Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo

"Nothing to be done" is the opening line of Samuel Beckett's best-known play, Waiting for Godot. Yet, when faced with the German occupation of France and confronted by what the Nazis were doing to his Jewish friends in 1941, Beckett himself joined a Paris-based cell of British SOE (Special Operations Executive) named "Gloria SMH". "You simply couldn't stand by with your arms folded," Beckett said firmly to me.

Gloria SMH was set up and led by a French chemist from the Institut Curie in Paris called Jacques Legrand (code name "SMH") and the daughter of the Cubist painter Francis Picabia, Jeannine (code name "Gloria"). Yet, for three decades after the war, only a select few of Beckett's closest friends were aware of his dangerous activities as a liaison agent (and translator of secret reports) or that he had narrowly escaped arrest by the Gestapo in Paris in August 1942, when so many of his cell were betrayed and deported to concentration camps. Many of them died there, like his French assistant friend at Trinity College, Dublin, tennis partner and fellow agent, Alfred Péron, who tragically survived until the march out of the camp at the end of the war. Even fewer knew that Beckett had received the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille de la Reconnaissance Française from the French government after the war.

My own great advantage in writing about Beckett's work with the Resistance was that I could question him directly concerning his actions and motives in a series of weekly interviews over the summer and autumn of 1989. He was only too happy to clarify his wartime role and to explain exactly why, though Irish and in theory neutral during the war, he had joined the SOE.

Although I did not realise it at the time, this was to be the start of a long and tremendously exciting treasure hunt, an encounter with a world of espionage and resistance to Nazi occupation about which, at the outset, I knew virtually nothing. It was also to lead to a series of meetings and experiences as fascinating, memorable and moving as any I have ever experienced in the whole of my life.

Since the publication of my biography, more documents described at the time as "SECRET" have been opened to the public at the Public Record Office in Kew, including an interview with Beckett, stamped "TOP SECRET", by

H. W. Astor on 16 April 1945, to which I did not have access, and several revealing interviews with and memos about the Picabias.

Cell mate: Jeannine Picabia, code name 'Gloria' Cell mate: Jeannine Picabia, code name 'Gloria'
Several of these meetings were crucial. One was with the debonair, unassuming SOE adviser, Gervase Cowell. This had a curious afterlife. At our second lunchtime meeting, the former diplomat/administrator (or so I regarded him at the time) greeted me with a beaming smile, saying: "Well, this is your lucky day." From his bag he then produced a lengthy debriefing with "Gloria", Jeannine Picabia, conducted on 14 March 1943 at SOE headquarters in London, after she had escaped from France across the Pyrenees. The document related, he said, to her SOE activities rather than to her work with the Special Intelligence Services. For that reason, he announced, with a wicked twinkle in his eye, he could legitimately make it available to me.

The debriefing turned out to be a positive goldmine of information on the work of Gloria's Resistance agents in Paris, Normandy, and Brittany, including the contributions of Beckett and Péron. Later, Cowell sent me a fuller, even more wide-ranging 1943 interview with Jeannine's mother, Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia, who, like her daughter, had escaped from Occupied France through Spain and Gibraltar. Her life – and the lives of over 40 other members of Beckett's cell, including Beckett and his future wife Suzanne – were to be totally transformed by the treachery of one man, Catholic priest Robert Alesch, notorious now for having betrayed hundreds of Resistance agents in several different sectors for his own financial gain.

It was only after Gervase Cowell's death in 2000, four years after the publication of my work, that I learned that this modest, mild-mannered adviser was the former MI6 officer and spy-master, who, while stationed in Moscow in the early 1960s, had run the British MI6 and American CIA major spy and double agent, Oleg Penkovsky (code name "Young"), who has been described as "the most important agent the West possessed throughout the Cold War". The Russian's intermediary was the British businessman (and MI6 agent) Greville Wynne.

Beckett's friend Alfred Péron, who died just as the war ended Beckett's friend Alfred Péron, who died just as the war ended
Direct Embassy contacts with Penkovsky had been established by Janet Chisholm (née Deane), the Russian-speaking wife of a British diplomat in Moscow, "Ruari" Chisholm, himself a leading member of MI6. As Mrs Chisholm strolled in a local park with her young children, Penkovsky, under the guise of offering sweets to her children, would hand over microfilms of hundreds of top-secret documents. The "boxes of sweets" held, for instance, details of the entire Soviet arsenal of nuclear missiles at a time when Khrushchev was beginning to install medium-range ballistic missiles on the island of Cuba. (Penkovsky even gave the Americans an operating manual for the missiles.)

When the Chisholms returned to London for Janet to have a third child, Cowell and his wife Pamela took over as Penkovsky's controllers. The way of communicating top-secret documents was changed to a bottle of Harpic, fitted with a false bottom and placed casually on a lavatory floor. Partly as a direct result of knowledge derived from Penkovsky's activities, a pre-emptive strike on Russian nuclear sites by the USA was almost certainly averted.

Gervase Cowell is famous for making a crucial decision to ignore a secret phonecall which warned that a Soviet nuclear attack was imminent because he sensed (quite correctly) that Penkovsky had been arrested and that their agreed code – three breaths repeated in a second call a minute later – had been adopted by the KGB. Thinking back to the expert guidance Gervase Cowell had offered me in our conversations about espionage and the wartime SOE, I now recognise that his advice derived from a deep personal experience of that world. He was declared persona non grata and immediately expelled from Russia. Penkovsky himself was convicted of treason and executed in 1963. Greville Wynne was arrested and tried in a high-profile court case. Initially he was sentenced to eight years' imprisonment, but, a year later, he was exchanged for the Soviet spy, Konon Molodiy.

The documents released at Kew since I wrote about Beckett's activities in the war years contain the March 1945 interview with the writer himself, in which – with a first-class honours degree from Trinity College Dublin – amusingly he is described as "fairly intelligent and well educated". Not surprisingly, for I had talked to Beckett about what he did, the interview contains few surprises for me. Mainly it stresses how little Beckett knew of the wider cell outside his immediate circle of friends. Yet more light is thrown on how he and Suzanne escaped from the Gestapo by the skin of their teeth and provides names of some of Suzanne's friends who helped them in their first few weeks on the run to add to that of the French writer Nathalie Sarraute, in whose house Beckett told me they stayed, a fact confirmed by Sarraute.

Beckett and his future wife Suzanne escaped from the Gestapo by the skin of their teeth Beckett and his future wife Suzanne escaped from the Gestapo by the skin of their teeth (Rex Features)
Other interviews with Jeannine Picabia are more revealing. There was concern at first that she might have been "turned" by the Germans and this is well charted. Yet, even though it is agreed that she was vague and unreliable in interviews about dates and places and about some names, after a number of polite but highly intensive grillings, these suspicions are roundly dismissed. What does emerge from both the new interviews and the earlier debriefings is how constrained "Gloria" agents were by the lack of money and by difficulties of communication (having no transmitter of their own, they were forced to use Belgian and Polish cells' radios to contact London). Above all, the interviews set the activities of Gloria SMH in a wider context of Resistance activity and betrayal. Already in 1943, for example, it is clear that there was huge concern that the Abbé Robert Alesch was the likely traitor and that his treachery was still being continued in Lyon and the South of France, having raised the suspicions of "America's greatest female spy", Virginia Hall, about whom much has now been written, using the new Kew material.

While researching Beckett's involvement with the Resistance, I interviewed the extraordinary Germaine Tillion, one of the first 40-plus members of Gloria SMH (with Jacques Legrand) to be betrayed by Alesch. She had earlier been involved with one of the first Resistance cells, the "Musée de l'homme", and many of its members had been betrayed and her friends shot. Germaine was convinced that the traitor was the now notorious Albert Gaveau. She was, she said to me, so sure of this that she had hoped, if ever she had the chance, to "neutralise" him. She used the French word: "neutraliser". What exactly did she mean by "neutraliser", I asked her. "I had a revolver at the time," she calmly explained. Then she raised her hand to her forehead in an unmistakable gesture: "Phfut!" she said. (The word "neutraliser" is commonly used in this sense by French Special Forces.) Since then, I can never hear this verb, either in English or in French, without thinking of that tiny, bespectacled, 90-year-old lady, sitting in her armchair in the sitting-room of her country house in Brittany, calmly announcing her intention to blow out someone's brains and regretting that she had not been able to do so.

Germaine Tillion did not allow her terrible experiences in prison and a concentration camp to ruin her life. Indeed, she went on to write three great studies of Ravensbrück, a major book on the condition of women in North Africa as well as devoting herself to attacking human rights abuses such as torture in Algeria. Indeed, in the 1950s, at the time of the Battle of Algiers, having worked on social reforms in Algeria, she liaised between the French government and the Algerian National Liberation Front leader, Saadi Yacef, and helped to arrange a number of ceasefires. At 96, she was a vociferous opponent of the war in Iraq and on her death in April 2008, the French President Nicolas Sarkozy described her as an "exceptional woman for whom courage, dedication and humanism were lifelong guides".

One of the most moving of incidents occurred during a visit I made to Mauthausen concentration camp with the 80-year-old ex-inmate Pierre Weydert, a close friend of Beckett's former Trinity College friend, Alfred Péron, who was with Péron on the "death march", only a few hours before he died. I held the arm of the frail Pierre as, very slowly, we walked down the 186 steps of the quarry while he told me about the many prisoners/slave labourers who had died there, carrying huge blocks of quarried stone on their backs or in their arms. Few lived for more than a week, he said. Some committed suicide by throwing themselves down onto the rock floor beneath. On our return to the top, we went into one of the wooden huts where another inmate, a veteran too of the Spanish Civil War, sat by the door, exactly where he used to sit every day during their mutual incarceration. His hand rested on an ivory handled walking-stick, as, trembling, with tears running down his cheeks, he told us in a strong Spanish accent that his job had been to note down the names of the dead who had not returned that day. I shall never forget those tears or the ivory handled walking stick on which he leaned.

James Knowlson is emeritus professor at the University of Reading. His biography of Samuel Beckett is called 'Damned to Fame' (Bloomsbury Publishing)

Happy Days International Beckett Festival opens today with French and Yiddish productions of 'Waiting for Godot', and Adrian Dunbar's 'Catastrophe': 31 July to 10 August; happy-days-enniskillen.co.uk

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl

First look at Oscar winner as transgender artistfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month

TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel

film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Oscars
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
music
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
film
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
architecture
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower