Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Malone Dies

Just about a year ago I posted here about Samuel Beckett's Molloy (1951), the first of the "Trilogy" that continues with Malone Dies (1951) and The Unnamable (1953). Then I put my Grove Press omnibus edition back in the Stack, and when I'm done writing this today I'll put it back in for another cycle. It's been very satisfying to reread these intense and excellently-written novels. Molloy made a bigger impression on me than Malone Dies, but the writing of Malone Dies entranced me after a while. I read someone somewhere saying that these books are best read in short bursts, but I found that Malone Dies gained structural cohesion when I read it fast (of course Beckett is challenging our conventional notions about structure and narrative: that's a big part of his exercise). I thought, reading this one, that these books are a great illustration of the fact that an artist needs a great deal of formal mastery before they can then break with traditional forms, that being one of the keys to modern poetry and to Modernists such as Joyce and Picasso.

As with Joyce, Beckett's Irish identity and sense of the Irish relationship to the English language makes him an inherently subversive writer; the subversiveness of the Irish Modernist is striking as an act of cultural subversion above all, and one that bears little similarity to typical cultural nationalism. Beckett's entire career, certainly including his plays, can be understood as a sustained interrogation (to use a litcrit phrase) of the idea of the narrator. The narrator is often simultaneously obliterated and globalized as the boundary between narrator and narration is blurred out through the technique of submerging the story in the subject (or something).

In the Trilogy this is achieved by a not-quite stream of consciousness depiction of the thoughts of destitute, deranged, and in the present case dying men, or one man who is variously represented by characters with Irish names starting in "M." Malone, who tells us he is dying on the first page, roams around a great deal of mental territory as he slips in and out of lucidity, and as his situation deteriorates. Sometimes it seems as if he is telling us about everything but himself and his condition, but this seems true to life as a depiction of the consciousness of someone in his condition. Beckett uses pathology as a device to open up dark and universal elements of soul, a technique that makes for difficult but rewarding reading.

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