ARCACHON WAS BUSTLING in the summer of 1940. Wedged between white sand beaches and dark pine forest, the small southwestern town was a chic tourist resort. But the hundreds of French and foreigners milling along the streets and filling the cafés were not vacationers. Instead, they were refugees — little more than a smattering of the millions of civilians who had fled Paris ahead of “la peste brune,” or the brown plague, of the German invasion.
At one of the seaside cafés, two refugees spent much of the summer playing chess. The older, aquiline-faced player made short shrift of his younger hawk-nosed opponent. Yet the latter welcomed the defeats. He was, in effect, learning the lesson he later pared down: Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
After several weeks of packed trains and hitched rides, Samuel Beckett and his companion Suzanne Déchevaux-Dumesnil reached Arcachon in early July. With the help of Mary Reynolds, a friend of James Joyce, the weary couple rented a small house overlooking the Atlantic. Beckett found not just a place of safety but also a person of interest in Reynolds’s partner, Marcel Duchamp. By 1940, the Frenchman had won fame for his Cubist paintings and infamy for his Dadaist outrages. The Irishman, on the other hand, had won a lesser degree of both one and the other, with his novel Murphy attracting some praise and much confusion.
What Beckett found of interest in Duchamp — apart, that is, from his provocative character and conversation — was his proficiency at chess. By 1940, the man who had mounted urinals and bike wheels in art galleries had also mounted the pinnacle of chess. Winning the rank of chess master in 1925, Duchamp competed with the French national team in several international competitions during the interwar years. He also co-authored, with the Ukrainian-born master Vitaly Halberstadt, a book on chess strategy. Titled Opposition and Sister Squares Are Reconciled, the book weighs a variety of pawn and king endings. In other words, endgames.
To what end, though, served the book? As Duchamp later remarked, the endgames on which it worked would not interest any chess player. “Even the chess champions don’t read the book, since the problems it poses really only come up once in a lifetime.” Not unlike brown or biological plagues.
When not failing at chess with Duchamp, Beckett felt as if he was failing in transposing Murphy into French. Before the world came to an end in 1940, he had made the momentous decision to write in French rather than English. Or, in the case of Murphy, rewrite in French what was already written in English. The manuscript was among the things Beckett packed before quitting Paris, and he continued to struggle with the translation in Arcachon.
The novel’s eponymous protagonist, who works in an insane asylum, plays a game of chess with Mr. Endon, one of the inmates, while making his rounds. After 43 moves, the match comes to an inglorious end for Murphy. The narrator, with sham sympathy, murmurs that he cannot find the words to “express the torment of the mind that goaded” Murphy to his last and “abject” offensive. Mercifully, Murphy’s forlorn, futile, and final moves end with Mr. Endon’s “beautifully played” solitaire.
After staring at the board for several moments, Murphy accepts the inevitable and “lay[s] his Shah on his side.” History would have it that this moment was played out in France that same summer. On June 22, while Beckett and Suzanne were stumbling toward Arcachon, France’s newly anointed Shah, Marshal Philippe Pétain, announced that he had signed an abject armistice with Adolf Hitler. For France, it was also fin de partie. For Beckett, it was the beginning of another endgame.
A decade after the end of World War II, Beckett began work on Fin de partie, the sequel of sorts to En attendant Godot. Subsequently translated into English and titled Waiting for Godot, the earlier play won him fame as great as that of Joyce, not to mention Duchamp. Yet despite the success of Godot, Beckett could not find a Paris theater interested in staging Fin de partie. This was hardly surprising given Beckett’s own description of the play: “Rather difficult and elliptic, mostly depending on the power of the text to claw.” It was, he thought, “more inhuman than Godot” — which, for Beckett, was about as good as it gets.
Given the resistance of Paris theaters, Beckett turned to London to stage Endgame, his English translation of the play. As the critic Vivian Mercier famously observed, Godot is a play in which nothing happens. Twice. Endgame is a play in which nothing happens. Once.
Once, though, is enough. Rarely has there been so much ado about nothing. The play is nearly as inhuman as Beckett believed, with four characters who are prisoners of broken bodies. Blind and confined to a rolling armchair, Hamm cannot stand up; confined to a body on stiffened legs, Clov cannot sit down. As for Hamm’s parents, Nagg and Nell, they are shorn of their shanks, deprived of food, and confined to trash bins. They are also prisoners of a single room, with two high windows that give onto a landscape where, according to Clov, the “light is sunk” and “all is corpsed.” The sightless Hamm adds that the room, too, stinks of corpses, while the sighted Clov ups the ante: “The whole universe.”
But the claw is not just clawing. It is also playing. From the opening — marked by Clov methodically pacing the room and Hamm yawning the words “Me to play” — to the ending — where Clov’s last move toward an exit remains frozen — we are spectators to a chess game whose pieces are human beings. This is not a scholarly fancy, but a simple fact. Soon after Beckett moved back to Paris in the late summer of 1940, he moved into a resistance network, a pawn in the endgame now playing out in Europe. “L’Irlandais,” or the Irishman, as Beckett was called, was charged with translating and editing the information of German troop movements gathered by members of his network. While one can play chess with hands mostly at rest, one cannot do the same when history plays with lives. When one of his biographers, James Knowlson, asked why he had risked his life, Beckett’s reply was clear: “You simply couldn’t stand by with your arms folded.”
Something big has happened to the world of Beckett’s fatalistic four before we meet them. That “something big” is nuclear war. In fact, shortly before Beckett began drafting the play, that something, thanks to Edward Teller, became even bigger: thermonuclear war. As for what our leaders also insist is a war, it is not as deafening as the splitting of atoms. Instead, the multiplying of a poisonous infection is, like the melting of a polar ice cap, more insidious. Yet it can be no less definitive.
While our nation staggers, like Clov, into its endgame, our commentators have staked out, like Beckett, the chess metaphor. Yet they do not consider their endgames, unlike Beckett, lost from the start. Instead, they are proposing, and rightly so, endgames that promise a different and better ending. As the grandmaster Edmar Mednis remarked, “After a bad opening, there is hope for the middle game. After a bad middle game, there is hope for the endgame.” This last and final phase, however, is particular: “Once you are in the endgame, the moment of truth has arrived.”
Not so, though, for Beckett’s world. While the moment of truth is there, the endgame is always already lost. In one production of the play, he urged the actors to think of Hamm as “a king in this chess game lost from the start.”
But Beckett means something more than losing. That is too simple. More complicated is the conviction that losing can lead to a certain kind of winning. The sort of winning that perhaps only a tragic playwright, whether an ancient Greek or modern Irishman, can capture.
Consider the play. So many of its lines cast so much light on our situation. When the sightless Hamm, barricaded in the room, blurts, “Outside of here it’s death,” he captures our dread of contagion lurking outside our homes. When Hamm asks Clov if he has had enough, and the latter replies, “Yes. Of what?” we hear an intimation of our own absolute yet confused exhaustion. When Nagg, straining in his trash can toward Nell, demands a kiss, and she rightly replies, “We can’t,” we feel our own despair in the inability to touch loved ones. Quite simply, when Nell sighs, “Ah, yesterday!” she sighs for us all; when Clov observes, “Something is taking its course,” he observes for us all; and Hamm reminisces for us all when he intones, “Ah the old questions, the old answers, there’s nothing like them!”
Most important, however, is an insight, predictably buried by Beckett in the middle of the play. When Clov asks Hamm what is there to keep him in the room, Hamm replies, “The dialogue.” This is something so many have won in our own confinements: dialogues not just with family and friends, but also with acquaintances and strangers. And as we lurch toward what we hope is a better ending, we should not neglect, upon arriving there, these very same dialogues born in the midst of plague. They will make us more human and thus more prepared for the next plague.
Robert Zaretsky is author, most recently, of Catherine & Diderot: The Empress, the Philosopher and the Fate of the Enlightenment. His new book, The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Acts, will be published next February.