Where the streets have no substance: An Irishman's Diary

An Irishman’s Diary about Samuel Beckett’s Paris

“As for the street’s depiction on local maps as a separate entity, protruding from the avenue at an angle, the best guess is that it was the work of a hurried clerk somewhere, who was faced with the undeniable reality of a place called Allée Samuel Beckett, but nowhere to match it.”

“As for the street’s depiction on local maps as a separate entity, protruding from the avenue at an angle, the best guess is that it was the work of a hurried clerk somewhere, who was faced with the undeniable reality of a place called Allée Samuel Beckett, but nowhere to match it.”

Thu, Jul 10, 2014, 11:12

On certain maps of Paris, there is a street named Allée Samuel Beckett (Samuel Beckett Way). As depicted, it runs diagonally from the Avenue René Coty, in the 14th arrondissement, to the Rue du Saint-Gothard. And this would be a perfectly plausible thing for it to do. Beckett lived in this area, after all. But the problem with the street is, it doesn’t exist.

It is essentially a work of fiction, based loosely on fact. There is an Allée Samuel Beckett, all right, but rather than being a separate street, it’s just the walkway that passes up the middle of the aforementioned Avenue René Coty. The actual avenue, meanwhile, is still named after Coty (a former French president).

That the walkway was named in Beckett’s honour is because, during the war, it’s where he used to meet one of his contacts in the French Resistance, a man nicknamed “Jimmy the Greek”, to give him the reports of German troop movements, translated and typed up by Beckett, that would then be passed on to Allied intelligence.

As for the street’s depiction on local maps as a separate entity, protruding from the avenue at an angle, the best guess is that it was the work of a hurried clerk somewhere, who was faced with the undeniable reality of a place called Allée Samuel Beckett, but nowhere to match it.

Maybe it was a quarter to five on a Friday evening, and he need to find a place to put the address fast. Since nobody appeared to live there, he may have reasoned, they wouldn’t complain. In any case, he decided that the allée should pass through what – in a twist on the concept of “writer’s block” – are two rows of solid buildings.

And in a way, a street of the imagination is an apt tribute to any artist, although it must present the occasional Beckett tourist with an existentialist dilemma. On the area map at Avenue René Coty, a red circle now declares confidently that “You are here”, a fact which appears undeniable. As for getting there, to the depicted ghost street, that remains an insoluble paradox.

Happily, I only learned of the mystery recently in the company of Carlos Ramos, a charming Galician tour-guide who includes the real and phantom allées in a walk called “Seven Places about Beckett”. A former international swimmer, Carlos devised the tour not as a commercial venture, really, but as a tribute to a writer he loves. And it’s just as well, because on the morning I did it, he had only three customers.

Actually, for a long time, it was two. But there was a third man (a Scot) on his way from somewhere. And the third man was known to the second man (a Paris-exiled New Yorker), who from time to time received elliptical text messages about the third man’s latest whereabouts, never completely convincing.

Yes, I know, it sounds like the plot of a certain Beckett play. In fact after we first delayed the start of the tour for the Scotsman’s supposedly imminent arrival, and then completed most of it in expectation of a rendezvous en route, I had begun to think he too was fictional. Then, in a surprise development, he turned up.

He arrived just in time for the tour’s denouement, which took place, ironically, on the site of the theatre where Waiting for Godot had its premiere. The venue is now in a private courtyard, but Carlos had secured the door code from residents, with a similar obligation to strict secrecy as would have applied to Beckett’s dealings with Jimmy the Greek.

There’s no plaque to record the building’s significance. Nor is there anything on the apartment block at Boulevard St Jacques where Beckett lived for 25 years (although if you peer through the glass door, you can still see his surname on a postbox). And in general Becket seems to have added little to the plaque build-up that, in parts of Paris, would worry a dentist.

Maybe this is just as well too. The historic complexities of Irish identity have led, for example, to a mildly notorious memorial on the Latin Quarter street where James Joyce lived while writing Ulysses describing him as an “écrivain britannique, d’origine irlandaise”.

As for sign on the (actual) Allée Samuel Beckett, it causes no such diplomatic incidents, describing Beckett simply as an “écrivain irlandais”. But interestingly, it does not mention Dublin. Instead, with a precision that eluded the map-maker, it describes the geographic and chronological parameters of his life, ending with “Paris 1989” and beginning with “Foxrock 1906”.

@FrankmcnallyIT

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

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