Following in Samuel Beckett's footsteps
15.07.2013 - 15.07.2013
I'd intended to do this from about my first day in Paris, when I'd started thinking of writers I adored who I could stalk. It took me a while and several vague google searches to remember that Samuel Beckett did live in Paris for significant portion of his life. So on the first full day in Paris, I wrote several addresses in a notebook.
And then things kept taking longer than I thought. Getting to Montparnasse took longer than I thought, even when I never got lost. It was simply a long way to walk. Then the cemetery took much longer than I thought just to find four graves in it. Then I kind of forgot about him for a few days before I started wondering what I should do today.
It's OK that I forgot about him, because I did remember him eventually, which is more than a lot of Paris could say.
For simplicity's sake (and because, from past precedent, I knew everything would probably take a lot longer than I'd assume) I stuck to things close to the fourteenth arrondisement, and focused on his years from 1937 onward.
I began by looking at where Beckett had lived when he arrived back in Paris in 1937. These were two places in the rue de la Grande Chaumeria. Both of them survive as buildings. One of them has no distinctive marks on it, but is presumably where people live. The other, the former Hotel Liberia, is now a Best Western.
From there, I walked down Avenue General Leclerc. When Beckett walked down it, it was called Avenue d'Orleans, and there are still a few hotels and restaurants that bear that name. I was left alone on that street, which is much better than following exactly in Beckett's footsteps. And drops to the knee. And pools of blood on the ground...
One day, while Beckett was walking there, he was stabbed by a pimp, Prudent. When (after he recovered) Beckett asked Prudent why, he responded “Je ne sais pas, monsieur. Je m'excuse.” Beckett dropped the charges, because he found Prudent likeable. It makes an absurd kind of sense. (And this is why if you wanted to stab an author, Beckett was a much better choice than, say, Dostoevsky.)
Because stab wounds are never pleasant things to have, Beckett went to Broussais hospital. The private room he stayed in was arranged and paid for by James Joyce. Among his visitors was also Suzanne Decheveaux-Dumesnil, former tennis partner and future wife.
Right now, the hospital is mostly being used by the Red Cross and other medical organizations for rehabiliation. In a bit over two years, the site will be used for everything from the Red Cross organization and housing for the elderly to housing for students and artists. Currently, It's not quite under construction yet (scheduled to begin in Autumn 2013) but it's very close.
Samuel Beckett and Suzanne Decheveuax-Dumesnil lived somewhere that I deemed “too far to walk on this expedition” and then they lived in 38 Boulevard Saint-Jacques. That was much like his earlier lodging was- completely nondescript.
After that, I went to Tiers Temps, the nursing home where Samuel Beckett died. That's still around, stil called “Tier Temps,” still a nursing home, and shows no sign that any of those things are about to change.
Finally, I went back to the cemetery. Samuel Beckett's grave was a lot easier to find when I knew exactly where it was. Someone had left a note on it- a short two-line letter followed by a drawing of the inside of En Attendnt Godot. The note was held down with two rocks.
It was the first sign I'd had all day that someone other than me and the website I was taking the adresses from remembered Samuel Beckett had lived and died in Paris. The plaques that I'd grown so accustomed to seeing about what person had lived in this place once for at least a few days were missing from every single place I looked.
I might have considered looking at the places that Samuel Beckett lived when he arrived in Paris for the first time, but there wouldn't have been much point- almost all of the buildings he'd cared about had been replaced by something else.
Even when there is an extant restaurant or bar that he spent a lot of time at, it won't usually mention Beckett. It might mention the time that Hemingway got into a fight with a boxer and had Fitzgerald moderate, but Fitzgerald was so drunk he forgot to tell them when to stop. No mention of the acclaimed author who left Ireland behind forever in favor of France.
I wonder which would bother Beckett more- the fact that Paris forgot him, or the fact that some people didn't. Beckett was extremely private, so much so that Suzanne called his winning the Nobel Prize a “catastrophe” for the publicity it would bring. (Kind of hypocritical for a woman who only started talking to and getting to know Beckett after the publicity him getting stabbed brought...) Perhaps he wouldn't want people following in his footsteps.
With some writers, their fiction gives enough information that you almost don't need to read a biography to figure them out. With Coetzee, if you count his Scenes from Provincial Life trilogy as “fiction” then you have an autobiography. Read enough O'Neill plays and you can tell he probably had tuberculosis, he probably spent a lot of time on or near the sea, he probably struggled with alcohol, he probably struggled with depression, he probably had dreams of being a writer and/or artist, his father was probably a harsh and overbearing actor, his mother was probably loving, but weak and flawed, he probably had experience with prostitutes... there are enough common themes you can practically peace his life together.
Beckett isn't like that. Reading his works can't really bring me close to who he was as a person. If I spent enough time analyzing it with letters and journals and other people's writings about him, I could probably find key passages that reference parts of his life. But without that, I can't just read Waiting for Godot and figure out if or how it relates.
And seeing the outside of buildings where he once spent significant amount of times doesn't let me know Samuel Beckett any better. Seeing the inside of those buildings wouldn't have helped. Neither would a plaque that said “Samuel Beckett stayed here between” and give the years. I might have been walking the same streets he'd walked, but that didn't mean we were any closer together.
It was an interesting walk, even so, and I'm glad I took it. Because the Samuel Beckett who lived in 38 Boulevard Saint-Jacques and hung out in the lobby of the Hotel PLM died in Tiers-Temps and is buried in the Montparnasse cemetery. The other Samuel Beckett, the one who wrote Waiting for Godot and Krapp's Last Tape and Endgame and Watt and dozens of other works lives on in bookstores throughout Paris, throughout France, and throughout the world. You don't need to know the former to appreciate the latter.
I think I'd like to, though.