‘The Samuel Beckett manuscripts: a study’

by Richard L. Admussen (G.K. Hall & Co., Boston, Mass, 1978. xvi, 148 pp.$13.00).


J. C. C. Mays


Mr. Admussen’s book strikes me as being, as a book of its kind, very good indeed. The larger part of it is a list of manuscripts relating to published titles, arranged in alphabetical order of title. The documentation on each manuscript gives details of its physical characteristics, followed in most cases by a comment which places the manuscript in relation to others in the same group, sometimes by date, sometimes by internal evidence. It is therefore very easy to locate the available manuscript material relating to anything Beckett has published, to assess its nature and extent, to learn of its location. And there are a sizeable number of illustrations of this material placed in the text where they fit (need herded together elsewhere).


The list of manuscripts relating to published titles fills more than half the book. It is introduced by a section on the dispersal of Beckett’s manuscripts and the character of the major public collections; and is followed by a much shorter list of manuscripts relating to unpublished titles; then an abbreviated list of annotated editions, production notebooks, letters, etc.; and last of all, an appendix made up of three parts. The most important part of the appendix presents, in facsimile, the six texts of Bing, now at St. Louis, that were missing from the sequence published by Federman and Fletcher and subsequently in L’Herne.


A reference book of this kind depends on being consistent. If the information is not in the place you expect, you assume there is none and look no further. It must be consistent, too, not just in its larger organisation but in making clear the limits of the information given. It is a measure of the book’s achievement that you are consistently aware of what you can and cannot expect, and where to look for it. To begin with I wondered why galleys and proofs (e.g. of Watt and Suite) were listed in the main sequence, and copies marked-up for translation (e.g. of Watt again and Film) listed in an appendix. But the division makes sense on reflection, and increases one’s confidence in Mr. Admussen’s sureness of purpose.


To take another example. The entries which describe materials now at Washington University, St. Louis, are among the most helpful in directing one towards a sense of their relationship. This being so, I wondered why information was often witheld. Why not note that Copy B of Film, described on page 120, is marked-up by Beckett for his translation into French? Or that in the Collection Merlin Watt galleys, described on page 92, two hands other than Beckett’s appear? Or that the Calder and Boyars’ galleys of No’s knife, described on page 71, vary from the published version? I began by thinking the omissions were not helpful: I ended by respecting Mr. Admussen’s restraint.


The book is specially good, also, not just because it holds together a lot of details without cluttering them or being led astray, but because the details are accurate. I have reason to know and use another bibliography in the same series which is contaminated and made perplexing to use by the number of its errors. Federman and Fletcher’s bibliography has them, too. In the present case, the few errors I noticed were all errors of omission. They were undoubtedly occasioned by libraries acquiring material or books being published after Mr. Admussen had completed his researches, and I stress that they in no way detract from his achievement.


One of the earlier versions of Embers Mr. Admussen guessed at but could not locate (44 and 28) is now in the Theatre Collection at Harvard, and is preceeded by a thirteen-page fragment in French. Harvard also acquired at the same time (July 1976) a five-page-fragment in French, ‘Sup of foul draft from work in regress’ (dated 14 December 1971); various versions of a translation into English of a printed ‘Fragment de théâtre,’ dating from August-September 1975; and a signed one-page typescript of the conclusion of Waiting for Godot. Again, the Humanities Research Center at Austin, Texas, contains the corrected typescripts of Beckett’s translation of Negro, or at least two parts of it, filed among its Nancy Cunard papers. And the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library has an inscribed and corrected copy of Echo’s bones. The only omissions that approach a mistake are very minor indeed. The ‘C2?’ manuscript of Fin de partie at Trinity College Dublin (Admussen, 51) is dated at the end ‘16-2-56’—a fact which also contradicts the claim (50) that none of the drafts is dated. And the abandoned play Kilcool, also at Trinity (Admussen, 113-114), carries dates in the body of the text, thus: ‘17th Sat,’ ‘Ussy 23-12-63.’


Mr. Admussen’s detachment from printed material was probably very necessary, since he might otherwise have become bogged down in it, but in several instances I think he should have supplied publication details as he does elsewhere. It would have been helpful, surely, to remark that the piece for Günther Eich (60) appeared in Günther Eich zum Gedächtnis, edited by Siegfried Unseld and published by Suhrkamp in 1973; or that the Texte pour Bram van Velde (83-84), published by Editions Fata Morgana in 1975, was in a volume entitled celui qui ne peut se servir des mots.


Again, anyone not so chary of printed material would have remarked that the Drunken boat typescript (41) is reproduced in facsimile in the limited edition, or that a (the?) manuscript-version of Breath (‘No mss. located,’ 25) was reproduced in facsimile in Gambit IV:16. More seriously, perhaps, Copy A of the limited Milan edition of Still (82-83) was accompanied by the original manuscript, and copies B, C, D, E and F by an original manuscript; and the Manus Presse edition of Kommen and gehen included facsimile reproductions of the first manuscript drafts (the second dated ‘Ussy 16-1-65’). Mr. Admussen’s account of the evolution of Come and go/Va et vient (on 28-30, 87-88) is indeed difficult to align with that given by Breon Mitchell in Modern drama XIX:3 (September 1976), so that some recognition of the differences would have settled one’s doubts. Or, lastly, one might remark that the three notebooks and the unpublished play, Human wishes, (101)—which Deirdre Bair made plain are in Ruby Cohn’s possession—have been described and quite extensively quoted from in Back to Beckett and in the biography.


The sections listing letters and which describe the manuscript notebook sold at Sotheby’s in 1973 are, of course, quite explicitly selective. I would only emphasize that a reader should be fully conscious what this means. It means that there are more letters than those listed from the collections described; that there are letters in the collections drawn upon for other kinds of manuscripts but which are not mentioned as having letters at all (Trinity College Dublin, for instance, has Beckett’s very important correspondence with Thomas McGreevy, although it is not available to be consulted); and there are letters in libraries which are not mentioned at all (to Seumas O’Sullivan at Indiana, among the Starkey Papers, for instance, or to Sylvia Beach at Princeton). I should myself have been inclined to extend the listing of letters in public collections to make it a little more complete, reckoning that little extra space would have been taken by it and little extra effort.


I should also have been inclined to indicate, if again in summary form in an appendix, the extent of manuscript material changing hands, as described in dealers’ catalogues. Sotheby’s are only one such firm, but I think it would have been worth mentioning, say, that autograph drafts for a subsequently-abandoned work beginning ‘mais que même dans ces lieux extremes donc,’ two leaves from a quarto-notebook dated ‘8-11-69’ and ‘10-11-69,’ were sold at Sotheby’s on 4-5 December 1972 (to L.A. Wallrich, for £240); or that in the Sotheby sale of 20-21 February 1978, the autograph fair-copy of a poem composed in 1945, and the signed typescripts of Whoroscope, ‘Alba’ (the poem) and Happy days changed hands. Incidentally, the notebook described in Appendix B was sold by Sotheby’s for £6,500 (not at the ‘appraised value’ of £10,000), and the Sotheby catalogue reproduces two pages from it as a frontispiece.


The largest proportion of manuscript material described in dealers’ catalogues is made up of letters and cards. So swiftly does the sales-transaction follow the writing and receiving of the letter sometimes, and so trivial often is the content, one wonders how such a living author can set aside, whenever he puts pen to paper, the pressure to sell or store what he comes up with. The thought makes explicit an issue 1 have had in mind throughout, the question of whether an analytic checklist of this kind—however good—is appropriate to a living author, as it would be to, say, Coleridge.


Mr. Admussen suggests in his introduction some of the things about Beckett’s writing that can be learned from his book. Variant titles offer new perspectives on the works they are attached to; accurate dates of composition bear on the evolution of puzzling sequences; different processes of composition underly different kinds of finished result. If you think Beckett’s writing is important, these things are important in a quite impersonal way, and a way that is clearly subordinate. At the same time, besides offering such insights, the book has another, representative and perhaps more affecting value. Just because it functions so well as a bibliographical aid—as an accurate guide to what lies behind the completed texts on which Beckett’s reputation stands—it offers more in the way of understanding than many books of commentary and explication. Just because it succeeds in being informed, accurate and modest in its aims, that is, it is the more salutary. Its tact and sense of limits are entirely appropriate to its uses.