Biographers as susceptible to blurbs as the rest of us

Jonathan Coe’s Like a Fiery Elephant was recently shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson prize. Last year Coe delivered a lecture in which he discussed, among other things, the rhapsodic Samuel Beckett blurb that first led him to read Johnson. From the transcript:

When Penguin reissued Johnson’s sixth novel, Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry, in 1984, it boasted a quotation from Beckett on the front cover: ‘A most gifted writer, and one deserving of far more attention than he has received so far.’

Now if anybody, in this audience or in the community of Shandeans throughout the world, can tell me of another novel which was ever published with a quotation from Samuel Beckett on the front cover, I should be grateful to hear of it. And indeed, one of the things I discovered when I came to write my biography of B S Johnson [just released in the U.S.] was that Beckett had never sanctioned the public use of these words. He had, of course, written them, but they were always intended as part of a private correspondence between Beckett and Johnson’s then-publisher, Sir William Collins. He was horrified when they turned up on a dustjacket. ‘A blast of rage from Beckett followed,’ one of Johnson’s editors told me. ‘He said he’d never given a quote in his life for publication and he was extremely indignant about it … Johnson was slightly shamefaced about it, I think. Beckett wrote him a letter of reproof and it may have been one of the few letters he destroyed.’

Well, it certainly worked its magic on me, anyway, and persuaded me to part with £3 or so for the paperback out of my measly postgraduate grant.

An extract from the biography appears at BBC Four online.


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