On Campus

March 23, 2000 - VOL. 27, NO. 12

UT Austin scholar provides new insight into Samuel Beckett



Nancy Neff


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Samuel Beckett was not the apolitical postmodernist many scholars viewed him as, but rather a man deeply engaged in the public issues of his time, according to a new book by a UT Austin professor.

In Beckett in Black and Red: The Translations for Nancy Cunard's 'Negro,'Dr. Alan Friedman offers a complete revision of the position of Beckett as a writer and as a man in the history of modern letters.

In 1934, Nancy Cunard published, Negro: An Anthology, which brought together more than 200 contributions, serving as a plea for racial justice, an expose of black oppression and a hymn to black achievement and endurance, writes Friedman, a professor of English at UT Austin.

"The 855-page anthology stands as a virtual ethnography of 1930s racial, historic, artistic, political and economic culture," says Friedman. Beckett translated 19 contributions for Negro, constituting his largest single prose publication.

Cunard believed racial justice and equality could be achieved only through Communism, and thus "black" and "red" were inextricably linked in her vision, according to Friedman.

"Beckett's provocative and lively translations for Negro demonstrated his support for Cunard's interest in surrealism as well as her political causes, including international republicanism and anti-fascism," Friedman said.

Friedman, who also is co-editor of Beckett Translating/Translating Beckett and author of four books, including Fictional Death and the Modernist Enterprise,pointed out that the ironic and often despairing quality of Beckett's writings often suggested an apolitical agenda and an acceptance of the unimprovability of the human condition.

"Yet, Beckett's contribution to Negro represents a commitment to cultural and individual equality and worth that he did not shy from demonstrating."

In this new book, Friedman reevaluates Beckett's contribution to the Cunard project, reconciling the humanism of Beckett's life and work and valuing him as a man deeply engaged with the greatest public issues of his time.

Beckett in Black and Red, which is published by the University Press of Kentucky, includes both the 19 translations (more than 300 pages) that Beckett contributed to Cunard's Negro and the original French versions. It also outlines the life and work of Cunard, whose ideas (only) in recent years began to receive serious consideration.

Maurice Harmon, professor emeritus at the University College Dublin and a Beckett scholar, said Friedman's book "expands and confirms our understanding of Beckett, the man and the work.

"Beckett had to adapt to different kinds of writing, polemical journalism, historical analysis, informed eye-opening accounts of brutality and suffering, sarcasm, invective and exaggeration. By all standards, his (Beckett's) contribution is a literary marathon in which a lesser man, less persistent, less committed to justice, might have faltered.

"He was moved by the evidence of suffering and struggle, by the very endurance of the blacks. It fitted in with his deeply compassionate response to the tragedy of life itself and his sense of man's capacity for endurance."

As Barney Rosset, Beckett's long-time friend and publisher at Grove Press, puts it, this collection "opens up a whole new view of Beckett."


March 29, 2000
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