Sunday, January 30, 2011

Books: Molly, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable, by Samuel Beckett

Wary of another series, but hungering for something direct and raw after eight months of Proust’s ornate, insubstantial machinations, I sought my savior in Beckett. Only the desperate go to Beckett for hope. Along with How It Is, which I had already read years ago, I picked up his “acclaimed” trilogy (as acclaimed as such a text, as you will see, can be) of Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable. The three progressively have less and less narrative, and become more and more despondent, and more and more difficult to read. One feels Beckett approaching (on his belly, through the mud) toward the stripped-down How It Is.

Molloy, the most accessible of the three, is a kind of noir detective tale, taken from the hardboiled American writers of the 1940s and unraveling instead in the twisting, repeating, snake-eat-tail mind of Robbe-Grillet, infused with the bare Irish desperation of the actual author. A socially awkward, duty-bound detective called Moran, resting in his garden on his day off, gets an assignment that he does not understand, but must take on. Rather than planning his next actions methodically as he is accustomed, almost as if he were bewitched or enchanted, he sets off that very night without a plan. Before leaving, he is cruel to his maid, as well as his son, whom he takes with him on the journey, departing after midnight in an absurd suit of clothes without any appropriate supplies for a long journey. They are looking for Molloy, a man with stiffened legs who carries a stick, and who has already narrated his own substantial portion of the novella. Molloy rides a bicycle, though as his legs have stiffened, it is becoming increasingly impossible to use it. On the road, camping at night, and covering great mileage by day, the detective continues his cruelty to his son. All the while, he is feeling increasingly strange, weak, and stiff. One day, he sends his son to a village ten miles away to procure a bicycle, which leaves himself alone at camp for three days. His legs are so stiff he can barely walk. His camp is attacked; he thinks, by Malloy. He becomes increasingly mad. Though his son returns, he does not stay long. Molloy wakes up one morning alone, legs stiffened, with a half-busted bicycle, a stick on which to lean, and all of his money gone. Did I say Malloy? I meant the detective Moran. But now, hasn’t Moran become the very Malloy he was seeking? Wandering aimlessly in the woods, alone, schizophrenic?

Who is the man we encounter in Malone Dies? Presumably some other man, called Malone, and yet, he too has a stick. His body has further deteriorated, to the point that he does not move from his bed. He doesn’t know how he has gotten there, only that he is there, and will be there until he dies. He has been there as long as he can remember. He has a notebook and the nub of a pencil, and he makes up bits of stories to pass the time. Is he telling his own story? Perhaps. He doesn’t think so. In the past, there was a kind old lady who brought him a bowl of soup each day, and emptied his full chamber-pot. As the years went by, she stopped entering the room, but still thrust her thin, yellowed hand through the doorway to put a bowl of soup and the empty chamber pot on the rolling table by the door, taking away the prior day’s full pot and empty dish. Mallone used his stick to reach across the room from bed and hook the table, rolling it to his side, then flinging it away when he was done. But now, no new soup comes, and no one empties the chamber pot. Luckily, as he isn’t eating, he has no need for it. He only has need for his exercise book and his pencil stub, writing every waking thought, recounting every dream, writing every breath until his very last breath and then

And who is the man, if we can call him a man, who narrates The Unnamable? Who remembers the Malloys, the Malones, the Murphys (a previous novel of Beckett’s, which I’ve not yet read), but now “lives” (if you choose to call it that) in a mutating but indiscriminate space, a box, a jar, nowhere, a place where everything is gray, but it is not dark, though it is not light, where there is just enough light to keep one conscious, just enough noise to prevent silence? He hasn’t really a body, though he has eyes, which he cannot close. He hasn’t a voice that speaks aloud, but he narrates, presumably inside his head, to us unendingly; in fact, for nearly 110 pages without line or paragraph break, for the last 30 or so pages, without so much as a period. He calls himself Mahood for a time, then Worm, but in the end admits that even those are sham identities (for he is, of course, unnameable, in an unnameable place, and an unnameable state). Dead? Is this the afterlife, lacking in all the succor we are promised? Perhaps. His last words? "you must say words, as long as there are any, until they find me, until they say me, strange pain, strange sin, you must go on, perhaps it's done already, perhaps they have said me already, perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don't know, I'll never know, in the silence you don't know, you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on." And with that, he stops.

Connecting The Unnamable back up with Molloy and through to Malone Dies, witness the early pages of Molloy, in which a narrator who doesn't seem to be either Molloy or Moran describes his state, living in his mother's room, not knowing how he got to be there, writing words on pages, which are taken away by a man who comes every week and gives him money for those pages ("So many pages, so much money.") Molloy, later, before he has gone completely mad, crawling through the woods on his belly, has been pedaling his stiff leg against his bicycle in hopes of making it back to visit his mother. Is the thin, yellow hand that penetrates Malone's room daily the hand of his mother, he being one and the same as Molloy? Moran, too, at the start and end of his section of Molloy sits at a desk, writing a report, that report being the contents of his portion of the novella, at the end of which his madness and/or transition into Molloy is somewhat uncertain; presaging the uncertain state of The Unnamable, he tells us, "Then I went back into the house and wrote, [']It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows.['] It was not midnight. It was not raining." I insert these bracketed quotation marks to notify you that these are the opening sentences of Moran's chapter of Molloy; here our Robbe-Grillet ouroboros, a small one coiled in a larger one.

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