08 January 2007

Twenty four A's

Contemplating the ridiculous

NOTHINGNESS, emptiness, repetition, boredom, for better or for worse: Samuel Beckett refined these characteristics throughout his literary career. But the result is far from a sadness of content. There is laughter behind the apparent sadness (they are two sides of the same coin in any case) because it is a reflection of the ridiculous human condition: "When you are in the last ditch with your back to the wall, there is nothing left to do but sing." Or, "nothing is funnier than unhappiness...Yes, yes it's the most comical thing in the world." What "nothingness" conceals is the constant contingency as one character asks another in his 1958 play, "Endgame": "We're not beginning to...to...mean something?"

Everything is contingent on something else and to that extent Beckett is "the last modernist", or, if you like, the "first postmodernist". Emptying his books of plot, descriptions, scenes and characters, Beckett is believed to have killed the traditional novel, or else taken it to the crossroads of the modern novel. So, a contemporary critic has said that Beckett will continue to be relevant "as long as people still die". But Salman Rushdie, introducing Beckett's later novels in a new Grove edition issued to mark his centenary this year, takes the opposite — or, life being what it is, perhaps the identical — view: "Those books, whose ostensible subject is death, are in fact books about life". One of the most obscure writers of the last century has suddenly become all things to all people. There is even a book, Beckett and Zen, which isn't a far-fetched connection, come to think of it, because we need to empty our minds to open up one of Beckett's texts to simply hear the words that are there. And figure out what they mean.

Beckett's appeal

Why does every critical writer want to recruit Beckett? What is their eagerness to claim Beckett as one of their own? The clue perhaps lies in Beckett's famous trilogy, Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable on which Beckett's high reputation as a novelist rests. After the tremendous world-wide success of "Waiting for Godot", Beckett has become what he is today: an icon, not just in the popular-cultural sense but in the original meaning of a picture of an existential saint who disliked publicity, gave away his Nobel Prize money, and lived in Spartan rooms across a courtyard from a prison whose inmates he could hear howl.

Increasing relevance

The answer why Beckett has become increasingly relevant lies in the trilogy, which is considered as a critical introduction to his original masterpiece of the theatre, "Waiting for Godot". In these novels, there is little or no dialogue. Malone Dies is a sombre soliloquy in which one or two shadowy characters appear; and in the other two the page is unbroken except for an occasional questionnaire. Place and time are of no importance; towns have peculiar names like "Bally" or "Hole"; the past is murkily remembered, the present non-existent, family ties are few and far between: "She died giving me birth," said Mr MacStern. "I can well believe that," said Mr de Baker. All his characters are deformed or hideous and move in a terrifying atmosphere of rejection, abandonment and guilt.

Molloy begins with Molloy shut away in his dead mother's room, steadily writing. Each week he is visited by a stranger who takes away what he has written and pays him money. What he has written is a long, fruitless odyssey in search of his mother.

Molloy begins crouched in the shadow of a rock watching two men, A and C, approach each other across a plain. One carries a stout stick, the other — or is it the same man? — is followed by a dog. Molloy isn't sure whether they are travellers or mere strollers. The two come together briefly, and then separate:

"Did he not seem rather to have issued from the rampart, after a good dinner, to his dog for a walk, like citizens, dreaming and farting, when the weather is fine? `A' backwards towards town, `C' on by ways he seemed hardly to know."

Here they serve as an image of two ways of going, to be brooded upon as he himself prepares to set out in quest of his mother. But his own journey is less rosy than A's or C's. He has a stiff leg, which makes walking difficult, so he has to go by bicycle, harried by the police and a rowdy mob. The second half of the book is the same story again from the opposite point of view told by Moran, who is a clear-cut, man of action, unlike Molloy who is vague, destitute, helpless, crippled and given to too much logic and reason. But both Molloy and Moran meet the same dead end: Moran finishes as a recluse with Molloy similarly wrecked.

Profound pessimism

Malone Dies takes us further on into the darkness: one voice, less plot, an old narrator who keeps harping, with pride on his impotence. There is peace of total personal negation; nothing remains. In The Unnamable even this begins to fail. If Malone Dies retains some paltry shreds of plot, incident and character because it is an attempt at an ending, there is none of it in The Unnamable because Beckett's pessimism was too profound to allow him to believe that death would be an end or even a relief. Voices would continue beyond the grave, into the "pit" where the Unnamable is fixed.

There is no one way you could read this trilogy; you could do it in several different ways. As he said in his prose masterpiece, Worstward Ho! six years before his death in 1983: "No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."
The Beckett Trilogy: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable (1959), Samuel Beckett, Picador Books, Price £2.95.

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