Given the publishing-world scuttlebutt last week, you might have thought the P.E.N.-sponsored tribute to Samuel Beckett, held at Town Hall on Monday night, Dec. 9, was subtitled “Waiting for Barney.” Former Grove publisher Barney Rosset, Beckett’s original U.S. publisher, was not initially asked to participate in the event, which featured such Beckett-friendly literary types as Paul Auster, Peter Carey and Edward Albee, and letters reportedly “poured in” to P.E.N. complaining about the omission. But even an apology and a hurried invitation from the event organizers-including New York Times critic Mel Gussow-couldn’t appease the septuagenarian publisher known, for better and worse, for his tendency toward self-dramatization. His non-involvement wasn’t a mere oversight, the Rosset contingent claims. It was another play in an endgame between the Times critic and the publisher, who feuded over a Beckett work years ago.
“I’m surprised there’s not a demonstration outside,” one prominent publishing executive told me during intermission.
But there was no picketing. In fact, beyond two perfunctory mentions-from publisher Richard Seaver and Mr. Gussow himself-Mr. Rosset’s name did not come up. Instead, the half-filled house gave itself over to a nearly three-hour-long Beckett lovefest that left the impression that the notoriously crusty-and wildly controversial-Irish-born novelist and playwright had never had an enemy in the world. “The whole [Rosset-Gussow] thing has been way overblown,” said one publisher long acquainted with Grove. “There are no politics here at all.”
P.E.N., of course, is usually all about politics and controversy. But the Masters Tribute series, of which the Beckett event was the latest installment (James Baldwin was another recent celebratee), is P.E.N.’s way of honoring iconoclastic writers who have advanced the cause of literature. For $15 to $30, people come to P.E.N. events to praise writers and publishers, not to bury them.
This was not your usual publishing crowd, Salman Rushdie and sleepy-eyed Peter Mayer notwithstanding; there were theater folk and academics in evidence. Even for the bookish, it was a dress-down day-except if you were Arcade publisher (and presenter) Jeanette Seaver, in her blue feather boa, or elegant Maria Aitken, the wife of novelist Patrick McGrath, who read from one of Beckett’s novels with a scarf flowing Isadora Duncan–style from her swanlike neck.
And while there were some young publishing Turks on the premises-thirtysomething Grove Atlantic publisher Eric Price was there; so was 30-ish editor Chris Knutsen, who, while at Riverhead, published George Saunders, a contemporary Beckettian writer, you might say-most of the people onstage and in the audience looked to be about twice their age.
And speaking of age, everybody did. Announcing that, like Jack Benny, he never admits to being more than 39, publisher Richard Seaver nevertheless announced that this year marked the 50th anniversary of his first meeting with Beckett. Paul Auster and Peter Carey, looking like properly disheveled bohemians instead of the rich, best-selling novelists they are, and playwright Israel Horovitz, who is starting to bear an uncanny resemblance to the actor Peter Riegert, all made points of mentioning, several times, that they were so young-25, 26 years old-when they met the Master (who died in 1989, at the age of 83) that they were brash enough to do the very thing they’d been told not to do: ask him about his work. Famously dour about his own accomplishments-more than one presenter quoted him as saying things like “The play I disliked least was Endgame “-Beckett was, apparently, nothing but an inspiration to his acolytes.
There were readings from the author’s works-the best of which was a scene from Waiting for Godot performed by John Turturro and Bill Irwin (in Beckett-required bowler hats)-but it was Beckett-as-character who took center stage. Jeannette Seaver talked about his “intense blue eyes” and told of dancing together with the writer and the artist Giacometti, who designed sets for Beckett’s plays. Professor Tom Bishop told a funny-ish story about naming his dog Beckett and trying to hide that fact from the dog’s namesake for years. “Do you think we can be friends?” a besotted Israel Horovitz asked the writer in Paris all those years ago. “I think we already are,” Beckett replied. Could it be that the lonely guy who wrote some of the sparest and gloomiest prose of the 20th century was also what Mr. Bishop called “a wonderfully gentle man, a wonderfully warm human being”? You can’t help wondering what Barney Rosset would have said.
Sara Nelson, a contributing editor at Glamour , is writing a book about reading for G. P. Putnam’s Sons.