“Unspeakable paragraphs and varsity punctuation”: When Samuel Beckett wrote for Trinity News

The short fiction From an Abandoned Work was originally published in these pages, however Beckett castigated the edit it received from Trinity News’ editorial staff. Tadgh Healy spoke with Danae Stanford who – as an editorial team member of the third volume of Trinity News in 1956 – had persuaded Beckett to publish in the young newspaper of his alma mater

FEATURESIn 1956, Samuel Beckett was at the height of his powers and on the cusp of worldwide notoriety. The last of his trilogy of novels, L’Innommable (The Unnamable), was published in 1953 and En Attendant Godot (Waiting for Godot) premiered in Paris in the same year. His reputation grew in later years as his works were translated into English from the original French, yet scholars generally agree that the prolific output from this post-war decade marked the summit of Beckett’s literary achievement.

Trinity News, describing Beckett as the “most well known of the Trinity Graduates to-day […] from America to Japan”, was three years old at the time. The newspaper was a six-page weekly and covered sporting events in College, profiled staff and students, advertised local businesses, reviewed student poetry, and reported on the biggest stories on campus. Some headlines will be familiar to current readers of Trinity News, such as “Colours Match Lost”, and “Round the Societies”, however others recall more adventurous days. A front page story titled “Vengeance is ours: Success to Night Raiders” from 1956, for example, recalls a “skilfully planned and skilfully executed” raid on Queen’s University Belfast, where four trophies were removed from the university’s Council Room. The raid was conducted in retaliation over similar thefts in the rooms of the Hist and Phil societies made the previous year.

A speculative request

The editorial team during this time was made up of a Chairperson, Assistant Chairperson and three editors. One of those editors was the then Features editor Danae Stanford (now Danae O’Regan), who graduated from Trinity in French and German. In advance of the aforementioned edition featuring the raid on Belfast on the front page, O’Regan had written to Samuel Beckett in the hope that he might produce something for the young newspaper of his alma mater.

Speaking to Trinity News, O’Regan explains that she considered the request speculative as Beckett’s stature was international, even then. And although Beckett may have had a brilliant undergraduate career in Modern Languages and earned colours playing cricket for College, it is likely that his memories of teaching in Trinity were less fond: After graduating, Beckett worked briefly as a lecturer at the École Normale Supérieure, and then in Trinity. However, he soon left academia entirely after what he called a “grotesque comedy of lecturing”. It was to O’Regan’s surprise, then, when “Beckett sent back his text immediately.” Although by her own admittance, “we had no idea then that he would become as big as he did”, O’Regan was nonetheless delighted to publish work by a writer who presumably had the pick of any number of literary journals and presses.

The text in question is From an Abandoned Work, one of Beckett’s lesser studied pieces of short fiction. The elusive narrative follows the recollections of an old man over the course of three days. There are some semi-autobiographical elements, such as: “Fortunately, my father died when I was a boy, otherwise I would have been a professor, he had set his heart on it.” And the familiar Beckettian themes of interior doubt, the unchanging mundanity of daily routine, and the futility of a search for meaning or direction, are all met with a stoic resolution that they must be faced:

“Nor will I go out of my way to avoid such things when avoidable. No, I simply will not go out of my way, though I have never in my life been on my way anywhere, but simply on my way.”

Beckett first intended From an Abandoned Work to become a novel, however that plan was abandoned and the piece took its final form when it was broadcast on BBC Radio 3’s Third Programme on 14 December 1957. The recording was the first time Beckett came across Irish actor Patrick Magee. He was so impressed with Magee’s rasping voice that he immediately set about writing a dramatic monologue initially called Magee Monologue. That title was later changed to Krapp’s Last Tape, a play still widely performed today.

The publication in Trinity News on 7 June 1956, however, is the first occasion From an Abandoned Work was seen in public, and is consequently an important tool for literary historians wishing to chart the development of Beckett’s style and preoccupations. Beckett was the third of four Irishmen to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, and in a nation which markets itself on the appeal of its writers, this edition of Trinity News represents an important document of Irish history.

However, the contents of Beckett’s collected letters, only published in recent years following extensive scholarship, reveal that he himself was far from pleased by the treatment of his fiction at the hands of Trinity News’ editorial staff. In a letter to his friend H.O. White, a lecturer in English at Trinity, dated 2 July 1956, Beckett wrote:

“Trinity News made a great hames of my text with their unspeakable paragraphs and varsity punctuation. I asked them either not to print it at all or to print it as it stood and above all to send me the proofs.” Beckett went on to conclude: “Well I suppose I should be used to being improved behind my back and to the horrible semi-colons of well brought-up young blue pencils, mais ce n’est pas ça qui vous encourage à recommencer (but it’s not the kind of thing that would encourage you to do it again).”

He was more succinct, but equally damning, in a letter on August 30 to a publisher at Grove Press in New York: “They made a balls of the text.”


Trinity News’ response, 60 years on

Beckett was true to his word and never wrote for Trinity News again. Until now, O’Regan and the other editors had no idea Beckett felt this way about their editing. Characteristically polite and reclusive in public, but known to be kind and generous with his friends, Beckett expressed none of these complaints to O’Regan or anyone else at Trinity News about their handling of the text. 60 years later, O’Regan is happy to apologise and take responsibility for any transgression on her part. “I’m responsible for the mistakes. It was a long time ago, but I do know it was me who took charge of Beckett’s piece.” And reacting to Beckett indirectly calling her a well brought-up young blue pencil, O’Regan responded gracefully: “I’m sure he’s right.”

But in O’Regan’s defence, it remains unclear why exactly Beckett was so irked. His complaints refer to semi-colons and paragraphs in general, rather than any specific passages. Indeed, O’Regan insists she didn’t alter any of the words: “We would never have changed it. You’re not going to meddle with a piece by Beckett.”

A comparison of the 1956 text with the radio broadcast the following year suggests O’Regan is speaking truthfully: Beckett actually revised the manuscript very little after it was published in Trinity News. The structure and length of the work remained unchanged, with only occasional phrases removed or added. Whatever changes were made by Trinity News, Beckett changed very little back before submitting the text to be read on radio.

Similarly, if the “horrible semi-colons” were the reason for Beckett’s bad temper, it is difficult to sympathise with him. For a piece of text published in a 6-page newspaper, From an Abandoned Work is generously long – the spoken radio broadcast is 24 minutes in length. And yet in the entire text, there are just three semi-colons. Assuming Beckett used no semi-colons in his original, three were added, all of which make grammatical sense in their context.

The last of Beckett’s objections, the “unspeakable paragraphs”, is equally puzzling. Again, even though she does not remember doing so, O’Regan gallantly accepts responsibility for adding paragraphs to the text. She does however offer a potential explanation: “The paragraphs might have happened down at our printers on Pearse Street. Sometimes they would insert paragraphs for reasons of spacing when the plates were getting laid out.”

Of course, without access to the original text before it reached Trinity News, it cannot be known for certain what changes were made during the editing process. This could be solved if Beckett’s request that the proofs were returned to him was carried out, or if they were archived in the records of Trinity News. O’Regan, however, who was in contact with Beckett by letter, has no recollection that such a request was made, nor can she recall what happened to the proofs after From an Abandoned Work was published. “I’m sorry to say they were probably thrown away at the printers. There really was a lack of awareness of how lucky we were.”

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this episode is that Beckett would consider publishing in Trinity News at all. It is difficult to imagine a writer of similar stature today giving an original piece of fiction to the newspaper of their old university for free. However, despite the picture which emerges in Beckett’s letters of a man fiercely protective over the finest details of his art, O’Regan maintains that the fact he was so willing to write for Trinity News, even if only on one occasion, is evidence of his decency: “I think above all it shows a TCD graduate being kind to students.”

It is unlikely that O’Regan’s high opinion of the man will change, however she jokes her admiration will now have to be reconciled with “the fact that Beckett hated my guts.”

Illustration by Daniel Tatlow-Devally

Every edition of Trinity News from 1953 to 1970, including the June 1956 edition featuring Samuel Beckett’s From an Abandoned Work, can be viewed at trinitynewsarchive.ie