Samuel Beckett: European Irishman?

Europe’s multiplicity of languages and cultures, its lack of a singular mind, appealed to the writer

Samuel Beckett said he would rather liver in a France at war than and Ireland at peace. Photograph: Getty Images

Samuel Beckett said he would rather liver in a France at war than and Ireland at peace. Photograph: Getty Images


One is not born, but becomes, a European – and the apprenticeship can be arduous and prolonged, as many people are discovering all over again. At Trinity College Dublin in the 1920s, Samuel Beckett chose to study French and Italian. As a young poet, he placed some lyrics in a volume titled The European Caravan: An Anthology of the New Spirit in European Literature, which appeared in 1931. Yet when he used his college French to purchase a packet of cigarettes at a Parisian kiosk, he received a sardonic reply only in English. He stalked angrily away saying: “All right then, I won’t speak their fucking language”. Less than two decades later, he would be celebrated as a French master.

Irish people have always existed at a certain angle to the European mainland; yet, by virtue of that edginess, they have also been freer to contribute at moments to its developing narrative.

That edginess has been conducive to freedom of thought. Being in a place far from the “centre” allowed Irish people to experiment . A letter written by Cummian in 631AD said that the islanders were at the outer reaches of the known world, so Beckett was by no means the first Irish person to locate himself near the void.

Irish holy men travelled as missionaries across Europe over many centuries. There are churches in Lisbon and Prague whose mortuary stones contain inscriptions in the Irish language. James Joyce said his exile made him a successor not just to Columbanus but also to the Wild Geese.

Beckett, on arrival in Paris in the later 1920s, felt like he was “coming home”. But he also understood that European modernity had proved a mixed blessing. He was, for instance, appalled by the number of armless, legless veterans of the first World War on every boulevard, figures who would feature in his future texts.

Samuel Beckett pictured in Paris in April, 1984. 1984. Photograph: Getty Images
Samuel Beckett pictured in Paris in April, 1984. Photograph: Getty Images

Yet by 1939 the writer confidently told his mother that he would prefer France at war to Ireland at peace. Perhaps one could liken his plight to that of a Romanian or Bulgarian artist who began life by asserting the European nature of Romanian or Bulgarian literature, but then acknowledged the futility of the claim in practical terms and also fled to Paris, in a path traced by E M Cioran or Julia Kristeva. There has always been among certain intellectuals, as Tony Judt observed, a sense of being distinctly national yet also on the edge of other people’s cultures, of being “second-class Europeans”.

The points at which Europe was considered to end and Asia to begin were located in earlier centuries in Vienna – but not so nowadays when the division is found farther east. Equally, when one walks across the market in Palermo or looks at the vegetation of Puglia, one might understand why Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa said, more than half a century ago, that the border between Europe and Africa had been moving steadily northwards. Those poor refugees who head for Sicily in boats may technically seek entry to Europe but in another sense are migrating to a new, other Africa.

Beckett began his writing career as an Irish emigrant in London and he wrote then in English. After the war, he changed to writing in French, “parce que c’est plus facile d’écrire sans style” (because it’s easier to write without style). He was alerting himself to the foreignness of all language, fully weighed – to the need to reject the wit, wordplay and ideas of mastery associated with Joyce. Instead, he sought the myopic word-for-word honesty of the second-language learner. Then, much later on in life, having become a ‘maître a penser’ in French, he eschewed mastery, as he had always done, and reverted mainly to English.

There may be a further explanation for this late change. When Beckett adopted French, it was still the lingua franca of European intellectuals and diplomats; and it remained so even into the early years of the European Economic Community. But by the 1970s, largely due to Americanisation, English had assumed a central role.

In the absence of any visionary definition of Europe, writers were left with little choice but to speak from a specific position

In the decades after 1970 the European community never imposed any cultural definition of itself. Since the last group to do so had been the Nazis, that reticence seemed wise. To a great extent, the implied ideals behind the EEC\EU relied on a forgetting of the recent past. Beckett knew from the Irish experience of trauma in the Great Famine that amnesia is an after-effect of suffering. He explored all this in Waiting for Godot, when he has one tramp remark absent-mindedly to the other: “Yesterday…in my opinion…I was here…yesterday”. The warnings so coded helped to make En Attendant Godot (1952) one of the first truly European plays of the post-World War Two dispensation, in the sense that it travelled rapidly via many languages across many cities, eventually being put on by clandestine groups in the Soviet bloc of the 1980s or in war-torn Sarajevo of the 1990s. The play was coopted to defend liberal values. In those settings, the warnings about social amnesia carried, if anything, an even deeper meaning. Beckett, having been considered a radical writer in youth, had the gift of remaining forever the contemporary in middle and old age.

But in the absence of any visionary definition of Europe, writers were left with little choice but to speak from a specific position. Even after customs borders were abolished in a single market, literatures (perhaps by way of reaction) got nationalised faster than any bank. And Beckett – who once seemed destined for recognition as the first major writer of a European Union – had already reemerged in all his Irishness. When Seán Ó Mórdha talked with him on many occasions for the award-winning RTÉ documentary Silence to Silence(1984), the writer gave clear indications as to precise Irish locations in which passages of his prose were set.

So was Beckett a European Irishman or an Irish European? He kept his Irish passport; and when asked whether his leaving of Ireland meant that he was no longer to be considered an Irishman, his reply was laconic: “au contraire”. The pun implies that he felt more free to be fully Irish when he could express himself in French.

This was a strategy similar to that pursued at much the same time by the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. He described the insistence that Argentine writers deal with national habits and local colour as “arbitrary”. There were no camels in The Koran, he said, because only a falsifier, a tourist or a nationalist would have seen them; but Mohammed, happily unconcerned, knew that he could be an Arab without camels. Borges, indeed, confessed that for years he had tried and failed to capture the feel of Buenos Aires in his stories; but he said that it was only when he called Paseo Colon the Rue de Toulon or only when he dubbed the country-house of Adrogue Fiste-le-Roy that his readers sensed the true Argentine flavor. By using the mask of French names he somehow felt freer to express his identity.

A production of Waiting for Godot in France circa 1953. Photograph: Getty Images
A production of Waiting for Godot in France circa 1953. Photograph: Getty Images

Borges said that the Argentine writer stood on the periphery of all things European; and therefore was able to use Spanish “without superstition”, with a liberty impossible to those whose native language it was. Beckett probably felt much the same about French. He was always suspicious of neat, glib identifications. Just as he would never have subscribed to an essentialist definition of Ireland, he could never have endorsed T S Eliot’s phrase celebrating “the mind of Europe”, harking back to Virgil and the Roman Empire. It was Europe’s lack of such a singular mind that appealed to Beckett, its multiplicity of languages and cultures.

Insofar as the “mind of Europe” has been given cultural definition, this has been done mainly by outsiders – such as T S Eliot or Henry James – who craved admission to the club. In a more negative spirit it has been defined by arch-critics of European imperialism such as Frantz Fanon or Leopold Senghor. But Beckett, like the founders of the EEC, was wary of employing such confident, over-arching terminology.

The Wikipedia entry on the EU has not bought into a philosophical\/aesthetic idea of Europe. Its shortest sub-section of all is on “culture” – five cautious lines asserting that the Union is heir to several periods of civilization: Biblical Israel, Indo-European, Greek and Roman; Judaeo-Christian; Renaissance and Enlightenment. Rather poignantly, the entries on cultural policy assert that “this section needs expansion”.

The Wikipedia section on European identity is quite empty but also, when last I checked, carries the message that “this section needs expansion”.

The Union gives hope and some sense of protection to those eastern European peoples who fear a renewed invasion by Russian troops; and in the Erasmus Scheme it runs a brilliant system of travelling studentships. Beckett’s sojourn at the École Normale Supériere might be seen as happily anticipatory of this scheme. But like Jean Monnet, Beckett was too sophisticated, or wary, to define a cultural philosophy of Europe in the aftermath of World War Two.

The closing scenes of Godot counterpose those who suffer and those who merely became professors of the fact that someone else was suffering

Yet, like Monnet, he had every reason to believe that the experience of Europeans called for some counter-truth to the Nazi version of empire. Plays like Endgame suggest that any search for an absolute centre is futile and will eventuate only in tyrannical controls. Beckett had put his body on the line when he joined the “Gloria” cell which helped Jewish people escape from the fascists. When the cell was betrayed, he and his partner were given diplomatic shelter by a friendly Irish priest in the College des Irlandais, before they fled south to Roussillon. These were the same years in which existential artists such as Sartre and Camus (despite being sincere anti-fascists) put on plays with front-row seats reserved for Nazi officers.

In later years, Beckett was far too modest to say anything about all this; and when he was awarded the Croix de Guerre by Charles de Gaulle, he dismissed his heroics as “boy-scout stuff”. But the closing scenes of Waiting for Godot imply telling contrasts. In effect they counterpose those who suffer and those “écrivains engagés” who merely became professors of the fact that someone else was suffering. They compare those who offered real help with those who offered mere eloquence.

The time spent on the run deepened Beckett’s sympathy with nomads and refugees. The tramps of Godot are in a line which reaches back, via Yeats and Synge, to the spailpín poets of Gaelic Ireland and, before them, to the ruined bards. The more he retreated into La France Profonde, the more Beckett uncovered lost Irelands within himself.

One can’t help wondering whether Beckett’s preference for a France at war to an Ireland at peace wasn’t, deeper down, a way of re-experiencing many key moments of Irish history – war, famine, language loss, forced migration. After the end of the second World War he worked as a volunteer storekeeper for the Irish Red Cross Station at St Lo, a place utterly levelled by bombs. He feared that Irish neutrality, far from being a positive policy, might have been no better than indifference (and this despite the fact that he may have owed his life to such neutrality). He worried that even the kindly Irish volunteers at St Lo did not fully understand what the people they tended had just been through: “their way of being was not our way and our way of being was not their way”.

Yet he also felt that the volunteers were displaying a national genius for building something good amid catastrophe. “They got what they could hardly give, a vision and a sense of a time-honoured conception of humanity in ruins, and perhaps even an inkling of the terms in which our condition is to be thought again”.

He was intensely European – and Irish – because he felt himself on the frontiers of Europe; and he knew that its borders, like those of the human mind, are ever-changing.

This is a shortened version of a talk given on Europe Day, May 9th, at the Department of Foreign Affairs in Iveagh House. Declan Kiberd teaches at Notre Dame

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