I actually bypassed all the books I got for Christmas when I remembered I had Samuel Beckett’s trilogy of novels on my bookshelf. It’s a bit of an omission that I’ve never actually found time for the man’s fiction when I’m such a big fan of his existential plays, not to mention the fact that, if I had heroes, one would be James Joyce: Beckett’s literary mentor, to some extent.
If I remember correctly, relations between the men were strained over Beckett’s relationship with Joyce’s daughter, who suffered from mental illness. Perhaps it’s because of this lurking in my back of mind that I keep reading allusions where there probably aren’t any, like on one page where the words “Ulysses” and “Wake” are both mentioned.
Beckett’s protagonist, of course, also suffers from mental illness, which Beckett uses as a tool to undermine reality, especially when manifested in binary terms. We’re never sure, because, being an openly unreliable narrator, Molloy is never sure, whether anything ever happens as it’s described or not. Other characters, such as they are, are shrouded in a fog of uncertainty, neither existing nor being figments of the imagination. Even Molloy himself seems to decide his name is Molloy as much as he remembers that it is, and refers to himself as ‘dead’ on more than one occasion.
For instance, he at one point runs over a dog with his bicycle, and whilst helping the dog’s owner, Lousse, to bury it, remarks that it was really his burial. He then takes up the role of the dog in the house, and admits he doesn’t really know whether his relationship with Lousse was sexual, or even if she was a woman, though he seems to decide she was. The walls between metaphor and plot, between locutionary and illocutionary acts, between “true” and “false”, between self and other, between the mind and the outside world are rent apart. This reminds me of a academic piece I once read about Joyce’s mutally beneficial relationship with the quantum theorising of 20th century physicists, with their uncertainty principle and hypothetical cats both alive and dead because of subatomic unpredictability. The last century was the point at which we realised how imposing a term “reality” really is, and how first Newton, and then even Einstein, were too fixed in their thinking as cosmologists.
This was clearly not lost on Beckett, though his trilogy seems to be more a reaction to Joyce’s proto-deconstructive technique than a further decentring of the novel. Whereas in Finnegans Wake (for which Beckett took diction, long before it was recognisable as a novel), language comes alive and meaning forms and evolves before your eyes, the prose of Molloy is more excising, concerned with structuring itself along rhythmatic lines than reinventing the wheel from the axle outwards. To quote Beckett himself:
“James Joyce was a synthesizer, trying to bring in as much as he could. I am an analyzer, trying to leave out as much as I can.”
This “leaving out,” such as of paragraphs (this skirting of punctuation again reminds me of Ulysses, specifically Molly’s famous soliloquy. Can the similarities in name really be a concidence?) and such for at least the first half of the book (as well as more obvious exclusions such as of plot), lulls the reader into a state of fascinated hypnosis.
Molloy is Lazarus without a Christ, yet he is also a Christ figure, commanding himself at one point to cast aside his crutches. Unlike Joyce, though, for whom Dedalus, Bloom and Molly make up a modern trinity, Beckett doesn’t allude to myth as much as he parallels it, before spinning off at an angle or outright assaulting it until the reader’s mind is left in a zen-like openness. The Nobel committee said of Beckett that he transformed “the destitution of man into his exhaltation,” which was never more apt a description than with Molloy.
The crazy, dog-killing bastard.