On this day, 22 December, in 1989, in Paris, Nobel laureate Samuel Beckett died. It was five months since the death of Suzanne, his companion of fifty years. He had been living in a nursing home, called Tiers Temps, and was reluctant to go back to the apartment he and Suzanne had shared, or their house in Ussy, although he did return to the latter, in the Marne Valley, one last time on a day in late summer. He lived long enough to see the Berlin Wall come down on television in November, and drink whiskey with acolytes while writing out poetry by hand for ‘The Great Book of Ireland’.
Beckett then, was not one for pilgrimages. He had no patience for those who wanted to illuminate his work by the light of his biography. I battled with this when I lived in Paris, studying him, and becoming mildly obsessed. He would have detested the very idea of this article – a guide to his Paris. So, if you really want to pay homage to the man while you visit the City of Light, perhaps simply go to the Falstaff – a wood-panelled bar he frequented on Rue Montparnasse, with unprepossessing signage advertising Happy Hour and televised sports – and raise a glass of Bushmills.
Still, Beckett was nothing if not bloody-minded and therefore you’d be within your rights to make your pilgrimage to him whether he would have liked it or not. And perhaps he would have liked it after all, as the words of Estragon in ‘Waiting for Godot’ suggest: ‘Don’t touch me! Don’t question me! Don’t speak to me! Stay with me!’. Let’s stay with him for a while then.
The 6th arrondissement was Beckett’s stomping ground for nearly fifty years, other than a brief spell during the Second World War, when the gestapo seemed to be homing in on his resistance activities and he escaped to the south of France. His first job in Paris was teaching at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, in rue de l’Ulm. A pleasant street where classical stone facades seem to glow in the light, rue de l’Ulm will lead you north-east to the monumental Panthéon mausoleum, where many a great dead white man is laid to rest. But head south on rue de l’Ulm instead, then west, and you can trace Beckett’s steps towards the home of his friend and mentor, James Joyce, fifty minutes away on Square Robiac. Fear not, I’m not directing you all the way there. We’ll just skirt the Jardin de Luxembourg where you can pop in and rest for a moment, if, that is, you can ‘bring together a ray of sunshine and a free bench’ (‘Texts for Nothing’). If you’re there in the evening, perhaps you’ll hear the lonely hoot of an owl, as Beckett sometimes did.
Drop down Rue Vavin and onto Boulevard de Montparnasse and you’ll find yourself at the epicentre of three key Beckettian addresses. Just around the corner sits the afore-mentioned Falstaff, and only a short walk away is the Cimetière Montparnasse, where Beckett is buried with Suzanne, under a gravestone that follows his directive that ‘it should be any colour, as long as it is grey.’ To boot, you’re not far from the ‘Hotel à la Villa des Artistes’, which was known as the Hotel Liberia when Beckett lived here in 1937 after a disastrous and final trip back home to Ireland.
The story goes thus: his mother (with whom he had been living in a supposed attempt to look after her in her depression), kicked him out for general fecklessness and he was a witness in a libel case that humiliated the family. He would never ‘go home’ to Ireland again, returning only as a visitor. This run of bad luck culminated in him being stabbed by a pimp back in Paris. His recovery took place partly at the Hotel Liberia.
After exploring the neighbourhood, you can look down on Beckett’s final resting place (and gain a vista of the whole of Paris and the Eiffel Tower that many people don’t see) by visiting the Tour Montparnasse – a 210-metre dark glass tower that was France’s tallest building until 2011. Construction on it started in 1969 – the year that Beckett won his Nobel Prize – and so he would have witnessed its construction, looming higher and higher overhead, like his own literary reputation.
The Tour Montparnasse is on avenue du Maine, where Beckett liked to play billiards at the Trois Mousquetaires. Sadly, the Trois Mousquetaires is no longer in existence. But to see another of Beckett’s favourite recreational haunts, hop on Metro 6, to Etoile, and visit the Salle Wagram, where the great man liked to gamble. Built in 1812, this listed monument is one of the few remaining 19th century dance halls and today is an astonishingly opulent entertainment and seminar venue, decorated in red and gold.
Whatever you do, don’t get the train from Paris out to Ussy-sur-Marne to see the little white house Beckett considered his retreat in the beautiful Marne countryside. In various letters, he described seeming to ‘recuperate something in the silence and solitude’ there ‘with the snow and the crows’. Unfortunately he became so fed up with people staring through the front window that, in a typical fit of contrariness, he built a tall, ugly, grey wall in front of the house, blocking his own view of the valley.
Instead, after your Beckett-based walking tour of the 6th, go to the Galerie d’Orleans in the Palais-Royal in the 1starrondissement. This park unites all things Beckett. It’s a former royal palace that became an 18th century shopping arcade filled with bookshops and cafes by day, gamblers and pimps and prostitutes by night. Nowadays there are gardens, poetry installations and a controversial piece of art called ‘Les Deux Plateaux’, or ‘Colonnes de Buren’, with candy-striped black-and-white columns standing like soldiers in a grid, recalling a chess board. Here, you can wander and all the while contemplate Beckett’s words, in conversation at Berlin’s Akademie de Kunst, that ‘it’s no longer possible to know everything… One must make a world of one’s own in order to know, to understand one’s need for order. There for me lies the value of Theatre. One turns out a small world with its own laws, conducts the action as if upon a chess board.’
And, accordingly, from here why not head out and make Paris a chess board – and a world – of your own?