Emory Report
March 23, 2009
Volume 61, Number 24

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March 23
, 2009
Channeling the voice of a literary lion

By Elaine Justice

A capacity crowd flooded into Glenn Memorial Auditorium on St. Patrick’s Day to hear Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Edward Albee and Emory Distinguished Writer in Residence Salman Rushdie read from the early letters of Samuel Beckett.

The evening, titled “Fundamental Sounds,” was one of several Emory events held as part of the worldwide celebration of the recent publication of “The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume One 1929–1940.”

Rosemary Magee, vice president and secretary of the University, introduced Lois More Overbeck and Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, editors of the Papers of Samuel Beckett, each of whom provided context for the evening. Overbeck detailed Emory’s connection to the project since 1990, and recognized members of the audience, some former graduate students, who had been involved with the project over the years.

Fehsenfeld introduced towering literary figures Albee and Rushdie, and the two Atlantans who joined them on stage: Brenda Bynum, professor of theater studies emerita and director/producer of the evening’s program, and Robert Shaw-Smith, an Atlanta actor and teacher at Atlanta International School.

Bynum, who served as narrator for the evening, introduced the readings by asking Albee and Rushdie if they would like to say anything about Beckett. Albee, who knew Beckett as both friend and mentor, plunged ahead.

“If you happen to be a writer and you run into somebody or the work of somebody as extraordinary as Beckett, there are all sorts of reactions that are impossible,” said Albee. “Envy is impossible. The only word that is possible to use in the face of such extraordinary talent is gratitude.”

After telling an anecdote about his friend — as only a friend can — Albee concluded that “Sam Beckett was a sweet and gentle and kind man who also happened to be a great writer. That combination does not happen all the time.”

Having never met Beckett, Rushdie said he felt “deprived of the opportunity to thank him for that genius.” As a young man at Cambridge, Rushdie admitted that one of the first things he did was to steal Beckett’s first novel, “Murphy.” From the first sentence, he said, “I knew it would be a long relationship.”

When Rushdie recalled that he had once had a heated quarrel with a friend over the quality of Beckett’s work, Albee was quick with advice: “There’s a very straightforward rule to apply to any of your friends and acquaintances. If they do not admire and deeply love the work of Samuel Beckett — get new friends.”

Albee, Rushdie, Bynum and Shaw-Smith then deftly led the audience through the early life and budding career of Samuel Beckett as told through his letters; they did not disappoint. The audience heard Beckett’s voice — and gave it a standing ovation.