The Day Samuel Beckett Became a French Writer

On March 13, 1946, a 39-year-old Samuel Beckett sat at his writing desk, a half-full notebook open before him, and drew a horizontal line across the page, separating the last words he had written from the blank space beneath them. The handwritten lines above, about 28 pages of them, were all in English. Everything below, rewriting those pages, would be in French – a fact whose significance Beckett would not be able to grasp for many years. When he decided to rescript “Suite,” the first part of a two-part short story that would eventually be known as La Fin, in French, Beckett did something that would change the course of his career. This was his French Turn – the moment he became, in a major sense, a French writer. And in many ways, he would never turn back.
Samuel Beckett (right) and Jérôme Lindon, his editor at Les Editions de Minuit, 1985. © Louis Monier/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

From the beginning, Beckett’s problem was his Irishness. He didn’t yet know this during the early, promising years of 1928-1929 when he was a 23-year-old lecturer in English at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. At that time, knowing that Paris was the beating heart of Europe’s expatriate cultural scene, he was all too happy to use his status and national identity to gain entry to the small but influential circle of anglophone writers then congregating in the French capital and publishing in English-language journals like transition, edited by Eugène Jolas. At the center of this circle was James Joyce, the most famous expatriate Irishman since Oscar Wilde, to whom Beckett gravitated immediately, becoming something of a secretary to the author of Ulysses and penning a provocative essay on the virtues of the latter’s “Work in Progress” (later known as Finnegans Wake).

But Beckett would soon discover an unsettling fact: The anglophone European literary field could only support one ambitious Irish novelist writing difficult prose in the highest mode of modernism. This became clear in the 1930s, when Beckett began to send his own literary work out for publication. Most of the literary lights he had been so eager to meet saw him primarily as a point of access to information about the author of Ulysses – a fact in evidence in a curt 1930 letter from New Review editor Samuel Putnam: “Dear Beckett: Anything on Joyce? Putnam.”

Worse still, his association with Joyce overdetermined how others read his work; he took on many Joycean tics, to be sure, but even in his earliest stories and poems there is a distinct idiosyncratic quality that was routinely overlooked in those early days. Back in Ireland, after quitting a teaching post at Trinity College in 1931, Beckett pressed ahead with his work, writing Dream of Fair to Middling Women, which would not be published until after his death. On receiving the manuscript, his editor at Chatto & Windus, Charles Prentice, “politely called it ‘a strange thing,’ praised those sections in which the writing was ‘right away from Joyce,’ and then unsurprisingly turned it down,” as the Beckett scholar Mark Nixon has noted.

A pattern emerged: From More Pricks Than Kicks (1934) and Murphy (1938) to Watt (1953), which he composed while working for the French Resistance in the Roussillon region during World War II, Beckett’s English prose was routinely received through the prism of Joyce’s influence (even after the latter had died in 1941), and was routinely rejected for publication, or only reluctantly taken up without any hope of sales or critical success.

The French Turn

While we may never know what drove Beckett to draw that line across the page in his notebook, we can be certain that, at that moment, he began to forge a new path for himself that led away from the English-speaking literary world of Europe. From this point until he made his name internationally, toward the end of the 1950s, Beckett would compose his texts in French. And in writing “Suite” in French, he calmly but significantly oriented himself toward a new literary field, populated not by English-speaking expats like himself, but by French writers and French publishers.

Now, with “Suite” in hand, he could look toward French-language reviews and journals, and he could begin associating himself with one or other of the various tastemakers, groups, cliques, circles, and schools that populated and formed the French literary scene. When “Suite” finally appeared in volume 1, no. 10 of Les Temps modernes, the review run by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Beckett’s name was last on the table of contents, behind the likes of Francis Ponge, Jean Genet, and Sartre himself.

The first performance of Waiting for Godot, in French, at the Théâtre de Babylone, Paris, 1953. © Boris Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images
Samuel Beckett, 1971. © Archivi Paraboli

Though Les Temps modernes would not be Beckett’s permanent home, in large part because of a falling out with Beauvoir over a misunderstanding that was, in Beckett’s eyes, hardly forgivable (Beauvoir had not known that “Suite” was part one of a two-part package, and she rejected part two when it came to her desk), the Rubicon had been crossed. Beckett was now, for all intents and purposes, a French writer.

All that remained was to find a publisher for his longer fiction. After his French Turn, Beckett had begun writing the three novels that would comprise his Trilogy: Molloy (1951), Malone Dies (1951), and The Unnamable (1953). When he finally completed the drafts, he sent his life partner, editor, and confidante, Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil, acting as his literary agent, to shop them around the various established publishing houses of Paris. Between 1948 and 1950, Beckett underwent a ritual of rejection, receiving six “Nos” in total. Most painful might have been the “No” offered by Albert Camus on behalf of Gallimard.

Finding Fame

One day, sitting in a café across the street from the tiny, unremarkable offices of Les Editions de Minuit, a small press that had originally made its name as an underground Resistance publisher, Beckett suggested that Suzanne leave the manuscripts there on a whim. He allegedly told her: “If this time around it gets published, I’ll buy you a pack of cigarettes. But promise me that this will be your final attempt.” Beckett was fortunate that Jérôme Lindon, Minuit’s 25-year-old publisher, had a habit of pulling from the slush pile at random and reading manuscripts at lunch – and, more importantly, that he was looking to do things differently than the other editors in the city.

After grabbing the manuscript for Molloy, Lindon read it in one sitting and knew, immediately, that he had found not only the work, but the kind of work, he had been looking for. “Reading Molloy,” he told the scholar Anne Simonin, “I had the feeling that the event in my life as a publisher was in the process of unfolding.” And he was right. Without wasting time, Lindon signed on to publish not only the three novels of the Trilogy, but all of Beckett’s works to come.

The rest, as they say, is history. Each made the other’s career: The Trilogy, whose novels were reviewed favorably by every luminary in Paris (including Maurice Nadeau, Georges Bataille, and Maurice Blanchot), cemented Lindon’s reputation as a risk-taking publisher of the new avant-garde, which would come to include the literary movement known as the Nouveau Roman; and it proved Beckett’s bona fides as both a French writer and a literary force to be reckoned with. When he turned to the theater, with the 1953 opening of Waiting for Godot, Beckett became not only a critics’ darling but a public one, a Parisian sensation on his way to becoming an international star.

By the late 1950s, Beckett was known on every continent and especially beloved in the United States for heralding a new era of theatrical performance. With fame came a certain peace of mind about returning to English, from time to time, to compose certain works like Krapp’s Last Tape (1958). But he spent the rest of his life writing, self-translating, and living in French. He would never forget the language, nor the city, that made him.

Article published in the May 2023 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.