Intimations of Postmortality: The Genetic Dossier of Samuel Beckett’s Watt and Its Romantic Residues

Speaker: Mark Byron, University of Sydney

Samuel Beckett’s novel Watt (composed 1941-45, published 1953) shoulders an unusually heavy genetic burden among his texts. Composed during wartime and shelved for years following a stream of publishers’ rejections, the novel’s uneven text surface and fragmented structure gestures to the extensive holograph manuscript archive from which it is drawn. Six notebooks and a partial typescript amount to one thousand pages of heavily revised and often floridly illustrated material, much of which does not make a direct appearance in the published work. The novel’s apparatus of footnotes, Addenda items, and other features serve as an index of more expansive narrative episodes or intertextual references, shaping the structure of the Watt module in the Beckett Digital Manuscript Project now nearing completion. These features raise important editorial questions concerning how the text-document manifold conforms to and deforms from standard genetic models, and how these features demand reconsideration of editorial assumptions and methods. To illustrate Beckett’s compositional methods, this paper will focus on a small number of case studies connected to English Romantic poetry and painting to illustrate how Watt deploys a strategy of negative intertextuality, with substantial citation, emulation, and quotation eroded from the published text but signalled in the text’s ‘fossils’ in the Addenda and elsewhere. These posthumous traces in the stratigraphic record prompt reconsideration of the sustained dialogue with European Romanticism throughout the manuscripts and, in submerged, truncated form, in the published novel. How one prosecutes an argument for Watt as a critique of Romanticism depends on the status and integrity of such referential material, and how the genetic dossier is structured within an edition framework.

Keywords: Samuel Beckett; manuscript genetics; Watt; Romanticism; negative intertextuality

Mark Byron is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of Sydney. His current project, Modernism and the Early Middle Ages, has produced the monograph Ezra Pound's Eriugena (London: Bloomsbury, 2014) and a dossier co-edited with Stefano Rosignoli on Samuel Beckett and the Middle Ages in the Journal of Beckett Studies 25.1 (2016). Mark has edited the critical manuscript edition Ezra Pound’s and Olga Rudge’s The Blue Spill with Sophia Barnes (London: Bloomsbury, 2019), and the essay collection The New Ezra Pound Studies (Cambridge University Press, 2019), and he is author of Samuel Beckett’s Geological Imagination (Cambridge University Press, 2020). He is the current President of the Ezra Pound Society.

beckett watt book cover