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Sunday, May 31, 2009

In Praise of Chris Ackerley

What a marvellous man Chris Ackerley is and what a thing of wonder his new edition of Watt is. Describing the genesis of Beckett’s novel in his introduction, he draws attention to the ‘Quin’ figure in the drafts as ‘the prototype or common ancestor of both Watt and Knott’, a statement that conjures delicious possibilities of Beckett sects and sectaries (with secretaries, I hope, for the sake of the euphony) devoted to establishing the consubtantiality of Quin and Watt, or Quin and Knott, or Quin and Watt and Knott, much as the Zoggists search for the Real Ian in Roy Fisher’s ‘On the Neglect of Figure Composition’. Zwingliites, Lutherans and Anabaptists of Watt studies will arise. Wars will be fought. But this edition will remain a sacred text to Wattites of all stripes. It is an unimpugnable achievement.

I am aware, in beginning to describe exactly what Chris Ackerley has done, of how little, of how next to non-existent interest many of these questions will be to anyone not as invested in them as out-and-out Wattophiles such as, well, myself.

Beckett wrote Watt during the war, on the run from the Gestapo in the south of France, in six notebooks, two preliminary typescripts, and a series of loose leaves. After the war he made another typescript copy, now lost. No London publisher bit. It first appeared with Maurice Girodias’s Olympia Press, publishers of Lolita and The Gingerman too, and subject of a French police raid during which the frogs’ chorus from Watt was confiscated under suspicion of being a pornographic cypher (?!). This edition, as anyone who has looked at it will know, is rancid with mistakes. These, and its scruffy typeface, horrified Beckett. Nevertheless, it formed the basis, as a photo-offset, for the Grove edition that followed, with the loss along the way of Arsene’s song about his India rubber duck, though a later reference to this phantom beast, confusingly, survived. By singling it out like this I make it sound as if that were the only confusing thing about the book. As if. In 1963 John Calder’s edition entered the fray, giving Beckett the opportunity to make multiple changes. These were as often changes of intention as corrections, but sadly and simultaneously Calder smuggled in all manner of new errors too.

Error is such a basic category of Beckett’s theme and manner (‘The figures given here are incorrect. The consequent calculations are therefore double erroneous.’) that exquisite sensitivity is required in sifting authorial teases from inadvertencies. For instance, when Louit puts the figure ‘Four hundred and eight thousand one hundred and eighty-four’ to Nackybal for the extraction therefrom of a cube root, no answer is forthcoming. ‘Is this because (as later) there is no simple cube root of this number? Probably not, because the working in Notebook 4 indicates that Beckett, in arriving at this figure by cubing seventy-four, made a simple arithmetical error, the correct figure being 405,224. Should this be corrected (...)?’ (Cf. Beckett’s originally defective arithmetic in The Lost Ones too). Ackerley elects that it should not.

And so on and so forth, in ways that most readers of Watt, hardy band though they are, might find all too far below the radar of the critically gripping. But that is not the point. The point is that someone has read this book, comma by comma, dash by dash, and put it all right.

There is one thing though. Our attention is drawn to the second verse of the mixed choir in Part I, whose drafts read ‘Fifty-two point one’, before a change in the galleys to ‘Fifty-one point one’. ‘Fifty-two point one’ intimates the number of days in an ordinary year (as opposed to the leap year of the first verse)’, Ackerley notes in his preface. As he written elsewhere, and as he means here too, this should be weeks, not days. Cf. Beckett’s own confusion, noted by Ackerley and corrected, between the minutes and degrees of Mr Knott’s rotations in his bed.

But my point remains the same. It does not matter that most people will not be sensible of the scale of this editorial achievement or interested in this level of fine detail. But it matters enormously that someone does know and care, and of that man we can say ‘S’incliner simplement, émerveillé.’

(Watt, ed. C.J. Ackerley, Faber and Faber, £8.99)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That made for very interesting reading, thank you.