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Review Essays

Tracing “Auto(bio)graphy” in “Three Novels” by Samuel Beckett: A Review Essay

Stefano Rosignoli
p. 245-253


Review essay of Samuel Beckett, The Beckett Digital Manuscript Project. Instalments 2, 4, and 5 (digital modules and accompanying printed volumes). Directed by Dirk Van Hulle and Mark Nixon. Technical Realisation by Vincent Neyt. Brussels: University Press Antwerp (ASP/UPA); London: Bloomsbury, 2013–17.

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1Instalment 2: L’Innommable / The Unnamable

  • Samuel Beckett, L’Innommable / The Unnamable: A Digital Genetic Edition. Eds. Dirk Van Hulle, Shane Weller and Vincent Neyt. Brussels: University Press Antwerp (ASP/UPA), 2013 <>.

  • Dirk Van Hulle and Shane Weller, The Making of Samuel Beckett’s L’Innommable / The Unnamable. Brussels: University Press Antwerp; London: Bloomsbury, 2014. 272 pp. ISBNs: 978–90–5718–181–8 (ASP/UPA); 978–1–4725–2951–0 (Bloomsbury).

2Instalment 4: Molloy

  • Samuel Beckett, Molloy: A Digital Genetic Edition. Eds. Édouard Magessa O’Reilly, Dirk Van Hulle, Pim Verhulst and Vincent Neyt. Brussels: University Press Antwerp (ASP/UPA), 2016 <>.

  • Édouard Magessa O’Reilly, Dirk Van Hulle and Pim Verhulst, The Making of Samuel Beckett’s Molloy. Brussels: University Press Antwerp; London: Bloomsbury, 2017. 416 pp. ISBNs: 978–90–5718–536–6 (ASP/UPA); 978–1–4725–3256–5 (Bloomsbury).

3Instalment 5: Malone meurt / Malone Dies

  • Samuel Beckett, Malone meurt / Malone Dies: A Digital Genetic Edition. Eds. Dirk Van Hulle, Pim Verhulst and Vincent Neyt. Brussels: University Press Antwerp (ASP/UPA), 2017 <>.

  • Dirk Van Hulle and Pim Verhulst, The Making of Samuel Beckett’s Malone meurt / Malone Dies. Brussels: University Press Antwerp; London: Bloomsbury, 2017. 336 pp. ISBNs: 978–90–5718–537–3 (ASP/UPA); 978–1–4725–2344–0 (Bloomsbury).


4Between 2014 and 2017, University Press Antwerp and Bloomsbury have gifted the community of Beckett studies with three essential research tools which, as part of the BDMP — Beckett Digital Manuscript Project, examine Molloy, Malone meurt / Malone Dies and L’Innommable / The Unnamable from the perspective of their textual development. Those readers who are not yet familiar with the BDMP might rely on two reviews already published by Variants (Bailey 2013; McMullan 2019), but most importantly on the “Series Preface” authored by the co-directors of the project. The BDMP is presented there as a collaborative research endeavour in twenty-six instalments which involves the universities of Antwerp, Reading and Texas at Austin, grows out of two genetic or variorum editorial initiatives, and is dedicated to the study of Beckett’s manuscripts in the light of genetic criticism and digital scholarship (Van Hulle and Nixon 2011, 7). Since the publication of its first research output ten years ago (Beckett 2011; Van Hulle 2011), this extensive effort of description and interpretation of archival sources has become the most prominent attempt to trace and address the genesis of Beckett’s original works, with a focus on the avant-texte in the digital modules of the project.

5While the BDMP, as a whole, is the result of two turnings in Beckett scholarship — the archival and the digital — the instalments of the BDMP dedicated to his “three novels”, specifically, revolve around the two turnings in Beckett’s literary path which marked his “frenzy of writing” or “siege in the room” in 194650 (qtd. in O’Reilly et al. 2017, 309):

  1. The turn from omnipotence to impotence, in the contents expressed: reacting against James Joyce’s attempt to grasp all existence by endlessly enriching the text, Beckett aimed to express an existential impasse by impoverishing his work in terms of characters, plots and motives (Knowlson 1996, 351–53; see also O’Reilly et al. 2017, 25).

  2. The turn from English to French language, in the form of expression: Beckett begun to write in French not merely due to his decision to live in France permanently, but also in an attempt to pursue, at stylistic level, the same impoverishment which he strived for in his narratives (Knowlson 1996, 356–58; see also O’Reilly et al. 2017, 25).

6An outcome of both turnings, Molloy, Malone meurt and L’Innommable were composed in 194750 and first published in the original French in 195153, establishing a long-lasting commercial bond with Jérôme Lindon at Les Éditions de Minuit, followed by a set of international publishers which issued Beckett’s work for the remainder of his literary career. Beckett translated Molloy in English with Patrick Bowles, but he worked alone on Malone meurt, initially deeming the task “child’s play after the Bowles revision” in a letter to Barney Rosset of 18 October 1954 (Beckett, 2009–16, 2: 507), and on L’Innommable, calling the demanding endeavour an “impossible job” in a letter to Pamela Mitchell of 12 March 1956 (Beckett, 2009–16, 2: 606), and he had the three English texts first published in book format in 1955–58. The English translations were collected by Grove Press, Olympia Press and John Calder (Publishers) in 195960: a decision which pleased Beckett, who, writing to Judith Schmidt on 5 November 1959, claimed to have “always wanted to see the three together” (qtd. in O’Reilly et al. 2017, 118), although he could also not “bear the thought of word trilogy appearing anywhere”, as reinstated in a letter of 5 May 1959 to Barney Rosset (Beckett, 2009–16, 3: 230). Beckett generally referred to the collected edition as “the 3 in 1”, as in the aforementioned letter to Barney Rosset, and at least once as “pseudo-trilogy”, in a letter to Con Leventhal of 26 May 1959 (qtd. in Cohn 2001, 185), but the word “trilogy” eventually slipped into the cover of the Olympia Press edition and the blurb of the Grove and Calder editions (Van Hulle and Weller 2014, 81–82; see also Van Hulle and Verhulst 2017, 107; O’Reilly et al. 2017, 100 and 121). The “three novels”, as the present review essay will call them, borrowing a rather neutral definition occurring as a subtitle and later as a title in Grove’s collected editions (1959 and 1965), also mark Beckett’s turn from coherent storylines to meta-fictional narratives, which has been dated to the watershed between Malone meurt and L’Innommable or, more precisely, to the watershed between L’Innommable and Textes pour rien (Van Hulle and Verhulst 2017, 23).

7The three instalments of the BDMP dedicated to Beckett’s “three novels” offer both a description of the genetic dossiers, partially displayed and transcribed in the digital modules but fully examined in the documentary section of the printed volumes, as well as an interpretation of the genetic dossiers, solely present in the critical section of the printed volumes. “Description” and “interpretation” derive from Hans Zeller’s terms Befund [record] and Deutung [interpretation], the second of which the BDMP borrows with the purpose to shed light on Beckett’s novels as both a product and a process (O’Reilly et al. 2017, 25), which suggests that the BDMP also applies editorial theory to a critico-genetic purpose. In Zeller’s essay “Record and Interpretation”, the terms are defined within the boundaries of a methodological enquiry on the reliability of editorial practice in the philology of modern texts, addressing the subjective element which underlies any given edition and exercises a crucial role during the reception of an edited text (Zeller 1995, 18–20). The essay does not recommend to clear textual editing of its subjective element, which means of the individuality of the editor — an unachievable but also unadvisable goal, due to the hermeneutic nature of textual editing itself — but rather to lay that subjectivity out on the page in the wake of Aristarchus’ classical edition of the Iliad, structured around a clear division between mechanical recensio (objective) and conjectural emendatio (subjective) (Zeller 1995, 20–22). While discussing the rationale of editions, the essay endorses a pursuit of the will of the author only as evidenced in the witnesses, prescribing to examine the constitution of texts drawing on authorized versions rather than authorial intention, which requires the collation of printings approved by the author and of “all manuscripts of a work in whose production the author was involved or that were produced under his instructions” (Zeller 1995, 25–26 and 53n22). If, strictly speaking, the Befund [record] is the manuscript itself, then the only aspect of an edition which preserves most of its objectivity is the documentation of the record by utilizing photomechanical reproduction or at least verbal description, whereas all the editorial work aiming to produce a text should be deemed Deutung [interpretation] of the manuscript, which preludes to the interpretation of the text offered by literary criticism (Zeller 1995, 42–45). In the BDMP, the digital modules and the documentary section of the printed volumes provide photomechanical reproductions of the avant-textes and verbal descriptions of the complete genetic dossiers available, respectively, but the same documentary section, which is enriched by a detailed bio-bibliographical element already, is also followed by an interpretive section which conflates editorial and literary interpretation in line with the tradition of genetic criticism. Therefore, in terms of structure the BDMP stems from a binary distinction rooted in German Editionswissenschaft [editorial studies], but in terms of methodology and purpose it is clearly indebted to French critique génétique [genetic criticism]. Consequently, this review essay will address the interaction of the two traditions in the description and interpretation of the genetic dossiers of Beckett’s “three novels”, offered both in the printed and in the digital sides of the BDMP.


8The description of the genetic dossiers of Beckett’s “three novels” does not separate French and English geneses, since the digital modules display the avant-textes chronologically as facsimiles with transcriptions and the documentary section of the printed volumes offers verbal descriptions of the entire genetic dossiers organized by type of document examined. The descriptions begin with the French manuscripts, handwritten respectively on four notebooks in Foxrock, Paris and Menton between 2 May and 1 November 1947 (O’Reilly et al. 2017, 33, 37–38, 47 and 51); on two notebooks in Paris between 27 November 1947 and 30 May 1948 (Van Hulle and Verhulst 2017, 47–48); and on two notebooks mostly in Paris and Ussy between 29 March 1949 and an unspecified date in January 1950 (Van Hulle and Weller 2014, 32–33). The descriptions then progress towards either the full manuscript or the surviving fragments of the English translations; they gather the extant French and English typescripts, together with the galleys and proofs if available; along with dealing with pre-book publications, French, UK and US editions, and broadcasting scripts almost exclusively in the printed volumes. Speaking of the BBC broadcasts with extracts from the “three novels”, I could not readily find a mention of the broadcast from The Unnamable, first aired on 19 January 1959, in the corresponding volume of the BDMP, whereas the volume dedicated to Malone Dies maintains that the recording of the broadcast from the novel, first aired on 18 June 1958, has been lost, and hence no comparison with the surviving scripts would be possible (Van Hulle and Verhulst 2017, 108 and 116). Although this was certainly true until recent years, I was lucky enough to find the recording in February 2015, thanks to the invaluable assistance of Steven Dryden (Broadcast Recordings Curator, The British Library). Subsequently, the recording has also been digitized by the Sound Conservation Team and made available in the library reading rooms. The documentary section of the printed volumes is consistently marked by two useful features: the quantitative surveys of textual endogenesis, which let us follow the chronology and pace of Beckett’s writing when the autograph is thoroughly dated (as in the case of the French manuscript of Molloy), and the comparative surveys of textual epigenesis, which offer either a selection or a complete list of variants between different editions of Beckett’s “three novels”.

9The outlined arrangement generates homogeneity throughout the description of the genetic dossiers of Beckett’s “three novels”, which, however, also details the many specificities of each dossier, which can be mentioned here only in passing. The Making of Samuel Beckett’s Molloy highlights that the first page of the French manuscript, containing the beginning of the novel, was written on the last day of composition; it suggests that the expunction of the notorious passage on the economy of Ballyba in the French typescript might have been Beckett’s, or a result of his recommendation; it expands on Beckett’s enduring issues with censorship, in the run up to a pre-book publication in the New World Writing series of the New American Library; and it wonders if Beckett had the chance to give his imprimatur to any of the first collected editions of his “three novels” in English at all (O’Reilly et al. 2017, 33, 65, 84–86 and 103). The Making of Samuel Beckett’s Malone meurt / Malone Dies publishes a detailed collation report of the first notebook of the French manuscript, in an attempt to find the reason of a textual lacuna; it offers a full break-down of the notebook containing the surviving manuscript fragment of the English translation, together with draft letters and prose fragments also pertinent to the genesis of Foirades / Fizzles; and it speculates on the lost French typescripts, while providing a summary of the discovery of Beckett’s work by Minuit (Van Hulle and Verhulst 2017, 40–43, 50–61 and 62–64). The Making of Samuel Beckett’s L’Innommable / The Unnamable shows that the text of the French manuscript closes at the end of the physical manuscript itself, “as if Beckett set himself the task, not so much to write a novel as to fill two notebooks”; it points at Beckett’s unusual decision to write the body of the text on the verso rather than on the recto of the pages in the same manuscript, using the recto rather than the verso for facing-leaf additions, paralipomena or sparse doodles; and it provides a detailed account of one additional case of censorship suffered by Beckett when Jean Paulhan published a bowdlerized extract from the novel in the second issue of his NNRF — Nouvelle Nouvelle Revue Française (February 1953), under the title “Mahood” (Van Hulle and Weller 2014, 31, 32–33 and 59–67).

10The interpretation of the genetic dossiers of Beckett’s “three novels” in French is strongly interdisciplinary, being rooted in genetic criticism and theory of literature (or of the visual arts), and is articulated in a paragraph-by-paragraph (or section-by-section) textual analysis, followed by a study of Beckett’s authorial translations (or co-translation) in English.

11The interpretive section dedicated to Molloy in French draws on the definitions of autograph (or holograph, “écrit de la main de l’auteur” [handwritten by the author]; Grésillon 1994, 241, and Kline 1998, 271), of autography (“literally self-life-writing”; Abbott 1996 x) and of autographic (said of an artwork, and by extension of its artform, if “the distinction between original and forgery of it is significant”; Goodman 1968, 113) (qtd. in O’Reilly et al. 2017, 25–26). In brief, the analysis of the autographs of Molloy in French has the purpose of reconsidering the autographic dimension of literature, in general, and to read Beckett’s novel, in particular, as autography: the study of the genesis of Molloy, even more simply, sheds light on the uniqueness of literature and leads to consider Molloy as self-writing. And indeed, the autographs of the novel carry meta-fictional passages, omitted or blurred in the published text, which can be read as “auto(bio)graphical” traces, such as scatological imagery symbolizing handwriting, identifications between author and narrator or between narrator and characters, and narrative turns matching the pagination of the physical manuscript or its internal division into paragraphs (O’Reilly et al. 2017, 149–51, 167–68, 185 and 236–37). The textual analysis of the genesis of Molloy in French is followed by a thematic analysis of its creative co-translation in English: a full-fledged “re-writing”, conceived as a “writing again” and a “writing anew” (O’Reilly et al. 2017, 338), which grew out of a collaboration which became quite tense, for a while, after the completion of the first half of the translation.

12The interpretive section dedicated to Malone meurt dwells again on the notions of autograph, autography and autographic, but focuses on the shift from story to discourse in the “three novels”, read as a transition through a “Coda” in the manuscript rather than as a sudden break along Beckett’s literary path (Van Hulle and Verhulst 2017, 23–24). The analysis characterizes the published Malone meurt as “a ‘surface’ text whose particulars are in the manuscript”, going beyond a conception of the novel as a parody of Honoré de Balzac’s realism and tracing in the autographs the decline of the autographical tradition of Jules Renard’s journal intime (Van Hulle and Verhulst 2017, 27–29 and 158). The meta-fictional passages, largely introduced in the autographs by way of revision as elsewhere in the “three novels”, are frequently identifications between the author and the narrator, even more often than in Molloy, but the peculiarity of Malone meurt are the narrator’s comments on his own storytelling, and particularly the expressions of boredom which replace entire sections of the Saposcat/Macmann tale (Van Hulle and Verhulst 2017, 123 and passim). The thematic analysis of Malone Dies, the first of the “three novels” which Beckett translated alone and which turned out to be a demanding task because of his increasingly hectic schedule, finds an extension of Beckett’s autography again in the continuation of the genesis of the novel as authorial self-translation (Van Hulle and Verhulst 2017, 275).

13The interpretive section dedicated to L’Innommable centres on the manifestations of the negative in the novel, addressed as traces of a development towards the “Literatur des Unworts” [literature of the unword/non-word] which Beckett set forth in his “German letter” to Axel Kaun of 9 July 1937 (Beckett 1983, 4 and 173; see also Beckett 2009–16, 1: 515 and 520) and which he pursued under the influence of language scepticism (Van Hulle and Weller 2014, 19 and 22). Since this instalment of the BDMP was published a few years prior to the other two examined by the present review essay, the analysis here prefigures the aforementioned comparison between autograph, autography and autographic. The meta-fictional passages are deemed to prove “the essential metaphoricity of thought” not only in the contents expressed but also in the style expressing them, especially by way of epanorthosis, or rhetorical self-correction, used elsewhere in the “three novels” but not as extensively as in L’Innommable (Van Hulle and Weller 2014, 26 and 103). The thematic analysis of The Unnamable reads Beckett’s wearying self-translation as a continuation of his “unwording” project: a self-decomposition of language in the aporetic pursuit to express the inexpressible (or “unnamable”) in the morphology, syntax and lexicon of the novel, or by way of rhetorical devices (Van Hulle and Weller 2014, 194–95).


14The value of the instalments of the BDMP dedicated to Beckett’s “three novels” is chiefly a result of their focus on textual evidence, since they aim in the first instance to collate, arrange, display and detail three genetic dossiers. This descriptive effort — summed up in each essential “Genetic Map”, in the printed volumes, or “Manuscript Chronology”, in the digital modules, as well as in the useful pie charts which can be found in the “Statistics” section under “Free Features”, in the digital modules — leads to circulate documents scattered around the globe and at times largely unknown, among which can be found textual fragments expunged along the genesis of the “three novels”. The passage on the economy of Ballyba, in the French manuscript and typescript of Molloy (FN3 [HRC, MS SB/4/7], 65r–78r, and FT [HRC, MS SB/17/6], 214r–24r; see also O’Reilly, Van Hulle, and Verhulst 2017, 49–50, 62–67, 262–76 and 380–87); the excized segments of the Saposcat/Macmann tale, in the French manuscript of Malone meurt (FN1 [HRC, MS SB/7/2], 68r–71r, 72r, 76r–82r and passim; see also Van Hulle and Verhulst 2017, 150–56, 157–58, 164–78 and passim); and the “Coda” which might well be a prelude to L’Innommable, again in the French manuscript of Malone meurt (FN2 [HRC, MS SB/7/4], 110v–12r; see also Van Hulle and Verhulst 2017, 41, 253–56 and 304–07), are all notable examples. The description of the genetic dossiers also summarizes the circumstances of Beckett’s composition and examines Beckett’s practice of composition itself, reinstating, for instance, his habit to leave blank versos (or rectos) for facing-leaf additions, to jot down paralipomena later developed in the body of the text, and to produce typescript carbon copies. The instalments of the BDMP under examination here, however, also acquire value due to their interpretive nature, since they aim to locate the textual scars produced by Beckett’s “vaguening” of his work in order to recover the mémoire du context [contextual memory] of the work itself (Ferrer 2011, 121; see also O’Reilly, Van Hulle, and Verhulst 2017, 289–90). According to the line of interpretation presented in the BDMP, it is logical to argue that only the autographs can unveil that memory, which reveals the autographic dimension of literature and initiates a textual analysis which ultimately leads to read as autography Beckett’s non-programmatic écriture a processus in his “three novels” (Hay 1986–87). The two-fold nature of the BDMP, which this review essay has attempted to examine with specific reference to three of its instalments, makes it essential for consultation and research, leaving space for further enquiries focusing on the exogenesis and epigenesis of Beckett’s works, in an attempt, for instance, to fill the lacunae which currently exist in the avant-textes of the English Molloy and Malone Dies (O’Reilly et al. 2017, 55–61; Van Hulle and Verhulst 2017, 56–58).

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Bibliographical reference

Stefano Rosignoli, Tracing “Auto(bio)graphy” in “Three Novels” by Samuel Beckett: A Review EssayVariants, 15-16 | 2021, 245-253.

Electronic reference

Stefano Rosignoli, Tracing “Auto(bio)graphy” in “Three Novels” by Samuel Beckett: A Review EssayVariants [Online], 15-16 | 2021, Online since 01 July 2021, connection on 13 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Stefano Rosignoli

Stefano Rosignoli received an MA in Modern Literature (2006) and an MPhil in Publishing Studies (2008) from the University of Bologna. From 2008 to 2015 he focused on trade publishing in Italy and the UK while taking the first steps towards his PhD in English, which he is completing at Trinity College Dublin. Stefano’s academic education is grounded in textual studies at large, from philology to genetic criticism, balanced by formalism, structuralism and the semiotics of texts, and his research examines the philosophical exogenesis of Irish literature in English. He has recent or forthcoming publications on Samuel Beckett, T. S. Eliot and James Joyce; he teaches modern literature and theory at Trinity College and University College, in Dublin; and serves as Review Editor for Variants: The Journal of the European Society for Textual Scholarship. In 2018, he has been a James Joyce Visiting Fellow and J–1 Short-Term Scholar at the Humanities Institute, State University of New York at Buffalo, and a visiting research scholar at Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library, Cornell University.

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