Beckett on Bloom

«KEN JORDAN: How did you first hear of Waiting for Godot?
BARNEY ROSSET: Sylvia Beach, who was Joyce's publisher in Paris and the owner of the Shakespeare and Co. bookstore, called me. She knew about Grove, one way or another, and she thought maybe we would like to publish Godot. I admired her very much; I was really struck by her effort, and she bolstered my involvement with the play a great deal. Beckett had already been turned down by Simon & Schuster. All of the established publishers would have had a much better chance of doing Beckett than Grove, right? They could have paid five times as much, but nobody wanted it. Nobody was interested.The same was true of Ionesco. The Bald Soprano was put on in Paris and got a lot of attention. Don Allen, who was important editor at Grove in the beginning, liked Ionesco very early. Beckett and Ionesco were on the scene together. They liked each other. I never heard one say anything bad about the other. At a much later date, I think Ionesco became jealous because he never achieved the same level of acclaim as Beckett … and he became a nasty son of a bitch, very reactionary as he got older. But they did admire each other. You have to remember that they both wrote in French, though neither one had French as his native language. Both were not young men when they started to get recognition. Both were struggling to make it in the theatre, blasting away at the existing structure.
KJ: Do you remember when you met Beckett?
BR: I remember the exact moment. It was in the bar of the Pont Royal Hotel, which is next door to Gallimard. And at that time Sartre hung out there, as did Camus, and so on. I was with Loly, my wife at the time, and we were to meet Beckett at six for a drink. This very handsome walked in wearing a raincoat and said, "Hi, nice to meet you. I've only got forty minutes." He was all set to get rid of us! At four that morning he was buying us champagne.
KJ: So you hit it off well.
BR: Right away. He was so gentle and charming. Kind.
KJ: Beckett was extremely loyal to Grove Press, and you became close friends. How did Beckett feel about the other books that Grove published - writers like the Beats, Henry Miller?
BR: I took him to lunch with Henry Miller after we won the Tropic of Cancer verdict in Chicago. They had known each other from the thirties; they did not like each other. Everything that you read about these two would tell you that they were not easy people to get along with. But when I brought them together, each of them told me afterwards, "Boy, has he changed! He's so nice now." I don't know what Beckett thought about Miller's writing. In one of his early letters he asked if I had read J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. He said he really liked it. William Burroughs was a writer he particularly didn't understand. There is a famous anecdote about a meeting between Burroughs and Beckett, which took place in Maurice Girodias's restaurant. I remember sitting next to Sam, while Burroughs, who worshipped Beckett, was explaining to him how you do cut-ups. Beckett said to Bill, "That's not writing, that's plumbing." Allen Ginsberg and Burroughs were very unusual in the sense that they understood that Beckett was very important at that time. They wanted him, almost desperately, to recognize them, and he just didn't seem to connect. It wasn't dislike, it was just … non-togetherness. He just didn't get it. If he had read anything of Burroughs before he started doing the cut-ups maybe he'd have gotten it But the Beats didn't impinge upon his consciousness. Trocchi did. Anything of Alex Trocchi's.
KJ: When you published Godot you couldn't have thought of it as a potentially popular title.
BR: We only printed something like a thousand copies, and the first year it sold about four hundred. It wasn't until the play was produced on Broadway a couple of years later - with Bert Lahr playing Estragon - that the book started to sell, though the production only lasted six weeks in New York. The audience walked out and Walter Winchell denounced it as the new Communist propaganda. But that production made it famous.
KJ: How many copies of Godot did Grove end up selling?
BR: Well over two million.»
From an interview with Barney Rosset, founder of Grove Press, by Ken Jordan in the Winter 1997-1998 issue of The Paris Review.
You can find Beckett on Bloom. In English and Portuguese.


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