A great entry by Patrick Kurp today on a Samuel Johnson and Samuel Beckett reminded me that the following post — like many others — was a-mouldering in my drafts folder.
Here’s the opening:
The letters of some of the greatest artists of their day, of Wordsworth and Cézanne, Proust and Eliot, for example, though occasionally moving and of interest because of who they were, would never figure in anyone’s list of the ten or twenty greatest books of their time. The letters of Keats and van Gogh, Kafka and Wallace Stevens certainly would. And so, on the evidence of this volume, would those of Samuel Beckett.
I like to know a reviewer’s critical touchstones. It’s enjoyable as a parlour game — I’ve read Keats and Kafka, but not van Gogh and Stevens, so I give myself a marginal passing grade — but better yet it puts the review in context.
Anyway, one item in the review caught my eye (my bold):
The same fierce individuality is evident in his response to literature: “Am reading [Balzac’s] Cousine Bette. The bathos of style & thought is so enormous that I wonder is he writing seriously or in parody”. “Read Cecil’s Life of Cowper . . . . Very bad. But what a life! It depressed & terrified me. How did he ever manage to write such bad poetry?” “So I was reduced to finishing [Mauriac’s] Le Désert de l’Amour, which I most decidedly do not like. A patient, tenuous snivel that one longs to see projected noisily into a handkerchief.” “I’m reading the ‘Possédés’ in a foul translation. Even so it must be very carelessly & badly written in the Russian, full of clichés & journalese: but the movement, the transitions! No one moves about like Dostoievski.
Tough stuff. But a GRJ initiate — is my team still ploughing? — is not likely to find Beckett’s opinion of Cowper so very independent. As noted previously, Beckett was a devotee of Samuel Johnson, and Samuel Johnson — as also noted — was likewise tough on Cowper in his Lives of the English Poets.
If nothing else, Beckett probably remembered Johnson’s put-down on Cowper’s Pindaric odes for the same reason I do: because it’s funny:
It is hard to conceive that a man of the first rank in learning and wit, when he was dealing out such minute morality in such feeble diction, could imagine, either waking or dreaming, that he imitated Pindar.
As Vivian Mercier notes in Beckett/Beckett, “Signs of Johnsonian gravity will be found in the most unexpected places in Beckett’s work; the English version of Molloy is full of passages that might have appeared in Rasselas.”