September 20, 2008

Beckett Pilgrimage III

From the cemetery I continued east until I located Beckett's final apartment - in another modest, unassuming building - at 38 Boulevard St. Jacques in the 14th Arrondissement.  He and Suzanne lived here (in separate but adjoining apartments) from 1961 until the year of their deaths.  

Across the street is the equally unassuming hotel restaurant and cafe where Beckett used to meet his guests, in Beckett's time the Hotel Saint-Jacques and then the PLM and now the Marriot Rive Gauche. This is where John Minihan took his famous photograph of Beckett. 

The street behind Beckett's building is still occupied by grim bulk of the Santé prison, which Beckett could see from the window of his flat.  Apparently Beckett, armed with Morse code and a mirror, held an ongoing exchange with a prisoner there.

My last stop on the pilgrimage was Les Editions de Minuit, a publishing house founded during the Resistance and taken over by Jerome Lindon in 1948.  Lindon published Beckett's most important works after the war.  It makes me giddy to think of that era of the great triumvirate of independent editors and publishing houses - Lindon at Minuit, John Calder at Calder Books, and Barney Rossett at Grove Press.  Editions de Minuit remains where it has been located for decades, in a tiny street - practically an alleyway - at 7 rue Bernard-Palissy, with Lindon apparently still at the helm.  Night was falling already but I could see someone inside; I wanted to go in and join them.  Instead I spent a long time looking in through the windows.  Alas, my digital camera doesn't take very good night shots.  

Early in 1952 a young American named Richard Seaver was walking past the Editions de Minuit display window when he spotted two books, Molloy and Malone Muert, by someone named Samuel Beckett.  Seaver had a vague recollection of that name in relation to Joyce and Finnegans Wake, so he bought the books and ended up reading the first of them, Molloy, that night, practically at one sitting.  Soon he was sharing his revelation with his friends, Alexander Trocchi, Jane Loguee, Christopher Logue, Austryn Wainhouse, and Patrick Bowles, who were just then launching a new avant-garde literary magazine, Merlin.  Seaver wrote an essay on Beckett which was published in Merlin and sent a copy to Beckett, following it up with a request for any of Beckett's work that they might be fortunate enough to print in their next issue.  You know the rest of the story:  late one night a tall, gaunt, silent figure - a Giacometti sculpture in a raincoat - appears at the door and hands them an envelope with a manuscript in it.  It's Watt, written in English and still unpublished at the time.  Beckett has specified, however, which excerpt they are to print - that passage of interminable permutations which you can find here.  It's a test.  The kids don't blink, the excerpt appears in Merlin, they pass the test.  Who would pass that test today?

If you look in the window as I saw it in January 2008, you might just be able to make out the copy of Watt on the left side of the photograph.  Behind are promotional photographs of the younger generation of Editions de Minuit authors, including Jean-Philippe Toussaint and Eric Chevillard, who, according to Francois Monti in a recent article in The Quarterly Conversation, are helping to keep Lindon's press relevant.


I'm not sure what I'm looking for on these pilgrimages.  They're almost always dissatisfying - I stand there in front of whatever it is I've been searching for and mostly I feel self-conscious.  OK, I ask myself, what am I feeling now?  Am I having the appropriate thoughts and emotions?  Is this an authentic experience?  And I repeat to myself, in the formulaic language of spells, "I'm standing right where So-and-so stood once upon a time," and, "This is the very door through which Fill-in-the-blank passed on the way to his engagement with destiny!"  I visit their haunts and end up seeming ghostly to myself.

But then I look back at my travel notes and I'm frustrated by the things that I missed, that I didn't have time for - the corner of Avenue General-Leclerc and the Coeur-de-Vey where in 1937 Beckett was stabbed by a pimp, the hospice called Les Tiers Temps on the Rue Remy Dumoncel where Beckett lay in his final illness, if it's even still there . . . and then there are the Joyce sites, the Proust sites . . . and it occurs to me that I am not so much a ghost as a species of vampire.  


Robert M. Detman said...

I also made this pilgrimage--enjoyed your stories/photos. Funny thing is that my journey there was quite unplanned, just a lark (I had been in Brussels for a friend's wedding and went to Paris for a day), remembering how much I had loved Beckett's work when I was in my early 20s, and then deciding to look for his haunts. I was then 37, and just preparing to go to grad school for writing--ripe for inspiration. Beckett was it (Cortazar, also, who is in that cemetery--a related story; less so Sartre, also there. In any case, those eminent presences were very awe inspiring for me). Standing at Beckett's grave I had an epiphany. Realizing how much this pilgrimage and Beckett's work infused my grad school experience has been a gift for me.

Thanks again!

Edmond Caldwell said...

Thanks for the comment, robert. Yes, Cortazar is there (at one time I was quite obsessed with his novel Hopscotch) and so is Sartre (in death as in life buried with DeBeauvoir) - and also Tristan Tzara and Baudelaire and the ineffably lovely Margeurite Duras! And I have pictures of all of their monuments, which I threaten to post at some future date . . .

Vivian Darkbloom said...

Dr. Caldwell,
I admittedly googled your name in a fit of Emmanuel nostalgia, wondering what you'd been up to since we both left EC. That being fairly embarrassing, I am also about to admit to my own penchant for literary pilgrimages. When I was in Boston I tracked down the apartment where Nabokov lived while working at Harvard. It was a wholly unremarkable building, but I found it really exciting to stand on the stoop of one of the places where Nabokov lived. Geeky for sure, and ultimately pointless, I felt a connection to the writer whose work I so love. I guess that's the point, really, to stand in the same place and wish you were actually in that literary place.

Hope all's well with you,
Michelle Davidson

Edmond Caldwell said...

Michelle! So cool to hear from you. You'll have to tell me where the Nabokov bldg. is so that I, too, can stand pointlessly on the stoop. Two postscripts: 1) Congratulations! 2) Onward to banner #18.

Vivian Darkbloom said...

8 Craigie Circle, Suite 35, Cambridge, MA

Here's the website where I found it in case you want to check out just about every place he ever lived or stayed. Just when I think I'm intense...

And to respond, 1) Thanks! and 2) You know it!

Rhys Tranter said...


A superb collection of photographs, and some nice recollections. Thank you for sharing.

All the best,