Several readers have lobbied me to read Earthy Powers, with its famous opening line -- “It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.” – and I slipped it into my Someday But Probably Never file. Until last week, when I found an English first edition in a customarily disappointing and overpriced used bookstore in Houston. The manager fancies himself a critic. Most of the books come with a yellow card taped to the plastic-wrapped cover -- half sales pitch, half price tag -- on which he helpfully writes: “1st Edition. He wrote more than Clockwork Orange! A bargain! $15.00.” I bought it. The cover is potboiler-tacky – a sun burning through black and red clouds. I enjoy owning previously owned books. I fancy they carry traces of previous owners and readers. This volume is worn, the cover creased, a few pages stained with brown spots as though someone had sneezed on it while drinking coffee. No underlining or annotations, but the front page is signed “Judith de Steifuer” in a flamboyantly spidery hand. She underlined her name, apparently for emphasis. I’ll take good care of him, Judith.
I wasn’t going to say anything until I’d finished reading Earthly Powers, but Nige shared a charming anecdote about an inscription he found in a copy of Watt. It remains my sentimental favorite among Beckett’s novels, the one I’ve read most often and the only one I ever read as a class assignment. I pulled out my old Grove Press paperback, worn but perfectly intact, the one with the pale green cover and the black circle, broken at the bottom, that has always reminded me of a Zen painting. Traces of an earlier, more pretentious self remain. On page 44, next to the sentence beginning “Do not come down the letter…,” I wrote: “Wittgenstein!” And on page 77 I underlined “for the only way one can speak of nothing is to speak as though it were something….” On the front page is my signature and the date of purchase: “1-11-71.”
Beckett’s final entry in the novel’s “ADDENDA (I)”: “no symbols where none intended”