The Power of One True Believer: Samuel Beckett’s Beautiful Homage to His Greatest Champion
“I owe him everything.”
By Maria Popova
“We always keep the dearest things to ourselves,” teenage James Joyce wrote in his heartwarming letter of appreciation to Ibsen, his great hero. And yet artists of all stripes — and by “artists” I mean those of us, from painters to playwrights to paleontologists, who labor with the inner fire of a private passion in any field that benefits the broader public — know how a single kind word from an appreciative friend or stranger can gladden the heart and sustain the spirit for days, weeks, even years. Indeed, the history of creative culture is strewn with such soul-sustaining support — take Emerson’s encouraging letter young Whitman, without which we may not have Leaves of Grass, or Isaac Asimov’s fan mail to young Carl Sagan, or Charles Dickens’s generous letter to George Eliot, or the enormous psychic boost Ursula Nordstrom performed for insecure young Maurice Sendak. Joining this canon of vitalizing gratitude and appreciation not kept to oneself is the great playwright, novelist, theatre director, and poet Samuel Beckett (April 13, 1906–December 22, 1989).
In the early 1950s, Beckett was at a pivotal point in his career — he had just finished writing Waiting for Godot, but the play was still very much a private triumph, its public première three years away. Under the conviction that a non-native language would enable him to better advance the avant-garde project of “writing without style,” he had just produced a trilogy of novels in French: Molloy, Malone meurt, and L’innommable — but they were not readily received by the literary establishment. After a series of rejections that ravaged his creative tenacity and nearly demolished his faith, Beckett found his first great champion in the influential French publisher Jérôme Lindon, who recognized that these unusual novels represented something new and important.
Lindon took Beckett under his wing and released the books under his Les Éditions de Minuit imprint. In 1952, Waiting for Godot was published by Minuit in book form, four months before the first theatrical performance, and Lindon’s support became a cornerstone of Beckett’s subsequent success with the play.
A decade later, on the last day of June in 1962, Beckett was asked to contribute to a celebration of Lindon for a broadcast on Cologne Radio. The heartwarming result, which Beckett describes as “a poor little homage” in his characteristic self-effacement, is included in The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume 3, 1957–1965 (public library) — the same delicious, beautifully researched and edited volume that gave us Beckett’s masterwork of constructive criticism and tough love.
Beckett’s original text, which was later translated into German, reads:
For me, Jérôme Lindon was a last-chance publisher.
It was in 50 or 51 that there fetched up on his desk the manuscripts, riddled with rejection notes, of Molloy, Malone meurt, and L’innommable.
I was asking for nothing less than a contract for the three works. One rebuff and that was it. I wasn’t all that far from asking that they should be brought out in one volume.
It would have taken only this last little no thank you for me finally to see that that was it.
It was as I am honored to be able to say again.
It was the great yes.
Then real work by a real publisher, someone who, defending what he prints, is simply defending what he loves.
I owe him everything.
But should I have owed him nothing, or rather nothing beyond what we all owe him, I would still be saying, before such purity, such nobility of character, such courage, he is a great publisher and a great man.
Somehow, this seeds the bittersweet dream of a world in which the only books published (and art funded, and records released) were the product of visionary publishers defending what they love — bitter, because it’s so woefully rare in our present-day industry that measures up the commercial market before considering the creative merit; and sweet, because great work is still being written and being read and, as we-the-market awaken to our task of demanding it resolutely, being published.
Complement this particular excerpt of the altogether revelatory Letters of Samuel Beckett with Kurt Vonnegut’s witty and wise homage to Joseph Heller and Charles Bukowski’s letter of gratitude to his first patron, who helped him quit his soul-sucking day job to become a full-time writer.
Published April 13, 2015