An ex-pat in Paris when the Nazis invaded France in 1940, Samuel Beckett could have returned to his native Ireland. According to scholar Marjorie Perloff, Beckett later said about his decision to stay, “I preferred France in war to Ireland at peace.” Ireland was neutral in the conflict, but Beckett, who had visited Germany in the 1930s as the Nazis were taking over, was not. As he told a later biographer, “You simply couldn’t stand by with your arms folded.”
Instead, he and his partner Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil joined the Resistance to Nazi occupation and the puppet Vichy government. In Paris, they were members of a unit called Gloria SMH. As liaisons with the British Special Operations Executive in London, the polyglot couple translated secret reports about Axis troop movements until 1942, when the Gloria team was betrayed. Beckett, Deschevaux-Dumesnil, and others in the no-longer-secret group fled Paris with the Gestapo on their heels.
Walking south through France over six weeks, Beckett and Deschevaux-Dumesnil would end up in a village near Avignon, where they remained until the Liberation in June of 1945. Though fluent in French, Beckett had an Irish accent, making him particularly vulnerable to being ratted-out in the dangerous collaborationist/resistance struggle that was not unlike a civil war in France.
As Perloff details in her examination of his war-time experience, Beckett had a grim time of it. His war experience was “a nightmare Beckett never wrote about directly, although allusions to it are […] everywhere in the texts of the postwar decade.”
His most famous work, Waiting for Godot, which premiered in 1953, was initially entitled simply Waiting. The play, writes Perloff, “dramatizes the tension between passivity and action that characterizes this very particular form of waiting—a waiting on the part of human beings thrust into a very particular—and wholly unknown—situation.”
In retrospect, the influence of the world war and the Holocaust seem obvious on Beckett’s work. But curiously, when Beckett became famous as a writer and playwright in the immediate post-war years, his darkly comic work was seen as addressing the universal absurdity and meaningless of existence in an uncaring universe.
As Perloff notes, this interpretation ignored the hard, obvious facts of Beckett’s war years. Indeed, the French critics who made Beckett’s name both in France and abroad studiously ignored the realism of his work. Writes Perloff, “It was preferable to read Beckett as addressing man’s alienation and the human condition rather than anything as specific as everyday life in the years of Resistance.” For this first wave of French critics, war memories were “not only painful but embarrassing, given the collaboration of the Vichy government.”
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Though Beckett was given the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille de la Reconnaissance Française, he never much discussed his Resistance work, nor his flight, hiding, and waiting, nor his volunteer work after the war building a Red Cross hospital in Saint-Lô, a city 95% destroyed during the Allied drive into of Normandy in July of 1944. Instead, he put it all into his writing. Perloff argues that his aim was to describe “not what wartime France was but how it felt.”
Or, as the narrator of The Unnamable (1953) says at the book’s end, “you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”