Category: Archive

Waiting for a master’s work

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Indeed, in the five decades since Rosset paid $3,000 for the small, financially troubled publishing company in New York, it has become an important part of American literary landscape, publishing texts that many other companies considered too controversial.
But when he came across “Waiting for Godot,” a strange new play by Samuel Beckett, an up-and-coming Irish playwright living in Paris, Rosset sensed that he had found something truly remarkable.
“I had heard of an opening in Paris. I’d read a little clip in the New York Times and it intrigued me,” Rosset recalled recently as he sat in the lounge of the Astor Place apartment he shares with his wife Astrid.
“I’d been studying French, so when I got a copy of ‘Godot,’ I was able to read it. I talked to professors at school about it, especially one, whose name was Wallis Fowling. He was very conservative as a person, very calm and quiet. I gave him a copy to read, to ask his opinion, and he astounded me by saying: ‘this will be one of the great works of the 20th century.’ I’d never heard him say that about anything. That helped me to confirm my opinions.”
Rosset got in touch with Sylvia Beach, who was publishing Beckett’s work at her famous bookstore in Paris. She traveled to New York to meet with Rosset, he bought the rights to “Godot” for “$100 or something like that,” thus becoming the Dubliner playwright’s first U.S. publisher. A short time later, Rosset went to Paris to meet Beckett in person. It was to be the beginning of a lifelong friendship.
“His manner could be misinterpreted as cold or unfriendly,” Rosset as he flicked through photographs he took of Beckett in Paris shortly before his death in 1989.
“He was exactly the opposite. He paid enormous attention to people and carefully noted whatever it was you were worried about. I thought of him as a very great psychoanalyst. And that gave you a very special feeling. He would make you think that you were the most important person in the world. But you could forget the fact that he had other things on his mind too. It took me a long time to decide that. I’m an only child, and once my father told me that they wanted to have other children but never did. I was destroyed! So I had to really go through that with him in a way. I had to accept that there are other people in his life. But I thought his first loyalties and feelings were for people, not towards ideas as his critics and French publishers thought.”
In fact, Rosset can remember seeing Beckett lose his temper only once throughout their friendship.
“One night I went out with he and Barbara Gray, a very good friend of his and Harold Pinter,” he recalled.
“We were in a bar in Paris and Barbara and Harold started talking about Beckett as if he weren’t there. And he’s sitting there, closer to them than I am to you. He’s sitting facing them. I could see that Sam was getting annoyed, it was as if he were a statue of himself and it went on and on and on and finally at one point, Sam picked up his beer glass and slammed it on the table. It didn’t break but the beer sort of spilled over. He got up and walked away to the men’s room, which was up a steep flight of wooden stairs. When he came back down, he didn’t come back to us. He went and sat at another table with two people whom I could see didn’t know him. They were startled, and he sat there for a few minutes. And then he got up and walked the 50 feet back to where we were, sat down as if nothing had happened. They started talking to him after that.”
Like Beckett, Rosset’s heritage is Irish — his grandparents emigrated from Roscommon and Athlone before they met and married in Michigan. And they were native Irish speakers.
“My grandparents spoke Gaelic all the time and so did my mother, who never had been to Ireland in her life,” his whole body shaking as he laughed.
“It struck me that it was used as a secret language. They could speak to each other and nobody around them understood a word.”
Like Beckett, Barney spoke fluent French, having lived in Paris for a time when he returned from fighting in the Second World War. However, Rosset discouraged Beckett from writing in French.
“French, I think, is a very cold language, oddly enough, in relation to English,” he explained.
“It doesn’t have the freedom and my feeling is that was why he chose to write in French — it kept him from being too emotional. I kept asking him to write in English. I wrote to him, over and over.”
Eventually, Beckett gave in and the first play he wrote in English, “Krapp’s Last Tape,” is Rosset’s favorite of all his works.
“The other plays are very constructed, beautifully constructed like ‘Godot’ and ‘Endgame,'” Rosset said.
“‘Krapp’s Last Tape,’ to me, is very emotional. I personally like it the most, because I relate to it. It’s about a very emotional experience; a guy is in love with a girl and she leaves him and then she dies. My girlfriend left me and married my best friend and later died. It was so poignant to me, and to Beckett. He loved a girl named Peggy Sinclair and she left him.”
In the year of Beckett’s centenary, Rosset is still championing his work. After Beckett’s death, he fought with French publishers to release the playwright’s first drama, “Eleutheria.” The play was published, though it ended Rosset’s career with Grove Press. Now, he wants to see it staged.
“I keep looking at Dublin right now, all the conferences, and so forth. I haven’t seen a word printed,” he said.
“It has not been put on, it has been taken out of the realm of what the scholars talk about, and I think it’s totally wrong. It foreshadows ‘Godot,’ and ‘Krapp’s,’ and there are many other things in that were ahead of their time. So, I’m still determined to do it. I just don’t know how. It’s very complex. It’s three different acts with several changes of scenery and it’s very funny. It ends in a fight with all the scenery smashed. The audience gets angry and attacks the cast. It’s a great play,” he laughed.
Beckett only ever visited the U.S. once (in the mid-1960s), but his memory is alive and well in the Rosset household, where, hanging prominently on the lounge wall is a black-and white-photograph of the playwright with his arm around Rosset’s second son, whom he named Beckett.

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