September 28, 2008


The trailer for Obscene, a new documentary about Barney Rosset and Grove Press.  
NYT has an article about it here. Thanks to Silliman's Blog for originally posting about it.

September 20, 2008

Beckett Pilgrimage III

From the cemetery I continued east until I located Beckett's final apartment - in another modest, unassuming building - at 38 Boulevard St. Jacques in the 14th Arrondissement.  He and Suzanne lived here (in separate but adjoining apartments) from 1961 until the year of their deaths.  

Across the street is the equally unassuming hotel restaurant and cafe where Beckett used to meet his guests, in Beckett's time the Hotel Saint-Jacques and then the PLM and now the Marriot Rive Gauche. This is where John Minihan took his famous photograph of Beckett. 

The street behind Beckett's building is still occupied by grim bulk of the Santé prison, which Beckett could see from the window of his flat.  Apparently Beckett, armed with Morse code and a mirror, held an ongoing exchange with a prisoner there.

My last stop on the pilgrimage was Les Editions de Minuit, a publishing house founded during the Resistance and taken over by Jerome Lindon in 1948.  Lindon published Beckett's most important works after the war.  It makes me giddy to think of that era of the great triumvirate of independent editors and publishing houses - Lindon at Minuit, John Calder at Calder Books, and Barney Rossett at Grove Press.  Editions de Minuit remains where it has been located for decades, in a tiny street - practically an alleyway - at 7 rue Bernard-Palissy, with Lindon apparently still at the helm.  Night was falling already but I could see someone inside; I wanted to go in and join them.  Instead I spent a long time looking in through the windows.  Alas, my digital camera doesn't take very good night shots.  

Early in 1952 a young American named Richard Seaver was walking past the Editions de Minuit display window when he spotted two books, Molloy and Malone Muert, by someone named Samuel Beckett.  Seaver had a vague recollection of that name in relation to Joyce and Finnegans Wake, so he bought the books and ended up reading the first of them, Molloy, that night, practically at one sitting.  Soon he was sharing his revelation with his friends, Alexander Trocchi, Jane Loguee, Christopher Logue, Austryn Wainhouse, and Patrick Bowles, who were just then launching a new avant-garde literary magazine, Merlin.  Seaver wrote an essay on Beckett which was published in Merlin and sent a copy to Beckett, following it up with a request for any of Beckett's work that they might be fortunate enough to print in their next issue.  You know the rest of the story:  late one night a tall, gaunt, silent figure - a Giacometti sculpture in a raincoat - appears at the door and hands them an envelope with a manuscript in it.  It's Watt, written in English and still unpublished at the time.  Beckett has specified, however, which excerpt they are to print - that passage of interminable permutations which you can find here.  It's a test.  The kids don't blink, the excerpt appears in Merlin, they pass the test.  Who would pass that test today?

If you look in the window as I saw it in January 2008, you might just be able to make out the copy of Watt on the left side of the photograph.  Behind are promotional photographs of the younger generation of Editions de Minuit authors, including Jean-Philippe Toussaint and Eric Chevillard, who, according to Francois Monti in a recent article in The Quarterly Conversation, are helping to keep Lindon's press relevant.


I'm not sure what I'm looking for on these pilgrimages.  They're almost always dissatisfying - I stand there in front of whatever it is I've been searching for and mostly I feel self-conscious.  OK, I ask myself, what am I feeling now?  Am I having the appropriate thoughts and emotions?  Is this an authentic experience?  And I repeat to myself, in the formulaic language of spells, "I'm standing right where So-and-so stood once upon a time," and, "This is the very door through which Fill-in-the-blank passed on the way to his engagement with destiny!"  I visit their haunts and end up seeming ghostly to myself.

But then I look back at my travel notes and I'm frustrated by the things that I missed, that I didn't have time for - the corner of Avenue General-Leclerc and the Coeur-de-Vey where in 1937 Beckett was stabbed by a pimp, the hospice called Les Tiers Temps on the Rue Remy Dumoncel where Beckett lay in his final illness, if it's even still there . . . and then there are the Joyce sites, the Proust sites . . . and it occurs to me that I am not so much a ghost as a species of vampire.  

September 18, 2008

A Parallax View

I’m interrupting the literary pilgrimage to bring you the following mental association, brought on by thinking about the life of Samuel Beckett and the death of David Foster Wallace.  It doesn’t have anything to do, really, with DFW, but it does with another writer who committed suicide, the English “experimental” novelist B.S. Johnson.  Johnson killed himself in 1973, when he was forty years old.  By that time he had published six novels; a seventh appeared posthumously. 

In Like A Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson, Jonathan Coe tells how Johnson got to meet his hero, Samuel Beckett, in Paris in 1966.  Johnson had already been sending the older writer what Coe describes as “fan letters” as well as copies of his first couple of books, and as a result of this first meeting Beckett became an even more important figure to Johnson.  They would meet on further occasions over the subsequent years, to “drink whiskey and play billiards together” whenever Johnson went to Paris, and they exchanged letters and postcards in between times.  On Beckett’s side these were invariably rather “brief and functionally worded,” Coe reports, and although the relationship was clearly a significant prop to Johnson’s morale Coe is agnostic about Beckett’s investment in it beyond hazarding the opinion that there was probably more to it than mere “writerly courtesy.”  Beckett certainly proved ready to give practical support to Johnson on several key occasions, including writing a letter to a recalcitrant editor testifying to Johnson’s talent, sponsoring Johnson for an Arts Council grant, and even helping him out financially.  In 1973, however – a bad year generally for Johnson – he found the limit of Beckett’s generosity when he used a flattering remark from their private correspondence as a jacket blurb for Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry without Beckett’s permission.  Beckett replied with an angry letter that seemed to have brought an end to their relations.  One a Sunday night in the November of that same year, Coe reports that Johnson tried unsuccessfully to reach Beckett on the phone a number of times.  The next night Johnson successfully opened his arteries in the bathtub. 

Isolating this particular sequence from the rest of the biography has the disadvantage of creating a narrative in which the disintegration of the Beckett relationship appears to have a major impact on Johnson’s decision to end his life.  He had bigger problems – he was separated from his wife, drinking more and more heavily, and deeply unhappy about the reception of his work.  But – especially given Johnson’s penchant, described by Coe, for finding omens everywhere – the end of his friendship with a figure who occupied so large a place in his literary imagination couldn’t have helped.

Six or seven months after I read the B.S. Johnson biography I happened to read James Knowlson’s biography of Samuel Beckett, Damned to Fame.  (OK, OK, so I read a lot of literary biographies.  We’ll talk about it some time soon, I promise.)  It was 700-plus pages of small print, with plenty of mundane minutiae before and between the major works on the long way from Cooldrinagh to the Cimitiere de Montparnasse– but not a word about B.S. Johnson.  Nothing.  Samuel Beckett is cited about 21 times in the index of B.S. Johnson’s biography; the number B.S. Johnson citations in the index of Beckett’s biography is exactly 0.

Of course, you could argue that that’s Knowlson, really, and not Beckett.  Maybe Beckett’s thoughts recurred frequently and fondly (at least before that unauthorized blurb) to his young British friend; he certainly didn’t hesitate to send a consoling letter to Johnson’s widow after hearing the bad news.  And in a sense Knowlson did refer to Johnson, in a passage talking about (and I’m paraphrasing here because I’m sure as hell not going to try to look it up) the number of people who sought out Beckett in the years of his fame with their hands out for friendship, advice, a touch of apostolic succession, or money.  Maybe that was B.S. Johnson in the life of Samuel Beckett – a petitioner, one of many. 

Just in case, however, I checked the other two Beckett biographies.  In the index of Deirdre Bair’s, no B.S. Johnson.  Next, Cronin’s The Last Modernist – and a hit!  One citation, page 546 . . . I rifle the pages . . . here it is:  “One of the recipients of his generosity was the experimental novelist BS Johnson, whose sports-car was said to have been bought with Beckett's Nobel money.”  Ouch.   

Coe says this isn’t true, by the way.  The money from Beckett went for groceries.  Funds for the sports-car came from somewhere else, and anyway Johnson had to sell it eventually. 

But go back to that moment when I was looking at the index in the Knowlson biography and confirming that Johnson had indeed been a no-show through the whole 700 pages.  That’s really the point of this blog entry – that shift in perspective, from how large a figure Beckett cut in Johnson’s life to how small or even negligible a figure was Johnson in Beckett’s.  It made me a little sick to my stomach when I first discovered it – the elevator-lurch sensation that makes us imagine, if only for an instant, a vertiginous abyss – a little sick and then very sad.

Yes, sad enough for me to forget my own problems for, oh, the five minutes it took me to realize that even here was yet another restaging of my own anxieties about literary anonymity.  Our narcissism is inescapable.  That's a banality, of course – but what determines when our narcissism might be the very thing that saves us, or the very thing that . . . well, you know what I mean.

September 16, 2008

Beckett Pilgrimage II

From the Rue des Favorites I walked to the Montparnasse Cemetery and located the grave where Beckett was buried with Suzanne, who died a few months before he did in 1989.  The grave was as discreet as you might expect.    

Beckett Pilgrimage

In bleak cold January I was in Paris.  I made a little tour of some Beckett sites.  Here are a few photographs.
Above is a picture of Beckett's quarters at 45 rue d'Ulm, at the Ecole Normale Superieure, where he moved in 1928. His biographer Knowlson writes that his room "lay in the front part of the old Ecole building on the second floor to the right of the big central doorway facing onto the rue d'Ulm."  

In 1937 Beckett and his companion (later his wife), Suzanne Deschevaux-Dusmesnil, moved to 6 rue des Favorites, in the 15 arrondissement, where they lived in a seventh-floor studio until 1961.  Knowlson describes it as "in an unfashionable area off the long Rue de Vaugirard, a long walk from the Latin Quarter."  It was here that, after the war, Beckett wrote Godot and the great trilogy.  I found that it remained a nicely modest neighborhood, very mixed, not too gentrified (yet).  It looked like the building, however, must have been given a face-lift at some point since Beckett's time.  On the street level there were two hair salons, an old tailor shop, a new clothes boutique, and a big ugly police station a half a block away on the rue de Vaugirard.

I kept waiting to pick up some kind of Beckett vibe.  But there was only the absence of a Beckett vibe, and the anonymity of nameless faces, and behind the noises and bustle of the street an abiding silence.  Well, there it is, I thought, there's your Beckett vibe.

September 14, 2008


I can get pretty depressed thinking about the fate of my first book.  "If only I were a published writer," I tell myself, "then I would be happy."