A Lavish Beckett Portfolio Revives a Family Tradition

By: Mel Gussow April 15, 1984
Published by The New York Times

When Samuel Beckett saw Charles Klabunde's fantastical illustrations for the deluxe New Overbrook Press edition of "The Lost Ones," he sent his "warm congratulations" to the publisher, Charles Altschul, and to the artist for "those terrifying images." The Beckett story, first published in 1971, describes in hypnotic detail the life in limbo of a tribe of unearthly people, who are confined inside a cylinder. Several years ago, the work was vividly dramatized on stage by David Warrilow, playing a godlike storyteller, overseeing a miniaturized landscape of cutout figures. In contrast, Mr. Klabunde's drawings imagine the characters as bulbous, Bosch-like concretions, twisted into contortionist poses, and labeled with such titles as The Lull, The Spectacle and The Last State.

The elegant folio-size volume, with seven hand-pulled intaglio prints, is limited to 250 copies and 60 artist's proofs, signed by the author. The price is $1,750 until June 15 when it will increase to $2,000. The book was designed and handset by Mr. Altschul and printed at the Hampshire Typothetae in West Hatfield, Mass. It is unbound and in a handmade portfolio box. This is the first version of the story to include revisions made by the author. In his original description of the cylinder, Beckett misjudged his mathematics. As described, the container is now 16 meters high rather than 18, and the interior surface is 12 million centimeters rather than 80,000. Two years in the works, this edition was published on Friday on the occasion of Beckett's 78th birthday. The author declined an invitation to be here while the book was in process or for the publication, writing, "I shall not be in New York again." From the beginning, however, he expressed enthusiasm for the project, as he has for other collaborations with artists.

As the first publication of the New Overbrook Press, the book re-establishes a 50-year-old Altschul family tradition. The present publisher's grandfather, Frank Altschul, a successful stockbroker, created the Overbrook Press in 1934 and privately printed more than 200 books, broadsides and speeches on subjects from poetry to chess. One of his most ambitious projects was a volume of "Manon Lescaut" that took six years to publish. Mr. Altschul ceased publishing in 1969 and subsequently gave his press and his book collection to Yale University. He died in 1981 at the age of 94. For him, Overbrook was a rewarding avocation. His 25-year-old grandson, a 1981 graduate of Yale, plans to publish both for pleasure and for profit.

From an early age, Charles Altschul has been an expert in graphics and book design. While he was at Yale, he won a number of design prizes and published several books, including a volume of poetry and a portfolio of text and photographs documenting a trip he took to Columbia. On graduating, he activated his plan to reopen his grandfather's press, situated in a small, modernized building on the family estate in Stamford, Conn. As a confirmed bibliophile and small press man, he has a vast collection of typefaces, buying them from firms that are going out of business. "Wonderful classic typefaces are sold a scrap metal," he said. "There is a resurgence of small presses. Because of computers, more and more books will be mass produced. People will become more appreciative of quality work. That's especially true of books with a visual aspect. Books will be considered more as works of art.

He characterized his version of "The Lost Ones" as "an artist's book," one that would appeal to collectors of books, of Beckett in particular, and of prints. Explaining the high price, he said that the publication cost was around $120,000. The prints were, of course, the chief expense. "It takes eight hours to make 30 prints," he said. The artist mixed his own ink and hand-pulled each print in his New York studio. Overbrook will have to sell 100 volumes in order to break even. The plan is to follow the Becket book with other illustrated editions of works by celebrated authors, such as a book by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

"The Lost Ones" is one of a number of expensive publications of works by Samuel Beckett. A special edition of "Fizzles," with 33 original etchings by Jasper Johns, was published by Petersburg Press in 1976. Limited to 300 copies signed by the author and the artist, it sold for $6,000 a copy. Several years ago, the Gotham Book Mart published a first edition of "All Strange Away," illustrated by Edward Gorey and signed by the author and artist. The 200 volumes originally sold for $85 a copy. The book's value has now ascended to $395. Mr. Gorey is currently working on drawings for a forthcoming Gotham first edition of "Beginning to End," the script of Jack MacGowran's masterful one-man show of passages from Beckett's plays and novels.

For the Overbrook "Lost Ones," the author received a fee and two copies of the book. Mr. Altschul also asked him if he would like a copy sent to anyone. At Beckett's request, a volume was presented to Carlton Lake, the executive curator of the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas in Austin, a primary repository of Beckett manuscripts, correspondence and books. Coincident with Beckett's birthday, the Humanities Research Center is having an exhibition of the author's work and has published "No Symbols Where None Intended," a catalogue of its voluminous collection. Richly illustrated and filled with biographical information and details about the author's creative process, the catalogue is itself a valuable resource for anyone interested in this major 20th-century author.

"The Lost Ones" is available from the New Overbrook Press, 356 Riverbank Road, Stamford, Conn. 06903, and from selected bookstores and galleries including the Associated American Artists in New York and Philadelphia.