Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Beckett Trilogy

While reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road, the sense of despair in that novel made me think of one of the masters of existential hopelessness, Samuel Beckett.* I have been a Beckett fan for years, admiring him no less for his humor than for his articulation of 20th Century angst. In that vein, I am posting some older observations on the trilogy comprised of Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnameable. There is no dearth of worthwhile interpretive books and essays on these works: what follows are simply my synopsis and thoughts regarding them.

(*One contrast with regard to McCarthy: Beckett doesn't have to imagine a post-apocalyptic world - for him, each human life is an ongoing apocalypse, a decrepit ramble towards nothingness.)

The Trilogy

Molloy, the first volume in Beckett's trilogy, is comprised of two sections, purporting to be notes scribbled by two quite different characters, each in his own state of isolation. The first is Molloy, an almost feral vagabond whose goal, when discernible amid the odd and humorous reveries of life as a tramp, is to reach his "mother's room." He writes, apparently, from her room, but she is absent and there is no real idea of where she has gone or of how Molloy has come to take her place. Molloy is a wild man, hardly verbal, shaggy and urine-soaked with a bum leg and an aversion to human contact. For all this, he seems comfortable with his extreme situation, and with being outside of society and its norms. He has no great love of life, and appears to be content in his room, waiting to die.

The second "author", Jacque Moran, begins as a self-satisfied, if rather obsessive, suburbanite. He is given vague instructions regarding Molloy that take him out onto the open road, where his mode and manner of living rapidly disintegrate as he loses touch with the sense of society and his place in it that he so highly values. He badgers his son into abandoning him, murders a man for no real reason, and, after descending into his own kind of madness, returns to pass the remainder of his existence in his own now dilapidated house.

Beckett's prose is poignant and scatological, reflecting the disturbing situations each of these men find themselves in. Molloy is the individuals desire to escape from society and its suffocating norms, taken to the nth degree. He is taken into police custody for vague reasons concerning which he has no real curiosity. He is subsequently taken in (for sexual purposes, he suspects) by a charitable matron whose dog he has accidentally run over on his bicycle. He cannot wait to regain his grubby clothes and make his escape from this intolerable confinement. He is content to gather "sucking stones" (to ward off hunger) on a beach and spends pages devising elaborate mathematics for the purpose of shifting the stones from pocket to pocket.

Moran is the man cut loose from society, whose values and pretensions disintegrate in the absence of that society. There is a tinge of Buddhist thought in these pages: Molloy is almost Buddha-like in his detachment and his pessimism regarding the human condition and the tragedy of birth, the escape from which is the elusive goal - the annihilation of nirvana. Moran is the fool, discovering the abyss that confronts the unprepared mind when the illusions of life and its apparent certainties are swept away.

Malone Dies and The Unnameable thematically continue the narrative begun in Molloy. Whereas the first novel in the trilogy possessed at least a modicum of dramatic action, these simply reflect the thoughts of first a dying, and then a dead (vegetative?) man. The search for the self and the realization of the horror of existence continue, and some of Beckett's most grotesque images occur in these works: the bizarre sexual relations of Malone and Moll, the Dante-esque episode wherein the Unnameable/Mahood trudges through the entrails of his dead family in the course of a spiral descent into nowhere. These works, especially the third volume, are emotionally difficult to read. Still, they are powerful statements on the hopelessness of existence and the stasis of the self in the absence of meaning.

Also Of Interest

Michael Robinson's The Long Sonata of the Dead (out of print) is a somewhat useful guide to Beckett's work, and to the trilogy in particular. James Knowlson's book on Beckett, Damned to Fame, is by far the best biography, rounding out the somwhat dour view of Beckett presented in Diedre Bair's earlier biography.

Various editions of the trilogy are available. They are of course included in the superlative Grove Centenary Edition of Beckett's work, now available from Amazon at a very attractive price (down from the original $100 list price). Personally, I am hard pressed to abandon my collection of Beckett's works, mostly dog-eared paperbacks and foreign editions, painstakingly assembled over the years.

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