John Montague

John Montague (New York, 1929 - Nice, 2016) had a long and varied relationship with Paris. But he does not tell his life story in strict chronological order in his two autobiographical works, Company: A Chosen Life (2001) and The Pear is Ripe (2007), leaving one to work out the sequence of events.

 11, rue Daguerre
He first appears to have visited the French capital in the late 1940s.  After having worked picking grapes in the vineyards of Champagne, he describes in his writing of cycling from there to Paris via Rheims with a friend from Derry. He was back in Paris again in 1950, armed with two addresses from Brendan Behan, “one intellectual, the other the patron of both a café and a bordel”.  The latter address was put to good effect, with “M. Pierre”, who owned a café in the rue Jacob (6th arrondissement), conducting Montague and a Belgian client to a “‘good house’ where we got more than bed and board for a long weekend.”  On this or another visit soon after, Montague caught up with Francis Stuart, then living in a chambre de bonne on the Avenue Breteuil. He also met up with Sinbad Vail, who had just published Brendan Behan’s story ‘After the Wake’ in Points magazine. (Interestingly, Montague tells us that Behan later repudiated this story because it exposed his liking for boys.)
 Montague and Beckett

Montague met Madeleine de Brauer, “a titled young Frenchwoman with an eager grin and golden-brown eyes”, in Iowa in 1954. She was of Norman military stock, whose family castle was close to Gournay-en-Bray, north west of Paris.  Montague married her in 1956, and lived with her for three years in Dublin.  During this time, Montague met Charles Haughey who asked him, “How does a boyo from the Clogher valley manage to get his hands on a bird from Paris?”

In 1961, Montague and his wife moved to Paris, finding a flat among artist workshops at 11, rue Daguerre (14th arrondissement), which Montague describes thus:

“An unobtrusive green door opened in the wall beside the florists. As it clanged behind you, you found yourself in a leafy enclave, a series of low studios of which ours was the last, with glass panels in the ceilings through which light could pour, ideal for artists, and writers like myself.”

Montague made some money as the Paris correspondent for The Irish Times and he developed a friendship with his near-neighbour Samuel Beckett and the journalist Peter Lennon. Montague’s first meeting with Beckett was not auspicious. Beckett had nothing really to say, he writes. “Besides, I stammered, so we found ourselves in the absurd situation of someone who found it hard to speak engaging someone who did not believe in conversation, and certainly not in small talk. Sometimes there were long silences between us, as though we were gazing together down some deep well.”

Frequently, Montague, Lennon, Beckett and Beckett’s friend from his Dublin days, Con Leventhal, would meet for drinking sessions at the Rosebud or the Falstaff (respectively, in rue Delambre and rue Montparnasse, 14th arrondissement), when “after a day as a normal French écrivain, Beckett was transformed into an Irish werewolf.” For his part, once Beckett had found him a flat in Montparnasse, Professor Leventhal was able to live the life of a native bon vivant, with prostitutes waiting on street corners greeting him with a friendly, nay hilarious ‘Bon soir, Con!’

 The nursing home where Beckett died...
 ...and the nearby Allée Samuel Beckett
But the romance of Paris steadily lost its appeal for Montague, who became convinced that if “I was to have a future as a poet, it was clearly not going to be in France, from which I had already unconsciously begun to beat a retreat”. After a period of sex-and-drugs at Berkeley University in 1964-1965, Montague lived on and off in Paris until 1972, teaching for a time at the Centre universitaire expérimental de Vincennes, set up after the events of May 1968. The complex that housed the university on the eastern edge of Paris was razed to the ground in 1980.

Divorced from Madeleine, Montague continued to visit Paris in the 1970s and 1980s. Just weeks before Beckett’s death in 1989, Montague met him in “an old crock’s home” (dixit Beckett) at 24-26 rue Rémy-Dumoncel  (14th arrondissement).


Select Bibliography
Company: A Chosen Life (2001)
John Montague

The Pear is Ripe (2007)
John Montague