Irish Paris

Samuel Beckett


 
     The ENS, rue d'Ulm
After brilliant studies in Modern Languages, the name of Samuel Beckett (Foxrock, Co. Dublin, 1906 - Paris, 1989) was put forward by the Board of Trinity College Dublin to fill the position of lecteur at the prestigious Ecole Normale Supérieure (ENS, rue d’Ulm, 6th arrondissement). Thus, in October 1928, at the age of 22, Beckett arrived in Paris where he was to stay until September 1930. He was lodged in a room on the first floor of the ENS overlooking the rue d’Ulm, looking out over “the bare tree, dripping; then, behind, smoke from the janitor’s chimney-pot, rising stiff like a pine of ashes; then, beyond, beyond the world, pouring a little light up the gully of the street that westers to the Luxembourg….” [Dream of Fair to Middling Women].

With not too much to do to justify his presence at the ENS, Beckett took to drinking quite heavily, one of his favourite watering-holes being the Cochon de Lait in the rue de Corneille (6th arrondissement, café no longer extant), where he spent much of the prize money won in 1930 for his long poem, Whoroscope. In July 1931, just like James Joyce, J.M. Synge and W.B. Yeats before him, Beckett was to stay at the Hôtel Corneille (now disappeared), also in rue de Corneille.

 
Rue Samuel Beckett near Ussy-sur-Marne
It was during this stay that Beckett was introduced to James Joyce by fellow-Irishman and ENS resident, Thomas MacGreevy. Beckett became a frequent visitor to Joyce’s flat at Square Robiac until May 1930, when he was blamed for upsetting Joyce’s schizophrenic daughter, Lucia.
Beckett’s next  longish stay in Paris stretched from end-January to July 12, 1932. Initially, he stayed at the top of the Trianon Palace Hotel at 1bis-3, rue de Vaugirard (6th arrondissement) just around the corner from the rue de Corneille, but in May 1932 Beckett had to leave this hotel when the French undertook one of their periodic campaigns to throw out foreigners who did not have a residence permit. From then until the end of his stay, he slept at the studio of artist Jean Lurçat.

Beckett’s relations with both Ireland and his family became increasingly strained over the next five years and so, in autumn 1937, he fled the family cocoon for Paris once more. In October 1937, he arrived back in Paris where he was to remain for most of the next 52 years, favouring the Left Bank during all this time. “Nothing changes the relief at being back here,” he wrote after arriving in Paris. “Like coming out of gaol in April.”

Beckett’s first address in 1937 was 12, rue de la Grande Chaumière (6th arrondissement), a street in whose art academies numerous Irish artists had studied and where Paul Henry had lived. But shortly afterwards, Beckett swiftly moved across the street to a room in the Hôtel Libéria at no. 9. In January 1938, he came close to being stabbed to death by a pimp along the Avenue d’Orléans (now Avenue Général Leclerc, 14th arrondissement)). Fortunately, James Joyce managed to fix up his acolyte in a private room at the Broussais hospital (14th arrondissement) and then to pay for it. It was during his recovery in hospital that Beckett received visits from Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumnesil who had played doubles tennis matches against Beckett 10 years earlier. Though she was six years older than him, Deschevaux-Dumnesil was to become Beckett’s constant companion until death.

 
        6, rue des               Favorites
The Hôtel Libéria rapidly became too expensive for Beckett’s pocket, so in April 1938 he moved to a studio at the top of no. 6, rue des Favorites (15th arrondissement). In August 1942, Beckett and Deschevaux-Dumnesil were living there when they received a tip off that the Gestapo was cracking down on the (mildly effective) resistance network for which they worked. They escaped and hunkered down in southern France until January 1945 when they returned to their studio, which had miraculously escaped pillaging.
In 1953, with money left to him by his mother, Beckett bought a plot of land and built a small house of “Spartan simplicity” (dixit James Knowlson) close to the hamlet of Molien in the commune of Ussy-sur-Marne, east of Paris. This was to become his regular retreat until his final years. The view south across the Marne valley was magnificent, but once he realised that people could see into his property from the road that ran outside, Beckett had a high wall of ugly grey blocks built around, thus entirely cutting off his view. He went to Ussy to write or when he was depressed, or both.  His house in Ussy was far enough from Paris to avoid having to face people but near enough for it to be feasible to take the morning train to Paris when meetings were unavoidable and yet be back in rustic Arcadia the same evening. However, a planning dispute with the local authorities meant that he preferred to do his shopping slightly further away in the larger town of La Ferté-sous-Jouarre  to avoid giving any business to the commerçants of Ussy-sur-Marne.
 
Beckett had a strange sort of relationship with Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumnesil. They continued to live (but not always sleep) together even though Beckett had a string of affairs and they eventually married in 1961. However, by the late 1950s, Suzanne’s visits to the house in Ussy became infrequent, leaving Beckett alone “with the snow and the crows and the exercise book that opens like a door and lets me far down into the now friendly dark”.

Back in Paris, Beckett and Deschevaux-Dumnesil moved to a seventh-floor flat in a new apartment block at 38, Boulevard Saint-Jacques (14th arrondissement) in October 1960. They both had their own bedrooms and there were two separate entrances, enabling Beckett and his guests to come and go without disturbing Suzanne.

 
The view across the Marne opposite Beckett's house at Ussy

             Beckett's grave in Montparnasse

Beckett was a creature of habit when he was in Paris. When not gambling at the Salle Wagram (or ‘Multicolor’, avenue de Wagram, 17th arrondissement) he was often to be seen playing billiards at Les Trois Mosquetaires on the Avenue du Maine (14th arrondissement). By the early 1960s, he, Peter Lennon, John Montague and other friends were regulars at the Falstaff on the rue de Montparnasse (14th arrondissement) or at the Rosebud just around the corner on the rue Delambre (14th arrondissement). Another favourite watering hole was the Closerie des Lilas (boulevard de Montparnasse, 6th arrondissement), but by the late 1970s this had been supplanted by the more discrete, anonymous Petit Café PLM in the Hôtel Saint-Jacques on the Boulevard Saint-Jacques.

Beckett was admitted to the Tiers Temps nursing home at 26, rue Rémy-Dumoncel (14th arrondissement) in 1988 and he was to die  there in December of the following year, just five months after Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumnesil.




-----------------------------------

Select Bibliography
Samuel Beckett—The Last Modernist (1996)
Anthony Cronin

Damned to Fame – The Life of Samuel Beckett (1996)
James Knowlson


Comments