Monday, June 2, 2014

Paris '68, Samuel Beckett, and Monsieur Achkar

The best teacher I ever had in Geneva, and of course I never told him so (but I am doing so now), was a thoughtful, humorous, espresso-drinking and chain-smoking Lebanese intellectual named Maurice Achkar, who communicated his love of the French language to me and others—but to me in particular, I always felt—and who admired the works of Samuel Beckett, of whom I had never heard until one day a poster appeared on the wall of M. Achkar’s classroom advertising a play called Oh Les Beaux Jours (Happy Days) then playing at the Odeon theatre in Paris. M. Achkar went to Paris once a month for the theatre and to meet friends over drinks and browse the bookstalls along the Seine, and he went especially to see the works of Beckett.
     Oh, Oh Les Beaux Jours! Cela vaut le voyage, Monsieur Roger,” he told me after he’d seen Happy Days. “A woman who sinks slowly into the sand while reciting the inanities of her everyday life…c’est magnifique. Does anyone understand the tragedy of banality as well as Beckett? This woman, she sounds just like my wife. Mais non, c’est magnifique.


     Then there was Endgame. What could be more thrilling than the apocalyptic minimalism of a play featuring two people who lived in dustbins? It went through the bourgeoisie like a knife through cheese, said M. Achkar. But I didn’t care for the political angle, and still don’t. In fact, I don’t believe there is one, or Beckett wouldn’t be the immortal he is; but M. Achkar was a standard left-wing intellectual of his time, blossoming in the fertile soil of the Sixties, keenly attuned to the rumblings of ex-colonialism and the pronouncements of Le Monde. He tried to pass on his politics with the French language, but I swallowed one and spat out the other, and all credit to both of us: me for my tone-deafness, then as now, to politics; him for his near-genius as a teacher of French. When he started teaching me, I was still making reluctant recon missions into the enemy territory of the ambient lingo. By the time he’d finished with me five years later, I’d conquered that alien domain—or at least I was fluent enough not to be too incongruous lounging about in Geneva’s smoky cafes over renversés and ballons de blanc and blathering about Anouilh and Sartre and Ionesco…and Beckett, whom I approached cautiously, as if fearing contagion. (After all, how many bona fide French intellectuals were also rock-solid Irishmen? It was a combination I relished, and feared.) France and French literature were the focus of M. Achkar’s aesthetic interests: vulgar America did not engage him, and his own “Third World” could have been in another galaxy for all the attention he gave it. But his limitations were his virtues: he shepherded me with great finesse through the thickets of French literature, never pausing long enough for me to feel hemmed-in by dense Racine or overgrown Hugo, but indicating with a casual gesture shining pastures new (Voltaire on the left, Rousseau further left, Mauriac on the right, Céline way out there), and none was newer or more shining to me then than Beckett, unless it was that whole left-bank existential culture presided over by Sartre and de Beauvoir that so winningly combined despair and a sense of style. So at age 17, at Achkar’s urging, I returned to Paris, my old hometown, with the intention of seeing a play, preferably by Beckett; but Sam, as it turned out, wasn’t on the menu at the Comédie, so I settled for Anouilh’s Le Voyageur Sans Bagage. The play was forgettable, or at least I’ve forgotten it; but being at the sacred Comédie was quite memorable, with the Parisian bourgeois-bohemians so studiously well-read and up on all the jargon and me feeling like a spy in their midst. And eternally memorable were the barricades and piles of bricks and stones and blue police vans on the boulevards outside, for it was May 1968 and the soixante-huitards were reliving bygone romantic uprisings by pasting the cops with paving stones and water-filled balloons and the CRS were responding with fire hoses and tear gas and Billy clubs. All very bracing, but I ducked out of history’s path and took the metro down to the 7th arrondissement and had dinner in a Vietnamese restaurant on the Avenue de la Bourdonnais with a student and amateur fortune-teller named Maria Boullard or Bouillard…are you reading these words, Maria, and where and who are you now? You read my palm that night and made predictions I think have come true. Sleeping with you wasn’t one of them, however, and that non-prediction came true too, alas....

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