On the Irish writer and his American publishers
[With] regard to my work in general I hope you realize what you are letting yourself in for. I do not mean the heart of the matter, which is unlikely to disturb anybody, but certain obscenities of form which may not have struck you in French as they will in English [...] The problem therefore is no more complicated than this: are you prepared to print the result?
Samuel Beckett to Barney Rosset, Summer 1953.
[On] 18 June 1953, Barney Rosset, new owner and sole editor of a fledgling press, wrote to a new author promising to make his work known in America. The letters from an obscure American publisher to a little-known author began one of the most extraordinary relationships in publishing history, as Rosset guided a small reprint house, which he bought in 1951 for $3,000, into the most aggressive, innovative, audacious, politically active and often wreckless publishing concern in the United States.
Stanley Gontarski and C. J. Ackerley, 'The Grove Companion to Samuel Beckett'
The American publisher Grove Press is one of the most distinctive brand names in world literature. Since the 1950s, with Barney Rosset at the helm, this modest publishing house became the centre of some of the most vitriolic censorship storms in twentieth century history. Rosset published the unexpurgated edition of Lady Chatterley's Lover in 1959, and went on to release Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer in 1961. But my own interest in Grove began with William Burroughs' The Naked Lunch, first released in 1959.
Grove Press were also responsible for finding Samuel Beckett an audience in the United States. After gaining the rights to Waiting for Godot and other dramatic works, Grove went on to publish translations of Beckett's prose, notably the three novels (Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable).
Gontarski and Ackerley argue that although Rosset and Beckett were very different personalities, one 'a classically educated taciturn Irish artist' while the other a 'scrappy, street-smart American entrepreneur', both felt a strong personal bond for the other. Their correspondence not only developed Beckett's reputation in America, but gave him the impetus to begin writing in English once again after a series of exclusively French works. Beckett produced All That Fall and Krapp's Last Tape 'and thereafter wrote in both languages.'
The writer's sole experiment with motion pictures was also instigated by Rosset, who commissioned a film script in 1963. The result was Film, a short almost-silent philosophical meditation on being and perception, filmed in America with Beckett on-set. Buster Keaton played the lead role.
Grove Press still owns the American rights to all of the major prose and dramatic works, and kindles a keen interest in Beckett scholarship and criticism. On the hundredth anniversary of Beckett's birth in 2006, the Grove Centenary Edition of Samuel Beckett's work was released, edited by the author Paul Auster and introduced by recognizable figures of contemporary literature - from J.M. Coetzee to Salman Rushdie. With few exceptions, the Centenary Edition includes everything Samuel Beckett wrote in his lifetime, and is presented in four beautiful hardback volumes.
Now, Grove are re-releasing some of Beckett's work in new paperback editions. The typefaces are typically gorgeous and easy-to-read, as one would expect from a Grove edition, and each book is set in a glossy jet-black. For the prose, photographs of Beckett from late in his career adorn the covers; for the drama, John Haynes' minimalist portraits of actors in acclaimed productions - notably John Hurt's performance in Krapp's Last Tape. All of the new covers are interesting, nice to look at, and distinctively modern.
I'm happy to say I acquired the Centenary Edition recently, so I won't be scurrying off in search of the new paperbacks anytime soon - much as I would like to. But if there's anyone out there looking to get acquainted, or maybe needing a replacement for their dog-eared copies on the shelf, the new Grove editions are a superb chance to do just that.
You can browse a selection of Grove Press publications of Samuel Beckett's work by clicking here.