April 13 of this year will mark the 100th birthday of Samuel Beckett, the great Irish playwright, poet and novelist whose work, according to his 1969 Nobel Prize citation, brought "new elevation… to the destitution of modern man." His centenary will be honored in many ways—in revivals, readings and special programs—but perhaps nowhere more fittingly than in the four-volume centenary edition of his writings being brought forth by his American publisher Grove Atlantic, a thriving independent house that arguably owes its existence to its early and continuous support of Beckett. Ironically enough, the man who so trenchantly chronicled spiritual and material loss has become the quintessential publishing asset: a long-term backlist performer. Grove, having long benefited from the alliance with Beckett, is not resting on its laurels, or Beckett's. Instead, it is making a push to educate a new generation about the master dramatist's difficult works.
How this all came about owes a good deal to the efforts of a couple of young Americans who were deeply moved by Beckett's work long before he became synonymous with modern theatre and the avant-garde.
Hearing About Godot
It was 1951 when a 29-year-old named Barney Rosset bought Grove Press, a small, undistinguished outfit located on Grove Street in Manhattan's Greenwich Village. Rosset, the son of a Chicago banker, was looking to make his mark, but had little to go on but his own ingenuity and energy
"The first thing I can remember," recalls the 83-year-old Rosset at his home-cum-office on New York City's Fourth Avenue, in the shadow of Cooper Union, is reading a little squib in the New York Times about the opening of Waiting for Godot in Paris in 1952. "I got a copy of the play [in French]. I read it and I thought it extraordinary."
At around the same time, another American, Richard Seaver, was looking to make his mark as an ex-pat in Paris. "I happened to live around the corner from [Beckett's] publisher, Edition Minuit," says Seaver, in his machine-gun-like, breathless cadence. "I kept passing this window in which there were maybe one or two of Beckett's works, and I knew Beckett's name through Joyce. And I said, what the hell is he doing in a French window? I brought Molloyand Malone[two early Beckett novels, written in French]. They absolutely blew my mind."
Such was Seaver's enthusiasm—he was only 26 at the time—that he wrote an essay ("a pretty sad piece," he says in retrospect) that became the first work in English about Beckett. The main thrust of the essay, recalls Seaver, was that "one of the most important people now writing [was] totally unknown." When the essay appeared in the small literary magazine Merlin, Seaver took it around to Beckett's French publisher, Jérôme Lindon, and asked him to send a copy to Beckett.
One rainy November night soon after, Beckett mysteriously showed up at Seaver's door, plopped the manuscript of Watt,a novel written in English while Beckett was on the run from the Gestapo during World War II,into his arms, and left. Then, remembers Seaver, "Barney wrote me a letter, saying, 'I read your piece and I'm coming to Paris in the spring [of 1953] and can we meet?' I said absolutely. We had lunch together and we talked a lot about Beckett. Barney wanted to meet Beckett and I said, 'I'm not allowed, because Beckett was very secretive. I can't give out his address. But here's the name of his publisher and I will call the publisher and say you're going to come by and see him.' "
"We met him at the Pont Royal Hotel in Paris," says Rosset, clearly savoring the reminiscence. "He came in very jaunty, wearing a raincoat. Said he didn't have much time. That would have been around seven and we stayed with him until four in the morning. It was very calm and very wonderful."
Rosset finally convinced Beckett to allow him to become his American publisher. "We paid $100 dollar advance for Godot," he recalls, sifting through the fog of half a century. "It might have been $150, but I think it was $100. Beckett was the first living author Grove published." Rosset became not only Beckett's American publisher but also his literary agent in the U.S.
In 1959 Dick Seaver joined Grove. "I got a wonderful letter from Beckett saying, 'I'm so glad you're there, that's where you should be, now we're together again.' So for the next 10 or 12 years I was at Grove I edited his work. It was an enormous pleasure. He's the most impeccable writer I have ever worked on."
Beckett, Seaver points out, could have gone to other publishers for significantly more money, "but he was just the most faithful of writers." So faithful, in fact, that when Rosset sold a struggling Grove Press to oil heiress Ann Getty in 1985 and was unceremoniously bounced from the company he had made world famous, Beckett granted Rosset the right to a previously unpublished play to help him out. Eleuthéria, an early pre-Godot play, was published by Rosset under a new imprint, Blue Moon, and caused a minor skirmish with Beckett executor, Lindon. In the end, all was forgiven, though, interestingly, Eleuthéria does not appear in the centenary plays.
Although Rosset was now on his own, plays and fiction of Beckett remained in good hands. Getty eventually merged the company, in 1993, with Atlantic Monthly, a frontlist house with the young Morgan Entrekin at the helm. Entrekin, who earned his chops as the editor of Bret Easton Ellis's first book, Less Than Zero, was savvy enough to know that what Atlantic Monthly needed was a backlist, and of course that's what he got. Fast forward a dozen years, and Grove Atlantic is the publisher of two dozen Beckett titles.
"He is hugely important to our list," says Entrekin, now president/publisher of Grove-Atlantic (Getty retains an interest), "not only for the number of books we sell but also for what he represents. Beckett is one of the core Grove authors, along with Burroughs, Henry Miller, Stoppard, Pinter and a few others. Having all the books of one of the major writers of the last 100 years on our backlist is very significant. It gives the imprint a certain prestige and cachet. It attracts other authors, it gives us credibility with reviewers, booksellers, and academics, and he is a great symbol of what Grove is about."
At Grove, about 40% of annual revenues are generated by general backlist. Beckett, according to Entrekin, accounts for "a little over 5%" himself. Not surprising, Waiting for Godot is Grove's bestselling backlist title, selling about 50,000 copies a year, and more than 2,500,000 to date, according to Entrekin.
For the centenary Grove has ventured on an ambitious repackaging program—four hardcover volumes, collecting the novels (in two volumes), all the plays, and the stories, poems and criticism, available individually and as a boxed set ($100). "The idea for doing the four-volume collection," says Entrekin, "came about when I was having dinner with Paul Auster, who eventually became the overall series editor. It quickly fell into place that four volumes, divided as is, made the most sense. Then we talked about who should introduce each of the volumes. We had a short list, and everyone we asked agreed almost immediately." Colm Tóibín and Salman Rushdie introduce the volumes of novels, Edward Albee the plays and J.M. Coetzee handles the final volume, which probably contains the writings most difficult to find elsewhere.
Grove 's promotional plans are targeted almost exclusively at high school students. "There are a lot of educators who want to do more than just Damn Yankees," insists Eric Price, executive v-p/associate publisher at Grove-Atlantic. "So what we're trying to do is work with them to reintroduce Beckett, make it cool. A lot of it is still primarily Godot,which is still taught in many, many theatres. So what we're doing is basically setting up a contest. It's got three components. The first one will be to have the students work with local bookstores to do an evening of Beckett readings, kind of like Ulysseson Bloomsday, preferably in or around April 13th."
Grove will also be working with the teachers, providing the material to help the students, and will also be giving scholarships to promising young playwrights, in conjunction with the Educational Theatre Association. Centering their Beckett promotion on teachers and students might sound terribly modest, even slight, but for the fact that keeping any backlist demand sharp, especially for a writer born a hundred years ago, requires new readers. And Grove has proven adept at that.
The publisher also plans to launch a special Web site in mid-February: www.Beckettat100.com, and readings are planned at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival, in San Francisco and New York. Worldwide, there are even more events planned, from "40 days and 40 nights" of Beckett at the Barbican Centre in London to a "Year of Beckett" in Atlanta, Georgia. Clearly, the culture of Samuel Beckett can't help but go on.