Telegram from Beckett to Joyce among treasures of UB Collection
At first glance, it's so yellowed and ephemeral, you might overlook it--a tiny wisp of postcard size paper locked into a display case of Finnegans Wake miscellany in the "Discovering James Joyce: The University at Buffalo Collection" currently on exhibit through September 13th at the UB Anderson Gallery.
It's a 1929 telegram from a then 23 year old Samuel Beckett to James Joyce clarifying the difference between the infinitive and substantive forms of a Greek phrase that would later find its way into Finnegans Wake. When it caught my eye at the opening reception for the exhibit on Saturday, you could have knocked me over with a feather.
Like many Joyce fans, I knew that the young Beckett had acted as something of a research assistant (see his Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress) to the then 47 year old Joyce, whose Ulysses (1922) was already recognized as the most ambitious, most praised and reviled, most controversial and censored English language novel of the 20th century, a position from which it would not be dislodged in subsequent decades. Seeing evidence of how Beckett's dark, cryptic intellectualism (he once said that wrote most of his later work in French--his second language--to avoid the pitfalls of "style") would come to supplant Joyce's lyricism in the postwar, post Holocaust, postmodern era right in front of you in a display case, however, is enough to take your breath away.
The Irish-born novelist Colum McCann (read his Bloomsday piece But Always Meeting Ourselves - NYTimes.com), who dazzled attendees of "Eire on the Erie: The 2009 North American James Joyce Conference" on Friday night at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and earlier that afternoon at the Hyatt Regency Hotel with readings from his forthcoming tour-de-force Let The Great World Spin was within earshot at the moment, so I let out a rather unscholarly whoop and proceeded to literally drag him over to the exhibit, whereupon his eyes widened and we proceeded to congratulate one another on our rare good luck, as if we had chanced upon some exotic species of butterfly or The Republic of Ireland soccer team had just upset the English squad in World Cup competition.
If you think of the history of 20th century literary modernism as something of a relay race (Beckett, no doubt, would prefer to see it as a wheel in a rat cage) then at some point following the publication of Finnegans Wake in 1939 and Joyce's death in 1941 in Zurich, Switzerland, the baton was handed off to Beckett, who after Murphy (1938) and Watt (1945), proceeded in his vaunted trilogy (Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable) to deconstruct the kind of epic literary narrative Joyce had fashioned, conceit by conceit.
There is so much to see at the Joyce Collection exhibit that even the casual Joyce reader will find more there than can be taken in during the course of single visit. For those old enough to remember the era before photocopiers, there are carbon copies of letters from and to Joyce by many correspondents.
My favorite among these is a 1932 letter to Bennett Cerf--then the editor of Random House--in which Joyce discusses in some detail the legal and financial difficulties he encountered in attempting to publish Ulysses in the censorious English speaking world. Cerf's Random House would publish the first authentic American edition of the novel in 1934, following a landmark 1933 ruling by U.S. District Judge John M. Woolsey in United States v. One Book Called Ulysses that the novel was not pornographic and therefore could not be considered obscene for publication or distribution in the United States.
As a non-scholar, I found the over 10,000 pages of various manuscript drafts of and proofs of Ulysses a bit overwhelming in their variety and detail. More iconic--at least in my mind--are the early Zurich notebooks for Ulysses (notably the "Quaderno di James Joyce" and the "Notes for the Episodes") which are often cited as ur-texts for the novel and his "Scribbledehobble" notebook of themes for Finnegans Wake as well as various hand drawn versions of Joyce's diagram for Anna Livia Plurabelle. Joyce, who was very nearsighted, but wrote in a cramped, constricted hand, used red and green colored pencils to edit and demarcate his texts. No scholar I talked to on Saturday could tell me if there was any specific key to deciphering this notation.
As a sometime fiction writer, I've come to regard every novel regardless of merit as a towering act of faith and feat of incredible imaginative endurance. To see the entire paper trail of what is generally regarded as the greatest English language novel of the 20th century laid out before you reminds you that Joyce's journey through this material was every bit as epic as Leopold Bloom's peregrinations through Dublin on June 16th, 1904, the date on which the novel is set and we celebrate as Bloomsday today.
The James Joyce Collection would not reside at UB were it not for one person--Oscar Silverman, a longtime member and former chairman of the English Department at the University of Buffalo, who visited France in the summer of 1949 and saw a large selection of Joyce memorabilia and manuscript material on exhibit at the La Hune Gallery in Paris. Upon his return to Buffalo, he persuaded colleagues, peers and would be benefactors to bring the collection here if and when it became available. At the outset, their was only one other bidder for the Joyce papers and memorabilia, an elite Ivy League university UB has had never officially named. Subsequent acquisition of three other collections of papers and memorabilia, including from Joyce's patron and Shakespeare and Company publisher Sylvia Beach, established the UB Collection as the pre-eminent collection of "Joyceana" (as Poetry Collection curator Michael Basinski refers to it) in the world.
As the celebrants at tonight's Bloomsday Buffalo activities in the Smith Theatre of Shea's Buffalo raise a toast to Joyce, they would do well to save a salute for Silverman too for bringing the Joyce collection to its permanent home here.
"Discovering James Joyce: The UB Collection" is on view from Wednesdays to Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and from 1 to 5 p.m. on Sundays at the UB Anderson Gallery, 1 Martha Jackson Place (near Englewood Avenue) through September 13th. Admission to the exhibit is free and it is open to the public.