Samuel Beckett in Paris: a luminous emptiness

To curate a festival celebrating Beckett in Paris is to face a huge challenge – how, with sensitivity, to shape a programme capturing the relationship between man and place?

In an essay on Patrick Kavanagh, Seamus Heaney drew a distinction between the earthiness and sense of place in early Kavanagh and the more visionary mature poet. To embody that distinction Heaney referred to a personal memory, of how an aunt of his set a chestnut in a jam-jar in the year of his birth and then subsequently transplanted it to the front of the house. Over the years the boy Heaney and the tree grew but when the family left Mossbawn the new owners, having no emotional attachment, cut down the tree. But the space where the tree had been, its absence, still fascinated Heaney, he referred to its “luminous emptiness”.

Moving on to another Irish writer, you could argue that the analogy of the tree also fits Samuel Beckett’s relationship with Paris. Beckett first moved to Paris in 1928 where he taught at the Ecole Normale Superieure for two years and he moved there more or less for good in 1937, even famously preferring “France at war to Ireland at peace”. For the following 52 years Paris was his home, apart from a brief hiatus during the war when, fearful of capture by the Gestapo, he fled the city for Roussillon in the Vaucluse.

But during those years in Paris, he lived fully in the city; he drank at the Falstaff or the Rosebud and played billiards at the Les Trois Mosquetaires. He visited casinos with Thomas MacGreevy and in his trusty Citroen he once drove a stunned Harold Pinter from bar to bar at breakneck speed. Beckett was also of course a great walker, he criss-crossed Paris time and time again. In his younger days he accompanied James Joyce in walks along the Seine; the older Beckett strolled through the Luxembourg Gardens with the philosopher Emil Cioran. What was said in those conversations has of course floated away, unrecorded, into the ether.

And therein lies the fascination of Beckett and Paris, he’s there but ever so subtly. As he was with people – reticent, gracious – so he was with the city. When the late Aidan Higgins first encountered Beckett he wondered what sort of man he might actually meet. “A Dublin Protestant gent” was his subsequent description, noting Beckett’s “most exquisite manners”.


Even the one street in Paris named after Beckett is predicated on secrecy and caution. The Allée Samuel Beckett (part of the Avenue René Coty) is so named because it was the place where Beckett, during his time in the Resistance, would hand over documents he had translated to a photographer, codenamed “Jimmy the Greek”. The documents were then microfilmed and smuggled by courier into Vichy France and on to the Special Operations headquarters in London.

You can still peer through the glass door into the foyer of the building on the Boulevard Saint Jacques and see the name Beckett amongst the residents’ mailboxes and from there take the short walk to the residential home where he spent his last days, followed by the even shorter walk to his grave in Montparnasse. He himself continued to walk about the city until too frail to do so but during all those years it would appear that he was seldom accosted by admirers or the curious, that people generally refrained, either through awe or discretion, from approaching him. You might say that he brought out qualities in others they didn’t know they had.

Not all writers of course are obsessed, like Joyce or Dickens, with the minutiae of a particular city; there are some who, based on their work, barely seem to have walked this earth at all. With Beckett, not surprisingly, the reality is more complex, more elusive. During the years of his most intense work, when peace and solitude were required, he retreated more and more to his cottage in Ussy, north-east of Paris, but the press of everyday life in the capital, its rituals and rhythms, were second nature to him and must inevitably have shaped him to some degree.

Each morning from the window of his flat he could look down on the imposing bulk of the Santé prison and upon the windows that allowed a sparse light to enter the individual cells. Beckett’s compassion for prisoners and the profound effect his work had upon some of them is well known, but we can only speculate as to the emotions that daily glimpse of confinement stirred in Beckett.

To be involved in curating a festival celebrating Beckett in Paris is by extension to be faced with a huge challenge – how, with sensitivity, do you shape a unique programme that captures the relationship between man and place? For make no mistake, while Beckett himself may no longer be there, his presence as a “luminous emptiness” still haunts the city of his adult years.