October 22, 2014

From Kafka to Delillo: A small list of writers who rejected their own work


Samuel Beckett didn't want you to read his letters. (via Wikipedia)

Samuel Beckett didn’t want you to read his letters. (via Wikipedia)

It’s not so surprising that admirers of a famous person’s work can become interested in that person’s personal life. Maybe they want to further explore what makes their favorite playwright so brilliant. Maybe they want to know who their favorite author dormed with freshman year of college at Amherst. I don’t know. But before TMZ and Keeping Up with the Kardashians, gossip was handled in the exciting form of letters. Envelopes were dramatically sealed with maroon wax and so forth.

The Letters of Samuel Beckett: 1957-1965 was recently published, the third volume of a series published by Cambridge University Press. Though the letters don’t contain anything you might consider especially risque, Beckett didn’t want them to be available to just anyone, stating “I do not like publication of letters.” He stressed that he did not want his personal letters to be published because many of them were not directly related to his work. Still, at the coercion of his publishers, he eventually consented to their publication, under the condition that the chosen letters concern his work. And now, anyone who so desires can read these letters. Most of the letters in volume three are written to Beckett’s lover, Barbara Bay, and—just going out on a limb here—I’m not so sure Beckett would have wanted the world to see them. That said, this is a complicated situation. Even though he didn’t really want these writings to see the light of day, Beckett is a brilliant and beloved writer, and the world is probably better off with more of his writing in bookstores.

Beckett is certainly not the first writer to reject the publication of something he wrote. To better understand this, let’s take a look at some other writers who encountered similar situations.

Don Delillo, author of such masterpieces as Underworld,  Libra, and White Noise, has made an effort to pretend he never wrote Amazons, a fictional hockey memoir, written under the pseudonym Cleo Birdwell and published in 1980. The “memoir” follows Birdwell, the first woman to play hockey in the National Hockey League, through several years of her life. After its publication, it became quite popular, gaining David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Lethem as fans. Later, Delillo refused to grant permission for a reprint, and allegedly asked his publisher to remove Amazons from the bibliography of White Noise. Why? We still don’t know.

The poet W.H. Auden famously regretted penning his most well-known poem, “September 1, 1939.” Specifically, Auden hated the line, “We must love one another or die.” He went on to revise the poem several times, changing “We must love one another or die,” to “We must love one another and die.” Unfortunately these were futile efforts. The original remains one of Auden’s most quoted lines.

 Then there’s Franz Kafka. The author who penned The Castle and “The Metamorphosis” (plus a bunch of other also very good works) is believed to have burned much of what he wrote. We won’t ever know what we missed.

Although Vladimir Nabokov never set a match to it, he requested that his final, unfinished manuscript, The Original of Laura, be destroyed rather than published. Nabokov’s wish was kept for a long time after his death. No one, save for a select few, including Nabokov’s son and heir, Dmitri, were able to read the work for several years. Dmitri felt conflicted as to whether or not he should have the unfinished work published. He wanted to respect his father’s wishes, but at the same time he believed The Original of Laura was one of Nabokov’s greatest creative achievements. The Original of Laura was eventually published in 2009.

This small list hopefully demonstrates the complex, often tense balance between a writer’s private and public spheres. It’s difficult to know who is right or wrong in these situations, but, in a way, it doesn’t really matter. The work is either out there for us to read, locked up in a vault somewhere, or burned for good. So it goes.

(If you’re interested in other authors who destroyed their work, see yesterday’s post about Man Booker Prize-winner Richard Flanagan. Flanagan reportedly burned unsuccessful drafts of his award-winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North. That post also looks at other famous book-destroyers: Edward Gibbon, Mikhail Bakhtin, Nikolai Gogol, and James Joyce.)