In September 1941, one of the twentieth century’s most apparently non-political artists secretly took up arms against fascism. Samuel Beckett, who with exquisite timing for a notorious pessimist was born on Good Friday (and Friday the 13th) 1906, had been living in Paris since 1937, self-exiled from his native country in the manner of many an eminent Irish writer. The Irish, unlike their erstwhile colonial proprietors, have always been a cosmopolitan nation, from the nomadic monks of the Middle Ages to the corporate executives of the Celtic Tiger. If the oppressiveness of colonial rule turned some of them into nationalists, it turned others into citizens of the world. Joyce, Synge, Beckett and Thomas MacGreevy, men already caught between two or three cultures and languages, were to flourish in the rootless, polyglot, ambience of high-modernist Europe, rather as half a century later their compatriots were to embrace the European Union. It helped, in signing up to a linguistically self-conscious modernism, to stem from a nation in which language, as a political minefield, could never be taken for granted.
Beckett had volunteered to drive an ambulance for the French forces in 1940, but when the Germans invaded the country he and his wife Suzanne fled south, a mere forty-eight hours before the Nazis marched into Paris. Stopping briefly in a refugee camp in Toulouse, they arrived exhausted and almost penniless at a friend’s house in Arcachon on the Atlantic coast. Some months later, lured in part by reassuring tales of the Germans’ conduct in the capital, the couple returned to their Parisian apartment, surviving the bitter winter of 1940–1 on little more than a handful of vegetables. James Knowlson, Beckett’s official biographer, sees this as the origin of Vladimir and Estragon’s animated discussions of carrots, radishes and turnips in Waiting for Godot.footnote1 Beckett’s characters, true to his own wartime experience, are vulgar materialists, too busy keeping biologically afloat to indulge in anything as grandiose as subjectivity. They are more body than soul—mechanical assemblages of body parts, as in Swift, Sterne or Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, in which human bodies betray a distressing tendency to merge into bicycles. The mystery of the human body, like the mystery of black marks on a page for the Tipperary-born Laurence Sterne, is how this inert piece of matter comes to be more than itself—how it keeps crawling or bleating, when it ought by rights to be as silent as a stone. If the focus of Beckett’s play Not I is the human mouth, it is because there meaning and materiality mysteriously converge.
Once back in Paris, Beckett joined the Resistance, his growing revulsion at the Nazi regime brought to a head by the deportation of a Jewish friend to a concentration camp. With characteristic generosity, he donated his meagre rations to the victim’s wife. The eighty-strong Resistance cell of which he became a member was co-founded by the redoubtable Jeannine Picabia, daughter of the celebrated Dadaist painter, and was part of the British Special Operations Executive. From the viewpoint of pro-Nazi Republicans in the officially neutral Irish state, the Dublin émigré was now in cahoots with the political enemy. His role within the group drew on his literary skills: he was set to work translating, collating, editing and typing out scraps of information brought in by agents about German troop movements, information which was then microfilmed and smuggled out of France. Like the boy in Waiting forGodot, some of the agents’ messages proved somewhat unreliable. Despite its sedentary nature, the work was highly dangerous, and after the war he was to be awarded both the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille de la Reconnaissance in honour of his services. His silence and secretiveness, qualities apparent in his art, proved to be signal advantages for a maquisard.
Even so, the cell’s cover was soon blown. A comrade cracked under torture, and more than fifty of the group were arrested, many of them later deported to concentration camps. The Becketts, advised to leave the capital immediately, perilously delayed their departure by forays to alert other members of the cell, in the course of which Suzanne was arrested by the Gestapo but managed to bluff her way out of trouble. The couple escaped being picked up by a whisker, vacating their apartment only minutes before the secret police arrived at their door. Scrambling from one small hotel to another under false names, they took shelter for a time with the writer Nathalie Sarraute, and later, duly armed with forged documents, hid away in the village of Roussillon in Provence, where most of the locals mistook them for refugee Jews.
It was here that Beckett rejoined a Resistance cell in 1944, hiding explosives around his house, undergoing some basic training in handling a rifle and occasionally lying in ambush for the Germans at night. If Vladimir and Estragon sleep in ditches, so did their creator. Indeed, he was more of a vagrant than they are, since the play does not actually tell us that they are tramps. On their return to Paris after the war, the couple found themselves once again emaciated and half-famished, along with the rest of the city’s population. When Beckett took up his pen, it was sometimes with fingers blue with cold. Sometime during these years, he is said to have suffered a severe psychological breakdown. Ten years before, he had taken a course of psychotherapy with Wilfred Bion.
Beckett, then, was one of the few modernist artists to become a militant of the left rather than the right. And James Knowlson is surely right to maintain that ‘many of the features of his later prose and plays arise directly from his experience of radical uncertainty, disorientation, exile, hunger and need’.footnote2 What we see in his work is not some timeless condition humaine, but war-torn twentieth-century Europe. It is, as Adorno recognized, an art after Auschwitz, one which keeps faith in its austere minimalism and unremitting bleakness with silence, terror and non-being. His writing is as thin as is compatible with being barely perceptible. There is not even enough meaning to be able to give a name to what is awry with us. One pointless narrative cranks itself laboriously off the ground only to be aborted for another, equally futile tale. These stripped, stark texts, which seem to apologize for doing anything as importunate as actually existing, have a Protestant animus against frippery and excess, as their words flicker up for a fragile moment from a void into which they then fade back. Sparseness and pedantic precision are the nearest one can now come to truth. His friend James Joyce, Beckett once remarked, was always adding to his material, whereas ‘I realized that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than adding’.footnote3 He shares with his compatriot Swift a savage delight in diminishment.
Beckett’s art maintains a compact with failure in the teeth of Nazi triumphalism, undoing its lethal absolutism with the weapons of ambiguity and indeterminacy. His favourite word, he commented, was ‘perhaps’. Against fascism’s megalomaniac totalities, he pits the fragmentary and unfinished. In his Socratic way, Beckett preferred ignorance to knowledge, presumably because it resulted in fewer corpses. If his works are morosely, hilariously conscious of the fact that they might just as well never have existed—that their presence is as farcically gratuitous as the cosmos itself—it is just this sense of contingency, one quite as much comic as tragic, that can be turned against the murderous mythologies of necessity.