Friday, April 02, 2010

"After all one is always flattered"

Not quite up to the effort of moving on to the next chapter of Capital (that's chapter 9, for those of you scoring at home), or paying sufficient attention to David Harvey's relevant lecture, yesterday I read a significant chunk of Beckett's Letters. And so this impromptu week of Beckett blogging can continue. Turning now, then, to his efforts to get his work published, one of several themes running through the volume.

In 1936, Beckett sent out his novel Murphy to various publishers. His earlier publisher, Chatto and Windus, reluctantly rejected it on the grounds that business was tight. Another publisher rejected it because "On commercial grounds we could not justify it in our list." Beckett writes flatly to Thomas McGreevy, "And of course what other grounds of justification could there be." Quite so. And he doesn't hear from Simon & Schuster at all, at least not by November. It's clear that Beckett would rather drop the whole thing than deal with such matters. And, true enough, though he expresses much annoyance with his sort-of agent George Reavey, he decides to have him deal directly with the publishers instead. Not that things go much better.

So Murphy is sent on to Houghton Mifflin. Via a letter to Reavey (and the accompanying notes), we learn that Ferris Greenslet, editor at Houghton Mifflin, has requested that Beckett make some cuts to the novel. November 14, 1936, from Hamburg, he writes about it to his friend Mary Manning Howe:
Reavey wrote enclosing a letter from Greensletandhindrance. I am exhorted to ablate 33.3 recurring to all eternity of my work. I have thought of a better plan. Take every 500th word, punctuate carefully and publish a poem in prose in the Paris Daily Mail. Then the rest separately and privately, with a forewarning from Geoffrey, as the ravings of a schizoid, or serially, in translation, in the Zeitschrift für Kitsch ["Magazine for Kitsch", non-existent - RC]. My next work shall be on rice paper wound about a spool, with a perforated line every six inches and on sale in Boots. The length of each chapter will be carefully calculated to suit with the average free motion. And with every copy a free sample of some laxative to promote sales. The Beckett Bowel Books. Jesus in farto. Issued in imperishable tissue. Thistledown end papers. All edges disinfected. 1000 wipes of clean fun. Also in Braile for anal pruritics. All Sturm and no Drang.

I replied, dear agente provocatrice, that I would not have a finger laid on the section entitled Amor intellectualis etc., nor on the Thema Coeli, nor on Endon's Affence, nor on the last will and fundament, but that so far as the rest was concerned I would willingly remove all ties and supports, dripstones, keystones, cornerstones, buttresses, and, with especial pleasure, the entire foundations, and accept full and entire responsibility for the ensuing detritus. The owls, cats, foxes and toads of the higher criticism could be relied on to complete the picture, a romantic one.

After all one is always flattered. It is only from the highest unities that a third can be negligently carved away and the remainder live. The amoeba's neck is not easily broken. Nor his countenance put out.
I think my favorite part is the dry "and accept full and entire responsibility for the ensuing detritus". And I was immediately reminded of David Markson's experience with his great book Wittgenstein's Mistress, which was famously rejected 54 times. In this interview with Joseph Tabbi, Markson mentions that he'd read that Murphy was rejected 42 times (so it seems our man Sam has much to look forward to in the rest of this volume of the Letters). Tabbi asks, "For a novel that well thought of since? Wasn't one editor in fifty-four capable of seeing 'something' in it?":
DM: Obviously it wasn't all black and white. Oh, about a third of them didn't like it at all, and perhaps another third made it inadvertently evident that they didn't understand a word. And ok, you can't fault the totally negative responses—or the vapid ones either, since they pretty much correspond with the percentage of editors you know are C students to begin with. But it's the other third that really cause grief. I mean when the letters practically sound like Nobel Prize citations—"Brilliant," "Twenty years ahead of its time," "We're honored that you thought of us". . .

JT: And?

DM: The predictable kicker, of course. It won't sell. Or worse, we couldn't get it past the salespeople. Actually acknowledging that those semiliterates don't simply participate in the editorial process, but dictate its decisions. God Almighty.

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