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Politics in the Margins

Anthony Roche

Beckett’s Political Imagination, by Emilie Morin, Cambridge University Press, 276 pp, £31.99, ISBN 978-1108417990

Since his emergence to international fame with the success of En Attendant Godot in the early 1950s, Samuel Beckett has been largely perceived as an apolitical writer. Martin Esslin’s critical bracketing of him as a practitioner of the “theatre of the absurd” removed his writing from having any direct social or political application. As Emilie Morin says, “interviews and memoirs portray a writer peculiarly unqualified for political activity, ill-at-ease with mundane realities and more comfortable with philosophical abstraction”; what tended to be stressed was the broad universality of Beckett’s humanism rather than any more narrow political allegiance. Beckett certainly offered comments that fed this interpretation, even when commenting on his intelligence work for the French Resistance during World War Two – rare political activism which has attracted increasing critical attention in Beckett studies. His response to the question of whether he was ever political was: “No, but I joined the Resistance.”

He was moved to do so by the fate of Jewish friends in Paris in the early years of the war, such as Joyce’s secretary, Paul Léon, and his wife, Lucie, as the full extent of Nazi antisemitism became all too manifest. Beckett was most frequently moved to political action by the fate of friends, but though he may term this an act of friendship rather than a political act, it can be best seen as a strategy to retain his freedom. He was also capable of intervening on behalf of writers whose work he may have known but with whom he was personally unacquainted when it came to important issues of freedom of expression and censorship. Where his literary production is concerned, it was only with the appearance of the late play Catastrophe (1982) that a more political Beckett was discerned; the play was dedicated to the imprisoned Czech playwright Václav Havel.

In the wake of Catastrophe, it became clearer that there was a political subtext to Beckett’s plays, “with their numerous portrayals of violence, torture, dispossession, internment and subjugation”. That subtext could be brought out more explicitly by a particular social and political context, as when the American intellectual Susan Sontag staged Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo in 1993. But it is not at the well-known texts of Beckett’s writing career that Morin looks in the main. The more overt political engagement is to be found in the margins of his writing: in the important works of translation he did for Negro: Anthology Made by Nancy Cunard, 1931-1933 (1934) and Octavio Paz’s Anthology of Mexican Poetry (1958).

Morin’s own bilingualism in French and English is central to her informed examination of how Beckett brought the politics of the works he was translating more to the fore. She shows the extent to which Beckett’s three main publishers, Jérôme Lindon in Paris at Les Éditions de Minuit, John Calder in London and Barney Rosset in New York, consistently published works with an overt politics and a dedication to civil liberties; and that this context was one which mattered to Beckett in terms of where his work appeared. Although these interests continued from the beginning to the end of his life and literary career, Morin discerns three quite demarcated periods of intense activity: the 1930s, “during which Beckett’s identities as writer, translator and critic were formed” and where the Irish interest is uppermost; the artistic turning-point known as the “siege in the room” between 1946 and 1948, when Beckett wrote his great prose trilogy and first two plays in the aftermath of war; and the period between 1958 and 1962, where the Algerian war looms large in the writer’s consciousness.

In her previous book, Samuel Beckett and the Problem of Irishness (2009), Morin displayed an enviable depth of knowledge on Beckett and the Ireland of the 1930s. That knowledge is deepened and extended here in the first of the book’s four major sections. In part, this is because so many of Beckett’s literary projects at the outset of his career did not come to fruition (of course, failure to complete a work or the decision to abandon a work remained constants throughout his career). The most interesting case here is the “Trueborn Jackeen”, a “discarded satire for which he kept notes on Irish history, myth and the cattle trade”. Morin refers to this work as “mysterious”, not just because it is so little known but also because it is not clear from the materials assembled what final form the “Trueborn Jackeen” would have taken.

This problem of form is a constant in all of the cases where Beckett opts for a more overtly political work. Allied to “Trueborn Jackeen” is a typescript called “Cow”, made up of “a list of jokes, puns, citations about the cattle trade and cattle rearing, and jottings about Irish medieval legends”. As Morin rightly concludes, “these fragments reveal an attempt to work with precise political coordinates, and resonate with determining debates about Irish agriculture and the economy”.

Beckett’s few but important pieces of Irish literary journalism in the 1930s, “Censorship in the Saorstat” and “Recent Irish Poetry”, are examined. WB Yeats would have been none too pleased with the latter, attacking as it does the Celtic Twilighters and promoting the claims of an Irish poetic modernism with Thomas MacGreevy, Denis Devlin and Brian Coffey. It was the national poet’s followers, like FR Higgins and Austin Clarke (a particular bugbear of Beckett’s in the 1930s), who were the true objects of Beckett’s attack. But Morin’s researches have brought to light something I was unaware of, that Beckett had been asked by The Irish Times to review Yeats’s 1936 Oxford Book of Modern Verse. The review never appeared; presumably, it was negative and rude about Yeats’s poetic and political conservatism as evidenced by his choices in the book. In a letter to Dorothy Wellesley, Yeats wrote: “He [Beckett] hates us all – his review of the Anthology was so violent the Irish Times refused to publish it.” Morin’s first chapter reveals how isolated Beckett became in Dublin as the decade wore on. As she puts it: “These troubling anecdoes [she cites others] reveal the degree to which Beckett was labouring under the weight of many creative and critical impossibilities. By the mid-1930s, he had increasingly little support in Dublin and seems to have violated some powerful political codes, knowingly and unknowingly.”

That isolation was made publicly and graphically clear when Beckett took the stand in November 1937 to support his cousin, Morris Sinclair, who had taken a libel case against Oliver St John Gogarty for remarks made in Gogarty’s memoir As I Was Going Down Sackville Street (1937). The nub of the issue was antisemitism (Sinclair was Jewish). As Morin notes: “Several accounts of the trial have been offered, and all of them fail to convey the degree to which Judeophobic discourse remained ubiquitous, accepted and unchallenged.” Beckett was asked by Gogarty’s lawyer, JM Fitzgerald, “whether he was a Jew, a Christian or an atheist (‘None of the three’, he replied)” and his recent monograph on Proust was held up (Fitzgerald deliberately mispronouncing the French novelist’s name) to support the claim that this witness who had come to Sinclair’s defence was “a bawd and a blasphemer”. Beckett had little choice at this stage but to return to Paris.

He spent much of the 1930s trying to get out of Ireland: Paris (naturellement); a period in London which he drew on for his first novel, Murphy; visits to art museums in Nazi Germany on which Mark Nixon has done much valuable work and which Morin discusses here. The German sojourn convinced him that war was imminent: “in September 1938, from his new Parisian home on Rue des Favorites, he listened with dread to yet another speech by ‘Adolf the Peacemaker’”. But the most unusual foreign country Beckett tried to move to, not once but twice, failing on each occasion, was Russia. I knew he had written to the great Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein hoping to train under him as a film editor (he received no reply); but I did not realise he had then followed that up with a letter to Vsevolod Pudovkin “about the virtues of the naturalistic silent film”, also unanswered. So Paris it was, in the Rue des Favorites, to await the coming of war.

The second chapter focuses on translation, work undertaken by Beckett for Nancy Cunard’s anthology in the 1930s and Octavio Paz’s in the 1950s. Beckett’s considerable contribution to the former, where he translated the majority of the French-language contributions into English, was not sufficiently recognised for a long time: his name was not listed in the contents nor the acknowledgements, but only appended to the individual works. This section is a disturbing reminder of just how callow in his racial attitudes this young Irishman could be. As so often in the book, remarks Beckett makes in letters can be contradictory and difficult to reconcile, above all on the key question of whether he is political or not; but there is also considerable ambivalence on the subject of race. On the one hand, Beckett is happy to sign Cunard’s petition on the freeing of the Scottsboro boys, “the nine teenage black boys accused of rape of two white women in Alabama [and] the infamous series of trials that began in 1931”. On the other hand, he begins his first published essay, “Dante ... Bruno. Vico ... Joyce”, “by comparing philosophy and philology to ‘a pair of nigger minstrels’”. Nancy Cunard was partnered by the jazz musician Henry Crowder. On the one hand, Beckett dedicates a poem to Crowder with the title “From the Only Poet to a Shining Whore. For Henry Crowder to sing”; and both Cunard and Crowder speak of Beckett with unalloyed affection in their memoirs. On the other hand, there is a disturbing amount of lazy racism about Crowder in Beckett’s correspondence with MacGreevy, mocking his Southern drawl and perceived lack of erudition. They remind me of Philip Larkin’s letters to Kingsley Amis; like Beckett Larkin is also clearly playing up to the prejudices of his friend, this from a man who revered Louis Armstrong and loved American jazz. It is ironic for Beckett to display such attitudes upon occasion (at others, he speaks warmly of Crowder and his talent) since Beckett himself was subject to racism in England (on the grounds of being an Irish “Paddy”) and in France (where he was “not French”). He may not have been unaware of these ironies. When Louis Armstrong shows up in one of the translations, the great jazz trumpeter was “reimagined by Beckett [as] speaking Irish English”.

There is no room here to go into Morin’s detailed and persuasive demonstrations of how Beckett in his translations “consistently improves on the style of the originals and politicises their terminology” in order to indict colonialism. With the Paz volume, although Beckett “lamented the inclusion of poor poets and his uneven grasp of Spanish”, Morin works to show that he brought the same “intensity of attention and insight” to this anthology as he had to the earlier volume. At this point, in the last ten pages of the chapter, the reiterated repetition of the same essential point – that Beckett further politicises the works he is translating –becomes rather wearying, blurring the effect of the Spanish poems themselves.

Things pick up again in the third chapter, which has a strong overall argument and is fascinating about World War Two and its aftermath. Beckett would take action in defence of Jewish friends like Paul and Lucie Léon who were under threat from the Nazis. But he was as likely to help a friend whose politics were of a very different stripe, as was the case with George Pelorson, whom he knew from the École Normale Supérieure. Pelorson “worked for the Vichy regime and disseminated pro-Nazi propaganda”; after the war, Beckett only referred to Pelorson’s activities in “covert” terms and tried to help him get his work published under his new identity. He was also generous towards fellow Irish writer Francis Stuart, whose wartime activities were scarcely exemplary. But most of his friends Beckett knew from his wartime activities in the Resistance and, as Morin puts it, “he perceived his own political identity through the lens of the French Resistance”.

The book makes clear how muddied the political waters were in France in the years immediately after the war. A good many of those who had collaborated in the Vichy regime remained in power and it was not always clear what their earlier allegiances had been (as was the case with Pelorson). This was also the period when Beckett resumed his writing with a vengeance, commencing what he described as the “siege of the room”, in which the prose trilogy, his first two plays – En Attendant Godot and Eleutheria – and other writing came into being, all of it in the French language for the first time. The ambiguities of the prose trilogy replicate those of postwar French politics, as Morin carefully explicates. One example will have to serve: in Molloy the title character “answers to a ‘patron’ whose sinister name, Youdi – a term of abuse designating a Jew in colloquial French, used in the late nineteenth century and revived under the Vichy regime – further invokes the shadow of wartime persecutions”. Adorno has memorably used the phrase “after Auschwitz” to refer to the radical changes the act of representation had undergone as a result of the extremities of World War Two. Beckett’s own version of this profound sea change in the nature of his writing is quoted by Morin: “in 1949, he writes ... that he is ‘no longer capable of writing about’”.

Beckett adumbrates the same topic in a talk he wrote about his time working with the Irish Red Cross at the bombed French town of Saint-Lô. This talk, written in English in June 1946, was originally intended to be broadcast on Radio Éireann, and hence was written with an Irish audience in mind; but apparently it was never broadcast. Entitled “The Capital of the Ruins”, its resonant conclusion imagines how the experience of working there will have affected the Irish nurses and doctors:

some of those who were in Saint-Lô will come home realising that they got at least as good as they gave, that they got indeed what they could hardly give, a vision and sense of a time-honoured conception of humanity in ruins, and perhaps even an inkling of the terms in which our condition may be thought again. These will have been in France.

Radio Éireann may have found Beckett’s account too grim for its listenership. As Morin points out, it “could not be further removed from that of the Irish Times correspondent, who in August 1946 described the Saint-Lô hospital as a remarkably ‘happy’ place where visitors were ‘pleasantly entertained’, in the midst of a region that still had much to offer to the sightseer”.

What has become clearer in recent Beckett criticism is his close involvement in tracking the Algerian war. Morin notes that the introduction to the third volume of the recently published Letters of Samuel Beckett “points to the Algerian war as one of the broader contexts shaping How It Is”. Her analysis of the novel demonstrates this in detail: “it [the novel] presents a simulacrum of military training and traces the movements of a figure crawling in mud, pulling along an old jute bag full of rotting tinned food reminiscent of army rations”. Over ten pages earlier, Morin has mentioned in passing that Beckett had read Roger Casement’s Black Diaries when they were published by Grove Press in May 1959. She might have made a connection with practices of colonial torture in How It Is for, as Patrick Bixby has shown, Beckett’s reading of the Diaries had a considerable impact on his writing of the novel. This fourth and final chapter focuses on torture as key to the implementation of the Algerian war and notes its foregrounding in several works Beckett wrote at the time. From the writer’s point of view, there is the fascinating deployment of a wide range of euphemisms to describe practices that must remain covert (the Algerian conflict was only officially recognised as a war in 1999): “rock ’n’ roll” designates torture by electricity (which had the “advantage” of leaving no marks on the body); “sunbathing” the burning of flesh, and so on. In Rough for Radio II, which involves three men extracting information from their victim, who wears a hood, a blind, a gag and earplugs, one of the euphemisms employed to describe a method of torture is “embrasser ... au sang” (to kiss to bleeding point). The other focus of the chapter is on Beckett’s publisher/editor, Jérôme Lindon of Les Éditions de Minuit. The two men were very close; Beckett chose Lindon to represent him in Stockholm when he declined to pick up his Nobel Prize in person in 1969. Lindon published many volumes relating to the Algerian conflict and later remarked that “his small publishing house would not have survived the Algerian war if it hadn’t been for Beckett, who lent him the money necessary to avoid bankruptcy”. In December 1961 Lindon was prosecuted by the French government for publishing Maurienne’s Le Déserteur, “a novel whose main character advocates desertion”. The one occasion when Beckett broke to the surface and publicly acknowledged his opposition to the Algerian war was when he signed a petition to express solidarity with Lindon’s position. The only newspaper to take note of this was The Irish Times, where an eagle-eyed Peter Lennon wrote about it in “The Case of M Lindon” on January 31st, 1962.

The conclusion of Beckett’s Political Imagination invokes the much-circulated image of Beckett with a gag over his mouth, signifying his opposition to censorship. The playwright Tom Stoppard, who had originally solicited Beckett’s support for the Index on Censorship, was embarrassed by this development. Beckett had originally supplied a photograph which the advertising company Saatchi and Saatchi then doctored. As Morin relates: “Beckett’s reply to Stoppard’s embarrassed apology was characteristically brief: ‘nothing against it’.” It is also uncharacteristically relaxed from a writer who was now happy enough to be identified with an interest in political matters, a position which earlier he had shied away from. Similarly, Morin can now show the late play Catastrophe as a full flowering of a politics which had been there from the start. Her book traces Beckett’s political maturation as a writer and as a human being. The research is impressive, in terms of all the material it contains, not just from the Beckett archive but from the wider world of political discourse. The closest Beckett ever came to a dramatic political statement was to write “¡UPTHE REPUBLIC!” when asked by Nancy Cunard where he stood on the Spanish Civil War. More often, his remarks were oblique, qualified, in the margins of his literary works rather than occupying centre stage. But the case is built by Morin’s patient accumulation of telling details across two-hundred and fifty pages until finally the conclusion seems inescapable: Samuel Beckett was a political animal.


Anthony Roche is professor emeritus in the School of English, Drama and Film at University College Dublin. His most recent essays on Beckett are in The Edinburgh Companion to Samuel Beckett and the Arts, edited by SE Gontarski (2014) and Staging Beckett in Ireland and Northern Ireland, edited by Trish McTighe and David Tucker (2016).