Workshop.