Wednesday, July 17, 2013

`I Owe Everything to Suzanne'

On this date, July 17, in 1989, Suzanne Déchevaux-Dumesnil died in Paris, age eighty-nine. We remember her because she married Samuel Beckett. They met in 1929 while playing tennis. A decade later they became lovers. They fled Paris forty-eight hours before the Nazis marched down the Champs-Elysées, and joined the Resistance. They married in 1961. You can read the details, some fairly unpleasant, in Anthony Cronin and James Knowlson. The latter tells us Beckett judged her “merely likable and interesting” at the time of their first meeting. Knowlson notes Déchevaux-Dumesnil was six years older than Beckett, a pianist with perfect pitch and a seamstress, “attractive in a slightly masculine way.” The biographer goes on: 

“She was an unusual mixture: practical, a first-rate dressmaker, yet totally uninterested in cooking; down-to-earth, yet with a belief in some of the most bizarre practices of `alternative’ medicine. Generous and kind to the poor and underprivileged, she sympathized with failure [“fail better”] and hated success. Yet she could be jealous and intolerant, sharp and dismissive of anyone she did not like.” 

Knowlson says Déchevaux-Dumesnil’s role in Beckett’s life was maternal, that she was a teetotaler and criticized his drinking. However, “she had enormous respect for Beckett’s talents and total belief in his genius.” Knowlson credits her “quick intelligence and practical nature” with saving their lives several times during the Occupation. For two years they lived underground in Roussillon in the Vaucluse. Knowlson quotes Beckett as writing shortly after her death: 

“I owe everything to Suzanne. She hawked everything around trying to get someone to take all three books [Mercier and Camier, Molloy, Malone Dies] at the same time. That was a very pretentious thing for an unknown to want.” 

Overreaching critics have seen Sam and Suzanne in Estragon and Vladimir. Beckett was a rare writer who wrote feelingly and with insight about women, old women in particular. Think of Happy Days, Come and Go, Rockaby. The last is a one-woman play written in 1980. The sole character, known as “W,” was described by the playwright as “Prematurely old. Unkempt grey hair. Huge eyes in white expressionless face.” She listens to a recording of her own voice, "V": 

time she stopped
going to and fro
time she went and sat
at her window
quiet at her window
facing other windows
so in the end
close of a long day 

Beckett died five months after Déchevaux-Dumesnil, on Dec. 22, 1989, in a Paris nursing home. They are buried together in the Cimetière de Montparnasse.

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