Beckett: Bibliography of Secondary Literature

My starting point for Beckett is the four-volume Grove Press Centenary edition, containing seven novels, thirty-two dramatic works, thirty poems, fifty-four stories, texts and novellas, three pieces of criticism. Though not a true Collected Works, the set forms the essential part of the Beckett canon. Reading Beckett’s incredible Trilogy: Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable in the autumn of 2011 inspired me to ask for help compiling a bibliography of the best secondary literature around Beckett and his work.

Beckett distrusted biography as a form of knowledge but curiosity is irrepressible and Knowle’s biography the most illuminating. Beckett critical scholarship is vast and frequently dull, but what are the works that, to quote Hugh Kenner are not intended “to explain Samuel Beckett’s work but to help the reader think about it.” Which works are worth exploring? Starter list below, please help me to add any worthy titles (or to remove discredited or dull works):

  1. Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett – James Knowlson
  2. The Irish Beckett – John P Harrington
  3. Beckett Remembering: Remembering Beckett: Unpublished Interviews with Samuel Beckett and Memories of Those Who Knew Him  – James Knowlson
  4. Flaubert, Joyce and Beckett: The Stoic Magicians – Hugh Kenner and Guy Davenport
  5. Samuel Beckett: A Critical Study – Hugh Kenner
  6. The Beckett Canon – Ruby Cohn
  7. Beckett’s Dying Words – Christopher Ricks
  8. “Where now? Who now?” (The Book to Come) – Maurice Blanchot
  9. Know happiness – on Beckett (Very Little…Almost Nothing) – Simon Critchley
  10. Beckett’s Fiction – Leslie Hill
  11. Narrative Emotions: Beckett’s Genealogy of Love (Love’s Knowledge) – Martha Nussbaum
  12. Saying “I” No More – Daniel Katz
  13. Samuel Beckett: Photographs – John Minihan
  14. Samuel Beckett (Overlook Illustrated Lives) – Gerry Dukes
  15.  Beckett chapter (Theatre of the Absurd) – Martin Esslin
  16. Beckett: “En Attendant Godot” and “Fin de Partie” (Critical Guides to French Texts) – J.P. Little
  17. The Beckett Country – Eoin O’Brien
  18. Samuel Beckett and the Meaning of Being – Lance St. John Butler
  19. How it Was – Anne Atik
  20. No Author Better Served – edited by Maurice Harmon
  21. Samuel Beckett: Humanistic Perspectives edited by Morris Beja
  22. Review of Contemporary Fiction, volume 7, #2, Samuel Beckett issue
  23. The Mechanic Muse – Hugh Kenner
  24. Just Play: Beckett’s Theater – Ruby Cohn
  25. Innovation in Samuel Beckett’s Fiction – Rubin Rabinovitz
  26. The Drama in the Text – Enoch Brater
  27. Bram van Velde (Grove Press)
  28. Samuel Beckett’s Hidden Drives – J. D. O’Hara
  29. Samuel Beckett’s Library – Dirk Van Hulle and Mark Nixon
  30. Anatomy of a Literary Revolution – Pascale Casanova

8 thoughts on “Beckett: Bibliography of Secondary Literature

  1. Ditch the Cronin. His main source of information was the incompetent Bair biography. Worse, he provides his own readings of Beckett, with annoying plot summaries (which kind of miss the point), and some of them are clueless. For example, Cronin simply did not “get” How It Is, but did not notice his failure, and shared his pissed-off feelings.

    Look up JOBS, about a year after the Knowlson biography came out. The title was picked by Beckett, who never explained what it meant to Knowlson, and who was unaware that it was a particularly telling allusion. There was a JOBS article that identified the allusion.

    The Irish Beckett – John P Harrington.. A brilliant study of just how deeply the Irish runs in Beckett. For example, did you know there was an entire genre of “Big House” fiction in Ireland? And Watt, among many other things, is a deadpan parody of the genre?

    The Beckett Country – Eoin O’Brien. A beautiful, leisurely, photographic and textual walk through Beckett’s Ireland, with an important chapter on Saint-Lô. Buy it in the hardcover–it doubles as a coffeetable book.

    Samuel Beckett and the Meaning of Being – Lance St John Butler. A reading of Beckett from the points of view of Hegel, Sartre, Heidegger. The author assumes you know nothing of modern philosophy. His point is not that Beckett cribbed from these philosophers, but that he broached the same questions that they did, and hence a direct comparison will be highly revealing.

    How It Was – Anne Atik. The wife of Avigdor Arikha (the Israeli artist who was very close friends with Beckett) published selections from her diary. Includes a rare copy of “Ceiling”.

    No Author Better Served. The Beckett/Schneider correspondence.

    Samuel Beckett: Humanistic Perspectives. One of the more readable, downright enjoyable even, collection of papers on Beckett.

    Review of Contemporary Fiction, volume 7, #2, Samuel Beckett issue. An eclectic collection of responses to Beckett. Unlike the typical RCF, which is normally all academic reading, this issue reached out to the larger artistic community

    The Mechanic Muse – Hugh Kenner. Four chapters, one each on Eliot, Pound, Joyce, Beckett. Kenner’s writings on Beckett are always superb. The chapter here is just amazing, even by Kenner’s standards. It includes a translation of a scene from Watt into the Pascal programming language.

    Just Play: Beckett’s Theater – Ruby Cohn. Like Kenner, all of Cohn’s writings on Beckett are superb. This work includes reviews of cross-genre adaptations of Beckett, like a stage production of The Unnamable! The book was a landmark at the time–Beckett had given Cohn a copy of the then-forgotten and unavailable Eleutheria, and of the then totally unknown fragment from his first attempt at playwriting.

    Innovation in Samuel Beckett’s Fiction – Rubin Rabinovitz. This is an engaging, path-breaking reading of just what makes Beckett’s fictions tick. Rabinovitz carefully documents the precise way language is used by Beckett to enforce motifs and themes One simply had no idea one was in the presence of a master magician, let alone that there were secrets hidden in plain sight.

    The Drama in the Text – Enoch Brater. A very lively reading of Beckett’s later works. It probably makes more sense (conceptually) if you’re familiar with Barthes, but if not, no harm.

    Bram van Velde (Grove Press). You’ve seen the “Three Dialogues”. Grove Press published a special version which included tip-ins of the work of van Velde, so you could actually see what the discussion was about.

    • Thank you so much for dropping by and the brilliant contribution to the bibliography. I’ve been following up your suggestions while travelling this week and have added each to the list, and to my own reading list. I am particularly thrilled with the Lance St John Butler and the Rubin Rabinovitz, but also with Atik’s diary selections. I have also removed the Cronin, as I did not appreciate its debt to the Bair work.

      • The article I was thinking of is J D O’Hara “Savagely Damned to Fame” JOBS, v6, n1, Autumn 1996, pp 137-143. O’Hara mentions that Knowlson remarked that the phrase “damned to fame” was included in a Beckett notebook, and that it comes from Alexander Pope The Dunciad. O’Hara cites the passage, and points out that it seems rather mysterious that Beckett would find any personal resonance in this passage.

        He goes on to identify the likely reason Beckett liked the phrase. Richard Savage swiped it a few years later in his “Character of the Rev James Foster”. Savage would have been known to Beckett from his deep familiarity with Samuel Johnson. And Savage’s relation with his mother was, as Johnson documented, rather unpleasant (when Savage was sentenced to death for a drunken murder, his friends worked the system to get him pardoned, which his mother tried to block). As O’Hara points out, the famous phrase from the MacGreevy letter about Beckett’s relationship with his mother–“I am what her savage loving has made me”–might not be merely poetic, but explicitly allusive.

        The same issue also has a review of the Knowlson biography. Amusingly enough, no review of the Cronin biography appeared in any timely or near timely issue, but the Knowlson reviewer scored some points about why Cronin was so bad, beyond just recycling Bair.

        Having mentioned J D O’Hara, his Samuel Beckett’s Hidden Drives is worth adding to your list. It does for Beckett and psychology what the St John Butler book does for Beckett and philosophy. It is definitely not a Freudian or Jungian reading of Beckett, at least not in any typical sense. (I’m a firm believer that such readings almost always tell us many boring things about the reader, and essentially nothing about the text itself.) Rather, Beckett took an intense interest in contemporary psychology and worked it into his fiction quite deliberately.

        Look also for Dougald McMillan and Martha Fehsenfeld Beckett in the Theatre. It’s a detailed reading of the Beckett rehearsal notebooks. An utterly fascinating appendix by Elmar Tophoven–Beckett’s German translator–goes into the perfectionist precision with which Beckett reworked Tophoven’s drafts.

        • That back issue of JOBS sounds fascinating; I will try to get hold of it from the FSU site. Thanks for the fresh information.

          Despite being lead toward a psychological reading of the Trilogy by Nussbaum, I ended up finding more common ground with Simon Critchley’s argument that such a reading is almost too obvious, a Beckettian red-herring. I’d be interested to explore O’Hara’s approach, together with a subsequent reading of Nussbaum.

          Thanks again.

  2. Leaning as I do, I like Beckett & Phenomenology [].

    You might too.

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