Friday, August 16, 2013

`Anything to Do with That Old Blusterer'

On April 6, 1775, James Boswell, true to his customary mode of operation as a budding biographer, baited his friend Samuel Johnson, then sixty-six years old, hoping to prod the old bear into eloquence. As usual, it worked. Boswell raises the question of whether English judges in India “might with propriety engage in trade.” Johnson argues that they can, and moves on to question when a judge is a judge, or when a member of any profession acts in that role. “A Judge may be a farmer, but he is not to geld his own pigs,” he says. “No, Sir, there is no profession to which a man gives a very great proportion of his time.” Warming to the subject, Johnson, already author of the Dictionary, the Rambler, Adventurer and Idler essays, “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” Rasselas, and his great critical monument to Shakespeare, among other works, turns to his own trade, writing, and says: 

“The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent reading in order to write. A man will turn over half a library to make a book.” 

Dirk Van Hulle and Mark Nixon put that passage at the head of their introduction to Samuel Beckett’s Library (Cambridge University Press, 2013, obscenely priced at $90), a detailed accounting of the 750 books in the Irishman’s library at the time of his death in 1989. Beckett had already given away many books to friends and scholars. In the section devoted to Johnson in the chapter “Literature in English,” Van Hulle and Nixon write: 

“It comes perhaps as no surprise to find that the largest number of books in Beckett’s library is dedicated to the work of Samuel Johnson. Throughout his life, Beckett read Johnson intensely, at times even obsessively, especially in the years 1937-40 when he filled three notebooks with material that was to enable the theatre piece Human Wishes.” 

Beckett was introduced to Johnson as a student at Trinity College Dublin. By the end of his life, more than a dozen books by and about Johnson remained in his personal library. Van Hulle and Nixon tell us Beckett was “fascinated” with Johnson’s famous letter on patronage to Lord Chesterfield, quoted it throughout his life and went so far as to translate it into German. He owned the first volume of the Yale edition of Johnson’s work, Diaries, Prayers, Annals (1958). In 1959 he writes to his friend Barbara Bray: “I accept with gratitude the Yale Johnson if it’s not too expensive, I find it hard to resist anything to do with that old blusterer, especially his last years.” The following year he read Sir Walter Alexander Raleigh’s edition of Johnson on Shakespeare, and later still Walter Jackson Bate’s great biography of Johnson (1977). 

Thus far I’ve only skimmed Samuel Beckett’s Library, reading the sections most immediately of interest. The authors report finding Saul Bellow’s first novel, Dangling Man (1944), and Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano (1947), among Beckett’s books. Unexpectedly, they quote a 1953 letter in which Beckett calls The Catcher in the Rye the “best thing I’ve read for years,” and another from 1972 in which he calls Slaughterhouse-Five “a remarkable book.” As the epigraph to Samuel Beckett’s Library, Van Hulle and Nixon append a sentence from a letter Beckett wrote to his friend Thomas MacGreevy on March 25, 1936: “I have been reading wildly all over the place.”

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