I could have met Samuel Beckett
Author Conor Bowman explains why he left the famous writer waiting, like Godot, and he never meets his hero, while his friend, Malone, does
Samuel Beckett in Paris, April 1984. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images
I arrived into Paris to meet up with my best friend, Cormac Malone. It was July 1986. Malone was studying French and English on an army scholarship while I was reading pure English. He was two years older than me and had a salary; apart from that I had always considered us to be equals. He had joined the army as an officer cadet, following in the footsteps of an uncle on his mother’s side. All in all, he was a good guy, a little obsessed with the army for my money, but probably an excellent soldier. He had free campus accommodation for a month in Cité Université and I was welcome to the couch. It had all seemed perfect.
Over the next few days the magnets which drew me were tiny places; like the coffee house on the Île St Louis, which just served hot chocolate, or the windows of antiquarian bookshops in the side streets of the Left Bank. But the corner of the city which kidnapped my interest that summer was Shakespeare and Company, the bookshop on the banks of the Seine, just a stale croissant’s throw away from Notre Dame. The tall building leaned out at the river, beckoning people in.
Gretchen, from Holland, was studying English too and worked for a few hours a day on the till in this wonderful bookshop. In exchange, she was allowed to kip upstairs at night in a sleeping bag rolled out on a window seat. Hervé, her grumpy colleague, was from Provence and had no interest in either sunshine or wine. He wanted to write novels. I idled in the bookshop daily and one afternoon, as I sat on a narrow stairs reading another book I couldn’t buy, Gretchen made her way past me to the small kitchenette on the next floor. On her way back down, she handed me a mug of milky coffee and examined the spine of the book I was reading.
“Ah, Beckett,” she said with a grin. “Of course! He’s Irish too. Why don’t you meet him?”
“You’re joking?” I countered.
“Not at all,” Hervé said. “I’ve heard of people who have had lunch with him.”
I wondered if this was just another urban legend.
“It’s definitely true about Beckett, like Hervé said,” Gretchen told me breathlessly a day or two later. “I’ve met someone who has met him. He’s one of the organisers of a poetry festival in Montmartre. I asked him if he’ll help you out.”
And so I found myself outside Shakespeare and Company waiting to meet a Moroccan musician called Sa’id. I stood in front of the closed bookshop, clutching a copy of Beckett’s novel, Watt, to display my bona fides.
“So you want to meet Samuel Beckett?”
“Yes,” I said. “Can you help?”
He took a scrap of paper from a pocket halfway down his trouser leg. He held it up and away from me, like he was teasing a dog.
“There are three rules,” he said, “before I can trust you with the address.”
“One; you must write to him and leave the letter in the postbox in the apartment block foyer. Two, you must never contact him again if he does not reply.” So far so good I thought. “And finally, you must never share the address with anyone.”
“I’ve got a friend, another student from Ireland, here in Paris as well. We’d both like to meet him.”
“You can try and tell Monsieur Beckett that in your letter,” the Moroccan warned, “but chances are he will not meet more than one person at a time. My belief is if you say there are two of you, then he will not reply. But of course it’s up to you. Do you accept the three rules?”
I nodded my agreement and we shook hands.
I walked back to the university. I didn’t have enough money for the Métro.
“I bet it’s not his real address,” Malone said.
The following day I wrote to Samuel Beckett.
Dear Mr Beckett,
I am a student of English in UCG and I am in Paris for a few weeks. I wondered if you would like to meet for a pint. I hope you don’t mind my writing to you out of the blue.
I gave Malone’s accommodation as my return address and set off with my map of Paris.
The building was not difficult to find. I stood in the small hallway and scanned the names on the letterboxes. There it was; “M et Mme Beckett”. I looked at the envelope in my hands and nervously shook it to make certain I’d put the letter inside before I’d sealed it. I popped it in the letterbox and left.
That weekend Malone and I went away. When we returned to Paris there was a letter sellotaped to Malone’s door, addressed in spidery writing to me.
Dear Mr Bowman,
I could see you as follows; Monday July 28, 11am, Hotel PLM, 17 Blvd St. Jacques.
If this suits you, no need to reply.
“Why is it only addressed to you?” Malone asked over my shoulder as I read and re-read the note.
“Because I’m the person who wrote to him.”
“Yeah, okay, but why doesn’t it mention me?”
“Perhaps he means ‘you’ plural. Anyway, some of his plays have even less words than this bloody note, so give him a break.”
“Jaysus, this is incredible,” Malone said. “In 10 days we’re going to meet the greatest living Irish writer.”
For days I agonised over what to do but eventually just got plastered one afternoon and spilled the beans at dinner.
“He won’t meet two of us. That’s why I never mentioned you when I wrote to him.” Malone’s face fell and rage, jealousy and upset crossed his features like futures tumbling on a stock-exchange display. He was silent. I filled the silence with words which did not help.
“I, I didn’t really think he’d even reply.”
Malone stared me out and then drained his drink.
“I’m not angry,” he said, in a fairly sanctimonious tone of voice. “I’m just very disappointed that you felt you had to get drunk just to tell me the truth.”
Suddenly, and irreversibly, everything altered between us.
“Try to sober up before you meet him,” he said as he was leaving for class. That said it all.
I sat for hours, getting soaked, on the edge of a fountain on the Blvd St Michel trying to figure a way out. I knew that I had to choose between my opportunity and my friend. Eventually I came up with an answer.
“I’ve got to get back home, Cormac,” I said when next we met. “I’m nearly out of money. I’m going to catch a train to Le Havre in an hour’s time.” Behind me, my barely credible rucksack and re-strung guitar leant against the wall.
“Are you sure?” he asked with disinterest.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’ve weighed everything up.”
“What about Beckett?” Malone asked.
“I’ve thought about that,” I replied. “Would you meet him at the Hôtel PLM and give him this?” I had penned another letter, introducing Malone, and making my excuses about a family crisis back in Dublin.
A few days later, back home in Ireland, I received another note in the same spidery handwriting.
Dear Mr. Bowman
Thank you for your letter received from Lt Malone.
Try me again when you are next in Paris.
He died a couple of years later and I never did get to meet him. My only consolation is that I have two handwritten notes from Samuel Beckett. Godot didn’t turn up either. At least I wrote!
Horace Winter Says Goodbye by Conor Bowman is published by Hachette Ireland, £12.99