This is the kind of day where I appreciate the Calendar section of the LA Times. Instead of the usual speculation as to why the movie box office is slumping, there was a well-written article on Grove Press's new 5-volume Centenary Editon of Samuel Beckett's works. Tim Rutten, a times staff writer I'd like to read more of, wrote a perceptive and helpful article on the edition that actually includes comments on the design of the books; something usually left out of many book reviews. He points out that the edition is not the complete works, but it contains everything that is essential in Beckett's works. With the possible exception of his novel "Watt", I think he's right.
The overall series editor is Paul Auster, but each volume has it's own seperate editor. The first two volumes cover the novels and are edited by Coim Toibin and Salman Rushdie. The Grove/Atlantic website doesn't list the contents, but I sure hope it includes Beckett's first novel, Murphy, which is an absolute knee-slapper he wrote while starving in London. To stay warm, he'd hang out in the movie theatres and was especially enamoured of Buster Keaton. You could probably say that Murphy was an extended fantasy of Beckett's where he imagines himself as a kind of Keaton character pulled off of the screen and given Beckett's troubles. I recommend this novel all the time to people at the bookstore and they come back raving about how good it is. In many ways (and as Tim Rutten points out), Beckett was a master of the novel as well as of the stage. I'd go further and say that he was a better novelist. The novel allows Beckett to speak directly to the reader, whereas his plays have to be understood through the medium of the actors, directors and designers who produce it. The novels (with the exception of Watt) are so well-written and bittersweet that I found myself enjoying them more than the various performances of the plays I'd seen. Beckett always wrote for himself. Watching his plays in the theatre (especially a good production) I've grown frustrated with the audiences who inevitably end up laughing and tittering because they can't quite figure out what's going on when it's perfectly obvious. Reading the novels you have the luxury of losing a dull audience and listening to Beckett directly. I'm a snob, but it's the truth.
The other three volumes are; Vol. 3, Dramatic works (Edited by Edward Albee); Vol. 4, Poems, Short Fiction and Criticism (Edited by J. M. Coetze); Vol 5, "Waiting for Godot" (bilingual edition, but no editor listed). Albee is not my first choice for editing the dramatic works. Pinter would have been better since he had an ongoing relationship with Beckett and used to submit the manuscript for all of his plays to Beckett who would make comments in a red pencil. I wonder if Pinter was asked to do the editing, but because of ill health, declined. Coetze is a wonderful choice for the short fiction, poetry and essays. I've long admired his work and look forward to reading his introductory essay.
Norman Dubie, the great unknown American Poet, once taught a class at Arizona State and I took it. He was a nut, but a brilliant nut. During an office visit, I asked him about Samuel Beckett and he told me that Beckett scared him. When I asked him why he said, "death, death, death...I won't be able to understand him until I'm an old man". Well, that's probably true for Mr. Dubie, but I started reading Beckett in my teens. I'm reasonably sure I understand him (although the novel Watt is still a puzzler), but perhaps a deeper understanding will come when I'm in my sixties.
On second thought, no, I don't think so. I'm going to buy this new set and read him all over again. Beckett is the most important writer of the 20the century. This set is a perfect way to discover him, or, re-discover as the case may be.
PS I went into the camp of the enemy and snuck a peek at the new editions (which are all on the shelves) and the design is, well...good. No dust-jacket, but with an embossed image on dark blue covers. It looks rather like a school book. Beckett would have liked that, I think. The font and layout are very nice. These books will be easy to read. What I don't get is why the colors are so muted. This seems to be the cliche notion of Beckett as somber and grim. Where the truth is: he is somber and grim, but he's also damn funny, strange and marvelous. There is no sense of fun in this design, whereas there is an enormous sense of fun in Beckett's works.
Quick note on the novel "Watt": Beckett wrote this novel during the occupation (as I recall from Deidre Bair's bio of Beckett - still the best, in my opinion and to hell with amazon.com reviewers) to try to keep himself sane in an insane time. The books style and content reflect this preoccupation with detail. It's an amazing, unreadable book that reads like the journal of a mental patient trying to describe his/her daily life. At one point in the book the narrator comes into the master's bedroom and for almost four pages he describes the various ways the furniture could be re-arranged; all in puns. For example, the headboard could be placed on it's back while the sideboard could be placed on it's head....(get the idea?). I suppose it should be included in his selected works, but be warned reader; you venture onto thorny ground. Even the title is a joke: What? Watt?