A personal pilgrimage in the footsteps of Samuel Beckett
By Nicholas Lezard|
No one pretends to have read Beckett in the way they pretend to have read Joyce. You either have or haven't. Yet the writer lived a life of such stirring variety that a walk in his footsteps is worth even the uninitiated's while. Although you could do a Beckett walk in Dublin and environs, or London, or even Hamburg, a real one would have to be in Paris – the city to which he moved after falling out with his mother, and in which he ended up spending most of his adult life. Allow us to walk you through his haunts.
Paris features little in the interiority of Beckett's writings, except in his poetry, which is full of impenetrably private allusions; perhaps that's one of the reasons he moved, stayed and eventually died there. Let's begin with the end. Follow the above map to where he bit the dust, called with extraordinary frankness Le Tiers Temps, on Rue Rémy-Dumoncel (not dissimilar to the place where Malone of 'Malone Dies' reminisces). They recently knocked down the room in which he spent his final days, in order to build an extension, but he is well remembered here. Nearby, the AvenueRené-Coty was where, during the war, he would deliver Resistance documents, at significant risk, to a man called Jimmy the Greek.
Denfert-Rochereau métro serves as the best way to get to the Cimetière du Montparnasse and Beckett's last two homes. Having somehow negotiated Place Denfert-Rochereau, follow east down the left-hand side of Boulevard Saint-Jacques to No. 38, where he lived and received the hordes of admirers that descended to meet him for an informal interview (something Beckett rarely granted to the press).
Return to Place Denfert-Rochereau via Avenue du Général-Leclerc, and continue under the merciful plane tree shade along the Rue Froidevaux, turning right at the Rue Emile-Richard. This takes you to the eastern entrance of the cemetery, where the guard can give you a map and will tell you, if you ask, where Beckett is buried (the 12th section; you'll work it out). Gazing out over the cemetery, the first line of his 'First Love' comes to mind: 'Personally I have no bone to pick with graveyards.'
A stroll through a literary graveyard can breed a kind of awkwardness. Hands up who's been to Père-Lachaise and stared at Proust's grave, without ever having given so much as a passing glance to 'A la recherche du temps perdu'? Who's mused over Oscar Wilde's grave – did he belong to the history of poetry or of publicity? – scribbled over with graffiti by followers of The Smiths? Or sneered, snobbishly, at the morons paying inarticulate homage to the supposed grave of Jim Morrison? What precisely goes through your mind when looking at these graves, or at Ezra Pound's, or Igor and Vera Stravinsky's in Venice? (He's not composing – he's decomposing.)
Is this just high-class tourism, different only in degree to those who snap from the open-topped Routemasters in London or the Bateaux-Mouches along the Seine? The best that can be said for the awkward postures of respect you adopt by these sites is that they encourage humility. Someone has placed some pebbles (in memory of Molloy's sucking stones it must be) on Beckett's tomb – that's nice, subtle; they look almost as if they're there by accident, and unlike graffiti can be removed by those with more austere standards. Think your own thoughts. Although as always, it's better to think Beckett's.
That's enough depression. Best to get the last things out of the way first when you can; because now you can gird yourself for the road and go for a stroll through Beckett's beginnings in Paris, leaping back from his death at the age of 86 to his first (proper) arrival at the age of 22, when he became a teacher at the Ecole Normale Supérieure. This is important: the ENS took (and for all we know still takes) only about 28 students a year, the cream of the academic crop. Leave the north entrance of the cemetery on the Boulevard Edgar-Quinet.
You've got a long walk ahead of you, so get fully into the spirit of it by making sure you're in the same state as Beckett was for much of his time in Paris: broke, hungry, and in all probability hungover – although, like him, you won't have got up until noon at the earliest (students booked for earlier tutorials would open his door, see him asleep, and tiptoe out again). Your shoes are, in touchingly childish emulation of his hero Joyce, too tight, and you smoke French cigarettes almost continuously. No drinking until five in the afternoon, after which point don't stop (white wine, mainly) for another fifteen hours. Seriously.
Turn down Rue Huyghens to reach the Boulevard du Montparnasse and catch sight of Le Dôme, Le Select, La Coupole and all the other big bars that really were popular places for intellectuals, even famous and intellectual ones – Beckett patronised them for ages. You can either go in now or save them for later. (It's a source of continuing amazement that they let everyone in. Then again, their prices shoot you out again pretty quickly.) A quick left turn after Vavin métro down the Rue de la Grande-Chaumière gives you the site of the Hotel Liberia, where Beckett lived just about cheaply enough until he found an apartment; it's now a Best Western (A la Villa des Artistes), and the cheapest room will set you back upwards of €130 a night.
Regain the boulevard, and head over for a quick browse at Librairie Tschann, which has a picture of Beckett accepting his honorary doctorate from Trinity, Dublin. Then turn left up the Rue Saint-Jacques (where you can admire the baroqure grandeur of the Val-de-Grâce hospital), right down the Rue des Feuillantines, then left up the Rue d'Ulm to the ENS. Beckett's room was on the first floor, to the right of the big central doorway to the building on your right. The students here used to shout pacifist slogans across the roofs to the military students in the Ecole Polytechnique: 'Sabre-wielders! Tigers thirsty for blood!' These days, they content themselves with painting anti-NATO slogans on the walls (and, on one white van on the Rue d'Ulm, 'Skateboarding is not a crime' – which suddenly makes you think it is).
Walk up the Rue d'Ulm, keeping the towering Panthéon in sight, and then follow the map down to Rue Corneille, where Beckett's favourite affordable restaurant, the Cochon de Lait, is now La Bastide-Odéon (three-course meal: €25/€36 for lunch/dinner). You could, if you're dedicated enough, carry on down the Rue de Vaugirard until you reach 6 Rue des Favorites in the 15th, which is where Beckett lived both before and (to everyone's surprise, including his own) after the war.
Whatever you do, make sure to walk down the Rue de l'Odéon, where at No. 12 used to stand the original Shakespeare & Company bookshop – a veritable magnet for anglophone writers. This is where Hemingway offended Beckett, the only time they met, by saying that 'Finnegans Wake' showed that Joyce had been finished by writing 'Ulysses'. Go left down Boulevard Saint-Germain, then left up Rue du Four, now a crazy, ongoing temple celebrating the intersection of Paris's fascination for clothes and money. Slightly further west on Rue de Babylone, 'En Attendant Godot' was premiered in January 1953 to an unprepared world at the now sadly departed Théâtre de Babylone. Then turn right at the Rue Bernard-Palissy, still home to Les Editions de Minuit, Beckett's farsighted and lucky French publisher. This leads to the corner of the tiny Rue du Sabot, where according to Christopher Logue, 'a tall, gaunt figure in a raincoat handed in a manuscript in a black imitation leather binding, and left us almost without a word'. Logue, Paul Seaver, Alex Trocchi and others then spent half the night reading Beckett's 'Watt' to each other, all but pissing themselves with laughter.
Cross over to the Rue de Grenelle, one of the narrow but lengthy fissures running across Paris. Another long stretch lies ahead along this quiet and picturesque street. Initially, it is all chic fashion shops, with artistic window displays and about three items for sale within. As you move westward, you are entering the political heartland of Paris – deserted on a Saturday late afternoon, it seems haunted by the memory of the Occupation; one can give oneself a nasty shock by imagining the swastika fluttering from the roof of the Mairie. The 17th- and 18th-century 'hôtels particuliers' that line this street were once the homes of the aristocracy; now they house government ministries and embassies. Pass in front of the imposing Invalides, built as a nursing home for war veterans by Louis XIV, and where Napoleon now rests.
Just before the Avenue Bosquet, turn right into the Square de Robiac, as Beckett would have done when visiting Joyce at his apartment there (no plaque, number unknown). He would come to read texts out loud to the near-blind writer as he composed 'Work in Progress', which would become 'Finnegans Wake'. The pair would then often – until Joyce's daughter, Lucia, enamoured of Beckett but quickly going mad, caused a break that was almost irreparable – walk up to the Quai Branly before pacing the Allée des Cygnes on the river in companionable silence.
By now, you should be tired and road-weary. And we haven't even visited Nancy Cunard's offices on the Rue Guénégaud in the 6th arrondissement, where Beckett delivered his poem 'Whoroscope' in 1930, winning a prize which enabled him to stay abroad for another few months; or the Hôpital Broussais, where he recovered after being stabbed by a pimp in 1937. (He never pressed charges; the pimp was incarcerated in the Prison de la Santé, the same prison Beckett's flat overlooked on the Boulevard Saint-Jacques.) Nor have we taken the métro to Cardinal-Lemoine and hurled ourselves down the narrow piste of the Rue Mouffetard, trying to trace the original site of the bar he mentions in his poem 'Sanies II' ('There was a happy land / the American Bar / in rue Mouffetard / there were red eggs there / I have a dirty I say henorrhoids / coming from the bath). If you have the energy, then good luck to you. If not, you could rest by the Seine in silent contemplation, or make the long trek back to the cemetery. Either way, you are in the company of the dead.
La Bastide-Odéon 7 rue de Corneille, 6th (01.43.26.03.65) Open: daily 12-2pm, 7-10.30pm. Contemporary Provençal cuisine.
La Closerie des Lilas 171 Boulevard du Montparnasse, 6th (01.40.51.34.50) Open: daily 12-2:30pm, 7-11:30pm. Restored to its former glory, this institution is especially good value in the brasserie (rather than the restaurant). Get a 'Hemingway' cocktail here.
La Coupole 102 Boulevard du Montparnasse, 14th (01.43.20.14.20) Open: Mon-Fri 8-12am, Sat-Sun 9-12am. Legendary Art Deco brasserie; reliable French fare.
Le Dôme 108 Boulevard du Montparnasse, 14th (01.43.35.25.81) Open: daily 12-3pm, 7-11pm. Legendary Montparnasse fish house; also an upmarket café-bar.
Le Select 99 Boulevard du Montparnasse, 6th (01.45.48.38.24) Open: daily 7-3am, 7-5am. Large, grand and historic self-styled 'American Bar'.
Le Panthéon Place du Panthéon, 5th (01.44.32.18.00) Open: Summer 9.30am-6.30pm, Winter 10am-6.15pm.
La Santé Prison 42 Rue de la Santé, 14th
Résidence Tiers Temps 26 Rue Rémy-Dumoncel, 14th (01 40 64 18 20)
Waiting forGodot Samuel Beckett First Love Samuel Beckett Malone Dies Samuel Beckett Molloy Samuel Beckett The Unnamable Samuel Beckett Whoroscope Samuel Beckett Sanies II Samuel Beckett Samuel Beckett: A Biography Deirdre Bair