‘A hard and clandestine life’ – An Irishwoman’s Diary on Samuel Beckett in Roussillon
Roussillon: The village of 1,300 will commemorate Samuel Beckett’s 1942-1944 stay with its 19th annual Beckett Festival from July 30th until August 1st
A country road at dusk. A tall, gaunt man and a boy walk side by side. The man is Samuel Beckett, future Nobel laureate. The boy is Aimé Bonnelly, the 11-year-old son of French peasants. His father Albert is in a German prison camp. His mother Berthe has set up the vineyard that she and her husband talked about before the war.
The writer is frail from hunger and the trials of his and Suzanne’s flight from the Gestapo. Berthe Bonnelly has hired him to help with the vineyard. He shares Berthe and Aimé’s humble meal at noon, and for his labour receives a few francs and a chicken every Sunday.
At the beginning of the second act of Waiting for Godot, Vladimir and Estragon discuss whether or not they were in Roussillon, the beautiful hilltop village perched above pine trees and red sandstone cliffs in the Vaucluse region of Provence.
Estragon transforms “Vaucluse” into “Merdecluse”, and says he’s spent his whole life in it. But they did the wine harvest there together! Vladimir reminds him, “chez someone called Bonnelly, in Roussillon”.
The village of 1,300 will commemorate Beckett’s 1942-1944 stay in Roussillon with its 19th annual Beckett Festival from July 30th until August 1st. The actor Jacques Frantz will read from The Unnamable, the third book in Beckett’s trilogy. The festival will close with a performance by Denis Lavant of Worstword Ho.
Giselle Bonnelly (62) is a retired estate agent, the mayor of Roussillon and the daughter of the boy who walked with Beckett every evening until the tall, taciturn man sent the boy home. Aimé Bonnelly is now 87. He’s deaf and lives in a nursing home, but his daughter says he has powerful memories of Beckett.
“The farm is on the edge of the road and the Germans drove by every night. It was a terrible time for my father, because he didn’t know if his own father would ever return,” Giselle Bonnelly says. “Every morning Monsieur Beckett came to help . . . He was from a different world, but over two years they had exchanges, about worries, about the war, that created a bond . . . My little village was intrigued by this man in the long, black coat.”
Giselle Bonnelly knows the passage in Godot about her parents’ vineyard by heart. She tells me she had the good fortune to find a question on Beckett on her baccalaureate examination. “I got a high mark,” she says laughing.
Beckett no longer fascinates the peasants of Roussillon. They know little about his oeuvre, and resent Paris intellectuals blowing in and imposing their taste.
As the late Anthony Cronin recounted in his magnificent biography of Beckett, Roussillon was divided during the war, between conservatives who thought the Germans weren’t so bad, and the communist-led Resistance, in which Beckett took part.
Today, the village is divided in a different way. “Some are gung-ho for the festival,” says Frantz, the actor and festival director. “Others say, ‘Get the hell out of here, Parisians. This is our place’.”
Theatre is Frantz’s first love. “Godot was the founding act of the ‘theatre of the absurd’, of avant-garde theatre, not just French,” he says. “If it weren’t for Beckett, a lot of authors would not have written. He is like a lighthouse, a pillar, a sort of ultimate reference. He had an enormous influence on French culture, literature and theatre.”
Beckett and Suzanne were cold and hungry in Roussillon during the war. The experience taught him the bitterness of manual labour and waiting. It strengthened his determination to write mainly in French. In Roussillon, Beckett developed the style filled with doubts and uncertainty that would become his hallmark.
The couple socialised with other refugees.
Beckett liked to drink with Noelle Beamish, an ageing Irish lesbian writer who lived in Roussillon with a young companion and who was a cousin of Winston Churchill.
Cronin recounted how amused the villagers were to see Miss Beamish’s mannish underwear on the clothesline alongside her lover’s frilly smalls.
The villagers did not know of Beckett’s previous role in the Resistance network called Gloria. Southeastern France was a stronghold of rebellion against the Nazis, and Beckett became involved again, although the group in Roussillon do not appear to have done much with the guns and grenades they hid after perilous treks to parachute drops at night.
At the end of the war, Beckett and fellow members of the Resistance planned to ambush the retreating Germans. But the Germans didn’t come near Roussillon. “It’s a very Beckettian story,” Frantz laughs. “You might call it, ‘Waiting for the Germans’.”
Beckett would later dismiss his role in the Resistance as “boy scout stuff.” The French government awarded him the Croix de Guerre for his work with the Gloria network. The citation mentioned the “hard and clandestine life” he endured in Roussillon.