Samuel Beckett did not seem to be a man who needed protection. With his towering bird-of-prey presence and his dead-on gaze into life’s inevitable abyss, surely the Nobel Prize winning author of “Waiting for Godot” must have been his own self-contained sepulchral empire.
And yet, he needed Barney Rosset, the American anti-censorship warrior whose Grove Press published the first English-language “Godot” and who watched over — yes, protected — Beckett’s watershed work throughout his career and beyond his death at 83 in 1989.
Just how much those 20th century iconoclasts meant to each other — and both to literature — is one realization that unites the fortunate coupling of two new books. “Rosset: My Life in Publishing and How I Fought Censorship” (OR Books, 360 pp., $28) is the publisher’s memoir, published almost five years after his death at 89. “Dear Mr. Beckett: Letters From the Publisher” (Opus, 496 pp., $32.95) is an invaluable crazy quilt of business and personal correspondence, contracts, doodles (both were doodlers), interviews and photos edited by Lois Oppenheim.
Rosset’s letters are reproduced as they were typed on his Smith Corona. They begin “Dear Mr. Beckett,” proceeding to “Dear Samuel” and, eventually, “Dear Sam.” Beckett’s notes, as befitting the minimalist, are shorter and fewer and written in a scrawl that enraged his publisher. “Please do write again,” Rosset cheekily demanded after a particularly illegible missive, “right away, and use that ugly mechanical aid to self-expression—the typewriter.”
The men had Sylvia Beach to thank for the introduction. Beach, owner of the legendary Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris, praised the Irish-born Beckett in a letter to Rosset in the early 1950s. As the publisher recalls in his memoir, reading ”Godot” in French gave him the “same sort of feeling” he had about two other “French writers” the company had just contracted — Eugene Ionesco and Jean Genet.
He queried Beckett about “Godot,” vowing, “We will do what we can to make your work known in this country.” The author wrote back, “I hope you realize what you are letting yourself in for.” He referred to “certain obscenities of form which may not have struck you in French as they will in English and which frankly (it is better you should know this before we get going) I am not at all disposed to mitigate.”
What apparently Beckett did not know is that his new publisher was embarking on a court fight to publish the unexpurgated edition of D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” which Alfred Knopf and his British counterpart had cleaned up for publication in 1932 by suppressing what Rosset describes as “a crucial chapter” — thus, purging “our Lady of her dirty thoughts.” In the 1928 novel, Lawrence had, as Rosset saw it, “insisted on describing sexual episodes explicitly, and moreover, he was determined to give old Anglo-Saxon four-letter words their proper place in literature.”
Thus Grove Press, which Rosset said was a “moribund little company” when his father gave him $3,000 to buy it in 1951, became part of the weapon with which “we broke the back of censorship.” The company fought to publish Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer” and William S. Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch.” Rosset signed Harold Pinter before he saw any of his plays, and published Joe Orton, Antonin Artaud and Václav Havel. In 1969, the Grove film division released the convention-shattering erotic film “I Am Curious (Yellow).”
In other words, Beckett’s “certain obscenities of form” were in safe hands. Along with his excruciatingly precise, oddly luscious words, Beckett also needed a lifetime of protection from directors and other interlopers who looked beyond his exact intentions.
When Steve McQueen wanted to do a film of “Godot” for a lot of money, Beckett asked what the actor looked like and replied, “No, it will never work. My characters are shadows.” When Estelle Parsons and Shelley Winters asked to do a female “Godot,” the answer was “Godot should not be played by women.” And when director JoAnne Akalaitis wanted to stage “End Game” in a subway station, the program had to include an insert proclaiming it wasn’t the play he had written.
Rosset, clearly not an easy character, eventually lost Grove and, later, was fired as executor of Beckett’s estate. But before Beckett died, he wrote one last piece of vacuum-packed prose, “Stirrings Still,” and dedicated it to Rosset. Beckett, never one to avert our eyes from the wheezing futility of the mortal joke, comes alive with his old friend in these books.