Beckett Studies is cresting a wave brought about by the new availability of significant primary material – particularly the various notebooks and published volumes of letters. This heightened documentary awareness has stimulated renewed attention to text structure, continuities of themes and tropes in Beckett’s reading and note-taking, and, consequently, has provoked new insights into aspects of his composition processes. Another dimension of this renewed appraisal of text structure is the increased critical exposure to Beckett’s literary manuscripts. These documents provide a broader and richer framework within which to describe the Beckett “text” as a literary event or process. Current efforts to digitise these documents, along with authoritative transcriptions of them, compel acute reflections on the status of Beckett’s texts, and the editorial methods adequate to the task of establishing and representing them. Scholarly editing and hermeneutics have still to catch up with some of the formal and structural experiments of Beckett’s texts.
Samuel Beckett’s novel Watt is uniquely positioned in his oeuvre: composed in exile in 1941-45 and first published in 1953, it forecasts the transition from English to French as his preferred language of composition, and signifies a shift from the expansive comic mode of the early Beckett so influenced by Joyce to the linguistically austere and ontologically-minded later Beckett. The precarious mode of the text’s composition also sees a profound meditation on the purpose and structure of literary expression, abundantly evident in the six manuscript notebooks and partial typescript. This work engages with a profound rethinking of narrative, discarding any sense of compositional telos from drafts to finished, published work. Instead, a reticulated, imbricated series of narrative episodes trace paths across the surface of the published text, and deep into the archive. By force of circumstance and by force of will, Beckett thought his compositional practices into a radical zone of narrative deformation that was to have a lasting effect on his writing, and upon literary aesthetics in the latter half of the twentieth century.
This paper describes some challenges and opportunities that arise in producing a digital manuscript transcription of Samuel Beckett’s 1953 novel, Watt. This project addresses a number of issues in Beckett Studies and perhaps more generally in Modernist Literary Studies, but at the same time it raises a number of questions concerning text status and the identity of the literary object.
This paper will demonstrate an advanced work in progress, the digitised manuscript and transcription of Samuel Beckett’s novel Watt (composed in 1941-45 and first published in 1953). Discussion of the project will centre upon the digital resources buttressing the presentation of manuscript material and a range of related analytic features, and will outline some of the more significant ways in which specifically digital treatment of the material opens up new lines of literary and textual analysis. Indeed, some foundational concepts of textuality come into sharp focus by virtue of digital treatment of textual materials. Some of these concerns will be illustrated by way of examples taken from the Watt project, and by a fuller view of the complex relationship between text and manuscript arising from the project.
Modernist literary texts, especially those in the avant-garde tradition, present fundamental challenges to classical concepts of text status and structure. These texts, experimental in their published forms, also demonstrate complex relationships with their manuscript documents. Renewed interest in the flexible text models of the German philological tradition, and the promise of digital tools and techniques, presents scholarly editors with potentially ground-breaking opportunities to represent Modernist texts in ways that make explicit the nature and extent of their formal experimentation. This essay takes Samuel Beckett’s novel Watt, and its complex manuscript archive, as an example: a number of digital tools and techniques, taken with renewed concepts of literary structure, may provide the editorial means by which to do justice to the formal and aesthetic innovations in this singular text process.
There are at least three ways of thinking about the promise of modernist digital editions. Firstly, there is significant promise in developing digital editions of modernist texts: these editions will allow scholars to understand text and archive material, and the often-subtle relations between them, in renewed and in novel ways. In support of this point, the latter part of this paper will entail a brief overview of two digital editing projects: the digital variorum edition of Ezra Pound’s Cantos, and an aspect of the digital edition of Samuel Beckett’s novel Watt that intersects with the international Samuel Beckett Digital Manuscripts Project. Secondly, the way digital scholarly projects tend to be advertised (in funding applications, conference presentations, and so on) often entail firm promises or confident speculations upon the significant benefits such projects will bring to literary studies. These claims demand serious reflection, especially with regard to their ambition, cost, and perceived value. Thirdly, the sense of futurity tied up in the word “promise” points to the fact that practical and formal gains in digital applications have yet to be adequately apprehended, and consequently, the potential for future gains tend to be exaggerated, on the one hand, and misunderstood as wayward (and expensive) fancy, on the other. These three facets of the promise of modernist digital editions are mutually imbricated, and together comprise a most complex interplay of technological opportunity, editorial reflection, hermeneutic strategies, and notions of text status at the most basic level. In order to make sense of this interplay, it is worth considering the editorial context of modernist studies first, then to consider the role and relevance of digital technology, before demonstrating some features of emergent digital editions.
The fields of textual studies and bibliography have undergone tremendous change in the last several decades, both in the formal and theoretical understanding of text, and in the application of editorial processes that lie beyond the erstwhile Anglophone paradigm of copy text editing. Two prominent factors instrumental to this change are: the impact of greater theoretical reflection upon the methods of critical editing and specific research questions; and the profound intensification of the role of digital technology in structuring and processing research materials. In recent years scholars have addressed the impact of both of these factors on textual studies (rarely are they dealt with together, or potential relations between them explored). Now seems an opportune moment to examine exactly what kinds of rewards, and perils, might present themselves to textual critics at such a time in the history of textual scholarship. What are the potentialities opened up by genetic editing or social text editing? Which of the promises of editing in the digital domain – extravagant and otherwise – are worth pursuing? Is the notion of the complete text a mere daydream, or something tangible when theory, method and technological innovations converge?
This paper will outline some of the potentialities of contemporary thinking in textual criticism, and will seek to examine the validity of certain claims for textual completeness or superior methodological rigour. Beyond this, the notion of a general theory of text will be proposed and examined. The promise of such a theory is to be found in the convergence of textual criticism and hermeneutics in recent editorial theories and methods. Friedrich Schleiermacher’s ideal – where the establishment of a text and the interpretation of its substance are two parts of the same process – may have renewed purchase in an environment where editorial decisions are not assumed to be value-free or self-evident, and where any interpretive move is bound up in the presumed status of the text. Can textual studies move towards a general theory of text? Is such a thing desirable, or too grand a concept to act as anything but a distraction from the empirical realities of editing? How might digital editing practices inflect the question of a general theory of text?