Frank J. Prial
Originally published in the New York Times, April 13, 2006 and featured in The Evergreen Review Issue 111 in 2006.
In oh-so-literary buzz accompanying Samuel Beckett's centenary today, it's easy to lose sight of the man who brought him to the United States, Barney Rosset. But it was Mr. Rosset, alive and well at 83 and living on Fourth Avenue, who discovered the Irish novelist and playwright, for Americans, more than half a century ago.
"I saw this bit" in a newspaper, he said in a recent interview. "It said that 'Waiting for Godot' had opened in Paris. I knew of Beckett, and I was intrigued by the idea of his play. I got a copy, read it and was enthralled."
"I wanted to meet him, and I wanted to publish his play," he added.
"Godot" opened in Paris in January 1953. Barney Rosset, then 29, was already a publisher — of sorts. In 1951, for $3,000, he had purchased the then-obscure Grove Press, named for the Greenwich Village street where it was located. "Grove was started in 1948," he said, "and had put out a few paperback reprints." One was a novel by Aphra Behn, the 17th-century dramatist; another was Herman Melville's "Confidence-Man." "I wanted to do something more interesting," he said.
He went to Paris, where he had lived for a time after World War II, and, through a friend and longtime associate, Richard Seaver, managed to meet Beckett's French publishers, Les Éditions de Minuit, and eventually the notoriously reclusive Beckett himself.
They met for drinks at the Hôtel Pont Royal, long a Left Bank literary hangout one step up socially from the Flore and the Deux Magots. "He said he had only a few minutes," Mr. Rosset recalled, "but we didn't get out of there until 4 in the morning." Along with the beginnings of a lifelong friendship, the meeting produced a contract. Grove Press paid the future Nobel Prize winner a $150 advance against a 21/2 percent royalty for "Waiting for Godot."
"The French publisher said, no we couldn't have it, but I published it anyway," Mr. Rosset said. "We brought it out for $1 a copy and sold more than a million." Currently, "Waiting for Godot" is Grove Press's best-selling backlist title, according to Publishers Weekly magazine. Annual sales are some 50,000 copies, for a total of around 2.5 million copies to date.
Grove Press and Mr. Rosset became famous, not just for championing Beckett in this country but also for introducing Eugène Ionesco, Harold Pinter and Jean Genet to American readers. Grove published Jean-Paul Sartre and the Beats, and in 1959, after an epic legal battle, won the right to publish D. H. Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover." Henry Miller's "Tropic of Cancer" appeared under the Grove imprint in 1961, as did William S. Burroughs's "Naked Lunch," in 1962.
A frustrated filmmaker, Mr. Rosset was an Army photographer in China during World War II and, soon after, produced "Strange Victory," a documentary on racism with Alfred Drake and Gary Merrill. In the 1960's, Grove Press's film arm ventured into the art film business, distributing little-known works by Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Robbe-Grillet and others. Mr. Rosset was the first to bring out controversial European productions like the sexually explicit "I Am Curious (Yellow)," from Sweden, and the 1969 Danish film "Quiet Days in Clichy," based on a Henry Miller novel first published by Grove.
Samuel Beckett's only trip to the United States was in 1964 to observe the filming of a short script he had written for a film project Mr. Rosset had envisioned as a trilogy also involving Ionesco and Mr. Pinter. Beckett's contribution was called "Film" and starred Buster Keaton — after Zero Mostel and Charlie Chaplin had turned down the role.
Over the years, Mr. Rosset's relationship with Beckett endured, in part because he was both the writer's American publisher and his agent. In his letters Beckett was invariably "Dear Samuel." Beckett's replies were usually to "My dear Barney." They dealt mostly with business, but with the familiarity of old friends. Once, when he was in Ireland to be with his dying brother, Beckett revealed some of his feelings about the country of his birth.
"There are no compensations for me in this country," he wrote. "And as I am shortly to be the only survivor of my family I hope never to have to return."
Translation was an important concern in the early correspondence. Beckett, who had lived in Paris since the 1930's, preferred to write in French, and did so almost exclusively after about 1940. (One major exception: "Krapp's Last Tape," which he wrote in English in 1957 and translated into French a year later. ) Mr. Rosset approved. "French is a cold language," he said. "It damped him down; it controlled his emotions, and he knew it." Soon after his return from France in 1953, Mr. Rosset wrote to Beckett about who should translate "Godot": "If you would accept my first choice as translator, the whole thing would be easily settled. That choice of course being you."
Eventually, Beckett did a translation of "Godot," but he balked at doing his novels "Molloy" and "Malone Dies." "With regard to the novels," Beckett wrote, "my position is that I should greatly prefer not to undertake the job myself, while having the right to revise whatever translation is made." Translating, he added, "is a job for a professional writer and one prepared to write in his own way within the limits of mine."
When Beckett wrote in English or translated into it, Mr. Rosset said, his debt to writers like John Millington Synge and Sean O'Casey was obvious. "His English is warm and rich," he said. "You know, his mother spoke fluent Gaelic."
In 1985, Mr. Rosset sold the financially shaky Grove Press to Ann Getty, who married into the Getty oil family, and the British publisher George Weidenfeld. A year later, he was ousted from the business. Beckett had to go with his contract to the new owners, but as a token of affection, he gave Mr. Rosset the rights to one of his plays, "Eleuthéria," as a gift. He took them back shortly before his death in 1989, but Mr. Rosset published it anyway in 1995.
Mr. Rosset's apartment in New York is a trove of Beckett memorabilia, but he chose a more personal way to honor his world-famous friend. He named his oldest son Beckett Rosset.