Exploring Samuel Beckett's Paris – literary tourism in the City of Light
If you're ever going to feel like you've somehow wandered into an absurdist play, I suppose it's fitting that it happens as it did to me on a cold, drizzly afternoon in Paris last December, in the 14th arrondissement on the Left Bank, where I was traipsing up and down the lovely tree-lined promenade that divides the traffic lanes of Avenue René Coty, in search of Allée Samuel Beckett.
The Nobel Prize-winning author of Waiting for Godot and many other works evoking a world short on meaning but long on despair and suffering had lived in the City of Light for more than 50 years until his death here in 1989. But long before fame descended on him, Paris had christened a short thoroughfare - an allée - to honour the Irish expat for his service in the resistance during World War II.
Keen on seeing what remains of Beckett's Paris, I was hellbent on finding and walking this spit of concrete, however narrow or small, but it was proving to be as maddeningly elusive as its reclusive namesake was reputed to be. And yet I knew it was around here - a side street, probably. My Michelin map, saviour of the lost and misdirected, said as much. Just not very clearly.
I trundled, more than a little unhappy, back onto the promenade - and my eye caught sight of a diminutive blue sign with white letters saying, "Allée Samuel Beckett." The name of the promenade. With a creeping sense of futility, I'd been fretting about not getting somewhere I already was, not doing something I'd already done, for a reason Beckett himself probably would've said was, like most of life, void of any point - and then he'd have laughed.
I've had the good fortune to come to this beguiling city - one of the world's greats for walking - many times since I was a kid, and I've seen a good part of it from many angles. But never have I followed the tracks of an artist whose art was in some ways shaped by living here.
Take Parc Montsouris, for instance. Beckett's allée, as I discovered, leads to the entrance of this nice little oasis of greenery, today full of families and children, where the author met his contact during the war. Sources in the area would provide Beckett with information about Nazi troop movements; fluent in French, he translated everything into English and passed it along to an operative known as Jimmy the Greek, who then sent the information to London. It was dangerous business. But it also taught him, he later said, to write with economy.
From the park I head north on Avenue René Coty, past a long section of bodegas and patrons, and turn west on Rue Rémy Dumoncel, where I find Le Tiers Temps, a modest nursing home with a clean facade. Beckett spent his final days here. You'd be forgiven for walking right past it and never noticing.
Interestingly, maybe 600 feet away, slightly up Avenue du Général Leclerc, then down a little dead-end street named Villa Coeur de Vey, Beckett nearly died in 1938, long before he'd made any kind of name for himself. He was walking with friends late one night when a pimp appeared out of nowhere and stabbed him almost fatally.
I leave Villa Coeur de Vey and its low-rise apartment buildings, turning back onto Avenue du Général Leclerc, wending my way up one of the oldest roads in Paris. I approach Place Denfert-Rochereau, where, if inclined, one can drop into the Paris Catacombs, the underground ossuary housing the bones of some six million souls. As I walk past, I realise it would be the perfect venue for a production of the Beckett play titled, well, "Play," featuring three characters whose heads protrude from funeral urns.
I turn right onto Boulevard Saint-Jacques and stroll the short distance to the apartment building in which Beckett lived from about 1960 until he had to move to the nursing home. Like the nursing home, 38 Blvd. Saint-Jacques is an unassuming structure you'd otherwise pass right by.
And yet, interestingly again, not far is the Prison de la Santé and its soaring stone walls; Beckett's would-be killer was caught and held here. Curious as to why the pimp had plunged a knife into him, Beckett met with him after recovering and asked why. The reply, according to Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett, by James Knowlson: "I don't know why, sir. I'm sorry."
Beckett didn't see a point to pressing charges.
It's an easy double-back to Place Denfert-Rochereau, where I pick up Boulevard Raspail and proceed north to Beckett's final residence, Montparnasse Cemetery. He is said to have declared that his grave marker "could be any colour so long as it's grey." I've yet to find a confirming source, but it's certainly the kind of thing you might expect from a playwright who, in addition to sticking characters in urns, wryly buries them up to their chests in dirt ("Happy Days") or has them living in trash cans ("Endgame").
Beckett's marker, a sleek stone slab, is indeed as grey as a rain cloud. Both his name and his wife's - Suzanne Déchevaux-Dumesnil, who died just months before he did - are etched into it. Not as well-known as the largest cemetery in Paris, Père Lachaise, Montparnasse nonetheless has its share of famous literary, artistic and historic dead. The poet Charles Baudelaire is also buried here, as are philosopher-playwright Jean-Paul Sartre and feminist author Simone de Beauvoir, both of whom had an uneasy relationship with Beckett. You'll also find the graves of fellow playwright Eugène Ionesco, former military officer Alfred Dreyfus (victim of the infamously antisemitic Dreyfus affair), and critic and essayist Susan Sontag, to name but a few.
From here, I continue north on Boulevard Raspail to its intersection with Boulevard du Montparnasse, crossing into the 6th arrondissement, where I find a cluster of cafe-restaurant-bars - La Coupole, Le Select, Le Dôme and Le Falstaff - in which Beckett spent hours drinking mostly white wine. They're also a short walk from my hotel on Rue de la Grande Chaumière, which I booked not even realising that Beckett had once lived briefly on the very same street: first in a small flat, then maybe 60 feet farther on, in the Hotel Liberia, now the Hôtel A La Villa Des Artistes.
Nearby, on the corner of Boulevard de Montparnasse and Rue de Chevreuse, is Tschann Librairie, a literary bookshop founded by a couple in 1929. Their daughter, the manager tells me, was a passionate supporter of Beckett long before the world - or even much of Paris - wanted to buy his work.
I spot a shelf full of what look like freshly printed copies of Beckett plays and novels from his longtime French publisher, Les Éditions de Minuit. Beckett started writing in French when he discovered it offered him a chance to write "without style," as he put it. Atop the bookcase is a large photograph of the man himself - in shades of grey, of course - casting a dour stare above the heads of page-thumbing customers below.
On a new morning, I make my way up Boulevard Raspail and its open-air market, farther into the 6th, long renowned for its high concentration of artists and intellectuals. In fact, on my way, I cross the Rue de Fleurus, once home to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas and their celebrated salon during the early 20th century. I stay my course until I reach 38 Blvd. Raspail, where Western theatre changed profoundly in January 1953 with Théâtre de Babylone's premiere of En Attendant Godot, its original title.
Double green doors open into a courtyard, where plants and small trees sprout. The Babylone is long gone, but I'm looking to see which of the many businesses now here might be using the former theatre space. A woman who seems to be on her way to the boulevard stops and asks if she can help. This is one of the things I love about travel: Someone looking clueless with a map in hand can evoke the sympathy of people who would otherwise have better sense than to talk to a stranger in a big city.
I tell her I'm looking for a theatre that no longer exists and she immediately says, "Le Babylone!" She says she works in the old Babylone space - it's now headquarters of a fashion design firm, Maison Rabih Kayrouz - and she offers to take me inside. Marie-Christine Violon, head of accounts and administration, per her business card, leads me up a flight of steps and into an open area full of mannequins, tables, people, fabric and measuring tapes, not to mention massive floor-to-ceiling windows. She says we're standing on what used to be the stage, and she points to where the seats probably were.
I silently look around, thinking I'm now standing where actors first performed an unprecedented enigma of a play with no discernible plot or character development, sometimes to outrage. In his biography of Beckett, Knowlson writes of audience members hooting and whistling and also physical fights between the play's supporters and detractors.
Back outside, I'm headed east toward Rue de Rennes, on which I turn north, bound for a few key locations in the very hip Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood, still in the 6th. I mosey onto some side streets, which are now getting narrower, and the number of art galleries and chic fashion boutiques are increasing. Finally, I come upon Rue Bernard Palissy, a short little street that, behind a modest, dark red door at No. 7, is home to Les Éditions de Minuit.
From here, it's just a short walk to the intersection of Boulevard Saint-Germain and two of the most famed cafes in literary history: Les Deux Magots and, fairly close by, Café de Flore, both favourites of Sartre, de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Ernest Hemingway and many others of their ilk. Les Deux is across from the 6th-century Church of Saint Germain des Prés, the interior of which has been newly - and spectacularly - rehabilitated. It's one of the oldest churches in Paris and among the last of the city's Romanesque structures.
Beckett could be spotted in the area occasionally, but he was a more frequent visitor to 12 Rue de l'Odéon, the nearby former address of the storied Shakespeare & Co. bookshop. Now located on Rue de la Bûcherie, by the Seine, the bookshop was originally opened here by Sylvia Beach, who also published, when no one else would, Ulysses, by James Joyce - Beckett's hero and another Irish expat writer living in Paris. The shop is also where Beckett met Hemingway for the only time, as the burly American dismissed Joyce's work, which Beckett deeply admired and briefly emulated. The space, on yet another charming street, is now a clothing store.
Farther south along Rue de l'Odéon lies the Odéon-Théâtre de l'Europe, one of the oldest and most prestigious theatres in the city and a producer of Beckett's plays. Just behind the theatre, as you approach the fabulous Jardin du Luxembourg, you'll find 7 Rue Corneille. Today it's an Asian restaurant, but in 1930, it was the Cochon de Lait, a favourite haunt - mainly because it was cheap and Beckett was nearly broke in those days - where he wrote a good chunk of his first poem ever published, Whoroscope.
I maintain heading south, now down Rue de Médicis, to pick up Rue Soufflot with the Panthéon in sight. Under its august dome lie the remains of Voltaire, Rousseau and Victor Hugo, among many other French cultural lions of one sort of another. My destination, however, is Rue d'Ulm, where I find the École Normale Supérieure, provider of Beckett's first job (lecturer) and living quarters in Paris upon his arrival in 1928. I'm mainly interested in seeing the school's iron entry gates, maybe 20 feet tall. During his time there, Beckett frequently had to scale them after a night on the town drinking past lockup time.
Two other sites remain on my list. One, back in the 14th arrondissement, is Beckett's second residence in the city (1938 to about 1959), at 6 Rue des Favorites. He had returned to Ireland after leaving the École Normale Supérieure in 1930. But eventually, his deteriorating relationship with his mother and his country brought him back permanently to Paris.
Just off the busy Rue de Vaugirard, 6 Rue des Favorites looks like a ghostly ruin. Only the outline of a "6" remains on the dingy wall above the doorway; garbage bins await emptying; and an abandoned parking garage on the other side of the street looks as if it could collapse at any moment. Beckett wrote some of his most celebrated and hilariously bleak works while living here: Krapp's Last Tape, Molloy, and Malone Dies, as well as Endgame and Godot.
My final destination is just to the north in the 7th arrondissement, reached via a sequence of big boulevards starting back on Rue de Vaugirard and ending with Avenue Bosquet. This will take you past Les Invalides, where one can salute Napoleon's remains in passing. Near Avenue Bosquet lies 2 Square de Robiac, where Joyce and his family lived from 1925 to 1931.
When not lecturing at the École Normale Supérieure, Beckett spent hours with Joyce helping with research for his last novel, then in progress, Finnegans Wake. Beckett and Joyce also took long walks together up Avenue Bosquet to Quai Branly on the banks of the Seine, with the Eiffel Tower looming overhead.
Beckett had come to Paris with no plans to be a writer, but having spent so much time with Joyce and having discovered a proliferation of small presses and magazines in the city, he was inspired to take up pen and paper just before he left. Unsurprisingly, Beckett referred to his first stretch in Paris, 1928-30, as "the Joyce years."
From 1937 until his death, however, it was the Beckett years, and Paris was home. By all accounts, he felt at home here - but in his own inimitable way, I suspect. In his novel Molloy, the title character says: "For in me there have always been two fools, among others, one asking nothing better than to stay where he is and the other imagining that life might be slightly less horrible a little further on."
Where to stay
Hôtel des Académies et des Arts
I didn't realise until after I arrived at this charming, boutique hotel that Beckett had once lived on the same street. The hotel offers comfortable rooms and a friendly staff; it was recently renovated with decor evoking the artistic spirit of the 6th arrondissement. No restaurant, but breakfast buffet available. Rooms from about €225 per night. 15 Rue de la Grande Chaumière; hoteldesacademies.fr
Hôtel A La Villa des Artistes
This was once the temporary digs of Beckett as well as F. Scott Fitzgerald and the painter/sculptor Amedeo Modigliani, and an arty, 1930s vibe prevails at the former Hotel Liberia. It has a garden courtyard and is just a few doors down from the Hôtel des Académies et des Arts. Rooms from about €105 per night. 9 Rue de la Grande Chaumière; elystel.com/en/hotel/hotel-la-villa-des-artistes
Hôtel Raspail Montparnasse
This boutique hotel preserves an atmosphere of the Montparnasse area's artistic heritage with heavy art deco decor and lots of wood paneling and leather. It's well-located for exploring Beckett territory and experiencing a bit of the area's way of life. Rooms from about €99 per night. 203 Blvd. Raspail; hotelraspailmontparnasse.com/en/
WHERE TO EAT
Classic art deco brasserie specialising in seafood. (Try the oysters on the half-shell followed by the fish soup.) Once a gathering place for artists and intellectuals, including Beckett, Henry Miller, Picasso, Kandinsky, Robert Capa, Vladimir Lenin and more. 108 Blvd. du Montparnasse; facebook.com/restaurantledome
Another old haunt of artists and intellectuals, this art deco brasserie features a "Bar Americain" and serves turf - as well as surf. 102 Blvd. du Montparnasse; lacoupole-paris.com/en/
Across the street from La Coupole, and, with the two others, the third point in a triangle of brasseries the same crowd frequented. 99 Blvd. du Montparnasse; leselectmontparnasse.fr/en/
A Euro-style pub leaning more toward Belgium these days than England. But burgers, mussels and more beers than you can count are popular here, where Beckett often whet his whistle. Just around the corner from the other three restaurants, and not to be confused with Le Falstaff around the Bastille area. 42 Rue du Montparnasse
NB: For more info, see en.parisinfo.com. William Triplett is a writer based in Fairfax, Va. His website is williamtriplett.com.