"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
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Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

Saturday, 14 February 2009

A Valentine from Samuel Beckett

Hearing that the first volume of Beckett's collected letters had just been published I reached up to the bookshelf and pulled down at random a slim volume of his novellas that I hadn't looked at for years, including, appropriately for today, First Love. This is Beckett on high form, with that exquisitely mordant irony permeating the whole mad tale ("having lunched lightly in the graveyard").  But to my horror I discovered that the pretty little Penguin (see right) was riddled with typos and in some cases whole sentences were mangled and redistributed, making no sense.  For a verbal artist like Beckett, whose words are placed with forensic care, this was lamentable and I flung the book across the room, quickly retrieving the 1984 John Calder Collected Shorter Prose 1945-1980 which had a perfect text.

I know that Beckett is inimitable and that no one now can write like him, or should even try to, but how rare it is to encounter in contemporary fiction such exquisite style, such purity and intensity of focus. Is it that the talent isn't there or that we don't know how to let it speak, to encourage it?  Not a question, I think, that will be troubling the Booker judges.


Stephen Mitchelmore said...

Your questions are very much worth asking. What troubles me is that so few readers and writers (essentially the same people) are concerned with purity and intensity of focus. I've just listened to an otherwise excellent short story by James Salter in which, however, I winced at what I felt were writerly interjections dispersing the intensity of the story. Yet after the reading, the commentators expressed awe at his spare style. To adapt Derrida's words about Blanchot: it seems Beckett is still to come.

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