Suzanne Descheveaux-Dumesnil digested the news coming over the long-distance line to her Tunis hotel room on Oct. 23, 1969.
With the receiver still in hand, she turned to her husband, Samuel Beckett: “What a catastrophe!”
She had just heard he’d won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Writes Beckett biographer Anthony Cronin, the remark “admirably reveals her qualities and her understanding” of her partner who had “half expected and equally half dreaded” the award.
Adds Cronin”[O]f course, Beckett was fully aware that the prize was a questionable honor, that it was largely given out on a rotary basis, and often for political reasons.”
He had often told friends that if he won the most famous prize in literature, he would probably decline it. The problem was that Jean-Paul Sartre had done precisely that in 1964, making it difficult for anyone else to do the same for their own reasons.
He also thought the way Sartre refused the Nobel was “inelegant.”
So, rather than be named a prizewinner and have to reject it, Beckett had suggested to his editor Jerome Lindon that if the Sweden Academy ever made enquiries, he should say that didn’t want it. Ultimately, Lindon’s contact with the Academy was in person, when he accepted the prize on the writer’s behalf (the Irish ambassador had offered as was the custom).
The Academy’s citation said he won for “a body of work, that in new forms of fiction and the theatre, has transmuted the destitution of modern man into his exaltation.”
There was a time when Beckett, who did not receive widespread literary recognition until he was in his late 40s, might have welcomed even a tiny fraction of the cash prize, $73,000, but by 1969 he had enough for his needs.
He commented that his friend James Joyce, who was 28 years dead by that stage, “would have known how to spend it.”
In the end, Beckett gave much of the prize away to other writers.
That was one reason for his reputation for integrity, another was his wartime activism in the French Resistance. But, asked Cronin, why did this hitherto self-absorbed and neurotic artist become involved in the first place? Beckett, who was not an Irish nationalist, explicitly said later that he didn’t act out of some patriotic identification with France. His actions rather can partly be attributed to his left-leaning partner who he said had “made a man of me.”
But Beckett, who had experienced prewar Germany, also gave a fuller political explanation: “I was so outraged by the Nazis, particularly of their treatment of Jews that I could not remain inactive.”
Early in the occupation, he joined a group codenamed Glora that was involved in gathering information and which included some other intellectuals from neutral states. However, the group was betrayed, and several members were arrested and tortured. Beckett and Descheveaux-Dumesnil, one step ahead of the Gestapo, went South where they lived for two years and he again became involved in Resistance activities.
He almost never spoke about his wartime exploits — “boy scout stuff,” he said — for which he was awarded the Croix de guerre and the M