The most shameful piece of writing I have ever committed to print was a review published early in 1974 of Hugh Kenner’s A Reader’s Guide to Samuel Beckett. My copy is filed away in storage so I’m unable to quote specifics but it amounted to an assault on critics living parasitically off the bodies of real writers. I didn’t review the book at hand but what it represented to my 21-year-old, drug-addled mind. I knew Kenner’s work well, and only a year or so earlier had read his masterwork, The Pound Era. I admired him immensely and already thought of him as that rarest of critics – one from whose prose style I could learn something.
Just months before, I had dropped out of my university after three years as an English major. My temperament at the time was fueled by an amalgam of drugs, alcohol and self-centered anger – a volatile cocktail -- and a Freudian might make something of my assault on a writer I already respected as the paterfamilias. Despite my lingering shame I still accept, with qualifications, a germ of thought in my review: A prerequisite for good criticism is humility before great writing. In the caste system of literature, the critic is of secondary importance, at best, after the novelist, poet and dramatist. This does not imply obsequiousness before bad or mediocre work. To dissect the shoddy or dishonest is to celebrate their opposites.
I conducted a lengthy telephone interview with Kenner in December 1994. He was generous with his time and utterly entertaining as a conversationalist. We started with Yeats and ranged across the universe, touching lightly on Beckett. I considered confessing my 20-year-old misdemeanor but thought better of it. How prideful and grandiose to drag out such a triviality, expecting understanding and forgiveness. The review had been published in Exit (a Beckettian name, I suppose), a small-circulation underground magazine that went defunct a few months later. The review’s most lasting impact was my long-standing inability to reread Kenner’s book – a guilty blockage. Now, 35 years later, I’ve read it with pleasure, admiration and small shame.
The book was part of the “Reader’s Guide” series published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, a virtual prescription for academic dullness. Kenner dispels that anxiety with the first sentences of his introduction:
“The reader of Samuel Beckett may want a Guide chiefly to fortify him against irrelevant habits of attention, in particular the habit of reading `for the story.’ Beckett does not write mood-pieces or prose-poems; he has always a story, though it is often incomplete and never really central to what we are reading.”
Not a wasted word or empty promise, and as good a Beckett distillation as I can imagine in 53 words. Kenner’s book totals 208 pages, counting both indexes. It can be enjoyed by a novice or an old Beckett hand, and can be read without strain in a single evening. There’s no muck about existentialism. Kenner never mentions Heidegger or Sartre. His prose is rigorously clear, like Beckett’s, and almost aphoristic:
“Beckett’s sensibility is profoundly conservative, and nowhere is he more traditional than in his regard for the integrity of the printed work, the scrupulousness of its phrasing, the accuracy of its proof-reading, the exemplary adequacy of the translations.”
And you have no need to wait 35 years to read it.