On September 29, a group of literati gathered in a book-lined room of Boston University’s Editorial Institute, found on the emblematic Bay State Road, to hear a paper given by Cassandra Nelson of Harvard University. This marked the first annual local meeting of the ALSCW in Boston, and it was quite a lively event, to say the least.
The presentation, “‘Corrigeé si on peut dire [‘Corrected, if you can call it that’],” highlighted instances of textual variation in More Pricks Than Kicks, a lesser-known work by Samuel Beckett, and sought to explain the progression of how they came to be. Though the notion of a diachronic study of textual variation across successive editions of a text may seem abstruse or unapproachable to even the more daring among us, as it turns out, it is a topic that inspired attention, awe and many a guffaw from the audience.
Nelson was the editor involved in the 2010 reissue of More Pricks Than Kicks and shared the saga of how this collection of prose and its four preceding editions came to be (which, with many details elided for reasons of space, can be summed up as: Beckett resisted more upon each pressing, the publishers got pushier, and the proofing went rogue). It was her task to pore through each edition: the original 1934 Chatto and Windus release, one of the lowest grossing books of the time, and the second, third, and fourth editions of just 100 copies each published in 1968, 1970, and 1971, which were typed on typewriters and stapled rather than bound.
Beckett had wanted to distance himself from the work and was more than hesitant to have it further propagated, but upon the vow from his publisher at Grove that it would be produced only once and solely for use by scholars, he reluctantly agreed, and it is clear that his reluctance was well warranted. These later editions were advertised in Grove’s catalogue against the wishes of Beckett, and were fraught with textual discrepancies, ranging from minor issues of punctuation that can be attributed to negligence, to the omission of particular words (seemingly motivated by an overly liberal editor), to the outright “jazzing up” of certain words to reflect modern vernacular and contemporary standards of decorum.
After the laborious task of compiling a chart cataloguing the discrepancies from text to text, Nelson was then ready to begin selecting which version to base editorial decisions on (no easy task given the extent of the variation and the impossibility of being certain with whom the responsibility for these changes lay). She mainly sided with the 1934 version because it was the one with which Beckett had the most editorial input and many of the variants seen in later editions—such as replacing B.T.M. (“bottom”) with “arse” and “——” (for an unspecified expletive) with the much more decisive “fucking”—were updated to conform to modern standards of [in]decency, making them inauthentic to the style and period of the original work.
At the close of the presentation, it was evident just how considerable the task of editing can be, particularly when it involves constructing an accurate representation of a work that has gone through so many stages of proofing and publication. The audience engaged Nelson with questions and further observations, out of which debate was sparked regarding the underlining capabilities of manual typewriters, the possible referents of “his” in the line “A horse was down and a man sat on his head,” and whether “asterisked” should be considered a verb or an adjective in the text, but more importantly, if it is a suitable substitute for “buggered.” When the discussion died down and the wine bottles were discarded, it is no great leap to say that many in attendance were inspired to pick up More Pricks than Kicks, and, at the very least, had a renewed appreciation for the conscientious editor.