Benjamin Ivry in Forward:
Although Nobel Prize-winning author Samuel Beckett is known for his tragicomically inert characters, he himself was an anti-Nazi activist during World War II. Unlike the ever-absent Godot, the bedridden vagrant protagonist of his novel “Molloy” or the despairing characters in his play “Endgame” who lack legs and the ability to stand, Beckett — though painfully shy and prone to melancholy — was a dynamic member of the French Résistance. His surprising wartime actions are detailed, if not fully explained, in the 2004 biography from Grove Press, “Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett” by James Knowlson.
Like his mentor, James Joyce, Beckett was unusually philo-Semitic among European modernist writers, and he joined the Résistance, Knowlson notes, soon after Joyce’s Jewish friend and amanuensis, Paul Léon, was arrested in Paris (Léon would later be murdered in Auschwitz). A fuller understanding of Beckett’s motivation for his pro-Jewish and anti-Nazi activism had to wait until two new books appeared.
Taking us from wartime to the early part of the author’s great achievements, Cambridge University Press has just published “The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume 2, 1941–1956” following the first volume in 2009. This adds to insight gleaned from “Samuel Beckett’s German Diaries 1936–1937,” released in June by Continuum. Author Mark Nixon, analyzing still-unpublished journals by Beckett, describes the latter’s reactions to a sojourn in Germany intended to improve his grasp of the language and knowledge of the visual arts.
Together, these books underline how profound Beckett’s ties were with the Jewish people.