Beckett’s Fear of the Other Side


Samuel Beckett, Avigdor Arikha, 1971

From London Review of Books:

At the turning point of this second volume of Beckett’s letters, which is also the turning point of his professional life, the moment when, after so many years of ‘retyping … for rejection’, his best work is finally to be published with enthusiasm by editors determined to let the world know what they have discovered, the author’s partner, Suzanne Déchevaux-Dumesnil, writes to Jérôme Lindon at Editions de Minuit to advise that Beckett does not wish his novel to be entered for the Prix des Critiques. It is 19 April 1951, Beckett is 45, the novel in question is Molloy. Suzanne explains:

What he dreads above all, in the very unlikely event of his receiving a prize, is the publicity which would then be directed, not only at his name and his work, but at the man himself. He judges, rightly or wrongly, that it is impossible for the prizewinner, without serious discourtesy, to refuse to go in for the posturings required by these occasions: warm words for his supporters, interviews, photos, etc etc. And as he feels wholly incapable of this sort of behaviour, he prefers not to expose himself to the risk of being forced into it by entering the competition.

Thus is born the celebrated myth of a writer concerned purely with his art, oblivious to commercial concerns and hence somehow superior to those writers who will gladly stand before a microphone, cheque in hand. It was a myth that would eventually play to Beckett’s advantage, both critical and commercial. But Suzanne’s letter – and it is impossible not to hear Beckett’s voice dictating it – makes no special claims. ‘Perhaps,’ she/he proceeds cautiously,

he has an exaggerated view of a prizewinner’s duties. But if, as prizewinner, he could without unacceptable rudeness stay out of it all, he would see no objection to being one. You see, it is not an aversion of principle, but simply the fear of the other side of the coin.

Like so many of the letters in this second volume, this was written in French. It was an excellent decision on the part of the editors to give us throughout both original and translation. Here the French reads:

si, tout en étant primé, il pouvait sans goujaterie rester dans son coin, il ne verrait aucun inconvénient à l’être. Vous voyez, ce n’est pas une aversion de principe, mais simplement la crainte de la contrepartie.

‘If he could stay in his corner … fear of the other side’. Is this a boxing metaphor? Beckett had been a good boxer in his youth. What exactly is feared here: the opponent, or being in the position of the opponent? What would it mean, following the English translation, to fear ‘the other side of the coin’? Does Beckett fear success?

“On Needing to Be Looked After”, Tim Parks, London Review of Books