Around France

Samuel Beckett’s Roussillon, France

The red hills of Roussillon are an inspiration for artists, but I had no idea how many famous authors came to visit Roussillon.

On my first visit to Roussillon, while riding along the winding roads of the Luberon, it amazed me to see the massive red hills up ahead. They seemed to appear from nowhere. The nearby towns had only small tinges of red.

“How is it possible that so much red is in one place?” I said to myself.

Then I learned, like others before me, Roussillon is like a stoplight — insisting that all who pass stay for a while.

Visit Roussillon

Red hills of Roussillon

It is obvious that artists love Roussillon. But what a surprise it was to discover how many great authors passed this way … and stayed for a while.

Mayle’s best-selling book, A Year in Provence, was inspired by Roussillon. Laurence Wylie’s, A Village in the Vaucluse was set there too. It was the fact that Samuel Beckett lived here that really surprised me. IHis life in the 1940s village that greatly affected his writing, most notably, his most famous play, “Waiting for Godot” (En Attendant Godot).

I remember seeing “Waiting for Godot” many years ago at the Playmaker’s Theatre in Chapel Hill, NC. Season tickets to the University of North Carolina theatre took me to many plays performed by the renowned repertoire cast. “Waiting for Godot” was one of the best, to me. In its simplicity, the play spoke volumes about life.

Perhaps it was experiencing “Waiting for Godot,” that determined me to travel and to see the world.

Indeed, I was not going to spend my life “Waiting for Godot.” 

Visit Roussillon

Caspar David Friedrich painting which may have inspired “Waiting for Godot”

Samuel Beckett’s Roussillon

It is said that Samuel Beckett wrote “Waiting for Godot” because of a painting by German artist Caspar David Friedrich. Two people standing on the roadside are staring at the moon.  Beckett’s storyline is just as simple. He staged the entire play on one spot on a road, beside a tree.

There are those, of course, who value Beckett’s work enough to award the playwright a Nobel Prize for LiteratureThe play is viewed as a masterpiece of post–modernism. Indeed the author paints a simple, rather vague picture of the village, Roussillon.  It is others who say the characters and their stories put meaning into life in and around the 1940’s village and the War.

For example, the character Vladimir speaks of ochre quarries and picking grapes for a man named Bonnelly. Tales of starvation, hiding in trenches, and threats of beatings are, perhaps, Beckett’s own remembrances of time with the French  Resistance. He pictures Lucky, a man who is starving, tied to a paunchy man with a whip, Pozzo — a scene that calls up thoughts of Nazi concentration camps. Beckett winds all these tales together with vaudeville humor and mime.

Written in French

Perhaps the most astounding fact about Beckett, to this American who somehow refuses to learn French, is that he wrote his most famous works in French. Yes, an Irishman from Dublin chose to pen in French because it was: “easier to write ‘without style.'” Meaning, he felt that he could write in a more colloquial style in French. To Beckett, English was too literal.

Beckett preferred to express himself in French even in his last work,  a poem entitled “Comment Dire.”

In 1988 Beckett was diagnosed with aphasia, a condition defined as the “loss of speech, partial or total, or loss of power to understand written or spoken language, as a result of disorder of the cerebral speech centers” (OED). Before he died he regained his ability to speak and to read. His writing, again, showed his determination to understand the unexplainable. “Comment Dire“, “How do you say”, with its dashes and repetitions, shows an artist’s undying compulsion to search for words. 

Visit RoussillonSamuel Beckett, “Waiting for Godot”



For more about Roussillon:

Why Roussillon is “Red”: Fact and Fable

Fall … In Love With Provence

Lost in the Luberon: Gordes, Goult and Menerbes

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