The April/May issue of Bookforum arrived yesterday and I, usually immune to advertising, have been stricken with covetousness. On Page 21 is a half-page ad for The Grove Centenary Editions of The Works of Samuel Beckett, a boxed set of four volumes commemorating his April 13 centenary. The first volume, “Novels I,” includes Murphy, Watt and Mercier and Camier, with an introduction by Colm Toibin. The second, “The Dramatic Works,” has an introduction by Edward Albee. The third, “Novels II,” includes Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable and How It Is, comes with an introduction by Salman Rushdie. The fourth, “The Poems, Short Fiction, and Criticism,” has an introduction by J.M. Coetzee. The project’s general editor is Paul Auster. The price tag is $100, though Amazon.com is offering it for $63, which makes it even more tempting. Grove is also publishing a new bilingual edition of Waiting for Godot/En attendent Godot.
What tempers my greed are the introductions by Rushdie and Co. Why should I be interested in what this quartet has to say about Beckett? I know nothing about Toibin but the others are middling talents, more fashionable (formerly fashionable, in Albee’s case) than worthy. Grove Press must figure that extended blurbs by brand-name writers would seduce waffling readers of Beckett into forking over $100 for his tombstone. It reminds me of Columbia putting “Positively 4th Street” on Dylan’s first Greatest Hits album, when the song was otherwise available only as a single.
Rushdie, in particular, with his clever garrulousness and trendy politics, seems the antithesis of Beckett’s rigor and stoicism. The same issue of Bookforum includes an essay on Beckett by Rushdie that I assume to be his introduction to the Grove volume. The piece, predictably, is more about Rushdie than Beckett, and some of it is written in a manner meant to imitate Beckett’s voice, I think.
I still own the original Grove Press paperback of Beckett’s trilogy I bought more than 30 years ago. I remember the allure of all those pages of small print, much of it unparagraphed, and the stark white cover. The Grove imprint (publisher of Henry Miller, William Burroughs and other rubbish) lent it a tingle of disreputableness, like a Playboy under the mattress. Today, the spine is cracked, the cover yellowed and my marginalia embarrassing (“Theme: Silence!”). The cover price: $1.45. I’ve traveled far with this book. The crack in the spine opens to Molloy, pages 168 and 169:
“But before I launch my body properly so-called across these icy, then, with the thaw, muddy solitudes, I wish to say that I often thought of my bees, more often than my hens, and God knows I thought often of my hens.”
How I love that halting, pedantically exacting syntax, like a fastidious drunk trying hard to make certain he is understood but always just on the cusp of losing the thread of coherence. On my shelf are 25 volumes by Beckett, several of them post-Nobel first editions, most of them battered from wear. But, let’s not turn Beckett into just another commodity, a badge of cultural vanity, like an unread Proust.