Bold When It Counted

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Jeannette Seaver
Richard Seaver and Samuel Beckett, Paris, mid-1970s

No child daydreams about becoming an editor. A writer, perhaps. An inspiration, maybe, in the sense of a muse. How do people become editors?

Richard Seaver suggests that editors are people who admire writers. He grew up near Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and at the University of North Carolina wrote a thesis on Hemingway. It was called “Ernest Hemingway: The Good Inner Feeling,” taken from Hemingway’s remark that “what is moral is what you feel good after.” In 1948, on his way over to Europe after graduating, he got a chance to show his essay to Hemingway’s son Patrick, who pronounced it a damn good job and gave Seaver his father’s address in Cuba, which he was too modest to use. Other writers Seaver admired were James Joyce, Eugène Ionesco, and Samuel Beckett. He wrote his dissertation at the Sorbonne on Joyce and could recite from memory parts of Finnegans Wake in Joyce’s accent. He told other expatriate editors in Paris that there were two good writers working in French, both foreigners: the Romanian Ionesco and the Irishman Beckett. Joyce had already been discovered and published by an older generation, but Beckett was still unknown.

Before the war Beckett had written in English and even had a novel, Murphy, published in English by Routledge in London in 1938. But after the war for a variety of reasons he began to write in French. His great trilogy Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable, his best work, was written in French as well as his play Waiting for Godot and the plays that followed. There are various theories why Beckett, who earlier wrote a book on Proust in English, switched languages for plays and fiction. During the war years, when he’d been a résistant in the south of France living with a French girlfriend, he’d spoken French almost exclusively, including during his job as a farmhand. He also found that writing in French, because it was more difficult, cut down on the excessive wordplay that had characterized his early work and that of his idol, James Joyce. In English, he wrote, “you couldn’t help writing poetry in it.” He said that whereas Joyce’s work was achieved through addition and perfection, his own work proceeded through elimination. As he said shortly before his death:

I realized that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, [being] in control of one’s material. He was always adding to it; you only have to look at his proofs to see that. I realized that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than in adding.

In addition, the French novels, unlike the English ones, were written in the first person, and in French there is a long tradition of such récits, culminating in Camus’s The Stranger. Whereas Beckett’s English-language novels, Murphy and Watt …

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