A Memory of Sam Beckett

Sam Beckett was sitting at the table next to me in the Café de Flore, discreetly sipping his fine maison, the house brandy which he liked to diagnose as distilled cow-piss. He happened to look over at the front page of Paris Soir which happened to be lying on a corner of his table and prominently displayed a picture of Edouard Daladier, who had just made a hopeful statement about the progress of the war in the Chamber of Deputies.

Quel abruti, he muttered angrily, and went back to his cowpiss. I was taken aback.

Beckett on principle maintained a deadpan Busterkeatonish face, he disapproved of any too obvious display of human emotion. And when he encountered such a display, at the next table in the Flore or when reading a novel of Balzac, only a slight stiffening of his features revealed the depth of his distate. He might play practical jokes, as when he directed recent arrivals in Paris to what he described as the most neighborly of neighborhood bars where they would learn from experience that if you pulled the chain of the toilet without bounding simultaneously out of the premises you would receive a bucketful of water on your head; but he rarely laughed out loud.

Why, I wondered, should he, the favorite disciple of James Joyce, the man who had shone the first searchlight on what was to become Finnegans Wake in the opening pages of Our Exagminbation of the Incamination of the Factification of his Work in Progress, the author of novels like Molloy and More Pricks than Kicks which cut a straight and heroically meaningless path through the disorderly thickets of modern fiction, how could he bother to be moved to a public display of anger by the knowledge that the French Minister of National Defense was a drunken bum?

This was in the early spring of 1940 at one of the dull points of what the French called the drôle de guerre, the Americans the phony war. Officially, since the first week of the previous September there was a war on between England and France on one side and Germany on the other, though only brash Time Magazine in New York had had the audacity to call it World War II. But little that was genuinely newsworthy had happened in this war except the fourth Partition of Poland and the sinking of a German pocket battleship. And no one seemed to know what to make of it.

The Allied high commands certainly did not. The best the French could come up with was a plan to cripple the German economy by sending planes from Syria to bomb Russian oil wells in the Caucasus. The British were planning to send an expeditionary force to crush the Russians in Finland.

And no one in our little world of bright young minds, the avant-garde of civilization, meeting for drinks daily in the shadow the tower of Saint Germain des Prés, seemed to be any closer to reality. Francis Gruber, the ebullient garrulous gifted young painter who was Alberto Giacometti's spiritual heir, told us all one day to pay no attention to this so-called war, it was a joke. Once it was settled by an agreement among the bosses, we could get down to serious business, the war in the streets.

Jean-Paul Sartre who in a few months would take his seat as philosopher-king at another table in the Flore was at that time serving in a detachment of the French army that had been idling away the fall and winter months near the German frontier. He was visited there by his friend Simone de Beauvoir, known as Le Castor or the Beaver, and he presented her with an insight which she industriously transcribed in one of the volumes of her autobiography:

"There will be no fighting, it will be a modern war without massacres as modern painting is without subject, music without melody, physics without matter."

James Joyce, whom Beckett like every one else regarded as the purest clearest voice of modern times, was equally scornful of the current events. In the desolate village where he had taken refuge from a possible bombardment of Paris, he spent silent hours raging against a world which in the year 1939, when it should have been celebrating the turning-point in civilization which was the publication of Finnegans Wake, was not paying the slightest attention to Finnegans Wake (even Ezra Pound, who might have been expected to admire its Parnassus of puns, scrawled on the flyleaf of the dedication copy Joyce sent him one word in giant letters, DECADENCE!), it was instead thrashing around in a Phony War which had so far produced no more than one occasion for a gemlike Joycean pun. When mighty Russia attacked little Finland in midwinter and was stopped dead in its tracks, the master noted laconically: "The Finn again wakes."

It is true that as so often in his later works, he didn't know when to stop. He went on: ".and from every corner Buckleys are pouring to kill that Russian general." This refers to what is generally regarded as one of the more obscure passages in the dream of Humphrey Earwicker, in which an Irish soldier named Buckley, fighting for the English in the Crimean War, puts a bullet into a general of the Tsar as he is defecating behind a bush, one of the key twists in the great jumbled knot of world history which Finnegans Wake was destined to unwind.

(For a closeup of one of these Buckleys, consult the appropriate chapter in Evelyn Waugh's Put Out More Flags, where Lord Peter Pastmaster, a typical titled nincompoop of those Waughbegone years prances about his club wearing on his uniform the insignia of a regiment not his own, slyly boasting that no one can have any idea of the goal of the top-secret mission on which he is about to take off, till he goes into the bar and the barman says, "Good morning, my lord, I see you're off to Finland too." But of course the Finnish armies collapsed before all those Buckleys could leave an England they would soon be forming a thin red line to defend from obliteration.)

Beckett would leave town periodically to visit Joyce and try to help him through his black moods. They would spend hours gloomily meditating in a dark room, equally silent, but where Joyce was meditating about his own problems, notably his perpetual lack of cash, Beckett was meditating about the state of the world in what he liked to refer to as "these next-to-the-last times."

He might have been the old man he would put in an ashcan in Endgame, the play he would write many years later, who sticks his head up to wearily tell the old joke about the tailor whose customer was furious at the time he took to make a pair of pants, always finding something that needed perfecting in waist or hem or fly and postponing final delivery for a week, for a month, forever. "God," cries the exasperated customer, "made the world in six days." "Yes", says the old man in his pain and his grief, "but look at my trousers, and look at the world!"

Beckett could not have been surprised when the world came apart on the tenth of May 1940, when the beast of Berlin came springing out of his jungle, and his armies rolled in a few days over the battlefields of the last war where they had been stalled for four bloody years, rolled over Paris.

The bulk of the population having fled, for a few days the Flore was empty.

Then little by little, the old habitués, such of them as had not fled for good to country homes or to London or to New York. were back at their same old tables, ordering their same old café crème or vermouth cassis or distilled cow-piss from the same old waiters.

Life out on the boulevard might be less noisy and stressful than before, there was little traffic but an occasional bus with a huge gastank on its roof, an occasional German staff car on a sight-seeing tour. There was no food at the food store across the street except for piles of rutabagas and Jerusalem artichokes, the only vegetables in any quantities that year.

As the days wore on and it became clear that both the world and the war was going to go rolling on, even though the country called France had dropped out, everyone settled down to routines not too different from those that had been interrupted by the new tourists from across the Rhine. Everyone found ways to get around the new restrictions and rationings, everyone went to bed early on account of the curfew, everyone had a favorite little black market restaurant, everyone paid the rent and traveled by the metro and listened to the BBC and passed along the latest gossip. Picasso went calling on the younger painters, urging them to go on painting.

From time to time German uniforms would appear , but that presented few problems in daily life. German soldiers were under orders to be correct, to speak courteously to civilians if they had to ask their way through the maze of Paris boulevards, to volunteer to help old ladies cross the street. And they did so: in the German Army the rule has always been: Ordnung ist Ordnung.

There were rumors of brutalities ahead, but for the moment no blows were being struck in public. When all Jews (meaning, under the Nuremberg laws adopted by the French authorities, all persons with more than one Jewish grand-parent) were ordered to line up outside the local police stations to have a huge black J stamped on their identity papers, it was treated lightly in the press, with pictures of monks and nuns standing in the lines. A young painter named Basler told me once that there was a grotesque rumor going around that Jews were going to be required to wear yellow stars on their clothes as in the Middle Ages, and if that day came he was going to attach a big yellow star to his dog. He thought it was a good joke.

Beckett was less giddy than Basler, or Sartre or Joyce. He knew what hung in the air He was horrified one day to see a Jewish intimate of the Joyce circle walking nonchalantly down a Paris street, and he told him, "Are you crazy? You must get out of here at once." But no, he was worrying about getting his son into a good school, and he had to be on the spot for as long as it took to make the arrangements. Long enough for him to be picked up by the Germans and disappear forever.

. Samuel Beckett had nothing to fear personally from the occupying power. He was a citizen of neutral Ireland, a country the Germans were anxious not to offend in any way because Irish neutrality was a great boon to the operations of their air and naval forces. Small remittances from home and small fees for odd jobs could keep him living frugally in his ascetic little apartment in the 15th arrondissement, its only decoration some paintings of his close friend Bram van Velde, the most lugubrious follower of the lugubrious abstract movement which was becoming dominant in the art world at the time.

There was nothing to keep him from unhurriedly commuting day after day by the Metro between his apartment and his favorite cafés and restaurants and bookstores in the 14th arrondissement,,and spending endless hours at the cafes brooding on the painful absurdities of the world and noting them down with a precise mixture of frisky colloquialism and learned scholasticism, pondering for whole days on a single phrase. The Flore was an especially comfortable place in which to drink and read and write, especially when the weather got bad, for M. Boubal the proprietor knew his way around the black market and the police department well enough to keep his stoves full of illegal fuel. Sartre would spend almost every day there after he came back from a German prison camp, at a table always piled high with paper, writing and writing and writing, philosophical treatises on Being and Non-being, two volumes of a novel, and plays with an anti-Nazi message so cleverly concealed that the censors would approve them for production on the Parisian equivalent of Broadway

It was easy to settle in to such a routine. The brilliant young director Roger Blin, the white hope of the theater, used to come to the Flore regularly and brood over the frivolity and futility of the contemporary Paris stage, and envision plans for its resurrection. "What in God's name is all that awful racket?" he asked a friend of his who had just come in. "What in God's name is the matter with you?" exclaimed the friend, who as a Belgian surrealist should have been lass astonished by the oddities of human behavior, "Don't you knew what has happened, The war is over. C'est la victoire." "La Victoire des cons [or as we would say, assholes]," muttered Blin disgustedly and went back to brooding and his dreams of the transformation of the stage which he would indeed bring about a few years later with his productions of the first two plays of Samuel Beckett, En attendant Godot and Fin de Partie.

Yet Beckett did not spend the occupation years reading and writing and brooding at the Flore. He might like to compare himself to fictional characters like the Russian Oblomov who practiced laziness as a religious rite and the American Bartleby the Scrivener who "preferred not to" lift one little finger to keep the vile world which he had to live in go round. If he had a coherent vision of the world, it was a place where good intentions, like everything else, turn out badly.

Yet in that bitter winter of 1940-41, he did something which neither Oblomov or Bartleby could have imagined doing. he opted to join an underground cell composed of scholars who worked in a Paris museum who had found means on laying their hands on documents which they were convinced could of use to the British armed forces. The documents would be delivered to Beckett, who would take them home, film them, hand them back to be returned to their proper place, while the films were smuggled across the Channel by boat or by planes landing on dark fields in the French countryside on moonless nights.

He did it with the full knowledge that his friends were amateurs in the arts of underground warfare, and were unlikely to keep the skilled and savage bloodhounds of the combined police forces of France and Germany from sniffing them out rather sooner than later. He knew that a slight careless gesture, a misplaced word at the Flore or the Dome where the man sitting behind you might be willing to turn you in for a substantial reward, meant abominable torture and miserable death.

Why did he do it? Why was he of all that crew of apprentice geniuses at the Flore the only one who put his life on the line in the service of what he would have been outraged to hear described as a noble cause?

So, come to think of it, was another habitué of the Flore in the early months of 1940, one Donald MacLean who was part of the little group that congregated around Alberto Giacometti's table. He worked in the British Embassy, he was neat and prim and soft-spoken, and everyone considered him perfectly harmless. It would be more than a decade before it became public knowledge that he was devoting his life unselfishly to the cause of the oppressed laboring masses of the world and steadily, with quiet efficiency, passing on top secret documents to an outfit more professional than Beckett's museum-workers, the GPU (or NKVD, or whatever the Soviet intelligence service was called in those days).

It is most unlikely that the material provided to the British armed forces by Beckett and his friends in 1941 killed any Germans, though their efforts receive a commendatory sentence in the official history of the Special Operations Executive, which handled British underground operations during the war. After the war was safely over, Beckett very properly rebuffed the request of a publisher that he write a narrative, which would surely be a best-seller, of his underground experiences. They were very humdrum experiences for a best-seller. His collaborators were rank amateurs when it came to running secret operations, they were soon rounded up and disposed of, and Beckett himself was lucky to have been able to get out of Paris in time to find a hiding place on an isolated farm in the south of France for the next three years.


No one, of course, in the dreary winter of 1941, with cold rain pelting the Paris streets, with the guns briefly silent while Hitler made up his mind where to strike next, no one had any idea that Sam Beckett, sitting in his courtly way at the Flore on the days when it was legal to sell alcohol, was waging war on his own.

I had married a French girl around that time, and we were both swept up in a mass emigration of Americans who for one reason or other were still around in regions occupied by the Germans, a people with whom we obviously were not going to remain at peace indefinitely. A special train was commissioned to take us all to Lisbon.

The name of Lisbon had a special resonance in those days. It was one of the two holes (the other being Petsamo in Finland), escape hatches through which, if you were lucky enough to have the right papers, and sufficient funds, you could wriggle out of a Europe that was becoming an immense concentration camp and take a ship across the Atlantic to freedom.

The train was scheduled to leave from the Austerlitz station, and we invited all our friends to come down and have a few drinks there and see us off. Many were eager to accept, but then they stopped to calculate that the train was leaving at night, and the nights were dark, and curfew rang at a fairly early hour, and people picked up on the street after curfew had been known to have unpleasant experiences. And so we were not entirely surprised, when we came into the great blacked-out hall of the station, that there was nobody familiar to greet us. Nobody except Sam Beckett. He shook hands with us, wished us bon voyage, pressed into my hand a copy of Henry Fielding's Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon (which, as I read it through long hours through the dark cork forests of Spain, consisted largely of his agonizing problems passing stones through his urinary tract), and then in his quiet gentlemanly way slipped back into the blacked-out street outside.

©2005 Robert Wernick