Samuel Beckett

Fiction

Dream of Fair to Middling Women

(1932)

Arcade Publishing, 1993, ISBN 1559702176; Hardcover $21.95 [Browse/Purchase]

Beckett’s first novel was shelved by the author when he could not find a publisher. A rare work available in the States from Arcade Publishing, it would be hard to improve on this review from Kirkus, February 15, 1993:

A stew of tongues, English, French, German, whathaveyou, in an overrich slumgullion or Irish mulligatawny, with a faint tang of urine. Young Sam Beckett wrote this autobiographical first novel at 26, for money he hoped, knocking out the earliest draft in a few weeks. But no publisher would accept it, and so for the rest of his life he withheld it from publication and cannibalized many passages that showed up in later better works. Would he be humiliated now by its utter bombast? Well, he seldom liked anything he wrote, so most of what he published was an act of self- mortification.... The ‚€œprincipal boy‚€Ě here is Belacqua, or Beckett (a Mr. Beckett tells the story), whom we meet masturbating on the end of a dock while dreaming of his German girlfriend Smeraldina-Rima. His family arises and fades from the page almost at once and is ever after mentioned only as ‚€œthe clean blue eyes of home‚€Ě ‚€“ or ‚€œa distant dog in the evening barking.‚€Ě The satire on everyone herein is pitiless, when you can make it out as such, for to say that the novel has a plot and characters is to say too much about Bel‚€™s wanderings, ruined feet, and worse love life. As Mr. Beckett tells us, any unity in this novel is ‚€œinvoluntary‚€Ě: ‚€œThe blown roses of a phrase shall catapult the reader into the phrase that follows. The experience of my reader shall be between the phrases, in the silence communicated by the intervals, not the terms of the statement...‚€Ě To be sure, glorious plums pop up: ‚€œThe night firmament is abstract density of music, symphony without end, illumination without end, yet emptier, more sparsely lit, than the most succinct constellations of genius.‚€Ě All ends in a stupendous uproar at a literary musicale with Belacqua soaking drunk (‚€œ‚€˜Here,‚€™ he said rudely, ‚€˜I float‚€™‚€Ě), followed by his ulcerous hangover and a Hamletic disquisition about his hand. A clump, a clot, a coagulum ‚€“ an unspeakable miracle of words held together by spit.

Murphy

(1938)

Grove Press, 1970, ISBN 0-8021-5037-3; Paperback $13.50 [Browse/Purchase]

Written in English and later translated by Beckett into French, Beckett’s second novel was rejected by over forty publishers. Murphy is by its own admission a puppet show, in which Menippean characters with prodigious vocabularies deal with the absurd costs of living: insanity, lust, and love. Despite his stout Irish everyman’s name, Murphy himself is not a puppet, but a consciousness in crisis:

Murphy’s mind pictured itself as a large hollow sphere, hermetically closed to the universe without. This was not an impoverishment, for it excluded nothing that it did not itself contain. Nothing ever had been, was or would be in the universe outside it but was already present as virtual, or actual, or virtual rising into actual, or actual falling into virtual, in the universe inside it.

This “seedy solipsist” is driven into action (such as it is) by a horoscope his lover, Celia Kelly, procures at his request: among other things, it advises him to wear lemon as a lucky colour, to place faith in the years 1936 and 1990, and to take great care “in dealing with publishers, quadrupeds, and tropical swamps.” At Celia’s urging and in a notably reluctant and listless manner, Murphy casts about London for a job, eventually finding a real vocation as a nurse at the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat (called the MMM). Unfortunately for Celia and the other characters looking for him, Murphy finds the catatonia of the MMM’s patients, especially the oblivion of Mr. Endon, supremely attractive – an alternative to consciousness and its attendant pains and inconveniences. After surrendering to him in chess, Murphy stares into his own reflection in Mr. Endon’s unseeing eyes and, thus blessed, retires to his garret in the MMM and “soon his body was quiet.” Perhaps the “excellent gas” from the heater kills him before his final immolation.
Murphy is a funny and precocious book, but also, it must be said, a mean one. There is a quintessential pointlessness to all its characters’ endeavours, with the notable exception of the search for oblivion, which of course needs not to be sought to be eventually encountered. The schemes of Neary, Wylie, and Miss Counihan get nowhere. Cooper does manage to sit down and remove his hat, but he ultimately relapses into drink. Despite his wishes to have his remains flushed down the toilet, Murphy’s ashes are scattered about in a barfight. Celia grimly returns to prostitution. (Indeed, this book of all Beckett’s works shows least sympathy for women, to put it mildly.) Only Mr. Kelly’s kite achieves transcendence, in what might be the book’s most beautiful and terrifying passage:

Except for the sagging soar of line, undoubtedly superb as far as it went, there was nothing to be seen, for the kite had disappeared from view. Mr. Kelly was enraptured. Now he could measure the distance from the unseen to the seen, now he was in a position to determine the point at which seen and unseen met. It would be an unscientific observation, so many and so fitful were the imponderables involved. But the pleasure accruing to Mr. Kelly would be in no way inferior to that conferred (presumably) on Mr. Adams by his beautiful deduction of Neptune from Uranus. He fixed with his eagle eyes a point in the empty sky where he fancied the kite to swim into view, and wound carefully in.

Mr. Kelly’s kite then escapes in much the same way that Murphy has slipped out of the puppet show: by crossing from one realm to the other, from the seen to the unseen. It is not exactly death that is the release here, but simply not being, which so often in Beckett means not being seen.
The reader (addressed as “gentle skimmer”) has to endure quite a lot in this novel. Abstruse allusions fly fast and thick, and words like “Æruginous” and “neo-merovingian” push for more room among Latin relatives. Yet so many of the implements, structures, and devices we associate with Beckett and which recur in so many of his works have their earliest incarnations here, too: the nerve-steadying rocking chair; the interchangeable clowns in pairs or sequence (Bim and Bom, Neary and Wylie); the uneasy love between master and servant (Bim and Ticklepenny, Neary and Cooper); the carefully-paced “rest” between spoken words; and the appreciation of routine’s choreography (the novel’s funniest scene, Murphy’s plan for his biscuits and the interruption thereof by Miss Dew and her beloved doggy, anticipates both the calculated stone-sucking of Molloy and Hamm’s toy dog in Endgame). Murphy is a romance that fails, a mechanism that pulses with life and activity despite itself and its wishes. It is not surprising that it ends in defeat with “the tired heart,” Celia closing her eyes (like the protagonist of Film does to end his narrative existence), and the words All out. (TC)

Watt

(Written 1943/Published 1953)

Grove Press, 1970, ISBN 0-8021-5140-X; Paperback $12.95 [Browse/Purchase]

Olympia Press, known for its interest in literature less highbrow than lowdown and smut-savvy, published Watt in 1953. Written in English but subject to variations between editions while itself playing with the loopholes of textual authority and stability (lacunae, hiatuses, and bizarre jump-cuts are everywhere), Watt is impossible to categorize. Insofar as it has a plot, it does for the most part concern a man named Watt, who travels to the manor of Mr Knott and there works for him, engaged in the most mechanical yet convoluted tasks, before leaving and (perhaps) ultimately being institutionalized. Watt‚€™s story ‚€“ if it may be called Watt‚€™s story ‚€“ begins and ends at a station, waiting for a tram and then a train, and it begins and ends ‚€œaway‚€Ě from Watt, with people remarking on his peculiarity. Several critical interpretations of the novel identify Sam, the narrator of part of the third of the novel‚€™s four narrative parts, as the narrator of the book as a whole, though this is by no means obvious or beyond contest. A fifth part of the book, a smattering of fragments titled ‚€œAddenda,‚€Ě is introduced by this frustrating, wonderful note: ‚€œThe following precious and illuminating material should be carefully studied. Only fatigue and disgust prevented its incorporation.‚€Ě Appearing as the last of this vaguely termed ‚€œmaterial‚€Ě is what is probably the most famous sentence in Watt: “no symbols where none intended.” Whatever that means, one might add – for it does seem as though, perhaps of all of Beckett’s work, none is so chock a block with transitory figures with outstanding names performing such meticulous labours as to seem little more than symbols. However, they may be less than symbols: “none intended” could be understood to mean that Watt is nothing but symbols (they are all intended, for how could they be otherwise?) or that Watt doesn’t represent anything, and that all of the names and events which pass before us do not even merit the status of symbols of anything. “If the term anti-novel be allowed for Watt,” Ruby Cohn has written, “the term anti-character would seem suitable for the grotesques that pop up without warning or coherent function.” We read of the exploits of Mr Nackybal, for example, an inarticulate man dreaming of killing his lifelong companion, a pig, and allegedly capable of computing cube roots (though he cannot). One Mr Spiro threatens to bore Watt to death with accounts of the “catholic monthly” he edits and the anagram games he seems to enjoy. There are fatalistic piano-tuners, an amiable fishwoman, and an apparently sempiternal servant named Erskine (a name – perhaps even the same character? – that Beckett reuses in Play). And then there is lengthy consideration given to a dog named Kate who eats Mr Knott’s throwaways. No story, no routine, no explanation is too tedious to be omitted, and the famous suite of stone-sucking variations in Molloy is succinct in comparison to Watt’s fondling of possibilities:

As for his feet, sometimes he wore on each a sock, or on the one a sock and on the other a stocking, or a boot, or a shoe, or a slipper, or a sock and boot, or a sock and shoe, or a sock and slipper, or a stocking and boot, or a stocking and shoe, or a stocking and slipper, or nothing at all. And sometimes he wore on each a stocking, or on the one a stocking and on the other a boot, or a shoe, or a slipper, or a sock and boot, or a sock and shoe, or a sock and slipper, or a stocking and slipper, or nothing at all.

And so on. Whatever their intentions, the symbols or not-symbols (Knott-symbols?) of this novel are entirely interchangeable and sooner or later one character or incident collapses into or is subsumed by another. Just as Kate is replaced by a dog named Cis, Watt is replaced in Knott‚€™s household by someone named Micks, just as Watt himself replaced another servant, Arsene, who waits for his terminal evening when ‚€œthe light [shall] die away out of the sky and the colour from the earth‚€Ě and sings the same song Beckett later gives to Krapp in Krapp’s Last Tape. Arsene has an oracular function of sorts, foretelling to Watt as he does what will become of him at Knott’s; but he also furnishes this insight:

Of all the laughs that are strictly speaking not laughs, but modes of ululation, only three I think need detain us, I mean the bitter, the hollow and the mirthless. They correspond to successive, how shall I say successive... suc... successive excoriations of the understanding, and the passage from the one to the other is the passage from the lesser to the greater, from the lower to the higher, from the outer to the inner, from the gross to the fine, from the matter to the form. The laugh that now is mirthless once was hollow, the laugh that once was hollow once was bitter. And the laugh that once was bitter? Eyewater, Mr Watt, eyewater.

Watt arguably guides the reader through these “modes of ululation,” and the reader moves from bitter to hollow and then ultimately mirthless laughter as his or her understandings are “excoriated.” Hugh Kenner has remarked that “the policy of the book appears to be this, that the more trivial the matter the more space is devoted to its analysis.” The more devoted a reader’s analysis of Watt, the better one understands that one does not understand. (TC)

Mercier and Camier

(1946)

Grove Press, 1991, ISBN 0-8021-3235-9; Paperback $11.00 [Browse/Purchase]

Beckett’s fourth novel, written in 1946 in French as Mercier et Camier and translated that same year as Mercier and Camier. This answer to Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet is one of Beckett’s most underrated works. It is, as he would later sourly describe it, his “first attempt at a novel in French.” Mercier and Camier are the central figures of their own story of wandering, conferring, and vaguely remembering, but there is a concealed first-person narrator who is briefly glimpsed at the beginning, showing his credentials as narrator – “I was with them all the time”– before disappearing from view, in the same way that Beckett somewhat grandly employs what could only be called narrative devices before discarding them after token usage. As they trek across a strangely Irish terrain without any expressible sense of purpose, Mercier and Camier spend much of their time losing, finding, and losing again certain inconvenient objects (a bicycle, a sack, a raincoat, an umbrella), and having disjointed dialogues:

Strange impression, said Mercier, strange impression sometimes that we are not alone. You not?
I am not sure I understand, said Camier.
Now quick, now slow, that is Camier all over.
Like the presence of a third party, said Mercier. Enveloping us. I have felt it from the start. And I am anything but psychic.
Does it bother you? said Camier.
At first no, said Mercier.
And now? said Camier.
It begins to bother me a little, said Mercier.

Certainly these are the haunted forestumblers of Vladimir and Estragon, Hamm and Clov, and other clownish duos; but instead of waiting with some very indefinite purpose, they make a journey with none (or at least, none that they can talk about). For the most part this means going from inn to pub and pub to inn, enjoying the hospitality of a woman named Helen, staggering, leaning, falling down altogether, and occasionally running afoul of a police constable. God – or perhaps the narrator, or the unknown third party – is not worth thanking for all this trouble, but makes for a butt of so much banter straight from vaudeville:

“As for thee,” Mercier says to the sky in grief, “fuck thee.”
Is it our little omniomni you are trying to abuse? said Camier. You should know better. It’s he on the contrary fucks thee. Omniomni, the all-unfuckable.
Kindly leave Mrs. Mercier outside this discussion, said Mercier.

Take my creator, please! The pair are thus confined to routine in many sense of the word. Rain and women are constants in the novel, largely inscrutable but always there at least to be complained about. Watt makes a guest appearance, though he is “unrecognizable” to Camier, and Mercier compares him to “a poor man named Murphy” who died “in rather mysterious circumstances” and whose body was never found. This is an important early intersection of the planes of Beckett’s dreams and a trace of an important principle of his aesthetic: every character and every voice is just a version of another character and another voice. Furthermore the dependence of a Mercier on a Camier – for they are explicitly both types, though types of what is ultimately unimportant – is emblematic of the relationships Beckett explores: confining, conflicted, but necessary. The bond here is symbolized by dogs locked together postcoitally and unable to withdraw, and when they do diverge in the penultimate chapter, the “unstuck at last!” is victorious, sad, redundant. Set in an unfriendly world of half-measures, Mercier and Camier is picaresque without passion, and “the brief, interminable light” is usurped in the end: “Dark at its full.” (TC)

Molloy

(1951)

1. Grove Press, Three Novels, 1995, ISBN 0-8021-5091-8; Paperback $14.00 [Browse/Purchase]

2. Knopf “Everyman’s Library,” The Trilogy, 1997, ISBN 0-375-40070-2; Hardcover $20.00 [Browse/Purchase]

Beckett’s fifth novel was written in French, and forms the first book of a three-volume set commonly called “The Trilogy.” Apmonia commentary is forthcoming.

Malone Dies

(1951)

1. Grove Press, Three Novels, 1995, ISBN 0-8021-5091-8; Paperback $14.00 [Browse/Purchase]

2. Knopf “Everyman’s Library,” The Trilogy, 1997, ISBN 0-375-40070-2; Hardcover $20.00 [Browse/Purchase]

Beckett’s sixth novel was written in French in 1951 as Malone Meurt, and translated as Malone Dies in 1956. It forms the middle book of a three-volume set commonly called “The Trilogy.”
Perhaps no other novel’s title has been so grim about its powers of summary. Malone indeed dies in the course of his narrative, and even introduces himself with a statement of assurance on the point: “I shall soon be quite dead at last in spite of all.” In his room of indeterminate lighting, Malone with his stick is a caricature of Archimedes with his lever and consequent ability to move the world. Malone moves nothing, let alone the world. Instead, he writes with a pencil stub in a schoolboy’s exercise-book varying and periodically revised accounts of Saposcat, called Sapo, then Macmann, finally Lemuel – stories to pass the long hours between eating and defecating, stories not so much to stave off death as to escape or negate the troubles of active living and the annoyance of individuation. Malone repeats “What tedium” as each story progresses, often interrupting himself in mid-sentence and wondering whether he ought to continue:

Perhaps I had better abandon this story and go on to the second, or even the third, the one about the stone. No, it would be the same thing. I must simply be on my guard, reflecting on what I have said before I go on and stopping, each time disaster threatens, to look at myself as I am. That is just what I wanted to avoid. But there seems to be no other solution. After that mud-bath I shall be better able to endure a world unsullied by my presence. What a way to reason. My eyes, I shall open my eyes, look at the little heap of my possessions, give my body the old orders I know it cannot obey, turn to my spirit gone to rack and ruin, spoil my agony the better to live it out, for already from the world that parts at last its labia and lets me go.

Malone again and again promises his eventual silence, as though underlining the guarantee of the novel’s title, when “it will all be over with the Murphys, Merciers, Molloys, Morans and Malones, unless it goes on beyond the grave.” Imagining a universe without himself, however, is for Malone (as it is perhaps for all storytellers) an irresistible impossibility. Language may be the cause of the impossibility: where Joyce articulates in Ulysses a fear of “those big words ... which make us so unhappy,” Beckett’s Malone reviles “those little phrases that seem so innocuous and, once you let them in, pollute the whole of speech.” The realization that “Nothing is more real than nothing” hovers over the book, as Malone and the words and characters he only vaguely controls (“Gurgles of outflow”) diminish and fade. Does it go beyond the grave? That is the hope, the presumption of hope, in Malone Dies; but that is also its despair. (TC)

The Unnamable

(1954)

1. Grove Press, Three Novels, 1995, ISBN 0-8021-5091-8; Paperback $14.00 [Browse/Purchase]

2. Knopf “Everyman’s Library,” The Trilogy, 1997, ISBN 0-375-40070-2; Hardcover $20.00 [Browse/Purchase]

Beckett’s seventh novel was written in French as L’Innomable, and forms the final book of a three-volume set commonly called “The Trilogy.” Apmonia commentary is forthcoming.

How It Is

(1961)

Grove Press, 1998, ISBN 0-8021-5066-7; Paperback $12.00 [Browse/Purchase]

Beckett’s eighth novel was written in French and originally called Comment C’est. Written without punctuation and related in fragments, the novel relates the nightmarish tale of two debased, humanoid figures crawling towards each other in a primoridal world of muck. Apmonia commentary is forthcoming.

Company

(1980)

Grove Press, Nohow On, 1995, ISBN 0-8021-3426-2; Paperback $11.00 [Browse/Purchase]

Collected in Grove Press’ Nohow On: Company, Ill Seen Ill Said, Worstward Ho, Beckett’s ninth novel (or more properly, a novella) is many things: an extension of Malone Dies, an autobiography, a meditation, a whistle in the dark, a lie. It is arguably the most Proustian thing Beckett ever wrote: Company is a ruthlessly constricted search for lost time with its reflexive and ultimately disappointing memories of childhood, the slippery transitions of voice to hearer, and even the recumbent, contained posture of the sensitive intelligence at issue. Just as Proust conceives of (or “imagines”) himself as another, a fictional person named Marcel, who has a fictional memory of Proust’s real life, to dramatize the strange act of making exterior (uttering, writing) what is interior (identity, feeling), Beckett tells of a voice’s visitation to express the discomfiting plurality of expression itself.
S. E. Gontarski characterizes this dance of “he” and “you” as “a pronomial pas de deux.” The “company” of this voice – the necessity of consciousness – is by no means a comfort, and attempts to “improve” or make “more companionable” the voice are unavailing:

How current situation arrived at unclear. No that then to compare to this now. Only eyelids move. When for relief from outer and inner dark they close and open respectively. Other small local movements eventually within moderation not to be despaired of. But no improvement by means of such achieved so far. Or on a higher plane by such addition to company as a movement of sustained sorrow or desire or remorse or curiosity or anger or so on. Or by some successful act of intellection as were he to think referring to himself, Since he cannot think he will give up trying. Is there anything to add to this esquisse? His unnamability.

Every move to change the environment (or “you,” if “you” can be said to separable from your surroundings), even as “you” imagine it, yields a countermove. The voice commands “Imagine” and “Quick imagine,” but, like “Imagination Dead Imagine” augurs, the imagination not only has limits, it is not within one’s full command. Attempts to apprehend the world around “him,” such as determining the distance from the ground to the sky, caring for a hedgehog, or counting the world in heartbeats are entirely fleeting occupations that terminate with an enduring cruelty. Oscillating between light and darkness and “he” and “you” to find a site of timeless, painless oblivion is an unworkable design, but in collaboration with the “company” of the voice it is quixotically noble. “You” are, the centred last word of Company emphasizes, “Alone,” and “you always were.” The impossibility of imagining oneself as another does not annul the virtue in the effort. The sentence “Were your eyes to open dark would lighten” bears, besides a wonderful melody, a promise of both light and darkness in creation. (TC)

Ill Seen Ill Said

(1981)

Grove Press, Nohow On, 1995, ISBN 0-8021-3426-2; Paperback $11.00 [Browse/Purchase]

Collected in Grove Press’ Nohow On: Company, Ill Seen Ill Said, Worstward Ho, Beckett’s tenth and penultimate novel was published in 1981 as Mal vu mal dit. According to the publisher, the novella “focuses attention on an old woman in a cabin who is part of the objects, landscape, rhythms, and movements of an incomprehensible universe.” Apmonia commentary is forthcoming.

Worstward Ho

(1983)

Grove Press, Nohow On, 1995, ISBN 0-8021-3426-2; Paperback $11.00 [Browse/Purchase]

Collected in Grove Press’ Nohow On: Company, Ill Seen Ill Said, Worstward Ho, Beckett’s eleventh and final novel hearkens back to The Unnamable. According to the publisher, “Beckett explores a tentative, uncertain existence in a world devoid of rational meaning and purpose. here language is pared down to its most expressive.” Apmonia commentary is forthcoming.

Go To:

Works Main Page – The main Works page with the Quick Reference Card.

Short Prose – Short stories & fragments.

Dramas – Long plays for the stage.

Shorter Plays – Smaller one-act works for the stage.

Plays for Various Media – Pieces for radio, TV & film.

Miscellaneous – Essays, poetry, translations and nonfiction.

Bibliography – A complete bibliography of Beckett’s work.


–Tim Conley
& Allen B. Ruch
4 December 2005




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