Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Samuel Beckett: Waiting For Everybody

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been reading Samuel Beckett. First “Molloy” and now I’m almost finished with “Malone Dies” and then it’s on to “The Unnamable.” My previous experience with Beckett was in the mid-80s when I read “Waiting For Godot” one fine summer afternoon, sitting on the porch of the big house I shared with a bunch of college students in Boulder, Colorado. Somewhere, I think, I actually have a photo of me reading the play, with a cigarette hanging out of my mouth and a cocktail balanced on the arm of the chair. It would’ve been bourbon and Coke. If memory serves, I was wearing argyle socks. But this is by the way. Excuse the ramblings of an old man. That’s a joke, son, if you’ve read the books in question. If not…well, I’ll just move along, shall I?

I’ve been reading Sam Beckett lately, and I must say that he’s a master of the mortally and mordantly comic. “What tedium.” “No, I can’t.” “Enough about me.” Oh, what larks, Sammy. Again, I digress. I blame Beckett, as the novels are writ in a digressive style and the dramatic arc, such as there is, is based upon challenges to systems of belief and identity and have nothing to do whatsoever with ideas of “plot.” Though the “Moran” section of “Molloy” tells a sort of detective story, the meaning of the action is unclear in terms of external conflict. No, these novels are not about the resolution of actions taken, they are explorations of the futility of action, of ownership, of love, of religion, of everything. Sounds bleak, doesn’t it? But it’s not, it’s hysterically funny. Beckett has decided that when you come to see that nothing means anything but you still have to move forward through life (because, after all, you are alive and being alive is the only thing you are clearly meant to do, you keep going; toward what? Well, toward nothing but that’s the point), your situation is inherently comic. Life is an absurdity, and we are absurd actors within that absurdity. So laugh.

And the books are funny, truly they are. A lot of it has to do with the voices of the narrators, each of whom knows that his memory is inexact and that he is falsifying events here and there in order to give the reader a navigable narrative and sometimes just to hide the truth, but also knowing the absurdity of his situation. The narrator of “Malone Dies” congratulates himself for figuring something out and then immediately mocks himself for his smugness at finally having seen the obvious. This sounds cruel, and in a way it is, but also it’s not. These books are not only comic masterpieces, they are also deeply moving explorations of the human condition, the existential problem. Beckett, I think, shares my view that humanity is sad and pathetic and deserving of our sympathy. Life is hard and unrewarding but we have to live it anyway. We’re all fools, and foolish, and we should laugh at life. Beckett also, I think, knows that the worst thing about this meaningless life is the ease with which we find ourselves alone, the commonness of loneliness. To be alone, unknown and unloved is to be in a prison or a madhouse. At least that’s how I see Beckett’s novels. They overflow with love and kindness toward our fucked up and misguided species, and I am glad to be reading them.

When I began this brief essay, I thought I was going to talk about the influence Beckett’s writing is having on my own fiction, but I don’t have any of that worked out just yet. No doubt it will become more clear once I start work on Nowhere But North. In the meanwhile, I bore you with my reactions as a reader. My apologies for providing nothing of use. What tedium.


  1. I might need to give Beckett another go. I've never been a fan of his prose per se (I know, heresy), but I appreciate what you're relating about what he has to say. I think he's probably worth a return visit.

  2. Well, two things:

    1. Heresy!

    2. Most people don't get Beckett; they don't see the humor and they mistake what he's doing for some kind of contempt for humanity. And because he doesn't tell a traditional point-A-to-point-B story, they mistake that for contempt for the reader. Which is, you know, laziness on the part of the reader. See today's LL post on comfort zones. Beckett was a fierce, brave writer. He was better than either you or me, that's for sure.

  3. Yeah, my hang-up on Beckett's prose is one of the reasons I turned in my authentic literary person card years ago.

    But I feel compelled to revisit, see through the prose, and try to absorb some of the rest of the writing because it really does seem like his stuff should be up my alley.

  4. Start with "Malone Dies." It's short and pretty straightforward: an old man in some kind of a long-term care facility is sure he's going to die any day and so he's going to tell you three stories and then make an inventory of his possessions, in order that you will understand him (it's not said, but clearly he was a writer in his lifetime, as it's natural for him to turn to stories to illustrate what he thinks are truths). Like an old man, he loses his thread often and he tires sometimes and he changes his story and maybe his story is not fiction but is about himself; there's no way to tell. Some of the prose is crass and mundane and obscene and some of it's the heavens fretted with majestical fire. But it does seem that with your sort of internal, emotion-based and disconnected-from-physical-reality stories, Beckett would appeal to you. But YMMV. Mine often does.