Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Beckett saw fit not to leave France during the Nazi occupation. He served the Resistance quietly and effectively, both in Paris and in the Vaucluse. At the end of the war he was awarded the Croix de Guerre with gold star (as well as the Médaille de la Résistance), but didn’t tell his friends about it.

During those years, Beckett was working on a second novel, Watt, which, like Murphy, he wrote in English. He translated Murphy into French, worked on Mercier et Camier, a French novel which he withheld from publication for many years, and on his French play Eleuthéria1.

Beckett’s colleague at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, Jean Thomas, had recognized in Beckett a poet-in-embryo, but he had no indication, he has recalled, that he was dealing with a future French writer. That kind of transformation is a puzzling phenomenon. Frenchmen traditionally have found it normal that everyone else should speak French. But that any outlander should use their language as effectively as Beckett did in his great trilogy—Molloy, Malone Meurt (Malone Dies), and L’Innommable (The Unnamable)—and in Godot is, or at least was, unthinkable. For a writer in middle years, with a mastery of his style, to change from one language to another a courageous, an intrepid but, potentially, a foolhardy act.

What brought Beckett to it? It had long since become clear that France was his spiritual home. His education, his lectureship at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, his frequent returning to Paris in the course of throwing off a smothering family and cultural environment (what Beckett called the “Anglo-Irish exuberance and automatisms”) all point in that direction.

Associated with that was another urgent need: to find his true subject. Beckett had his blinding revelation one stormy postwar night as he wandered around the Dublin harbor area. He suddenly realized he had one subject—himself—and henceforward he would tell that story, with all its dark side, directly, through a narrator whose voice would always be his own. What he had recorded over the years, he would now play back. That revelation is reflected in an early draft version of Krapp’s Last Tape in the Center’s Beckett collection:

Intellectually a year of profound gloom until that wonderful night in March, at the end of the pier, in the high wind, when suddenly I saw the whole thing. The turning-point, at last. This, I imagine, is what I have chiefly to set down this evening, against the day when my work will be done and perhaps no place in my memory, and no thankfulness, for the miracle—(pause)—for the fire that set it alight. What I saw was that the assumption I had been going on all my life, namely—(He switches off machine impatiently, winds tape forward, switches on again)—granite rocks the foam flying up in the light of the beacon and the anemometer spinning like a propellor, clear to me at last that the dark I have struggled to keep out of my work [at bay] is in reality my most valuable—(He curses, switches off, winds tape forward, switches on again)—strange association till my dying day of storm and night with the light of understanding and the—(He curses louder, switches off, winds tape forward, switches on again) . . .

In making this change of subject, of tone, in letting “the dark” into his work, Beckett changed languages. He needed to cut away the excess, to strip away the color, to tell his story simply and directly. French, he has said, gave him distance from the writing and enabled him to assess it more clearly. It slowed down the whole process of formulation for him. If he was to impoverish form in keeping with the revelation of his proper subject-matter and his espousal of mental poverty, then French was the keener cutting-edge. He had tried it earlier with the poems and nouvelles, but the definite switch came after his return to Dublin in the summer of 1945 when he began work on Molloy. English had now grown to be the foreign language, so to remain for ten years.