George Reavey and Samuel Beckett’s early writing

 

Edited transcription of an interview with George Reavey by James Knowlson,

6 August 1971 (published by kind permission of Jean Reavey)

 

 

JK Mr. Reavey, you were one of the editors of an anthology entitled The European caravan, published in 1931, in which several of Samuel Beckett’s early poems were published. Was this your first contact with Beckett’s work and had you, in fact, met him at the time you published those poems?

 

GR I was introduced to Samuel Beckett by Thomas McGreevy; I think it was in about 1929―briefly. I was in Paris over Christmas―I was still at Cambridge―I think it was the winter of ‘28-‘29, but, on leaving Cambridge in the summer of 1929, I made for Paris and my contacts with Beckett were renewed. Then, by 1930 (or maybe in 1929) I met Samuel Putnam, the American editor and translator, who founded The new review. He was also compiling The European caravan, which was supposed to have come out in two volumes, and I became one of his associate editors, both for The new review and for The European caravan. I had a choice of the Irish section and I passed that on to Brunowski, setting myself the task of doing the Russian section. But I think it was through me that Putnam got to know Sam or got to know about Sam's work.

 

JK So it was McGreevy who was responsible for your first introduction to Beckett when they were associates at the École Normale?

 

GR Yes. Samuel Beckett succeeded McGreevy at the École Normale and I remember visiting both of them at different times—in different years—at the École Normale. McGreevy was also responsible for my meeting not only Beckett but Denis Devlin ... (JK Whom you later published.) GR . . . apart from other Irish poets whom, eventually, I published in the Europa Press. The Europa Press really didn’t start until 1935, which was—well, I don’t think that Beckett had so many poems before then to be published. I think that a lot of the poems that appeared in Echo’s bones were written in the London period, about 1934.

 

JK Was your acquaintance with Beckett continuous throughout the 1930s?

 

GR It was, except, of course, for the period when he was living in London. I never at that time met him in London, because I was mainly in Paris, but it was continuous and, several months ago, I compiled a list of the letters which I had received from him over the years and I find that the first letter begins in 1932 and I had letters from him from London. But right through the thirties, when I wasn’t seeing him at closer quarters, there was always a correspondence going on. And, of course, Echo’s bones was published in 1935 and that was the first Europa Press book. (JK It was the very first one published by you, was it?) GR I published a book of my own in the same year, but, as far as I can remember, yes, Beckett’s was the first.

 

JK How did that publication come about? Could you tell me something about how you came to form the Europa Press? And was it your acquaintance with Beckett and your knowledge of the poems published in The European caravan that made you decide to publish Echo's bones as your first venture―was this your first publishing venture, in fact?

 

GR Yes, it was, apart from things in reviews. Well, I think I was very fed up with English publishers at the time. They were always turning down books of poems, not only by me, but by various other of my poet friends. So I decided to see what I could do about it myself. At the same time, I was very closely in touch with Stanley William Hayter, the famous engraver, who ran the Atelier 17 in Paris, and my idea was to get some books of poems illustrated by people out of the school at the beginning. In fact four of my editions in Europa Press were illustrated by people out of the Atelier 17: John Buckland Wright and two Hayters and there was also a Tchelitcheff illustration to one of the books, and then the Max Ernst for the Paul Éluard, Thorns of thunder (1936). But Sam didn’t like the idea of having his book of poems illustrated. So I suggested to him that the book should have an engraving, but he didn't want it. So it came out very plainly, without illustration.

 

JK Presumably, at the time you admired these poems. I wonder how you feel now about some of these early poems, for instance those published in The European caravan? Do you feel that the later poems like ‘Que ferais-je dans ce monde sans visage sans questions’ or ‘Dieppe’ and ‘Saint-Lô’ have a greater conciseness and purity than the earlier poems?

 

GR I think they do, yes. They are simpler. The early poems had many allusions and references. But I liked the rhythm of them very much; of course, it’s a more pronounced rhythm in the early poems ... they had perhaps a Joycean rhythm. But I remember, in 1935, I also published a book of my own called Signes d’adieu. They were poems translated into French―I mean somebody [Pierre Charnay] translated mine into French - and they were short and very simple. They were poems ‘on the edge’ and, at that moment, Beckett admired them very much; in fact, he wrote me a letter about them.

 

JK And then it was through the contact with Europa Press, was it, that you came―as I understand it―to recommend the novel Murphy just before 1938 for publication by Routledge?

 

GR That had nothing to do with the Europa Press as such, because I had also another activity on the side which was with a man called Marc Slonim. I started a literary agency. In fact, I placed among other writers―they were mainly French writers I was placing in England―I placed a book of Malraux, Céline, Maritain, and many others. Sam was quite aware of my activities, so that is why, when he wrote the novel, he asked me to act for him. But I had already been helping him in trying to get some of his poems published in reviews and so on.

 

JK Was that very difficult at the time?

 

GR Yes, it was. I have letters from Dent, from Hamish Hamilton, and other publishers turning down the Beckett novel, Murphy. They might be interesting to have in your exhibition too! [i.e. the Beckett exhibition at Reading University, 1971]

 

JK Your name has been linked with that of Herbert Read in placing Murphy. He was one of the readers, wasn’t he? Could you clarify the position as to how that came about?

 

GR Chatto and Windus apparently turned Murphy down. They had published the two previous Beckett books, Proust and More pricks than kicks, and, obviously, they didn’t seem to want Murphy.

 

JK I wonder why this was so? Was it an expression of view on the book itself? Or was it simply because More pricks than kicks had not proved commercially viable?

 

GR I think that [the latter] was the reason. Herbert Read was suddenly the chief reader of literature for Routledge. But you see what happens. Murphy was taken by Routledge and appeared in 1938, in the same year as the van Velde Exhibition, or a little later. But, after the war, when Sam turned up from France and he stayed with me, I think for a couple of nights—we rediscovered each other after an absence of almost six years—he brought with him the manuscript of Watt and again wanted me to try to do something with it. Naturally the first step was to take it to Routledge but, on this occasion, Herbert Read turned it down.

 

JK You mentioned the painters, the van Veldes. You were responsible, I believe, for introducing Bram and Geer van Velde to Beckett?

 

GR Yes, I met the van Veldes—it must have been at least as early as 1932. But I think I introduced Sam to Geer first. It was around perhaps 1935 or 1936. By that time, by 1936, I was back in London and that was the time (around 1937) when Peggy Guggenheim founded the Guggenheim Jeune Gallery in London. Of course, Herbert Read was in the background and next door was the London Gallery with Penrose and Mesens running that. Absolutely next door to each other, and they used to publish a weekly or a fortnightly catalogue which comprised both galleries - what was going on at the Guggenheim Jeune and the London Gallery. Of course, the basic influence in the London Gallery was Surrealism. I mean Penrose and Mesens were pushing the original school of Surrealism and there had been the exhibition in London in 1936—the first Surrealist Exhibition at Burlington House. It was on that occasion that I published the Éluard book. I also edited and published Thorns of thunder. Sam rather surprised me. I hadn't realized that he had been translating some of Éluard and apparently Breton too. But he had these Éluard poems available, so when I asked him, he sent me them.

 

JK Yes, that was presumably through having translated them earlier for the surrealist number of This quarter, which André Breton guest edited [in 1932]. I asked Beckett once about his translations. He seems not to have translated really for pleasure but to have been doing this commercially. Before we return to the van Veldes, can I ask you about Beckett’s translations, since you had a very close knowledge of his work in that field? It always struck me that some of those poems he translated had a great quality and sensitivity—for example, the initial poem you published in Éluard's Thorns of thunder ‘Elle est debout sur mes paupières.’ Presumably you felt this too, since you chose to publish them?

 

GR Oh yes, indeed. Well, you see a lot of things might have happened, if it hadn’t been for the war. Suddenly, by 1938, we began to feel that things were going badly, and, by 1939, I stopped publishing the Europa Press. Actually, I had the rights for Dylan Thomas by that time, and also I had various other ideas for Sam too. But there was a break there, as far as I was concerned of almost six years, because I was sent off first to Madrid, and then to Moscow. I was in Moscow for three years and completely out of touch with Sam, except in 1940—the last time I saw him was at the end of January 1940. I was on my way through Paris to Madrid. I stopped at the Hotel Lutétia and found that Joyce was staying next door to me.

 

Because of the very cold weather he had come to seek warmth in the hotel with his family. We all had dinner together, Sam, the Joyces, myself and my then wife at a restaurant in Saint Germain which has since disappeared. And that was the last I saw of Sam. But then, suddenly, in 1940, in the summer after the fall of France, I received a postcard from Arcachon, in which Beckett implied that he needed help. He had reached Arcachon and I thought that he wanted to come out of the country, so I went to the Irish consulate or the Irish legation in Madrid and told them about Beckett’s situation and about his having relatives in Dublin and so on. Apparently, they were able to put the relatives in touch with him—Ireland was, of course, neutral—and he was able to receive money from Ireland, but he never came out as I had expected. I thought he would appear in Madrid at any moment. But, after that, I never heard from him until he turned up in London in 1946. But to come back to the van Valdes; Sam was first interested in Geer. And Geer is the Oblomov type. In fact Oblomov was a hero of his. Between Sam, myself and Peggy Guggenheim, we arranged this exhibition for Geer at the Guggenheim gallery in March 1938 and, in the catalogue which was in The London bulletin, both Sam and I wrote about van Velde.

 

JK In his writing on van Velde—particularly in the piece he wrote for transition, Beckett himself seems to point to affinities between his own work and that of the painter, Bram van Velde. Did you yourself recognize any of these affinities?

 

GR Yes. I think that, by 1940, Sam had become more interested in Bram. And Bram had a more desperate and kind of ‘poised on the edge’ attitude about life. Geer was more philosophical, whereas Bram had a kind of desperation which might have appealed to Sam in the end. But by 1940, by the forties, he already had a painting of Bram.

 

JK That will be the large ‘Composition 37’ which is still hanging in Beckett’s study in Paris?

 

GR Yes. Of course, there was a period when I was not in touch with either the van Veldes or Sam—for about five years of the German occupation of France.

 

JK Can I turn to something rather different. You have a distinction as a translator of quite a number of Russian authors. I wonder whether you have ever discussed at any time Russian authors who appealed to Beckett?

 

GR I have sent him translations of the Russian poets. I have translated Mayakovsky, Pasternak, and Yevtushenko among others. But he never expressed himself very much on the Russian poets.

 

JK Finally, can you tell me something about your relations with Grove Press and how they may have affected Beckett?

 

GR Yes. I met Barney Rosset almost at the beginning of his venture, when Grove Press was in its initial stages and we were very good friends. When he told me (I forget exactly what year that was, 1953, or 1952-3) that he was interested in the work of Beckett and that he was going over to Paris, I gave him a letter of introduction to Sam, so I think that might have helped. And when Grove wanted to republish Murphy, there wasn’t a copy available anywhere. Even Sam did not have a copy of Murphy. So I lent Grove my own copy of the 1938 London edition and it was from this edition that the American edition was printed.