Samuel Beckett: The Grove
Edited by Paul Auster
(Grove, 4 vols., 2,136 pgs., $100)
I’ve returned to the work of Samuel Beckett regularly since I was young. The reason, I think, is that Beckett is so primal. He’s scraped away all the excess and detritus, leaving nothing but naked modern humanity—cold, hopeless, isolated, adrift, in pain. For it all, Beckett also recognized that this absolute negation can be pretty damn funny sometimes, and wasn’t above the occasional banana peel gag.
Few of us who’ve read him, however, have realized that a lot of what we were reading was simply wrong. “Inaccurate” might be a better term. Often, the novels and plays as published aren’t the way Beckett intended them. Bad typesetting, lazy copyediting and blunders of various other kinds over the years left a series of mistakes—dropped lines, missing words, typos—which were compounded and passed on from edition to edition. Beckett himself once told his biographer that his manuscripts were “a terrible mess.” And until now, nobody’s done anything about it.
Laura Lindgren, a Manhattan-based book designer (as well as an old friend of mine) has spent much of the last year working feverishly to rectify all those mistakes for a new four-volume, 2,136-page edition of Beckett’s complete works. The corrected set is being released by Grove Press on April 13 to mark his 100th birthday. It’s a dense, beautiful, hefty collection, which offers readers and scholars alike an entirely new Beckett experience.
Although the volumes were edited by novelist Paul Auster, it was Lindgren, as “textual supervisor,” who spearheaded the nitty-gritty work of putting the novels, plays, poems and short works back into the shape Beckett intended. It was both a massive undertaking and a labor of love.
A former Grove employee, the job fell on Lindgren’s shoulders as the project got under way because she was remembered as being a particularly avid and well-versed (as she calls it) “Becketthead.” She in turn conscripted the help of Beckett scholars Stan Gontarski and Chris Ackerley, as well as a team of proofreaders.
They had their work cut out for them. The novels known as the “Big Three” (Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable) were chock-full of errors. Watt, Lindgren says, had never been published with all the corrections Beckett requested. Even Waiting for Godot had its problems.
“In the case of the Big Three,” she said, “I discovered entire lines obviously dropped by mistake by the typist who re-typed the text from the printed books. Oddly, the sentences still made sense, even with words missing, but there was a lot lost.”
The version of Molloy most people have read, for instance, contains the sentence: “For I had hardly perfected my plan, in my head, when my bicycle ran over a dog, as subsequently appeared, and fell to the pavement, docile at its mistress’s heels.”
But originally, and in the new edition, it reads: “For I had hardly perfected my plan, in my head, when my bicycle ran over a dog, as subsequently appeared, and fell to the ground, an ineptness all the more unpardonable as the dog, duly leashed, was not out on the road, but in on the pavement, docile at its mistress’s heels.”
Time constraints involved with the project prevented Lindgren and her team from going about things the way they might have preferred—namely, working with the original manuscripts. That would’ve taken years, and they only had months.
Given time, she says, “You’d really have to start at square one and copyedit the manuscripts in the first place. I tried to eliminate some irritating inconsistencies of copyediting, but I had to do so by making lists, computer searches, etc., rather than by looking at actual typescripts or copyedited manuscripts.”
So how did she know that the corrections she was making were, well, correct?
“The short answer to this is: By getting hold of the various editions that have been printed and comparing them all, by having multiple proofreadings and by working with Chris Ackerley and Stan Gontarski, Beckett scholars who have pored over the material over the years. How would I know they are correct? Well, in the case of obvious typos, it’s just plain obvious. In the case of dropped lines, I found it also was obvious. And where I had any doubt, I compared editions and looked up words in O.E.D.”
In the end, Lindgren is satisfied that the new editions are “as right as right can be.” But she adds, “I think that Beckett himself was not very good at proofreading his books, which is in no way a criticism—proofreading is a special skill, not an innate ability among writers, not even Sam Beckett.”
Beckett once wrote that “perfection is not of this world.” “But,” Lindgren says, “as Beckett knew better than most, we have little choice but to aim for it.”