The Terror of the Words
I believe in serendipity and geography, and both factors played a part in bringing Beckett into my life. In the early 1950s, I was living in Paris, ostensibly at the Sorbonne, doing a thesis on Joyce in France, but I spent about 90 percent of my time involved in a literary magazine called Merlin. My humble abode, an old banana-drying warehouse, was at 8, rue du Sabot, which is about a hundred yards behind Saint Germain des Prés. And around the corner was a publishing house called Edition de Minuit, which was famous as the underground Resistance publisher in France under the German occupation.
I used to take my daily trek to Saint Germain des Prés, and inevitably I would have to pass Editions de Minuit. One day in late ’51, I noticed in the little display window two Beckett books, one called Molloy and one called Malone. And I said to myself, “Beckett, in French? What’s going on here?” I knew Beckett as an acolyte and friend of James Joyce who had worked with Joyce on both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, but what was he doing in a French publisher’s window? I bought Molloy, took it home, read it that night, and was overwhelmed. It was a shock of discovery: The simplicity, the beauty of the language, the humor, the self-deprecation, the terror of the words struck me as something that I’d never encountered before.
The next morning I rushed over to Minuit and parted with my dinner money to buy Malone Dies. It was as stunning as Molloy. “Where in the world had this man been hiding?” I said to myself. “What else had he written?”
I went back to Minuit for the third time, and was told that he had just finished, or was finishing, a book called L’Innommable, The Unnamable.
“Is there nothing else from this man?” I asked.
“There’s a book called Murphy, his first novel,” they said, “available from another publisher, Bordas, which Beckett translated himself.”
So I hopped on my bicycle, rushed over to Bordas, bought Murphy, and read it with equal ardor. It was not quite Molloy or Malone Dies, which I felt were masterpieces, but certainly all the rich seeds of future Beckett were there.
I talked to Alex Trocchi, who was the editor of Merlin, the next day, and waxed so enthusiastic that he said, “For God’s sake, man, stop talking and write a piece about him, and we’ll publish it in the next issue.” Though I knew that I was over my head and could not offer much in the way of elucidation, I wrote an article called “Samuel Beckett: An Introduction,” and it was, whatever its faults (and there are many), the first piece in English to appear. Beckett was then already forty-six years old.
When the issue appeared, I took a copy over to the publisher of Editions de Minuit and asked if he would send it to Mr. Beckett. He mentioned that Beckett apparently had an unpublished novel, his last written in English, called Watt. So in the covering note I asked if we could run an extract of Watt in the magazine. We heard nothing for several weeks, and I began to despair. Then one night in November a knock came at the door of the rue du Sabot. I opened the door, and in the pouring rain, drenched to the skin, was this man in a slicker, tall, gaunt, and he handed me a packet, also drenched, and said, “Here, you asked for this. Here’s Watt.”
And I said, “Here’s what?”
“Watt,” he said, “as I said, it’s Watt.” At which point he turned to leave, and I said, “Won’t you come in and dry off, at least?”
The whole Merlin gang was there; we were six in all. He glanced inside at the crowd and begged off. I later learned that Beckett did not like crowds, however small. “Thanks,” he said, “but I can’t. Let me know what you think.” With that he disappeared into the night.
The next issue of the magazine was closed. But after reading Watt, which we did until three in the morning, passing the manuscript from one to the other as our voices gave out, we decided that a section from Watt had to be in the issue. We asked Beckett which we could choose. He said, “I’ll choose it for you,” and he did. It is a six-page excerpt that takes you from one end of the room to the other—in every possible permutation—presaging the famous sucking-stone incident in Molloy. We published it, and in every issue thereafter, the seven or eight issues before Merlin ceased, we had something by Beckett. After the Watt publication we got six letters, which was about ten percent of our subscription list, saying “This is nonsense. If you’re going to publish nonsense, we want our money back.”
In that same fertile period, when Beckett was producing a great deal of work, probably a result of his frustrations during the war when he couldn’t write very much, he’d written three extraordinary short stories: “The End,” “The Expelled,” and “The Sedative,” or “The Calmative,” as he ended up calling it. I asked him if he’d translate one of those for the magazine. He shook his head and said, “I can’t, Dick, but why don’t you?”
Not thinking what I was getting into, I said I would. It was only fifteen manuscript pages; I was sure I could knock it off in a week or so. A month later, I was still struggling. Finally I sent it to Beckett, thinking I could do more work. He sent me a note a week or so later saying, “Like your translation. Could we get together? There are a few things I need to go over with you.”
We met at the Dome at Montparnasse, always in the late afternoon, about two or three times a week, went over it, line by line. He would start by saying, “Now there’s a nice turn of phrase, Dick.” And then he would add a word that would make the whole thing sing. Or he would look at the French and say, “There’s no way to translate that, Dick, it makes no sense whatsoever!”
It took five or six sessions before we got it right. Of course once it was over I realized that I had taken on an impossible task; Beckett was master of both languages. Since those days I’ve translated probably about forty or fifty books from the French, and whatever merit they may have in translation emanates from those sessions and what I learned from Samuel Beckett.
From those days on we became friends and we saw each other often, usually at the Closerie des Lilas, and later, back in the States, when I went to work for Grove Press and Barney Rosset, who had become Beckett’s American publisher, I had the privilege and pleasure of working with him on a number of his later works. No author I’ve ever worked with was more considerate, more kind, and yet, at the same time, absolutely sure of how his work should look and feel.
Jerome Lindon, the publisher for fifty years of Beckett’s work at the Editions de Minuit, and also his closest friend and his literary executor, once said, “If I had done nothing else with my life but publish Beckett and have him as a friend, my life would have been well worthwhile.” That is very much how I feel as well.