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Beckett's fair to middling novel

THOSE aficionados of Samuel Beckett whose childhoods were plunged into gloom by Waiting for Godot may not be ready for this, but after 60 years of suppression by Beckett, who died in 1989, the author's first novel, Dream of Fair to Middling Women, is finally available in (authorised) print.

When the Diary spoke to Beckett's publisher, John Calder, in Paris, he admitted having gone against his late client's wishes in bringing out the book, which Beckett considered no more than poor juvenilia. He wrote it in 1932 at the age of 26, but dismissed it when he read it again after the war, agreeing with those publishers who had originally refused to touch it.

The novel, which he wrote while living in a maid's room of a seedy Paris hotel, revolves around a young man falling in and out of love and is riddled with James Joyce-isms, a feature that may deter modern readers still allergic to Ulysses.

Last year, Calder obtained a High Court injunction preventing another publisher, Eoin O'Brien, a Dublin doctor, from distributing the novel in this country (it remains on sale in Eire).

O'Brien published the book after claiming Beckett had told him during a visit to Paris that he wanted the novel published after his death. Calder, however, claimed O'Brien had not been given permission by Beckett's literary executor, although he had been given leave to edit and publish a limited first edition of the work. Calder set to work on revising the book himself and he credits O'Brien with editing it.

But O'Brien is dismissive of Calder's edition. 'It is not the work I edited. I regret my name is associated with it. Our book was stated to be the illegal version, but in terms of textual purity it is definitive.'

Is it all worth it? 'People who are afraid of Beckett's reputation as an intellectual might enjoy this book. It's more traditional than much of his later work,' said Calder.

THE DIARY'S champagne is safe, so far, following my request for sightings of an athletic Kenneth Clarke. One reader recalled playing Rugby Fives with him at school but, as he was the first to admit, that was a long time ago. I'm not giving away any champagne on this one, but the Diary would be interested to know how many hours the new Chancellor devotes to reading. One high-placed source tells me the maximum number of red boxes Clarke takes home in the evening, even if he has nine placed on his desk, is two.

No tax clocked up

THE OBJECT pictured above is a clock, isn't it? Christie's certainly thinks so, describing it yesterday as a Louis XV musical clock, one of the earliest and finest examples of 18th-century 'Batty' Langley Gothic. It just goes to show how wrong we can all be. According to the Inland Revenue, it is a machine.

Last autumn, the Revenue announced changes in the way capital gains tax was deducted, deciding that clocks should be exempt. A clock, it said, is nothing more than a piece of machinery which is liable to wear and tear like a car or a tractor.

The Diary certainly doesn't want to create a fuss with the Revenue, if only because I don't want the person who bought this clock at Christie's for pounds 551,500 to come hammering on my door. I'm just surprised, that's all.

WILLIAM TELL shot an apple from his son's head, but only in folklore, we're all told. Yesterday, for a moment, the Diary had its doubts.

According to legend, Tell was a peasant from Burglen in the 13th and early 14th centuries who defied Austrian authority. He was arrested for threatening the governor's life, saved the same governor's life en route to prison, escaped and ultimately killed the governor in an ambush. As a result, the people rose up against Austrian rule.

How much of all this would be in Tell's diary, I wondered, when told yesterday by the Channel 4 programme Europe Express that a German claimed to have found it, and had produced a likely looking signature. Stern, the German magazine, was rumoured to be interested. Not for long did I muse, however. The German's name is Konrad Kujau, who forged the Hitler diaries.


11 June 1946 Denton Welch writes in his journal: 'On Saturday, the Victory Celebration night, Eric suddenly suggested that we should go over and see the beacons and bonfires. We drove through the dark up the hill to Plaxtol, and there was a fire in the grounds of Fairlawne, huge, sullen, flat to the ground. A few people were gathered round it, staring into the flames. There was a great weight of emptiness. I felt everybody was shamefaced and deadened - dumb, watching, waiting-for-death people. We went to Shipbourne Common and there was another, larger bonfire with even fewer people about it. From the New Inn, several hundred yards away, the most extraordinary jig and blur of music was coming. Over the long bending grass it ran, through the blackness. It was sadder and more damned than a black monkey or man in a stone cell clawing at the bars. The great voice was mourning and jigging and weeping all over the world.'

(Photograph omitted)