Samuel Beckett: Reclusive Irish literary giant who fought with the French Resistance

Samuel Beckett's atheism was a source of tension with his devoutly Anglican mother
Samuel Beckett's atheism was a source of tension with his devoutly Anglican mother
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Historian GORDON LUCY on the life and work of the ‘Waiting for Godot’ author

This year marks both the 50th anniversary of Samuel Beckett, dramatist, novelist and poet, winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the 30th anniversary of his death.

Beckett claimed to have been born on Good Friday (April 13) 1906 but his birth certificate records his birth as May 13, 1906.

He was the second son of a middle class Church of Ireland family living in Foxrock, a very desirable Dublin suburb. His father, William Frank Beckett, was a quantity surveyor of Huguenot descent, while his mother, Maria Jones Roe, was a nurse. Cooldrinagh, the family home, was a large house, complete with garden and tennis court.

Beckett’s mother was a devout Anglican whereas he considered himself an atheist. This was to be a source of tension between them. Nor did she approve of him embarking on a career as a writer – a career as a quantity surveyor or an academic would have been much more acceptable – but she supported him financially when he was living in penury in France.

Beckett’s love-hate relationship with his mother may have complicated his relationships with other women. He once claimed: ‘I am what her savage loving has made me.’ Nevertheless in 1950 Beckett nursed his mother through her final days in a home in Portobello.

Although Beckett was a sickly child and prone to crying, he grew up to be tall, athletic, and strikingly intelligent.

Between 1919 and 1923 Beckett had attended Portora Royal School as a boarder where he was moody and did not shine academically. However, he captained the First XV, was school light-heavyweight boxing champion and excelled at cricket as a left-hand batsman and left-arm medium bowler. He also played cricket for Trinity College, Dublin. In July 1927 he played a first-class game against Northamptonshire, thus becoming the only Nobel laureate to feature in ‘Wisden’.

Taking a First in Romance languages at TCD, he accepted a temporary teaching post at Campbell College for two terms before taking up a lectureship at the École Normale Supérieure. On the expiry of his contract in Paris, he returned to take up a post as an assistant in French at TCD.

In November 1930, he presented a paper in French to the Modern Languages Society of Trinity on the poet Jean du Chas, allegedly the founder of a movement called ‘le Concentrisme’. It was a literary parody, for Beckett had in fact invented the poet. He was insistent that he had not intended to fool his audience. Perhaps he did, perhaps he didn’t.

Beckett spent most of his adult life in Paris because he found Ireland stifling. He was introduced to James Joyce by Thomas McGreevy, a poet and close confidant of Beckett, and became Joyce’s research assistant for a period. His relationship with Joyce was soured by the fact that Joyce’s emotionally fragile daughter Lucia fell in love with him and he broke her heart.

In January 1938 in Paris, Beckett was almost fatally stabbed in the chest when he refused a pimp’s demands for money. James Joyce arranged a private room for Beckett in a hospital. The publicity surrounding the stabbing attracted the attention of Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil, a woman of avant-garde tastes and left-wing politics, who had encountered Beckett previously at a tennis club. This episode marked the beginning of a 50-year-long, although not exclusive, relationship. They married in March 1961.

The stabbing incident has a bizarrely Beckett-like quality. At a preliminary hearing, Beckett asked his attacker why he had stabbed him. Prudent (the pimp) replied: ‘Je ne sais pas, Monsieur. Je m’excuse’ (‘I do not know, sir. I’m sorry’). Beckett dropped the charges against Prudent – partially to avoid further legal proceedings, partly because he found him likeable and well-mannered.

Following the outbreak of the Second World War he stayed in France and joined the French Résistance because he preferred ‘France at war to Ireland at peace’. This is all the more significant because the Résistance mobilised only a miniscule proportion of the French population. As the historian Robert Gildea has observed, the vast majority learnt to muddle through and admire Marshal Pétain. Their attitude may be best summarised in one word: ‘Attentisme’ (‘wait and see’).

Beckett dismissed his role as ‘boy scout stuff’ and rarely spoke about it which is exactly what you would expect of the man. However, he was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille de la Résistance by the French government.

Beckett’s early poetry and first two novels were written in English but after the war Beckett adopted French as his first literary language because – as he himself explained – it was easier for him to write ‘with less style’.

Beckett’s most famous work is ‘En attendant Godot’ which appeared in French in 1953 (and in English as ‘Waiting for Godot’ in 1956), a play, in which two characters, Vladimir (Didi) and Estragon (Gogo), wait for the arrival of someone named Godot who never arrives, and while waiting they engage in a variety of discussions and encounter three other characters.

In 1956 the literary critic and academic Vivian Mercier, who like Beckett was an Old Portoran and a graduate of TCD, famously observed that Beckett had ‘achieved a theoretical impossibility – a play in which nothing happens, that yet keeps audiences glued to their seats. What’s more, since the second act is a subtly different reprise of the first, he has written a play in which nothing happens, twice’.

In October 1969 while holidaying with Suzanne in Tunis, Beckett heard that he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Anticipating that her shy and reclusive husband would be saddled with unwelcome fame, Suzanne viewed the award as a ‘catastrophe’. While he declined to take on the mantle of ‘the great man of letters’, as Roy Foster pointed out in 2011, he actually coped fairly well.

Beckett died on December 22, 1989, six months after the death of Suzanne.

They are buried side-by-side in Montparnasse cemetery in Paris. The granite gravestone conformed to Beckett’s wish that it should be “any colour, as long as it’s grey”.