Samuel Beckett: Waiting for Godot in Paris

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Samuel Beckett: Waiting for Godot in Paris
The playwright Samuel Barclay Beckett was born in Ireland in Dublin on April 13th, 1906. He was to spend most of his life in Paris, doing most of his writing in French, before translating it himself back into English, but Samuel Beckett was to remain forever Irish, complex, black humored and not averse to a drink or three. His education at the prestigious Trinity College Dublin– where he studied French, Italian and English and was elected a Scholar in Modern Languages– enabled him in 1928 to take up the post of lecteur d’anglais at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris for the next two years. This period was to prove a pivotal point in Beckett’s future. Beckett was perhaps unusual as his brilliant intellect went hand in hand with his physical prowess. Not only an accomplished golfer, Beckett also excelled in cricket as a left-handed batsman and a left-arm medium paced bowler. Beckett was introduced to James Joyce by his close friend, the poet Thomas MacGreevy, and the young Beckett fell under his spell. Like others before and after him, Beckett was only too eager to assist Joyce in any way possible and began the research, for what was to become Joyce’s acclaimed novel, Finnegans Wake. Joyce introduced Beckett to Adrienne Monnaie’s book shop in Rue de L’Odeon and thence to Sylvia Beech’s Shakespeare and Co, and also showed him his favorite bars in Paris (often frequented nightly). Beckett was adept at helping Joyce home after a particularly heavy session. Beckett himself was not averse to a drink and frequented the Cochon de Lait in the Rue Corneille. Paris in the 1920s was a fertile cultural ground for artists of all persuasions, be they writers, artists, poets, filmmakers or entertainers. ‘Les Années folles’– as well as producing the likes of Josephine Baker and Mistinguett– drew together painters of astonishing talent, including Picasso, Chagall, Mondrian, Bonnard, Matisse, Dali and Miro. Writers were an obvious addition to this heady mix and Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Edith Wharton and T.S. Eliot all made Paris their home. Montparnasse was literally bursting at the seams with all the brightest shining lights of the time. Beckett began writing but later acknowledged that his first works were too influenced by Joyce’s style. Beckett had become very close to Joyce’s family by now, but the result had detrimental and unintended consequences. Joyce’s daughter Lucia, a professional dancer, with the undiagnosed signs of schizophrenia, had decided she was in love with Beckett who did not reciprocate her feelings and rejected her. Joyce, for whom Lucia was his beloved muse, never wanting to acknowledge his daughter’s mental fragility, blamed Beckett for Lucia’s distress and their relationship cooled. Whether this influenced Beckett’s departure from Paris or not, he returned to Trinity College as a lecturer in 1930. By 1931, Beckett’s very brief, academic career had ended and he began writing in earnest: poems, critical essays, short stories, and finally in 1932 his first novel, Dream of Fair to Middling Women. (This failed to get published until 1992, three years after Beckett’s death.) Beckett spent the next five years between Germany and Ireland. He was disturbed by the underlying atmosphere and the inexorable rise of Nazism in Germany. His father’s death in the family home Dublin in 1933 had an enormous effect on Beckett and doubtless affected his future writing. Family life in his childhood home with his mother proved to be too fraught for Beckett and in 1937 he returned to Paris with the famous quote, ‘Nothing changes the relief at being back here.’ Beckett rented an apartment back in the 6th arrondissement at 12, rue de la Grande chaumière. The quote still held true for Beckett a year later, despite being stabbed by a pimp whose advances he’d rejected, the injury serious enough for him to be hospitalized. Beckett refused to press charges, being quite taken by the pimp’s name, Prudence. It was while recovering in hospital that Beckett was visited by Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil who would later become his wife more than 20 years later. The intervening and subsequent years were interspersed with numerous affairs. Beckett’s first novel, Murphy, was published in 1938. It was written in what was to be Beckett’s trademark style: bleak, minimalist, filled with gallows humor and black comedy, known with perfect accuracy, the Theatre of the Absurd, and uniquely Samuel Beckett. But war was on the horizon and Beckett, with an Irish passport in Europe, was in an invidious position. However he had no intention of staying in neutral Ireland during a war against the Nazis who Beckett had found so repulsive during his time in Germany. Instead he returned to Paris and joined a small resistance movement in Paris. The network was called GLORIA SMH and worked in conjunction with the Special Operation Executive. Beckett, along with Suzanne, translated intelligence reports which were then transcribed onto microfilm and smuggled to London. In 1942, their network was betrayed by a priest and Beckett and Dumnesil escaped. Ten minutes later and their fate would have been in the hands of the Gestapo who were in close pursuit. Many of their cell were captured and sent to concentration camps. Many did not survive, causing Beckett intense grief. Beckett and Dumnesil then walked for six weeks through France before hiding out near Avignon. They still did whatever they could for the resistance but Beckett…
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Lead photo credit : En attendant Godot, 1978 Festival d'Avignon, directed by Otomar Krejča. Image credit: Fernand Michaud (CC0 1.0)

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After some dreary years in the Civil Service, Marilyn realized her dream of living in Paris. She arrived in Paris in December 1967 and left in July 1969. From there she lived in Mallorca, London, Oman, and Dubai, where she moved with her husband and young son and worked for Gulf News, Khaleej Times and freelanced for Emirates Woman magazine. During this time she was also a ground stewardess for Middle East Airlines. For the past 18 years they've lived on the Isle of Wight.

Comments

  • Marilyn Brouwer
    2020-01-02 17:00:59
    Marilyn Brouwer
    Thanks Dennis for your kind comments. I only scratched the surface of this incredible man but Paris certainly seems to be the home land of so many talented and complicated artists. Happy New Year to you.

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  • Dennis Donohue
    2019-12-31 11:30:12
    Dennis Donohue
    Thank you very much, Marilyn, for that very interesting and very well written piece about a fascinating man and the city that brought him relief.

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