Friday, April 23, 2010

Undead Beckett, Pt. I

Samuel Beckett has long been one of my "culture gods" (as my poetry professor A. McA. Miller used to say), but it's been years since I read him, so I added the Grove Press omnibus edition of the Trilogy (Molloy, 1951; Malone Dies, 1951; The Unnamable, 1954) to the Stack. Beckett would appreciate that after all these years I don't remember if I actually ever read The Unnamable, and I've definitely got the whole thing mixed up with Watt (1954). I'm rotating the three novels through, so as to consider each on its own, and I'll add Watt to the Stack after I've done with The Unnamable.

In my memory there was a desperately marginalized man shuffling down the mean streets to his doom. And that's not far off from what I find reading Molloy. Sometimes rereading is deflationary, but in this case I find myself thrilled, at the end of the first novel, to be reading Beckett again. He's a marvelous writer, fearless and soulful, technically brilliant. His obsession (and one can see this of course in his plays) is narration. Narration is the structural point where the integrity or lack thereof of the writer is displayed: it is both the linchpin of creativity and the insuperable block to artifice, at least spiritually. Beckett is a supreme artist who cannot bear the hypocrisy of artifice, even as he loses himself in it. Two interrelated effects that are at the center of Beckett's art are distance and unreliability.

There is a signature effect of distancing in the way Beckett presents his characters (narrators). They are presented to us as if totally unfiltered, internal, scatological monologues and all, but in their very perversity there is a license to step back from them, a dehumanizing that presents itself as pure subjectivity. In fact his characters dangle before us like marionettes, mercilessly pilloried like the sinners in Hieronymus Bosch. It is the Narrator, after all, who is our true companion; we accompany Satan, not Job. In this he brought to my mind Flann O'Brien; there is a kind of radical flatness to the world he creates, like a cartoon panel with a minimalist landscape.

At the same time Beckett is the master of the Unreliable Narrator. Not even: the reader is shown early and often that the narrator is perverse, wicked, the subject of the examination. Once this relationship is established there are no end of metanarrative tricks to be pulled - the principal fun of reading Beckett. I thought of James Hogg's incredible Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.

Which brings me to another point, I don't know what I thought of this thirty years ago reading Beckett as a student: this most modernist of postmoderns is in a major confrontation with Catholicism. I love the list of questions Moran is considering at the end of the book ("5. Does it really matter which hand is employed to absterge the podex?"). And of course this gets to the contextual difference that I have now as a reader, which is this blog itself: with my focus on Irish literature, I come back to Beckett particularly vigilant about his Irish identity, which mattered little to me thirty years ago. And he is (notwithstanding his obligatory exile, and that he wrote these books in French and then translated them himself into English - not back into English)as Irish as they come. His minimalist landscape is in fact an Irish landscape; his pathetic characters are Molloy, Moran, Malone, Murphy - all one.

The question arises as to his relationship with Joyce. Joyce was a mentor and influence, there is no escaping the issue. It is fatuous at best to attempt a comparison (who was "better"?), but the tortured relationship with the English language is central to both writers. English must be pushed and pulled and violated, it is like the flesh pulling down the spirit. And like the body, eventually the language pulls one in entirely and makes of one a thing. For a brief erotic interlude at least. Ach, how dare I elevate my language? Ego is another big question with both Joyce and Beckett. And me and you. And so it is time to go (my mother said some of these posts are too long anyway). But I will be watching with satisfying anticipation Malone Dies' progress through the Stack.

No comments: