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Samuel Beckett in the Literary Marketplace


Stephen John Dilks


New York: Syracuse University Press, 2011

Hardcover. xxii+352 pp. ISBN 780815632542. $45.00


Reviewed by James McNaughton

University of Alabama


Did he rise on the second day? Did he dance on the waters? Into whiskey? Louit in Beckett’s novel Watt asks these questions to deflect an academic committee’s hard questions that nearly reveal he’s a fraud. Even the son of God had his limits, after all, he seems to say, unable to turn water into the good stuff, so don’t expect too much of me.

It might have been nice had Stephen John Dilks taken this gentler and comic approach to the hagiography of Beckett—the reputation that because he was a deeply private man and claimed to shun fame that he also kept his hands clean of the commercial world; the reputation that he did not care about money or much of the professional world of writing except the act itself; the reputation for artistic integrity that was almost holy—“Samuel Beckett: A Saint born on Good Friday,” as John Calder unironically titled a piece. After all, anyone that has read Beckett’s letters in the archives—and Dilks has—knows he worked tirelessly on the business of getting his work out. He sorted contracts and copyrights in various countries; he advised agents on presses and advised presses on the look of his books; he worried over his literary reputation if he were to translate Sade; he published collectors' versions of texts designed to be valuable and rare; he took pleasure getting paid for his work; and he made other people money too. He was connected to the marketplace, in other words, in ways obscured by a mythology of the holy artist set upon a golden bough. Dilks redresses this exalted biographical vision; he does so, however, not by pouring us more humble wine, instead of Beckett’s preferred whiskey, but by turning the spirit back into water again.

Dilks makes a good case that the longstanding reputation of Beckett as an author unfortunately Damned to Fame, as James Knowlson’s biography calls him, needs to be re-evaluated against Beckett’s practical and savvy efforts to expand his reader- and viewership—and, Dilks would add, to cultivate a brand. What is this brand? It is not just the art of failure and silence, but, for Dilks, it is the personality to go with it—Beckett keeping strategically mum, refusing to interpret, foregoing the lecture circuit, the college campuses, forbidding the taking of notes in the rare interviews he granted. Beckett does this, while also having his photo taken beside trash cans or as a head floating in blackness—as if Beckett himself were one of his characters. How is it, Dilks asks, that Beckett, supposedly one of the great unknown writers, the last high modernist bastion against crass commercialism, also has one of the most recognizable faces in modernity, one of the most enduring and cash-generating legacies?

The answer, Dilks says, is not the work itself, but how the work has been carefully maintained and controlled, made rare, published and promoted as anti-establishment. The answer is how Beckett’s image itself has been controlled, first by Beckett, then by Beckett’s carefully chosen loyal publishers, directors, academics, actors, and admirers, and finally by the literary estate. There are problems with this argument, which I will address below. But since the Beckett Estate denied Dilks’ request for copyright permission to publish either the archived letters which are publicly available in libraries around the world or even letters already published in other books—Dilks’ argument about a controlling estate acquires serious force. We should not be surprised that a man as intelligent as Beckett knew something about the book business, or that he enjoyed the royalties for his efforts—the money itself only started after twenty years of writing and was hardly undeserved. But that the Estate does not allow scholars to publish these quotes about money or agents indicates a preciosity that privileges loyalty to received ideas and narratives over continuing scholarship and debate. Besides sorely limiting our understanding of Beckett’s work, this pussyfooting backfires for another reason too: it suggests Dilks is wholly right—the Estate keeps a view of a sanctified Beckett the better to sell him—when he is right only in part.

The main problem with Dilks’s argument is that it too easily makes Beckett responsible for the contradictions of publishing and fame. If older academics have sanctified Beckett as a humanist prince, Dilks at times turns him into a Machiavel and makes him personally responsible for the hypocrisies of the marketplace itself. Dilks can do this by mostly ignoring Beckett’s work and by stubbornly refusing to define or make distinct concepts such as “purist,” “fame,” or “anonymity,” creating false oppositions. Thus, he can cry hypocrisy because Beckett’s friends say that he “ ‘strongly dislikes interviews, cocktail parties, celebrity socializing, and all the other public concomitants of the literary life’ ”—“but,” Dilks ah-ha’s, he still works hard to see his books in print, therefore becoming more famous [281]. The “purist” vision that critics have of Beckett is for Dilks somehow at odds “with the work of the writer… who fully understood the craftsmanship and significance of staging, design, and representation” [316]. When Beckett gives away his Nobel prize money, he “protect[s] his image as a man with no interest in money without suffering any financial consequences”[311]—as if all charity, in this case 375,000 Kronar, is merely to maintain an image that will sell more books. If one takes this as the initial starting point—that Beckett wanted to cultivate a profitable brand—then how quickly all his actions can be made to fall into line. Friendships here become networking or “professional relationships,” charity is savvy self-promotion, all reticence is marketing mystique, all holiday retreats an unconscionable passing the buck to his handlers. When Beckett, almost 50 years old, has built a two-room cottage outside of Paris with money from his mother’s estate, we are told again and again that it was “custom built” [62, 72, 83, 88, 194, 195, 199, 206, 296].

This repetition discloses that the book opts for strategies of compulsive argumentation over pith; it also shows that the book responds to the view that Beckett was impoverished like his characters (does anyone think this?) by encouraging our disbelief, even outrage, because Beckett was in fact wealthy enough to customize his cottage plans. Undoubtedly, Dilks makes a strong case that Beckett often claimed to be lazy or unproductive, while working with astonishing intensity and productivity, that Beckett’s publishers compensated for his reticence and his unwillingness to interview by promoting his work with actors, by using the Nobel award to advertise his books, by deftly marketing Beckett’s dislike of media circuses and hobnobbing as a sign of integrity. But to claim that Beckett himself wholly cultivated such a personality to sell books too neatly projects commodification back to the writer—as if Beckett knew during two decades without an audience that this sullen quietude would be a big seller for the in-crowd, as if his books, moreover, do not critically examine the very contradictions of art in the modern marketplace.

Still, this book usefully and, no doubt some would say, brazenly recounts how Beckett established and controlled his legacy often with surprising skill—championing a Samuel Beckett theater in Oxford [that one never made], solidly supporting the creation of a Samuel Beckett Archive at Reading, and generating, whether inadvertently or not, a fleet of loyalists determined to promote his work. Dilks leaves out the possibility that they all may have done this because they believed in the work itself rather than because they were charmed by Beckett’s charisma or because their careers profited. And perhaps this is the biggest regret of the book—that Dilks closes off his work to other possibilities than a financial motif or marketing finesse. What a great service Dilks provides, for instance, to separate Beckett from the unhelpful notion that he is like his characters. What a service to see that Beckett knows how books move from draft to valuable rare book. And it is a service too that Dilks demonstrates how controlling the Beckett Estate can be, keeping tabs on preferred interpretations, as if intellectual debate itself does not keep one canonical too.

But despite these services, Dilks does not use the separation of character and author to turn our focus away from biographical readings that limit our understanding of the forms Beckett uses. Dilks sees only legacy and profit in an archive, rather than the possibility that Beckett’s release of his archives would also strategically re-ignite historical and political readings of his work, at a time when ahistorical existentialism was giving way to an ahistorical deconstructionism. The archives also show us that Beckett’s work often purposefully refers to unpublished texts, lost stories, and so on, making the archive itself part of his own aesthetic of loss. And finally Dilks suggests that Beckett “wanted us to know he knew” that “he was a product of self fashioning” [200]. What a shame Dilks limits this awareness to a few pages on the play Catastrophe, when this very dynamic is central to Beckett’s aesthetic investigations all the way through. Beckett calls the sometime narrator of Watt, Sam, for instance, to invite and then reject biographical readings; and Malone Dies explores how authorship itself is self-fashioning that allows one to turn from a horrid history that will not be so easily erased, escaped, or made good. What, then, does it mean that works critique or resist the very market they participate in? Dilks won’t go this far. But he helps to make possible such questions—despite an estate that does not seem to like them very much. It is understandable perhaps that they dislike whiskey turned into water again, but this mundane miracle was central to Beckett’s life and work too.



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