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Journal of Modern Literature 26.3/4 (2003) 161-165

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Shades of Beckett

University of Pennsylvania
Friedman, Alan Warren. Ed. Beckett in Black and Red: The Translations for Nancy Cunard's Negro (1934). University Press of Kentucky, 2000. xi + 207 pp. $34.95.
Worth, Katharine. Samuel Beckett's Theatre: Life Journeys. Oxford University Press, 1999. 216 pp. $21.95.

Here are two very different books on Beckett which, taken together, allow one to grasp the reasons why Beckett exerts today such a growing fascination among students, critics and researchers. These two books can begin to bridge the gap between textual studies focusing on Beckett as a translator, with their emphasis on the early prose and poems, and the detailed analyses of his theatrical experiments often starting from Beckett's production and rehearsal notebooks to end up discussing the endlessly varied adaptations his plays have elicited. The former book gives a good view of a young Beckett struggling between idioms and cultures (he was barely twenty-seven when he translated these articles), whereas the latter offers moving and sharp glimpses of Beckett in the last ten years of his life.

The books are also different in tone and style. Friedman's book presents a complete file, the sixty three thousand words of translations from the French made by Beckett for the notorious Negro Anthology. Worth's book reminisces about her experiences as a director of a number of plays, moving back and forth in a "life journey" through a corpus that she knows intimately, reads closely and organizes thematically (most chapters are devoted to topics such as rhythm, scenery, ghosts, memory, and forgetting), Both books testify to the power of friendship: Friedman highlights the enduring friendship of Beckett and Nancy Cunard, which lasted until Cunard's death in 1965. Worth testifies to the friendship between the author and Beckett that provides a vivid personal connection. Worth started a correspondence with Beckett in 1975, met him a year later, and then saw a lot of him in London, Paris, Dublin, and elsewhere in the following years until she paid him a last poignant visit just one month before he died in 1989.

Beckett's translations from the French cannot be understood without an awareness of the project of the Negro Anthology, and Friedman does a great job at sketching the complex personality of [End Page 161] Nancy Cunard. She is mainly known to Beckett readers as the publisher of "Whoroscope," a publication crowned with a prize she provided, and which if it did not yet launch Beckett's career helped him gain confidence as a poet at a crucial early stage. However, accounts and impressions diverge when it comes to her life's most ambitious project, an anthology whose aim was to record "the struggles and achievements, the persecutions and the revolts against them; of the Negro peoples." This huge program entailed reconstructing a whole history of the black people, in and out of Africa, documenting in detail customs, arts, cultures and political vistas of an incredible magnitude. Her own agenda was activist, as she was agitating against racial discrimination in the United States, and was moving closer to the Communist party—all of which explains why she was soon disinherited by her rich family.

Anthropologists, historians, sociologists, musicologists, poets, journalists were enlisted—one counts a hundred and fifty contributors, among whom one discovers Zora Neale Hurston, Alan Locke, Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Dubois (with "Black America"), Walter White, Countee Cullen, next to William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound (on Frobenius), Louis Zukofsky, Carol Rakosi, Theodore Dreiser, Michael Gold and many others. Beckett did not contribute any original material but was in charge of the contributions from the French contingent made up of the "Surrealist group" as such, but more particularly the contributions from Benjamin Péret, René Crevel, and a few historians, critics and ethnographers specializing in African culture.

Needless to say, such a direct involvement should bring new perspectives to the ongoing debate about Beckett's elusive political stance. In so far as this was a sort of compensated assignment...


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