In April 1962, Samuel Beckett sent a clipping from the French press to his lover Barbara Bray: a report of the arrest in Paris of a member of the Organisation armée secrète. The OAS was a far-right terror gang whose members were drawn largely from within the French military. It had carried out bombings, assassinations, and bank robberies with the aim of overthrowing the government of Charles de Gaulle and stopping the concession of independence to Algeria. Among its targets had been Beckett’s publisher and friend Jérôme Lindon, whose apartment and office were both bombed by the OAS.
The press clipping detailed the capture of an army lieutenant who would be charged with leading an OAS attack on an arms depot outside Paris and a raid on a bank in the city. His name was Lieutenant Daniel Godot. Sending it to Bray was a typical expression of Beckett’s black humor. But it also serves as a reminder that his work is not an exhalation of timeless existential despair. It is, as Emilie Morin’s groundbreaking study, Beckett’s Political Imagination, shows, enmeshed in contemporary politics.
That such a reminder should be necessary is one of the more remarkable facts of twentieth-century cultural history. Beckett, after all, risked his life to work for the French Resistance, even though he was a citizen of a neutral country, Ireland. The astonishing works with which he revolutionized both the theater and the novel—Waiting for Godot and the trilogy of Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable—were written immediately after World War II and the Holocaust. Vladimir’s question in Godot, “Where are all these corpses from?,” and its answer, “A charnel-house! A charnel-house!,” hang over much of his writing. Torture, enslavement, hunger, displacement, incarceration, and subjection to arbitrary power are the common fates of Beckett’s characters.
Yet there is a long tradition of seeing him as not merely apolitical but antipolitical. In his introduction to The Complete Short Prose, for example, the brilliant Beckett scholar Stan Gontarski writes:
The focus of injustice in Beckett is almost never local, civil, or social, but cosmic, the injustice of having been born.
Deirdre Bair, in her pioneering 1978 biography of Beckett, called him “consistent in his apolitical behavior,” claimed that politics was “anathema” to him, and described him as having “walked away from any conversation that veered into politics.” For the English left-wing playwrights of the 1960s, he was a disengaged pessimist with nothing to contribute to political discourse except a disempowering despair. In France, Maurice Blanchot’s early advocacy of Beckett as (in Morin’s summary) the creator of “a narrative voice divorced from recognizable political and historical parameters” established an enduring template. Another of his great advocates, Theodor Adorno, happily conceded that “it would be…ridiculous to have him testify as a key political witness.”
On a superficial level Morin, in her richly illuminating study, shows more comprehensively than anyone else has the plain untruth…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.