What is the Word: Celebrating Samuel Beckett – Day 1

Samuel Beckett Colloquium program cover – Designed by Diana Bell – Image: trial proof of line etching by Avigdor Arikha, 1970, from the Samuel Beckett Papers.

On November 7 and 8, 2019, Washington University celebrated the prose, poetry, drama, translations, correspondence and archives of Samuel Beckett, with a colloquium that included presentations, readings and performances by faculty, students and visiting scholars. The colloquium was held in Olin Library and Mallinckrodt Center, in conjunction with the exhibition in Olin Library, “Connecting Contexts: The Modern Literature Collection and The Letters of Samuel Beckett,” a collaborative effort that brings together two important resources on Beckett studies. A digital version of the exhibition is coming soon.

Denise Stephens – Photo by Alison Carrick

Bo Cao – Photo by Alison Carrick

University Librarian and Vice Provost, Denise Stephens, opened the colloquium in Olin Library with welcome remarks. Bo Cao, professor of English language and literature at the College of Foreign Studies, Hunan Normal University, Hunan Province, China, gave the first talk. A leading translator of Beckett’s work into Chinese, Dr. Cao has been in residence at Emory University in 2019, as he translates the first volume of The Letters of Samuel Beckett in consultation with co-editor, Lois Overbeck. He spoke on the history of Beckett translations in China, culminating in the 22-volume Complete Works of Samuel Beckett in Chinese, published in 2016.

Karlis Verdins, Katja Perat, Xuela Zhang and Matthias Göritz Photo by Ian Lanius

Mattias Göritz, professor of practice of comparative literature at Washington University, led three graduate students,  Katja Perat, Karlis Verdins, and Xuela Zhang, in a discussion of Beckett’s poetry and their own translations of four of Beckett’s poems. They read the short poems in the original English or French, and in their translated versions in German, Slovenian, Latvian and Chinese, then they discussed some of their impressions and challenges in the translation process. Audience Q&A followed the discussion.

Matthias Göritz – Photo by Ian Lanius

Göritz then read a hybrid text–sometimes a long poem, sometimes an essay, even a little singing–exploring Beckett’s long-lasting love affair with German literature and culture, and his travels through Germany between 1928 and 1937. The hybrid form was a tribute to Beckett’s multilingual approach to writing, and the presentation included some of Göritz’s recent translations of Beckett’s poems. 

Cover of VHS case for Film, from Special Collections

After some snacks and refreshments, students and other colloquium guests settled in to watch our 16 mm screening of Beckett’s only film, titled Film, released in 1964 and starring Buster Keaton. Erin Finneran, senior lecturer in modern Irish and English literature at Washington University, gave an introduction prior to the screening and led a discussion following the film.

Nadia Louar – Photo by Alison Carrick

The last talk of the afternoon was by Nadia Louar, associate professor of French at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. Dr. Louar discussed Beckett’s three groundbreaking, postwar novels, MolloyMalone Meurt, and L’Innommable. Louar focused on the pivotal role of the body in the novels to interpret Beckett’s switch to French as both a linguistic and somatic ‘turn.’ 

Students performing “The Conscious Inexistence” – Photo by Julie Singer

The first day wrapped up in Mallinckrodt Center with “‘The Conscious Inexistence / L’existence inconsciente’: Students Recite Beckett in Translation.” Washington University undergraduates Laura Wang, Audrey O’Neil, Dajung Lim, Anika Sridhar, Grethe Anderson, Kevin Jin and Caroline Chou recited selections of Beckett’s work in three languages–English, French and Chinese. They read excerpts of Waiting for Godot, Endgame, The Unnamable, and the poem, “What is the Word.” The performance was organized by Laura Wang and by Elizabeth Allen, teaching professor in French at Washington University, and assisted by Robert Henke, professor of drama and comparative literature, Washington University.

Most of the sessions were video recorded and will be available on our YouTube channel soon.

Go here for a summary of Day 2 of the colloquium.

About the author

Joel is the curator of the Modern Literature Collection at Washington University in St. Louis. He also curates rare books and manuscripts at WUSTL.