Beckett In Paris

Date: January 25, 1981, The New York Times, Sunday, Late City Final Edition Section 7;
Page 35, Column 1; Book Review Desk
Byline: By Herbert Mitgang

As he walked into the little café on the Blvd. St. Jacques in the 14th Arrondissement, everything about Samuel Beckett seemed at once familiar and unexpected. The penetrating blue eyes, the furrowed brow, the strong beak, the lined face that seemed as if it had been carved in polished granite: They were all there. But the impression of hardness and diffidence acquired from remembered photographs and stories didn't match this man. For everything about him was softer and warmer by degrees: the pleasant voice, the ironic glint in his eyes, the cordial air he conveyed made a stranger in his beloved city feel like a guest.

Beckett does not grant interviews; that was understood. He had enough honors, including the Nobel Prize in Literature, awarded in 1969 (which, of course, he did not accept in person), and worldwide acclaim. Public attention only distracted him from his writing and - what he gently intimated could be worse - only led to inaccurate ''interpretations'' of his life or what he ''meant'' to say in his works. And there are plenty of opportunities for misunderstanding: There is almost always a production of ''Waiting for Godot'' or ''Happy Days'' or ''Endgame'' on in Europe or in the United States. His latest short novel, ''Company,'' has just been brought out by Grove Press, his longtime American publisher.

And so no interview and no notes: ''Rien a faire'' (nothing to be done), as the opening line of ''Godot'' goes. Still, nothing forbade us from having a couple of cups of coffee, one long cigar and one short cigarillo, and a casual talk for an hour or so. He lit a Havanitos Planteros, saying that small cigars weren't as bad as smoking cigarettes. I had brought along a newspaper clipping noting that around the time of his 75th birthday on April 13, his one-character play, ''Rockaby,'' will be put on at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He glanced at it, handed it back and said he didn't save things written about him.

What matters to him, he indicated, is the integrity of his work. That is why he prefers such relatively small and attentive publishing houses as Grove in New York and Les Editions de Minuit in Paris. He keeps a close watch on the staging of his plays; his American director, Alan Schneider, consults with him in Paris beforehand. He has directed his own plays in Dusseldorf; he says modestly that he knows enough German to make his ideas clear.

It was his interest in the Romance languages that first led him to France in 1926, when he was preparing for a career as a teacher at Trinity College, Dublin. What made him begin to write some of his works originally in French and then translate them into English?

Beckett says that he began to write in French because he wanted to get away from his mother tongue; writing in English somehow made it come too easy. The French language offered greater clarity and forced him to think more fundamentally, to write with greater economy. But instinct rather than a deliberate plan determined whether his plays were originally written in English or French. ''Krapp's Last Tape'' was first written in English; ''En Attendant Godot'' in French. Beckett's explanation about his bilingual writing is not as didactic as it may seem; listening to him, one gains new respect for ambiguity.

I wondered about his wartime experience during the Nazi occupation of France. When Paris was liberated, Beckett was awarded the Croix de Guerre for his clandestine activities. Denying that he had done anything unusual, he said that writing with economy and clarity were necessary when he worked inside a resistance group that conveyed information to the Allies. A French colleague carried certain details to him about German troop movements, and he translated them into English in as few words as possible for transmission to London.

He writes at home in his apartment in the 14th Arrondissement, where he lives with his wife (the nameplate in the hallway of his building simply reads BECKETT). He has been writing fairly steadily, he said, hardly finding time to get away to his country place in the Marne region. He keeps up with his reading of old friends, such as Kay Boyle, admires the writings of Heinrich Boll and Saul Bellow, but doesn't follow current fashions in literature. In the small cafe where we sat, Samuel Beckett went unrecognized.

And so this is only an impression, with a few brushstrokes of fact added, of the author who bridges the century's literary history from James Joyce, his friend and fellow-expatriate from Dublin, to the most avant-garde writers of our own day.

As we walked outside, I suggested to Beckett that his photographs always made him appear too somber, and asked if he would allow me to take a few pictures. Relaxed, he stood in front of a street sign that read: ''SORTIE de SECOUR - ne pas encombrer'' (Emergency Exit - do not block).

Beckett weighed the words aloud. ''That's appropriate,'' he said with a smile.v

Back to the index

If you have comments or suggestions email me at