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Samuel Beckett – Less Is More

Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett

For someone born on Good Friday, April 13th it was not surprising that such double luck might suggest something special was to be expected. So, Beckett, who was born in Foxrock, Co Dublin in 1906, went on to become one of the most important writers of the 20th century and an inspiration to dramatists like Vaclav Havel, Tom Stoppard and Harold Pinter. His influence on the Beat Generation and their ‘experimental writing’ was vital for Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and many others.

Beckett’s father William, who traced his lineage back to the Huguenots, was a quantity surveyor and successful property developer and had the family house Cooldrinagh built in 1903. His wife Mary Jones Roe was a nurse and they had married in 1901 and Frank, their first son was born the following year. The local woods and open fields of the surrounding countryside were an area where the young Sam often walked with his father, and he often referenced them used them in his writing.

He attended junior school in Dublin before going as a boarder to Portora Royal School (1919-1923) in Enniskillen where Oscar Wilde had once been a pupil. He returned to Dublin and entered Dublin University (Trinity College) where he studied Modern Languages from 1923-1927. He was a bright student and a competitive athlete, excelling at tennis and cricket. Playing as a left-handed batsman he took to the field in two first-class matches against Northamptonshire and, as such, has the unique distinction of being the only Nobel laureate (Awarded in 1969) to be mentioned in Wisden Cricketers’ Almanac – cricket’s ‘bible’.

He graduated first in his class and briefly lectured at Campbell College, Belfast. He soon tired of this and with his college first behind him he was invited to be a reader in English at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris in 1928. There he met James Joyce, who was basking in the glory of having written Ulysses in 1922, the controversial, modern novel that made his name. Beckett was invited to join Joyce’s inner circle and helped him in carrying out research for his next project – Finnegans Wake.

In 1930 he returned to Ireland to take up a post as lecturer in French at Trinity College, but he left in December 1931 after only four terms. This was his final fling with teaching and he went off on an extended tour of the Continent. He did odd jobs and wrote short stories, poems to earn money and filled many notebooks with notes about places and people that would provide inspiration in the following years. He hated the cruelty of the Nazi regime that he had seen in Germany and in 1937 finally decided to settle in Paris. Before that he returned to Dublin where Murphy was published the following year. Then he fell out with his mother who he was more like than his father and returned to Paris, and did not see her again until after the war.

The Samuel Beckett Bridge (on the Liffey) 2009

The Samuel Beckett Bridge (on the Liffey) 2009

Back in Paris Beckett almost died when he was stabbed in the chest by a pimp after he had refused his solicitations. The knife missed his heart by inches and it was during his stay in hospital that he met Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnuil who was to become his life-long companion and greatest supporter. She was in Paris studying piano and they had met once before at a social gathering, but after this they became lovers and eventually married in a secret wedding in Folkestone, Kent in March 1961.

During World War II, Beckett’s Irish citizenship allowed him to remain in Paris as a citizen of a neutral country. He joined the Resistance movement but he and Suzanne fled Paris when some members of their group were arrested by the Gestapo in 1942. They spent weeks making their way, on foot, to Roussillon, in south east France, where they worked as farm labourers until late 1944. After the war, Beckett was awarded the Croix de Guerre for bravery during his time in the French Resistance. He, however, was typically understated at his efforts referring them to them as ‘boy scouts stuff’. His most famous work Waiting for Godot has been described as “a metaphor for the long walk to safety, when Beckett and Suzanne slept in haystacks during the day and walked and talked by night.”

He returned to Dublin in 1946 and stayed with his mother for a while. And it was here that he had a revelation that would direct his writing from that moment. Fearful of remaining in Joyce’s shadow he was prompted to change direction and find his own path. ‘I realized that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, of being in control of one’s material. He was always adding to it; you only have to look at his proofs to see that. I realized that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than in adding.’

Beckett's most famous work

Beckett’s most famous work

He and Suzanne returned to their pre-war apartment in Paris where he had his most prolific period as a writer. In five years, he wrote Eleutheria, Waiting for Godot, Endgame, the novels Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable, and Mercier et Camier, two books of short stories and a book of criticism. Although he was a native English speaker, he wrote in French because, as he reasoned, it was easier for him to write ‘without style’.

Having completed Godot he was unhappy with the lack of response from publishers and it was Suzanne who badgered them until Beckett’s work was recognised. Godot was written between 9 October 1948 and 29 January 1949 and had its premiere on 5 January 1953 in the Théâtre de Babylone, Paris and ran for over 400 performances. This brought Beckett international recognition and the English language version was premiered in London in 1955. In a poll conducted by the British Royal National Theatre it was voted the ‘most significant English language play of the 20th century’.

Beckett focuses on the essential elements of the human condition in dark humorous ways in a style that was called ‘Theater of the Absurd’. His plays focus on human despair and the determination to survive in a hopeless world that offers no help in understanding.

Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969 and died on 22nd December 1989. He is buried with Suzanne, who had died five months earlier, in Montparnasse Cemetery and they share a simple granite gravestone that follows his instruction that it should be ‘any colour, so long as it’s grey’.

Grave in Montparnasse Cemetery

Grave in Montparnasse Cemetery

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James Joyce – A Native Son

41, Brighton Square

41, Brighton Square

Although his native city features in all his writing, the relationship between the two was not easy. Joyce left Dublin when he was twenty-two years old and only returned for a few short visits. He lived in Trieste, Paris and died in Switzerland in 1941, aged fifty-nine, recognised as one of the major writers of the twentieth century. His influence on Modern writing is undeniable, and his native city is at the centre of his work.

He was born on 2nd February 1882 in 41, Brighton Square, Rathgar, which at the time was a recently laid out middle-class suburb. Joyce was the eldest of ten siblings born to John Stanislaus Joyce and Mary Jane Murray from whom he inherited his musical love and good voice, as she was an accomplished   pianist. His father frittered away his inheritance on different business ventures, and over the years the family sank into poverty making many late night departures from one house to another. The nomadic life was something Joyce understood, and during the years on the Continent moving house happened often.

JJ in St Stephen's Green

JJ in St Stephen’s Green

Joyce found the conservative religious atmosphere and the changing political landscape in Ireland too oppressive for creative thinking, and left for Paris. In this most cosmopolitan city, a place of tolerance in all areas, Joyce could grow as a writer and human being and encounter ‘the reality of experience’. It was the environment he needed, and even though his financial position did not noticeably improve, the freedom to think and write was paramount.

It is interesting that Joyce, although ‘exiled’ from the city that he disliked for its shortcomings and conservative mindset, still chose to use it as the canvas on which he wrote. From his earliest work Dubliners (1914), the hugely popular collection of short stories to his most famous works, Ulysses (1922) and Finnegans Wake (1939), the city is a ’character’ in its own right, adding to the colour, sound and feel of the stories. He said that if the city was destroyed it could be rebuilt, brick by brick, using Ulysses as a model. He may, indeed, have left Dublin but it certainly never left him.

Martello Tower, Sandycove - Ulysses begins

Martello Tower, Sandycove – Ulysses begins

 

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Eileen Gray – A Most Modern Woman

Eileen Gray

Eileen Gray

Iconic is not a description that Eileen Gray would have been comfortable with, but with her success as a designer, creator of some of the 20th century’s most admired and sought-after works and her continued artistic influence, it is certainly justified. The (permanent) exhibition that I visited recently in the National Museum of Ireland – Decorative Arts & History, Collins Barracks, is both interesting and fun – not unlike many of Gray’s clever designs.

Bibendum Chair

Bibendum Chair

Gray was born near Enniscorthy, Wexford on 9th August 1878 the youngest of five siblings. Her father, James, was a painter and he was the first to encourage her artistic interests. When she was 20 she travelled to London and studied at the Slade School of Fine Art. While in London she became interested in lacquer and worked in for a time in an art shop in Soho learning the skills. Later, in Paris, she met Japanese expert Seizo Sugawara and she first exhibited her work in 1913 to critical success.

She returned to Paris after WWI having spent those traumatic years in London. A commission to decorate the apartment of Madame Mathieu Levy was completed in 1921 and brought immediate critical acclaim and financial independence. Gray had designed most of the furniture, lamps, carpets and also installed some of her famous lacquered panels. However, it was the inclusion of the Bibendum Chair for which this project is best remembered. Named after the Michelin character that advertised their tyres, the chair has become one of the most recognisable furniture designs. She was the first designer to use chrome, years before such acclaimed designers as Le Corbusier, Mies Van der Rohe and Marcel Breuer. Another furniture piece, her famous Dragon Chair made between 1917-1919, was acquired by Yves Saint Laurent 1973 when Gray’s work was becoming popular yet again. This piece was sold by Christie’s in February 2009 for $28m making, it the most expensive piece of 20th century art!

E1027 Table

E1027 Table

In the 1920s she designed E1027 house in Roquebrune on the Cote d’Azur, France. The unique name is decoded as follows: E = Eileen, 10 = Jean (J is the 10th letter of the alphabet), 2 = Badovici and 7 = Gray. She designed the furniture while collaborating with Jean Badovici on structural aspects. Her circular glass, table E-1027, was inspired by the Bauhaus design movement.

Although well-known in France it is only in more recent years that Gray has been re-discovered in Ireland. In 1973 she was presented with an honorary fellowship by the Royal Institute of Architects of  Ireland and the citation noted ‘…she was probably the  sole representative from Ireland wholly immersed as an outstanding exponent in the pioneering work of the modern movement.’  A TV documentary, a new novel The Interview (by Patricia O’Reilly and the issue by An Post of a stamp (in August 2015) are going a long way to correct that position. It’s the least an icon deserves.

E1027 - Cote d'Azur, south of France

E1027 – Cote d’Azur, south of France

 

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Bewleys Cafe – a flavour of Dublin

Even as it approaches its ninetieth year, Bewleys Café is as familiar as a best friend and a place I have always enjoyed. From the moment you approach the shop, depending of course on the direction of the wind, the aroma of fine coffee is enticing. It’s unique, and is appreciated by the patrons who daily pack the quirky, old building.

Egyptian-inspired decoration

Egyptian-inspired decoration

 

Famous pupils

Famous pupils

It opened for business in 1927 after extensive refurbishment, and was inspired by the great Paris and Vienna cafes.   The exterior Egyptian decoration reflects the contemporary discovery of Tutankhamen’s Tomb in 1922. The stained glass windows that Harry Clarke created are the highlight of the café, and are really appreciated when lit by strong sunlight. In the late 18th century the building housed Whyte’s Academy, the school where Arthur Wellesley (future Duke of  Wellington) and Thomas Moore attended. Robert Emmet, from St Stephen’s Green, a scone’s throw away, was another famous pupil.

Harry Clarke's wonderful windows

Harry Clarke’s wonderful windows

Originally a supplier of tea Bewleys later developed its coffee business, and it is now the biggest café and restaurant in Ireland with a million customers annually. It’s coffee (Arabica beans) is all Fairtrade sourced. The green beans, from Central and South America, are roasted on the premises and soon produce the familiar aroma and flavour. Add this to the in-house made bread, cakes, pizzas and salads and it is easy to see why it is has been Dublin’s favourite restaurant since it opened. It has also been one of Dubliner’s most popular meeting places, and is mentioned in James Joyce’s Dubliners. Other literary figures like Sean O’Casey and Samuel Beckett liked to sit and watch the world go by. That hasn’t changed, and with the hum of lively conversation in my ears, I feel it’s not likely to happen…for a long, long time!

Beans, means.....great coffee!

Beans, means…..great coffee!

 

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