~ Dedicated to my Sister, General of the Avant-Garde ~

It snuck up on me, but we have a lot of Samuel Beckett in the shop. None of it’s signed by the man himself, so perhaps I gave it short shrift. As I catalogued it, I realized that I know so little of his work. Just as Fitzgerald’s work suffers because so many are made to read Gatsby at a tender age, so too does Beckett’s oeuvre suffer from Godot-fatigue. Some of it is grand, some humble. Grandest of all, probably, is Beckett’s first appearance in print — at twenty-three, oy vey — in Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress with Letters of Protest by G. V. L. Slingsby and Vladimir Dixon (Paris: Shakespeare and Company, 1929).

Beckett’s is the first contribution in the collection, entitled “Dante… Bruno. Vico.. Joyce” [sic, and often “corrected”]. It shows a twenty-three-year-old (oy vey) deep in thrall to James Joyce, for whom Sylvia Beach put the Exagmination together. He finds in Joyce’s published work broadly, and in Finnegans Wake in particular, a strong whiff of the thinking of the Enlightenment philosopher Giambattista Vico. Beckett shows himself very much the precoque, the alumnus of Trinity College, Dublin, the English lecturer at the Ecole Normale Supérieur. His erudition is perhaps never again so bald.

From 1929 we have a silence through the thirties, attenuated by the first American edition (New York: Grove press, 1957) of his first novel, Murphy (orig. London: Routledge, 1938).

It is our first flash of Beckett’s sardony. Take for example a passage selected at random: “Miss Dew was now experimenting with quite a new technique. This consisted in placing her offering on the ground and withdrawing to a discreet remove, so that the sheep might separate in their minds, if that was what they wanted, the ideas of the giver and the gift” (101). It’s drily funny, and deeply sensitive to what would later be called mentality; even though this is narrative, Miss Dew’s view and voice are communicated. The form is recognizable enough, but the take on the peculiarity — not yet absurdity — of human behavior in the late interwar years is reminiscent of Waugh’s Scoop, which came out in the same year.

After the success of Godot (1953), Beckett had a wide berth with publishers; people would see (and perhaps buy) avant-garde fiction — plays and prose. Calder and Boyars and Faber and Faber served, perhaps somewhat grittingly, as the disseminators of his work in England. The prices of their books — Faber’s Play (1964) was 9/6-, Calder’s Imagination Dead Imagine (1965) was 8/6- for a mere fourteen pages in card wraps — were astoundingly high. One cannot imagine that the print runs were large.

But this is not a musing about print-runs (must it be about anything? Surely Beckett wouldn’t mind.) but about Beckett as an engine of the avant-garde. Not only did his publishers — Grove sold his work in America — struggle with the appeal of the work, but with the work itself.  Take, for example, his 1976 Footfalls, which is as much a work of choreography as it is of theater. Mounted in honor of his own seventieth birthday, it is much more eccentric typographically and prosaically than his earlier work.

What becomes clear, indeed, as one leafs through Beckett’s work, is the extent to which he succeeded in stepping out of the Joycean avant-garde and into his own; the advance-guard cannot embrace the rear-guard. The sheer joy in wordplay — which often thrums through the early work; one thinks of course of Love’s Labours Lost — so clearly visible in Godot, is eclipsed by the choreographic possibility of the “script”. This is nowhere clearer, perhaps, than in the assemblage of pieces under the title of Eh Joe & Other Writings (Faber, 1967).

From Act Without Words II.

From Film.

Eh Joe (originally broadcast on BBC television in 1966) is the most verbal of the pieces, but as the original voice of the woman, Nancy Illig, describes, “the voice becomes a technical device, on a par with the dolly”. Beckett sought monotony and quiet, almost a dissolution of the words rather than the sparkling precision demanded in earlier works. The other writings are Act Without Words II and Film, both without dialogue. They recall nothing so much as the guideline-art (or rule-art) of Sol LeWitt, which began in 1968; LeWitt illustrated a piece by Beckett in Harper’s Bazaar in 1969. If a play is typically a dialogue between its author and its performers, Act Without Words II and Film are rather dialogues between Beckett and the technical staff — grips and dollies, director and cinematographer and stagehand. Here Beckett is very much the creator of “performance” rather than “drama” per se; not a new or even a particularly controversial claim, but in the context of his written output, it is, hopefully, an interesting rhetorical exercise. The relationship between books and performance art is rich and fruitful but it is often more documentary than instructional. Since Beckett himself never performed (that I know of; I’d be fascinated to know of exceptions) he needed a means of conveying his conceptions to others. As such, he will perhaps irrevocably be thought a playwright (inter alia), but the term is very much too narrow to be accurate.


To close, the “resolution” of a “mystery.” Legendarily, Beckett had at the same time as Godot another play ready to mount: Eleuthéria (written as early as 1946).

Godot was simpler to mount, and so was more appealing to Roger Blin, who directed the première. Over time, Beckett came somewhat to disdain Eleuthéria (“Freedom” in Greek), and buried it. In 1985, Barney Rosset, the legendary publisher at Grove Press (which nearly exclusively printed Beckett’s work in America), was pushed out; Beckett offered to allow him to publish the text — in a new English translation — as a gesture of kindness, but then balked. Rosset held off, but when Beckett died in 1989, he began to pursue the project anew.

Michael Brodsky produced the translation for Rosset’s new imprint Foxrock — named for Beckett’s birthplace in the outskirts of Dublin — and, after considerable wrangling with the French executor of Beckett’s literary estate (a French edition was issued, almost out of spite, before this English-language edition of 1995). In addition to the ordinary trade edition (some thousands, according to Rosset’s collaborator John Oakes), there was a limited edition of 250 hors de commerce signed by Rosset and…

Well, no bookseller that I know of (including my benevolent and all-knowing employer, Mr. D. Johnson) could figure out the other two signers’ identities. I wrote to Professor Stanley Gontarski, the leading expert on Beckett, who provided the introduction to the volume, whether his was one of the signatures. Very kindly and rapidly, he replied in the negative but forwarded my query to Mr. Oakes, now publisher of OR Books, who confirmed: “the three signatures are Barney Rosset… myself, and Dan Simon, then the co-publisher of Foxrock and now publisher of Seven Stories Press.” There we have it!


(I extend my sincere thanks to Prof. Gontarski and to Mr. Oakes for their generous assistance.)





Feast Your Eyes

To feast is human. It is nearly always, nearly everywhere the case. Gluts, whether caused by the slaughter of an animal, or by the harvest or some other windfall, are unavoidable, and those who possess the excess capitalize on it by sharing it in some way (surely this is the origin of capitalism). Feasts, therefore, tell us a great deal about a culture. How is food shared? When, where and by whom? How are the occasions for feasting marked? What is eaten? (Consider: the Greeks camped on the shores of Troy for a decade, yet Homer does not feed his heroes fish!) Nowadays, the anthropology and archaeology of feasting are fields of academic inquiry and debate, precisely because they yield such insight into a culture. Yet for much of the early history of printed books, this discussion was confined almost exclusively to Christian feasts, though “feast” is taken in its primary sense: a sacred rite, a metonym for a holiday. Enter Jean (probably) Muret:

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Traité des Festins. Paris: Guillaume Desprez, 1682. First edition.

Like all good thinking minor nobility of the age of Louis XIV, Muret begins by defining his subject:

“Le Festin n’est autre chose qu’un assemblée de diverses personnes, qui sont invitées pour manger ensemble, & se divertir pendant le repas”
the Feast is nothing but a gathering of various people invited to eat together and to entertain one another during the meal (p. 1, A1r)

This may seem banal, but it is novel. Muret sees the feast as a phenomenon that links various kinds of human endeavor, and often the most significant. Although there is considerable attention given to Christian feasts — the entire last chapter, for example — Muret conceptualizes feasting as a category with wide application. He discusses feasts for births and weddings, military feasts, holy feasts, funerary feasts, coronation feasts and so forth. How do these differ? By holding these previously disparate sorts of “assemblées de diverses personnes” up against one another, he uncovers their common traits. The survey is typological but also chronological; it is larded (forgive the pun) with references to classical (mostly Roman) feasts; this gave rise to the title of its second manifestation in 1715 (Dissertation sur les festins des anciens Grecs et Romains…). How wise it is to see continuities in these rituals that might otherwise seem to be paragons of specificity.

For all this the book might be revolutionary enough, but it goes further. From these traverses across types of feast, Muret draws general precepts about feasting itself. There are sections on guest-lists and table-wares, but also on taking exercise before feasts (especially hunting; a nobleman’s adumbration of later anthropological theories of feasting vis à vis slaying a mammoth or a boar), and the all-important pre-feast bath. As such, this stands at the beginning of a vast category of literature — one that we often think of as beginning rather later — on the mores of entertaining and of hospitality more generally. What La Varenne did for the preparation of the food in the Cuisinier françois some thirty years earlier (1651), Muret did for the reciprocal end: consumption.

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Duodecimo (6” x 3 3/8”, 153mm x 86mm): binder’s blank, ā8 b2(–b2) A8 B4 C8 D4 … T8 V4 X6 Y2 (Y2 blank) [octavo $4, quarto $2; –ā1]. 137 leaves, pp. [18], 230, [24], 2 blanks.