Monday, February 28, 2011

Samuel Beckett and Me

I said that I'd write about the influence reading Samuel Beckett's Molloy and Malone Dies is having on my writing, and like Tristram Shandy I will be sure to give my readers that which I have promised them. Unfortunately, I find that I am completely unable to really say what Beckett's been doing to my prose. Or at least I can't talk about it in any general terms. So I give you a paragraph from Cocke & Bull, my work-in-progress. All the text in red is stuff I can safely say was added under the influence of old Sam:

"They will hang me tomorrow," the prisoner said. He sat on a low cot in the darkness of his cell, his eyes closed and his hands in fists. For a month he’d languished in jail, doing nothing, waiting while the magistrate came up from Annapolis to pass judgment upon him. The trial had taken only half an hour once the magistrate arrived, three days ago. It seemed hardly worth the effort. The prisoner had not bathed since before his arrest and he tried to remain still, as if by not moving he could keep the smell of his dirty clothes and skin away from the priest who’d come to hear his confession. The priest sat on a three-legged stool just outside the cell, one long hand resting on the rough iron bars that caged in the prisoner, fencing him off from the innocents of the world.

So what do I think I can say about that? Possibly the "doing nothing" has to do with the sense of the futility of action in Beckett's work. The "hardy worth the effort" and preceding sentence are of course a joke, again about futility of action. The last part, with cages, fences and innocents is partly a Beckettian claustrophobia about enclosed spaces (is it any accident that most of Molloy and Malone Dies takes place out of doors?) and it also sets up a central irony about guilt and innocence that runs through the whole narrative.

Where does that get me? Jokes and discouragement, I guess. I also note a recent tendency to mention dirt and soiled objects more often, and I will claim that as a fingerprint of Beckett.


  1. The detail about the character wanting to keep the smell of his dirty clothes and skin away from the priest is excellent. It feels so intimate and human.

  2. Very nice. I can almost smell the rank B.O.

  3. Davin: Exactly! I'm trying to close the narrative distance between reader and character. I want this image to be immediate and tactile and animal.

    Lola: Thanks! That's just what I want.

  4. While seemingly offhanded, your prose operates such that additional detail, beyond that which is explicitly stated, emerges - some of it quite vivid and particular.

    I think this is perhaps what people mean when they describe text as 'evocative'. You bring through the gates Trojan horses of meaning that unpack themselves in the reader's mind.


  5. I would say Beckett is having a good influence on you. I love his sensory imagery, the tactile and odoriforous mangling of the world...

    Does the prisoner get hanged tomorrow? I want to know...

  6. "Byronica," there is something about your tone that makes me uncertain.

    D.N., Beckett does sort of mangle the world, doesn't he? You can maybe find out about the prisoner in a few years when the book is published. I'll give you a hint, though: in the latter half of the book, the prisoner's wife is referred to as "the widow Abigail."

  7. I really did find the passage set my mind to imagining.

    My groggy praise was too saccharine, perhaps. I can live with such a transgression.