Paris, Beckett and Me
John Calder, Samuel Beckett’s publisher and close friend, reflects on times spent together in their preferred city, the writer’s pessimism and generosity, and Paris today
The definitive photograph of Beckett taken by John Minihan in Le Petit Café, PLM Hotel, Boulevard St Jacques, Paris, 1985 The definitive photograph of Beckett taken by John Minihan in Le Petit Café, PLM Hotel, Boulevard St Jacques, Paris, 1985
Author and publisher – and good friend of Samuel Beckett – John Calder
Paris changes less than other major cities. The meeting places where intellectuals find themselves may change, from Montmartre to Montparnasse, from Saint-Germain-des-Près to eastern Paris and some of the suburbs where life is cheaper and the arts encouraged and even financially assisted. But people still go back to the old haunts, restaurants and cafes like the Dôme, the Select and the Falstaff, and even the more touristy venues such as the Deux Magots and the Flore, and the Right Bank’s well-known restaurants such as Fouquet’s, not to mention the grand hotels where English is more commonly heard than any other language.
I have spent a lot of time in Paris, first as a young publisher looking for authors, later as a resident, but I always made a point of becoming a friend of the writers I took on, and spending time with them in cafes and over meals. Some I came to translate from other languages, primarily French, but some were exiles writing in English. One such writer, who became a very close friend from the time I met him in 1955 up to his death in 1989, was Samuel Beckett.
Beckett first went to Paris to teach in 1928, where he fell in with the Joyce Irish circle, and where he returned frequently to try to write, much to the despair of his well-to-do Protestant business family in Dublin, who could not understand why their academically brilliant son would not settle down to a conventional job, but preferred to be penniless in bohemian Paris, writing novels that no one was interested in reading.
Beckett preferred to spend the second World War with his friends in wartime Paris rather than in neutral Ireland, and there he took part in the underground resistance, was wanted by the Gestapo, which had arrested most of his friends, and spent most of the war hiding in the Vaucluse mountains in the south, working on his third book. It was not published until well after the war, after his later novels, written in French, had given him a small, but limited recognition. It was only after the worldwide success of his play Waiting for Godot, first performed in 1953, that he was able to make a living, and by that time his long-suffering parents were both dead.
A total pessimist, obsessed by the many horrors of world events and especially by man’s cruelty to man and even to animals, Beckett had a negative attitude to our short lives on this planet and our attraction to wars, killing and cruelty and tendency to dominate others. He once said that he had nothing against happiness, but personally had no talent for it.
Walking along the Boulevard du Montparnasse one day, I commented that it was a fine day. He looked at the sky and replied “So far”. When at a cricket match with Harold Hobson, the theatre critic, who had observed, “On a day like this, it makes you glad to be alive”, his reply was, “I wouldn’t go so far as that.”