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“I don’t want to be a professor”

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I’ve been telling anyone who will listen (after I was myself alerted to it by IT) that Coetzee’s review of the new edition of Beckett’s letters in the NYRB is not to be missed. Here’s the start of it:

In 1923 Samuel Barclay Beckett, aged seventeen, was admitted to Trinity College, Dublin, to study Romance languages. He proved an exceptional student, and was taken under the wing of Thomas Rudmose-Brown, professor of French, who did all he could to advance the young man’s career, securing for him on graduation first a visiting lectureship at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in Paris, then a position back at Trinity College.

After a year and a half at Trinity, performing what he called the “grotesque comedy of lecturing,” Beckett resigned and fled back to Paris. Yet even after this letdown, Rudmose-Brown did not give up on his protégé. As late as 1937 he was still trying to nudge Beckett back into the academy, persuading him to apply for a lectureship in Italian at the University of Cape Town. “I may say without exaggeration,” he wrote in a supporting letter, “that as well as possessing a sound academic knowledge of the Italian, French and German languages, [Mr Beckett] has remarkable creative faculty.” In a postscript he added: “Mr Beckett has an adequate knowledge of Provençal, ancient and modern.”

Beckett felt genuine fondness and respect for Rudmose-Brown, a Racine specialist with an interest in the contemporary French literary scene. Beckett’s first book, a monograph on Proust (1931), though commissioned as a general introduction to this challenging new writer, reads more like an essay by a superior graduate student intent on impressing his professor. Beckett himself had severe doubts about the book. Rereading it, he “wondered what [he] was talking about,” as he confided to his friend Thomas McGreevy. It seemed to be “a distorted steam-rolled equivalent of some aspect or confusion of aspects of myself…tied somehow on to Proust…. Not that I care. I don’t want to be a professor.”

Ugh. Yep, another one of those stories about a brave and successful escape from academia. Coetzee slyly mentions later on in the review that “through contacts at the then University of Buffalo [Beckett] also drops hints that he might look kindly on an offer from that quarter (it did not come).” You might know or not know that Coetzee held a teaching position at Buffalo for a bit. You might know or not know something else that I can’t to get into, but let’s just say I’ve heard and reheard the story about the end of his time as an assistant professor, specializing in I suppose British modernism, over and over and over again and from those who would know. But let’s just say I really appreciated Coetzee’s little in-joke.

Really good reason why this blog can’t have my name on it: I’d like to get out, and I really can’t talk about that publically, under my own name. I have a vague plan to get out – something we refer to in my household as the “five-year plan.” I won’t go into the hows of this, but it’s something I’d very much like to do. Unlike Beckett, I actually enjoy teaching, the classroom time, and the reports back from my students would be very different from those that he received. But the damned business shreds time, absolutely shreds it. It’s not the time in the classroom that’s the problem. But lately, since I’m on Easter break, I’ve been indulging myself and working on whatever I like for afternoons at a time, and the work is better and far more pleasing than anything else that I do at any other point in the year.

Anyway, I also appreciated the following:

Though Beckett’s literary output during the twelve years covered by these letters is fairly thin—the Proust monograph; an apprentice novel, A Dream of Fair to Middling Women, disowned and not published during his lifetime; the stories More Pricks Than Kicks ; Murphy ; a volume of poems; some book reviews—he is far from inactive. He reads extensively in philosophy from the pre-Socratics to Schopenhauer. On Schopenhauer he reports: “A pleasure…to find a philosopher that can be read like a poet, with an entire indifference to the apriori forms of verification.” He works intensively on Geulincx, reading his Ethics in the original Latin: his study notes have recently been unearthed and published as a companion to a new English translation.

Twelve years of relatively thin publication, from age 23 to 34. (It’s not really that thin, is it?) Twelve years of reading and periodic publishing and abortive teaching and bouts of psychoanalysis. Coetzee brought out his first novel, Dusklands, in 1974, when he was 34, three years after he stopped teaching at Buffalo.

There’s something deformative, something that you parry with for a long time, about having spent your twenties in the stupid hothouse of New York, or more specifically Brooklyn, during the bubble, again more specifically the period literarily speaking between the founding of Tina Brown’s Talk (remember?) and the founding of n+1. What would Beckett have made of it? What would Coetzee? My wife and I are still reeling from it a bit, I think it’s safe to say. We are 31 and 32 respectively. Anyway, Coetzee writes a lot of stuff about old men lately – he makes his alter-egos even older than he is himself – but this is a valuable review focused on what it means to be a different sort of old man, a young old man, in transit between the business of teaching and the business of writing.

Written by adswithoutproducts

April 17, 2009 at 12:21 am

Posted in beckett, coetzee

26 Responses

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  1. Re: the great escape, godspeed my friend. When you do make your break, though, perhaps you can do Coetzee one better and spare us the plot device of a self-hating academic engaged in a romantic dalliance with a student. You know, don’t look back! At least Beckett’s characters were sort of respectable.

    Re: the bubble, would that be the moment in which the great gouts of cash released by a certain world-historical event made %99.5 of Manhattan intolerable and great swaths of Brooklyn too? I was glad on a recent visit to find that Williamsburg had finally settled into the placid embourgeoisement for which it had always seemed destined–wineshops and realtors and the like.


    April 17, 2009 at 3:09 am

  2. Sorry, last post is too cranky. Plenty to love about Manhattan and Brooklyn during this period–despite the paint. And Disgrace is a fine book if you ignore the frame.


    April 17, 2009 at 3:14 am

  3. do you regret going in, or just took and gave all you wanted to give and take?


    April 17, 2009 at 6:06 am

  4. As someone who got out, I can heartily recommend it. Your comments on shredded time certainly ring true. Good luck with everything.


    April 17, 2009 at 7:50 am

  5. Jasper,

    Oof. I’m pretty sure that “the plot device of a self-hating academic engaged in a romantic dalliance with a student” is deployed as cliche. “Reversals: the stuff of bourgeois comedy.” Should characters be, um, “respectable”? Ugh. It’s a book about solipsism – Lurie’s, the western literary imagination’s, etc. The way I’ve always put it is that it is a novelist about a Wordsworthian in Cape Town who is the sort of Wordsworthian who would name his daughter Lucy.

    It is a great, great book. There is no “frame.” It’s a diptych.

    NYC – yes, exactly that one. That’s just the one I was talking about! Super ambivalent about the place, myself, will always be home in a way – in all sorts of ways.


    Ah, well the interest of this piece for me is it takes a more complex line on exactly that issue than I normally allow myself to take. Less either/or, more semi-necessary progression.


    Maybe, maybe my “local independent bookstore” has a copy of the letters for me now. I try – I really try. But every single time I go to the shop, and never looking for anything obscure, but more like front-review in Guardian Saturday Books section, they giggle and apologise and say they’ll have it in soon, later, check back tomorrow. Beckett’s letters, Dyer’s new novel, Sinclair’s Hackney book, right on back and back. Arggh. And now we’re really not supposed to order from Amazon.


    April 17, 2009 at 11:02 am

  6. You could get all of those books in the LRB shop – I think all three were in the window last time I looked. Worth supporting that one, however clique-y the magazine might be.

    I think we’re lucky to have any teaching at all, especially if it’s actually enjoyable (unlike SB’s experience, as you note). I’m not sure all this speculating against the future is very healthy, it seems a bit, I dunno, premature. I mean, get out if you can, but it may not happen, you know…but would this be the worst thing in the world? There’s a lot to be said for ‘merely’ being a great teacher.

    infinite thought

    April 17, 2009 at 11:16 am

  7. I worked out who you are after reading about three posts and deploying Google. You talk about your main research interests, alma maters and current institution. If you want to keep it a secret, I’d suggest a little less specificity.

    I could be wrong but hasn’t this blog become essentially narcissistic? As well as a cliche? Its subject is you and your anxiety over why you are not yet an internationally recognised novelist, your success relative to your peers and various canonical authors. And an academia-hating academic, another cliche straight out the box…

    Airing these anxieties can be refreshing for writer and reader in small regulated doses, but if you’re really so wound up about not being a published novelist yet, concentrate your energies on fricking writing the novel. Or at least make the writing about wanting to be a writer a little more original.

    And as IT subtly suggests, your ‘local independent bookstore’ is not the only one in London. The LRB one is a short walk from your office (if I’m right)


    April 17, 2009 at 12:40 pm

  8. Well! I’m working on it. If you don’t like the blog, I am quite sure you don’t have to read it! As far as I know, you’ve not paid for access! Just desubscribe or stop clicking through! I’ll write more in response to this later, another post on the same sort of thing coming up tonight! Might want to look away!

    Not sure IT was aiming for “subtle,” btw. She, yes, knows where I work. I think she was just pointing out I can get the books there.


    April 17, 2009 at 1:00 pm

  9. Anon, why is a narcissistic blog really such a bad thing? Sometimes people think about their own lives, and that’s okay; in fact, I’d suggest giving it the old college try. And in any case, isn’t it also a cliche that cliches are cliches because they’re true?


    April 17, 2009 at 1:06 pm

  10. “Respectable” was a joke. I mean, Beckett’s characters spend most of their time lying in ditches.

    I have a hard time thinking of Disgrace as top-notch great, as Beckett-caliber, but maybe somebody will convince me otherwise. I do recognize the self-consciousness there, but the deployments are self-conscious in the 70 other novels with the same plot device, too.


    April 17, 2009 at 1:27 pm

  11. OK – Wilarseny, first of all, do you think this historico-cultural moment in Western civilisation is in need of more or less narcissism on balance? I would vote for the latter. Perhaps you’re arguing that there’s something inherently narcissistic about all blogs – self-appointed speakers, the presumption of an audience etc – so I should just get over it. The problem with that move is that it’s no more true of blogs than any other kind of writing or any creative/analytic discourse. No reason why blogs should be granted special dispensation. Some kinds of narcissism are more winning than others, I’ll grant that.

    Ads, following that logic, why ever write a negative book review (you don’t have to buy it!) or make a political critique (you don’t have to live here!) or say anything at all if isn’t nice. Put another more flattering way, I prefer the AwP where you get on with writing about things, rather navelgaze.

    NB Please don’t take that living-here line to be a reference to US expats, cos it ain’t.


    April 17, 2009 at 1:40 pm

  12. rather THAN navelgaze


    April 17, 2009 at 1:41 pm

  13. What I’m trying to say about blogs is, since there’s direct communication between the writer and the audience, ie comments like these, that narcissism–putting it another way, critical self-evaluation; I don’t think narcissism is the most apt phrasing for what’s going on here–is no longer a lonely affair. Identification and realization move from the personal to the social, which, well, seems to change the order of things, to me. And I’m not entirely sure that narcissism is really at root of the problem, I mean didn’t we dispense with this top-down idealistic model of social change with M.? Anyhow my thoughts are becoming less clear, probably because I really need to run–looking at an apartment in ten minutes, and it’s 15 min. away–but we can come back to this.


    April 17, 2009 at 1:50 pm

  14. “And I’m not entirely sure that narcissism is really at root of the problem, I mean didn’t we dispense with this top-down idealistic model of social change with M.?”

    er, what?

    I just think it’s a better blog when it’s about literature, politics, philosophy, an American’s view of London, rather than self-involved angst about whether or not the writer has achieved enough recognition in the form of being commissioned to write reviews, or be on tv, or being given a book deal with a nice advance.


    April 17, 2009 at 2:09 pm

  15. Marx, I mean, he spends a lot of time on this idea about which is the basis of which, ie base and superstructure/idea and object/production and culture… I think you understand what I’m alluding to without my going into depth… how it connects is, I don’t really think that narcissism in itself is responsible for the problems of the world, but more the other way around, see…….

    Perhaps the topically-focused is a better blog, at least for the reader. But then, those “good” blogs aren’t really written by people but by images, ideal authors. And it’s by no means established that being a great blog is the highest good, nor by whose perspective these things should be judged. Meaning, sometimes the writer, being human, may have thoughts that compassionate readers could in some form help with. Or maybe the act of telling is enough. The blog or the book or the screenplay may serve a different purpose for the author than for his reader. Never forget that writers are people, too — nobody can subsist entirely on ideas, and no matter what Aristotle says I don’t think that’s what one should strive for.

    Granted, this view raises the question of why then the personal blogpost should be published. Perhaps a mysterious author makes for a more interested read, in your view, but that’s pretty clearly a matter of opinion. I’m very much the other way, I appreciate knowing something more personal/human. So I guess we reach an impasse…


    April 17, 2009 at 5:31 pm

  16. Nothing specific to say, but still writing in support of Ads. The blog might be narcissistic if the anxieties didn’t resonate with its readers. In my experience, they do, which makes it more of a collective expression.


    April 17, 2009 at 5:33 pm

  17. Well said, exactly.


    April 17, 2009 at 5:47 pm

  18. @wilarseny: alas, Marx spends almost no time on “this idea about which is the basis of which, ie base and superstructure/idea and object/production and culture” — three paragraphs in the Preface to a Contribution, a great footnote in Cap I, a mention in German Ideology, scarcely more than a page total. Wish there were more…but we’ll always have Frankfurt.


    April 17, 2009 at 6:47 pm

  19. I’ll have to look back again, but it always felt like more than that to me. Give me a few days, I’ll either come back with something more substantive, or realize that I’ve been repeating the passage in German Ideology over and over again in my head…


    April 17, 2009 at 7:55 pm

  20. Hey, there’s such a thing as a rhythm. One talks about oneself, one talks about something else. A post like this is called a personal essay. And that essay has a long and honorable tradition of bitter complaint about what the writer is doing, from poor Charles Lamb to Hazlitt to Cyril Connelly.


    April 17, 2009 at 10:24 pm

  21. Finally, sorry it’s taken me so long. I had to a) eat a pizza and b) watch some downloaded In Treatments with my wife. And then, parry with people on a new (not unrelated) post.

    On narcissism:

    Well, look, I think this is something that plays very differently for Brits and Americans. I basically take it for granted that everyone roughly in our business thinks thoughts like these, identifies with various figures, worries about what they are up to relative to the competition, and the like. It’s a little unsavory, but I assume, nearly universal. So that when I write a post that’s a) anxious about getting time to work on my writing and b) mildly identificatory with Coetzee as he identifies with Beckett, I assume that most of my readers will sort of get what I’m talking about.

    I’m sorry if some don’t like my talk about advances and tv invites and the like. If it helps, let me be very clear with where I stand and where I think I stand in the world. I am a fairly successful young academic, at least in the sense that I’ve been successful on the job market. I’m not much of a player in the wider world of, say, print journalism or anything like that, though I’m starting to get a healthy trickle of work and at better and better places. I really would like to write novels and maybe some poetry – and I do write these things, though I never send them out, because of something that could either be called a perfectionist streak or a disabiling sense of inadequacy.

    I had thought, mostly I suppose, that posting the little dribble of media attention I get (there is absolutely no good reason to ask me to come on tv, to talk about updike, christ, other than that I work at central london location, and that’s why I said no…) would read as self-ironizing and rather bathetic. I am screamingly happy for any of this attention I get, when I get it, because I am a human being, and you know how they are.

    But above all else, I am extremely disappointed with myself. I never gave myself a proper shot to write the things I’d like to write, and for very complex class/money issues this burns in a particularly intense way. Not sure what else to say. It’s narcissism, sure, but of a viciously self-defeating type. I thought that was clear, perhaps not, and I guess I’ll adjust accordingly, if it make people more happy with the blog. I’ll try to do less self-reflexitvity. Problem is, it’s the family form at this point. Christ, I think my 3 year old daughter has started a memoir about growing up with neurotic, literary parents.


    April 18, 2009 at 12:13 am

  22. Is this your first “concern troll” infestation, Ads? If so, I’d take it as a sign that you’ve really made it as a blogger, then go into the WordPress settings and block Anon’s IP, because responding to this shit becomes really exhausting/infuriating.

    Adam Kotsko

    April 18, 2009 at 4:59 pm

    • Ah Adam (Kotsko),

      That’s very nice and supportive of you to say. It’s OK, though, Anonymous can have her/his say. I can take it – all of this is worth thinking about….


      April 18, 2009 at 10:14 pm

  23. I haven’t got a clue who you are, but this is my ten cents’ worth on your sentence here:

    “lately, since I’m on Easter break, I’ve been indulging myself and working on whatever I like for afternoons at a time, and the work is better and far more pleasing than anything else that I do at any other point in the year”

    One thing that might console you is to consider that it may well be the friction between your teaching/academic job and your free time that makes those free afternoons so pleasing. I’ve been in a position where I was doing a job I wanted to love – journalism – but was having the investigative-creative-angry energy sucked out of me by the institution that employed me, until I came to resemeble a used condom flung on to the carpet beside a pair of panting lovers … But sometimes I look back on those years and I am very aware that the resentment towards the institution gave me an edge in my free time that I hardly exists any more. In a strange way, I have to acknowledge that the freedom (and poverty) I have now is a much greater responsibility than I’d ever imagined. Indeed: the very fact I am writing a comment on your blog at 1030 in the morning is a case in point. I’d best get back to work.


    July 28, 2009 at 9:31 am

  24. Yeah, exactly right. That’s the double bind, isn’t it. When you’re scratching out little bits of time here and there, you pine for time but you fill what you have. Takes the pressure off too – lowers the stakes a bit. But when you have nothing but time, the focus slips, the pressure mounts.

    Academics get to go through this on a seasonal basis anyway – summer break….


    July 28, 2009 at 10:53 am

  25. But I the confrontation with that freedom – the anxiety of that freedom – is, I think, critical. We should all, if we can, spend some of our lives in this position. I am sure it has some thing in common with the Buddhist practice of sitting alone in silence and confronting yourself. Eventually, you come out the other side.


    July 28, 2009 at 11:41 am

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