Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable (Beckett, 1951-53)

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I want a shirt that reads “I survived Beckett’s trilogy.” Finishing the three books, totaling almost 500 pages of monologue with only a handful of paragraph breaks, is a chore. To me, it was worth it however, and I’d like to share a few reasons why. Afterwards, you might be convinced to read them yourself (especially the first part of Molloy). Or maybe you’ll just take my word for it.

Having read Beckett makes me look at Pinter in a new light. They share striking tendencies: brutish minimalism, fluid identities of characters, playing with the absurd. Beckett’s novels, however, have a more explicit sense of history. The trilogy is haunted by the specter of post-war Europe, most vividly in the literal decay and decomposition of the protagonist. The present life of this character seems post-apocalyptic: complete loss of purpose, competence, hope, physical comfort, etc. To me, the landscape of the books is spiritual, a testament to the spiritual vacuum left in Europe by the world wars. This reality is all the character can remember; he is increasingly unable to conjure memories of anything before his crippled last days.

Impoverished on all levels, the protagonist is busied by primally human concerns. Much of Molloy is framed by Molloy’s search for his mother. He begins by speaking of her as if he had just left her, by the end of the book it seems more likely his mother has been dead for decades. Regardless, Molloy’s endless, excruciating quest is a search for home, a desire to return to Eden before the exile. Of course, his quest is futile; he is searching for what no longer exists, for nothing. Despite the persistent urge, no person can return to what is buried in the past–no matter what the present has come to.

Molloy is, quite nihilistically, unable to hope for anything beyond a legacy, in his case a son. He wants a son to carry on his name after his inevitable death; this seems is all Molloy can wish for. There is no real hope of redemption, salvation, or resolution in these works; they are strikingly pessimistic. Still, I find Beckett’s style wholly compelling, as he, like Pinter, offers minimalistic ways to cut to the core of existence, rendering at the most vulnerable and creating a spiritual landscape that mirrors the non-fictitious.

To close, I want to tease out two techniques shared by Beckett and Pinter yet more thoroughly developed by the former. First, Beckett’s protagonist is a master at changing the subject. In Pinter, I noted that this trick is smoothly executed with humorous quips that increasingly reveal underlying tension in relationships. In Beckett, the effect is somewhat different; instead of revealing relational tension (since there are no real relationships), changing the subject reveals incredible need and lack. Most often, the character changes the subject by launching into a trivial problem that is easily solved. In this way, the character reveals his need to feel accomplished, to take effective action. This is impossible on the large scale due to his crippling disabilities, yet on the small scale he is able to sometimes meet his goals (albeit decreasingly with time). In both writer’s, then, distraction from the topic at hand is a technique used to obliquely reveal something deeper, as if the deeper reality would disappear if directly addressed. I think this adds to the fragility of their works, which requires sensitive engagement from the audience in a way compatible with gelassenheit.

Second, Beckett and Pinter both investigate the fluidity of identity. On stage, Pinter’s work is much more solid in this area, actors retain the same character throughout even if they get their relationships confused. In Beckett’s prose, however, the narrator/protagonist/character (now to explain why I’ve been using such vague signifiers) changes name and sometimes even station in life. The first time this occurs is in Molloy, as the protagonist shifts from Molloy in part one to Moran in part two. Moran, moreover, is a detective hired to search for Molloy, who has gone missing in the forest. As the story expands, however, it becomes dubious whether Molloy exists in Moran’s world and if Moran isn’t actually another iteration of Molloy. By the end of part two it is Moran who is left paralyzed in the forest, just as Molloy was supposed to be.

The shifting identities comes to the fore in The Unnamable, which doesn’t seem to take place within the physical universe. Glossing over that point, The Unnamable features multiple protagonists, most notably one called Worm. By the time of the narrator’s assimilation into the character Worm, it becomes clear that the previous characters of the final book have all been identities assumed by a single narrator. At least, that is how I understand it. The third book becomes a study of this phenomenon, an investigation into the narrator’s own attempts to understand himself–which routinely fail and restart.

In all of these ways, as  Gabriel Josipovici suggests in his introduction to the Everyman’s Library edition, Beckett confounds the ability of the audience to understand the character in order to reveal the character’s own inability to understand himself or his world. Shifting identity in the trilogy, thus, becomes a means of organizing chaos, trapping it just enough to glimpse its profound role in human life. Beckett’s trilogy, thus, takes place in a very Heideggerian landscape, a plane of existence one step away from the Void which is chaos and desire and which frustrates attempts to grasp it, or to reach it by foot as Molloy attempts. In the light of the Void, everything is shown to be radically contingent, hung together by little more than threads, fragile and yet precious. This is the world which Beckett paints in his work, a world often forgot in everyday life yet quickly remembered in tragedy. For this reason I find Beckett’s art highly compelling, even though frustrating. I don’t expect I’ll ever read The Unnamable again, yet I value having read it once, having one time stepped right into the middle of the Void with its infinite possibilities, infinite identities just waiting to be assumed by the desperate.

 

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