Damned to Fame by James Knowlson (1996) part 1

This is a brilliant literary biography, combining extraordinarily thorough research with discretion and sensitivity about Beckett’s private life, and a sure touch when it comes to analysing Beckett’s surprisingly numerous works. Everything a Beckett fan could ever want to know is covered, thoroughly and intelligently.

How James Knowlson came to write Samuel Beckett’s biography

James Knowlson (born in 1933) is Emeritus Professor of French and founder of the International Beckett Foundation at the University of Reading. He got to know Beckett after organising an academic conference to celebrate the fact that Beckett had won the Nobel Prize (1969) and founding the Beckett Archive at Reading, corresponding by letter and meeting him several times a year. As early as 1972 a publisher suggested he write a biography but when he broached the idea, Beckett said no.

But some 17 years later, the famous author changed his mind. He had realised that someone was going to write a biography come what may and that, on balance, he’d prefer it to be someone who knew and respected the actual works. He knew from their professional correspondence that Knowlson was very knowledgeable about his oeuvre and the result was that Beckett not only agreed to let Knowlson write the authorised biography, but agreed to give him a series of exclusive interviews and answer all the questions he posed.

Thus, over the last five months of his life, till Beckett’s death in December 1989, the two men had a series of long, in-depth interviews and Knowlson quotes from them liberally i.e. this book benefits hugely from Beckett’s own words and views about numerous aspects of his life and career. That is a masterstroke in the book’s favour.

But Knowlson went quite a lot further further and has spoken or corresponded with an extraordinary number of people, conducting over one hundred interviews with Beckett’s immediate family and close friends to a huge range of people he met in his professional life as a prose writer, playwright and director. The acknowledgements section lists them all and runs to six pages densely packed with names. The range is awesome and Kowlson’s stamina in meeting and corresponding with so many people, and then organising the resulting plethora of information into a coherent and fascinating narrative is awesome.

Samuel Beckett’s family and upbringing

Beckett’s family was comfortably upper-middle-class. His father, William, was a surveyor and made enough money to buy an acre of land in the rising suburb of Foxrock, south of Dublin, and build a big house on it which he named Cooldrinagh (after his wife’s family home), complete with servants’ quarters and tennis court.

The house was in sight of the Dublin hills which his father loved to go climbing and also of the sea, where the boy Beckett learned to swim and then dive into the locally famous pool named Forty-Foot at Sandycove. Not far away was the Leopardstown race track which features in various works, notably the radio play All That Fall.

Beckett’s parents were very different. His father, ‘Bill’ Beckett, was loud and sociable and not at all intellectual. He liked playing golf and going for long walks up into the Dublin hills. His mother, Amy, was tall and stern with a long face. Beckett inherited her looks and personality. The family was Protestant, the mother, in particular, being a devout church-goer.

Beckett had a brother, Frank, three years older, and a bevy of uncles and aunts who, with their own children, created a large, intelligent, well-off and cultured extended family. Samuel Barclay Beckett was born on 13 April 1906, in later life he enjoyed the symbolism of having been born on Good Friday.

As a boy Beckett was sent to a small, eccentric preparatory school, Earlsfort House then, from age 13, on to an established public school, Portora Royal School in Enniskillen (1919 to 1923) which, like most of its type, placed a big emphasis on sports and super-high standards of honesty, integrity and politeness. Everyone who ever met him later in life commented on Beckett’s immaculate manners and considerateness.

Beckett was very sporty

Beckett was a very sporty young man. At school he won medals for swimming and cross-country running, and was a very proficient boxer, becoming the school’s light heavyweight boxing champion. He was a keen golfer, joining his father’s club, Carrickmines Golf Club, playing for whole days at a stretch, and, when he went on to Trinity College, Dublin (TCD), representing the college at golf. He also played cricket for the college, and was included in the Dublin University team which went on a tour of English country clubs in 1926 and 1927. Hence the well-known fact that Beckett is the only Nobel Prize winner who is also in the cricketing ‘Bible’, Wisden.

Beckett’s extended family was very musical and Beckett played the piano very well, well enough to know piano renditions of most of Gilbert and Sullivan when a boy, and to be able to play Debussy at university. When he was down in the dumps as a young man a friend hired a piano for his rooms to cheer him up.

Beckett’s parents bought him a motorbike in his final year at school, and then a two-seater ‘Swift’ sports car at college. As a student he was affluent enough to be able to pick holiday destinations, so one year went on a tour of the Loire Valley visiting the birthplaces of notable French writers, and, in his final college vacation, went to visit Florence where he looked up the sister of his Italian tutor at TCD.

Private school, piano lessons in a music-loving family, membership of sports clubs, top university in Ireland, motorbike, sports car, cultural trips abroad. Beckett had what we would nowadays think of as a very privileged upbringing.

Influences at Trinity College, Dublin

Beckett attended Trinity College Dublin from 1923 to 1927 where he studied Modern Literature. Here he came under the wing of the Professor of Romance Languages, Thomas Browne Rudmore-Browne, a brash, aggressively freethinking, womanising intellectual who taught him the English classics and introduced Beckett to a wide range of French poets, classic and contemporary. ‘Ruddy’ as he was nicknamed, is caricatured as ‘the Polar Bear’ in Beckett’s early short story collection, More Pricks Than Kicks.

Beckett’s second formative influence was:

small, plump, middle-aged, Italian tutor named Bianca Esposito, who gave him detailed private lessons in Italian language and literature, who ignited his lifelong love for Dante and features in Pricks’ opening story, Dante and the Lobster.

Nearly 50 years later, Beckett still carried round the student copy of Dante Bianca gave him, packed with his notes and annotations.

Beckett was solitary and aloof

Despite all this physical prowess, and his height and his piercing blue eyes, Beckett was a shy boy, at prep and boarding school and at college. He often withdrew right into himself and, when forced to attend social occasions, did so without saying a word. Tall, clever and charismatic, young Beckett sometimes felt contempt for those less able than him, which he then felt guilty about, redirecting the loathing inwards at himself, creating a downward spiral of negative emotions.

In other words, despite all the privileges of his upbringing, his loving extended family, loads of material advantages, encouragement in sports and the best education money could buy, Beckett developed into a hyper-shy, extremely self-conscious young man, plagued by narcissism, solipsism and self-obsession. Here are just some of the phrases Knowlson uses about him at this period:

  • Beckett, the least gregarious of people (88)
  • Beckett was diffident and solitary (90)
  • Beckett’s cocoon of shyness and silence (90)
  • retiring and inhibited (92)
  • shy, retiring nature (95)
  • he would lapse into deep, uncomfortable silences (95)

The problem of pain

Like many a privileged young man, the discovery of the misery of the poor in his student years had a devastating effect on Beckett, and combined with intellectual doubts to undermine his Christian faith – something which went on to become a bone of contention with his pious mother.

A long time ago I was paid to do the research for a documentary series about the conflict between faith and atheism, a series which set out to define the arguments and counter-arguments across the full range of human history, culture, philosophy, psychology and so on. What emerged, at least in my opinion, was that beneath the thousand and one arguments of believers and atheists, both intellectual positions have One Big Fundamental Weak Spot:

The chief intellectual difficulty for thinking Christians is The Problem of Pain i.e. the very old conundrum that if God is all-powerful and all-loving why does he allow children to die in screaming agony? There is no answer to this, though thousands of theologians have come up with clever workarounds e.g. he is all-loving but is, for some reason, not quite all-powerful; or he is all-powerful but is not what we think of as all-loving because he is working to a plan which is beyond our understanding and presumptuous to try.

Thus Beckett was being very traditional, almost trite, in losing his faith once he came to appreciate the pain and misery in the world around him which his privileged upbringing had hitherto sheltered him from. In a way, most of his writing career went on to focus on this theologically-flavoured issue. (Actually, it might be more accurate to say that Beckett’s central subject is not the Problem of Pain so much as the Problem of Physical and Mental Decay).

The biggest weak point in the Atheist position – the mirror image of what the Problem of Pain is for Christians – is The Problem of Consciousness: If we humans are the result of millions of generations of evolution by natural selection, descended from the first amoeba, and if we are the result of the purely mechanistic and amoral struggle for survival, how come we have such complex and delightful feelings and sense impressions, can be transported by the sight of a sunset or the fragrance of a flower? How come we have such a highly developed moral sense that can lead us to spend days debating the rights and wrongs of various actions, feeling such an acute sense of guilt, wasting so much time in complicated rumination? Surely we should just do whatever benefits us or the tribe without a moment’s thought. None of those attributes seem particularly useful for a creature which has come about via the blunt and violent process of evolution.

Maybe we can see this as another of Beckett’s central themes, or the other wing of his interests: the problem of consciousness, which in his prose works in particular, but also in most of the plays, is deeply compromised, broken, fragmented, in some cases, apparently, posthumous (in Play, for example).

Paris

(pp.107+). Beckett graduated from Trinity College Dublin in 1927 with a BA degree. Patrons and supporters at the college wangled him the position of lecteur d’anglais at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris from November 1928 to 1930.

Paris came as a massive cultural and personal liberation. Throughout school and university Beckett had been strictly teetotal and sexually puritanical but in Paris he learned to drink, both beer and wine, becoming particularly partial to white wine. From now on there are numerous stories of Beckett getting completely trashed, passing out, being found under the table or passed out in alleyways, and so on.

Regarding sex, Knowlson gives detailed accounts of Beckett’s love affairs as a teenager and young man which were strongly shaped by his strict Protestant upbringing and the ferocious emphasis on ‘purity’ at his public school. As a result he was screwed up about sex in a predictably traditional way and Knowlson quotes from diaries, journals and early stories to show how he had the classic difficulty of reconciling the women he respected and placed on a pedestal with the ‘dirty’ shenanigans he got up to with hookers in Paris brothels, sex and love. (pp. 108, 139).

(Later, in the mid-1930s, when he was living a solitary existence in London during his two years of intensive psychotherapy at the Tavistock Clinic, Knowlson claims Beckett availed himself of London prostitutes on a regular basis.)

James Joyce

The post Beckett took up at the Ecole Normale Superieure had been occupied by another Irishman, Tom MacGreevey, who stayed on in the city he loved, and acted as guide and mentor to young Sam. MacGreevey had developed high-powered literary contacts and, among others, introduced him to James Joyce and his circle, his wife and grown-up son and daughter, his publishers and magazine editors and so on. It was a golden opportunity, an entrée into a whole new world.

Joyce was widely acknowledged to be the most important avant-garde writer in Europe. Beckett was a star-struck 23-year-old graduate. Sam quickly became one of the great man’s secretaries, tasked with finding Joyce books, reading them out loud or providing written summaries, as well as taking dictation and other chores. The master and the ephebe went for long walks along the Seine (Joyce’s flat was only 100 yards from the river).

Beckett was still so utterly shy that he hadn’t the small-talk to spend with Joyce’s wife, Nora, who, partly as a result, took against him. Whereas Joyce’s nubile and impulsive daughter Lucia, just a year younger than Beckett, became infatuated with the tall, aloof, blue-eyed sportsman, sitting near him at dinner, making eyes at him, inveigling him to take her for walks.

Countless articles have been written about the impact of Joyce on Beckett but the central, much-repeated point is that in the end, Joyce’s example helped set Beckett on a track diametrically opposite to the great man’s. Both men not only spoke the major European languages (English, French, Italian, German) and were deeply familiar with the respective canons of literature of each of these countries, but were impatient with the realist or Naturalist worldview they’d inherited from turn of the century literature – were committed to going beyond the realist worldview.

But whereas Joyce’s technique was accumulative, each sentence attracting to it multiple references and variations in other languages, breaking down English words and (by the 1930s) creating in their stead the entirely new polyglot language in which he wrote Finnegans Wake – Beckett found he could follow Joyce only so far. Indeed he did so in the short stories and novels of the 1930s, which are characterised by deliberately arcane syntax, literary references, the liberal sprinkling of obscure or foreign words, and an attitude which is deliberately contrived and non-naturalistic.

But Beckett lacked the musicality, the sensual feel for language, the world-embracing sympathy and the sheer joy of life which pours from Joyce’s pages. Beckett was by his nature much more tightly wrapped, intellectually costive, temperamentally depressive, repressed by his stern Protestant upbringing.

Compare and contrast the lovely swimming sensuality of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy which ends Ulysses with any description Beckett ever wrote anywhere of sensuality and sex. Molly is sweet and sensual and world-accepting; Beckett writes about sex a lot, but it is nearly always shameful masturbating (Malone Dies), callous sucking-off (Mercier and Camier), the disgusting rutting described in the four post-war short stories, the horrible homosexual abuse in How it is and so on. Sex in Beckett is never any fun at all.

Joyce is open to all the world, his books are overflowing with characters, incidents and brimming over with the joy of language. Beckett is locked away in one small, grey room, lying in the darkness, listening to the voices in his head punishing him with guilt and remorse, obsessively paring away language till it is reduced to blunt telegraphese, laced with one or two obsessively repeated key phrases.

Beckett’s women

One of the most boring things about biographies is the attention they are forced to pay to their subjects’ love lives. Here, as everywhere else, Knowlson does a very good, thorough job, providing all the facts without judgement or salacity.

Peggy Sinclair (1911 to 1933)

Beckett fell madly in love with his cousin, Ruth Margaret Sinclair, known as ‘Peggy’, daughter of William ‘Boss’ Sinclair who had married Sam’s aunt, Frances Beckett, generally known as ‘Cissie’. I’m not much interested in classic ups and downs of the actual ‘love affair’, the interesting thing was the way her parents moved from Dublin to Kassel in north Germany, and sent Peggy to school in Austria, so that his visits to see her accustomed Beckett to travelling all over the continent and speaking the local languages. He visited the Sinclair household in Kassel a number of times between 1928 and 1932.

Peggy was the inspiration behind the character of Smeraldina in Beckett’s first, unpublished novel, A Dream of Fair To Middling Women. Eventually the love affair burnt out, and when he visited the Sinclairs in the early 1930s, it was to be distressed by their mounting business problems and by Peggy’s deteriorating health. He was devastated when Peggy, by that stage engaged to another man, died of tuberculosis in May 1933 (page 168).

Lucia Joyce (1907 to 1982)

James Joyce’s daughter, unsmiling, squint-eyed Lucia Joyce, became infatuated with the tall, handsome Samuel and, to please his father, Sam obligingly took her for walks or out to dinner, but he was still in love with Peggy Sinclair and not in the market for affairs. Things came to a head when Lucia threw a fit, denouncing Beckett to her parents and claiming he had cruelly led her on. Egged on by Nora, Joyce cut his links with Beckett, refusing to see him again. Sam was distraught. It was only as the 1930s progress that it became increasingly obvious that Lucia was suffering from severe mental illness, and ended up being placed in a series of sanatoria. A couple of years later, the pair were quietly reconciled and when Beckett moved to Paris permanently in 1935, started to see a lot of each other again.

Ethna MacCarthy (1903 to 1954)

MacCarthy was arguably Beckett’s first mature love. She was a poet, short story writer and playwright who went on to carve a career as a paediatrician. Their love is very tenderly and respectfully traced.

These three women are singled out not least because Beckett’s first attempt at a full-length fiction was a novel about a young Irishman whose life is dominated by… three women! The novel eventually became titled A Dream of Fair To Middling Women (a typically learnèd reference to both Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem, The Legend of Good Women and Alfred Tennyson’s long poem A Dream of Fair Women).

The Dream which is structured around a central protagonist (named, with characteristic over-learnedness, Belacqua Shuah, Belacqua being the name of a minor character noted for his lazy self-absorption in Dante’s Divine Comedy) and his relations with the three women, being Smeraldina, Syra-Cusa and the Alba. Much scholarly ink has been spilt arguing about which ‘real life’ women ‘inspired’ each character. Knowlson takes them to be based on Peggy, Lucia and Ethna, respectively.

After a year or so of trying to get the Dream published in the mid-1930s, and having it continually rejected, Beckett gave up and slowly came to regret having satirised his close friends and family so closely. In the end he actively suppressed the novel and it wasn’t published until 1992, three years after his death.

Writing

When he was introduced to Joyce, he not only met his family, but the network of book publishers and magazine editors connected with him. As an obviously highly intelligent, highly literate young man, Beckett found himself presented with opportunities to publish books, stories and articles which most aspiring authors can only dream of.

In 1929 he wrote his first short story, the 3-and-a-half-page Assumption which was immediately published in the leading avant-garde magazine, transition. Then a 100-line poem, Whoroscope, knocked off in a few hours in order to win the £10 prize for a poetry competition sponsored by literary entrepreneur and anthologist Nancy Cunard and published in July 1930.

A senior editor at Chatto and Windus suggested to Beckett that he write a detailed study of Proust for a series of literary introductions they were publishing. This Beckett did, extensively researching by rereading Proust, and the study was published in March 1931. Once he had bedded in with the Joyce circle he was commissioned to write a translation of the Anna Livia Plurabelle section of Finnegans Wake into French. In other words Beckett was, by 1930, very well-connected with the leading avant-garde writer in Europe, his circle and supporters and publishers.

But, despite all these advantages, Beckett failed to find a published for A Dream of Fair To Middling Women. It went the rounds of numerous publishers, both mainstream and avant-garde for two years before Beckett gave up trying, and the trickle of odd, eccentric short stories he was writing fared no better.

In 1932 the teaching post at Ecole Normale Superieure terminated, and Beckett was forced to pack his bags and return to Ireland where he was extremely lucky to be offered a prestigious teaching post at Trinity Dublin, a very sought-after position, supported by Ruddy and other patrons and supporters.

Unfortunately, Beckett hated it and discovered he was awful at teaching. Miserable, that winter he fled to ‘Boss’ and Cissie Sinclair in Kassel in northern Germany, from where he wrote a letter of resignation which dismayed his sponsors and upset his parents.

Breakdown and psychotherapy

Having chucked in his prestigious job at Trinity, completely failed to get any of his writings published, and been forced to move back in with his parents in 1933, Beckett was deeply traumatised when his father, apparently still in the prime of life in his 60s, died of a massive heart attack, on 26 June 1933.

His father’s death exposed Beckett more than ever to the cloying, critical over-attention of his mother and Beckett suffered a series of increasingly serious physical symptoms, starting with a cyst on his neck, moving to heart palpitations, night sweats and panic attacks, which on several occasions brought him to a complete dead stop, in the street, paralysed with terror, and unable to move a muscle.

Beckett consulted a good friend of his from school, a nerve specialist, Geoffrey Thompson, who was planning to move to London and recommended Beckett to come with him and try psychotherapy at the relatively new Tavistock Clinic. So in January 1934 Beckett himself moved to digs in London and began his treatment with the pioneering psychotherapist Wilfred Bion. Bion was, Knowlson informs us, himself quite a strapping, hearty, sporty chap, while also being formidably well-educated at private school. So he and Beckett bonded on a social and personal level, quite apart from the treatment.

According to Knowlson, Beckett had psychotherapy with Bion for two years, at the rate of three times a week, which equals well over 2,000 sessions, during which Beckett explored his childhood, his formative influences, and came to realise the role his love-hate relationship with his mother played in cramping his life. He came to realise that, for his entire life to date, he had created an ivory tower founded on what he felt was his physical and intellectual superiority to all around him, becoming known for his aloofness and/or shyness, what Knowlson calls an:

attitude of superiority and an isolation from others that resulted from a morbid, obsessive immersion in self (page 180)

Beckett had to learn:

to counter his self-immersion by coming out of himself more in his daily life and taking a livelier interest in others (page 181)

But more than this, Knowlson claims that Bion showed him that he could mine many of these deeply personal compulsions and tendencies to create texts.

By externalising some of the impulses of the psyche in his work – the feelings of frustration and repressed violence for example – he would find it easier to counter the self-absorption that had seemed morbid and destructive in his private life. The writing thus became essential to his later mental and physical wellbeing.
(page 181)

Over 2,000 times Beckett lay on his back in a darkened room, closing his eyes, focusing on the moment, in order to let deeply buried memories bubble up from his unconscious, struggling to express them, struggling to understand their significance – while all the while another part of his mind observed the process with analytical detachment, critiquing the shape and pose of the figures in the memories, considering the words they spoke, assessing how the scene could be improved, the dialogue sharpened up, the dramatic core reached more quickly and effectively.

This is more or less the plot of Beckett’s late novella Company and clearly the basis of the so-called ‘closed room’ and skullscape’ fictions of the 1960s. You can also see how it forms the basis of the breakthrough novels Beckett wrote immediately after the war in French, Malone Dies and The Unnameable, texts of overweening, unprecedented self-absorption and self scrutiny. As late as his last published prose piece, Stirrings Still, Beckett is obsessed with a figure who regards himself as an ‘other’, sees himself rise and leave the room, although is other ‘self’ remains seated.

Reading Knowlson’s fascinating account of Beckett’s psychotherapy makes you realise the ‘essential’ Beckett was there all the time, lying dormant. First, though:

  1. he had to spend a decade, the 1930s, getting out of his system the immature wish to clutter his texts with smartarse quotes, foreign phrases, and mock-scholarly humour in the tradition of Rabelais and Sterne and Joyce, and then
  2. his experiences during the Second World War had to sear away any residues of Romantic optimism and even the last vestiges of late Victorian naturalism

for him to emerge in the immediate post-war period as the stripped-down, minimalist, and bleakly nihilistic writer who would go on to become one of the pillars of post-war literature.


Credit

Damned To Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett by James Knowlson was published by Bloomsbury Publishing in 1996. All references are to the 1997 paperback edition.

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

The Lost Ones by Samuel Beckett (1970)

So true it is that when in the cylinder what little is possible is not so it is merely no longer so and in the least less the all of nothing if this notion is maintained.

The last half dozen Beckett prose pieces I’ve read take their lead from his 1953 novel The Unnameable in being extreme close-up descriptions of individuals, either the figure crawling through the mud in How It Is or highly self-centred, solipsistic descriptions of trapped consciousnesses, in which sentences come apart at the seams and cluster or blocks of words are endlessly recirculated, in the case of Lessness using chance processes to order prefabricated sentences.

The Lost Ones is significantly different from its predecessors. For a start almost all the sentences make sense, albeit many are long-winded and with sometimes demanding word order. But they are not like the conglomerations of phrases joined together without any punctuation which you find in its half dozen predecessors, which demand a lot of interpretation or which you can relax for the effort of parsing and let create a kind of dynamic alternative to traditional prose, a kind of poetry of repetition in your mind.

The Lost Ones is more like a report, an anthropological study, of a particular environment and its inhabitants. It’s almost like a piece of science fiction, the kind of sci fi story which gives a detailed account of a new and bizarre alien society. It is definitely not a story: there are no characters, no events and no dialogue. But it is laid out in a logical structure and the sentences make sense.

The abode

The cylinder Beckett describes a cylinder fifty metres round and sixteen high, populated by about 200 human beings. The cylinder is all they have ever known. It is their life. He refers to the cylinder throughout as ‘the abode’. If you do the math you discover that each of these individuals is allotted ‘a little under one square metre’ of space.

One body per square metre of available surface.

This explains why ‘lying down is unheard of in the cylinder’.

The light The text (about 20 pages of a normal Word document, 8,240 words)  moves on to give precise description of the interior of the cylinder. One of the main features is that the permanent yellow light which suffuses it (from no identifiable source) grows dimmer and then brighter on a regular cycle. Long term exposure to these oscillations of light leads to blindness.

The temperature The oscillations of light are accompanied by changes in temperature from 25°C down to 5°C, occasionally as low as 1°C, the changes happening within four seconds! These drastic alterations have the effect of destroying the skin and drying up the mucus membranes, rendering sex (sex appears in most of Beckett’s texts, no matter how degraded) very uncomfortable, although some lost souls still fling themselves at it.

The walls are made of a rubber-like substance:

Floor and wall are of solid rubber or suchlike. Dash against them foot or fist or head and the sound is scarcely heard. Imagine then the silence of the steps.

The niches The next thing to note is the existence of 20 niches set in the walls:

cavities sunk in that part of the wall which lies above an imaginary line running midway between floor and ceiling.

The tunnels They are arranged in a cunning pattern of quincunxes (‘a geometric pattern consisting of five points arranged in a cross, with four of them forming a square or rectangle and a fifth at its center’, like the number 5 on a dice) but are undetectable from floor level. Some of the niches are connected by tunnels. There is one long unfinished tunnel which many have set off crawling along only to reach the blockage and have to shuffle backwards all the way back to the opening.

The ladders For those who want to find the niches, who are called searchers, there are fifteen ladders ranged along the cylinder walls. They vary in length but are all broken and missing some of their rungs. Some of the inhabitants not interested in ‘searching’ use them to hit each other or defend themselves.

The queues Those who want to mount the ladders have to queue because there are only fifteen ladders. Beckett goes into the rules of queueing for the ladders in great detail, but then he goes into great, obsessive detail about every aspect of the cylinder and its inhabitants.

This tendency to not be at all interested in character, psychology, plot or dialogue but to give obsessively precise descriptions of the physical aspect of a location and, above all, to give long and complete enumerations of every possible permutation of a particular physical activity (the classic example is the two pages devoted to describing all the different ways Molloy could transfer 16 stones from one pocket of his jacket to the other, giving each a good sucking on the way) is a core and central characteristic of Beckett’s prose. It’s odd that it is so overlooked, critics and commentators much preferring to focus on his schoolboy nihilism.

Categories of inhabitant This compulsion to categorise and enumerate comes into play when Beckett turns to describing the inhabitants of the cylinder, which include:

  • the searchers, keen to find a way out
  • the carriers (of ladders)
  • the climbers
  • the sedentary (‘if they never stir from the coign they have won it is because they have calculated their best chance is there and if they seldom or never ascend to the niches and tunnels it is because they have done so too often in vain or come there too often to grief.’)
  • the vanquished who, as the name suggests, have given up, who believe that ‘For in the cylinder alone are certitudes to be found and without nothing but mystery’ — the narrator estimates there are about 185 searchers which means about 15 vanquished
  • the watchers, who only sit and watch
  • the blind, their eyes worn out by the fluctuations in light

Wall space Because the ceaseless motion of the milling crowd would seriously interfere with the activity of the searchers moving ladders from one position to another up against the walls of the cylinder a convention has arisen to leave the yard or so closest to the walls free, creating a space for the searchers. In fact, Beckett quickly categorises the types of floor space available within ‘the abode’:

  1. First an outer belt roughly one metre wide reserved for the climbers and strange to say favoured by most of the sedentary and vanquished.
  2. Next a slightly narrower inner belt where those weary of searching in mid-cylinder slowly revolve in Indian file intent on the periphery.
  3. Finally the arena proper representing an area of one hundred and fifty square metres round numbers and chosen hunting ground of the majority.

Escape And why this endless effort to climb ladders, find niches and crawl along the tunnels? Because some of the inhabitants believe the tunnels are a way out, and will lead to a wider world:

From time immemorial rumour has it or better still the notion is abroad that there exists a way out.

Although here, as in everything else, things fall into sets or series although, in this case, only two:

  1. One school swears by a secret passage branching from one of the tunnels and leading in the words of the poet to nature’s sanctuaries.
  2. The other dreams of a trapdoor hidden in the hub of the ceiling giving access to a flue at the end of which the sun and other stars would still be shining.

These can be taken as allegories of religions, in the way you encounter strange religious sects in all manner of science fiction stories – one sect is seeking Nature, the other Heaven,

Law of ladders There’s quite a bit more detail about the laws and conventions governing the moving of the ladders, and the climbing of the ladders (only one at a time; if someone is coming down any ascender has to go back down to the floor to let them), the timing of the fluctuation of the lights and the temperatures, the behaviour and beliefs of the different types of inhabitant, but that’s the main gist.

True north A bizarre aspect of the abode is the way the first woman to give up all hope, and squat down, head down, naked, not caring any more about anything, has come to be taken by the others as a kind of lodestar, the only fixed point in the endless shuffling round the arena of all the other inhabitants.

There does none the less exist a north in the guise of one of the vanquished or better one of the women vanquished or better still the woman vanquished. She squats against the wall with her head between her knees and her legs in her arms. The left hand clasps the right shinbone and the right the left forearm. The red hair tarnished by the light hangs to the ground. It hides the face and whole front of the body down to the crutch. The left foot is crossed on the right. She is the north.

Hell

The abode is, of course, a version of hell, and Beckett brings out one or two hellish aspects, for example the way the inhabitants are filled with the horror of contact and yet are compelled all their lives by lack of space ‘to brush together without ceasing’.

Beckett also makes no bones about namechecking the chief imaginer of hell in the Western tradition, Dante. Dante also had a very mathematical, geometric, categorising kind of mind, clearly imagining the geography of the nine descending circles of hell and carefully categorising all the different types of sin, before imagining all manner of colourful punishments for them. You could say he co-ordinated the confused host of punishments his Christian predecessors had imagined for various sins into one huge and coherent system whose comprehensive structure combined with vivid poetic touches and a sympathetic insight into human nature in all its many manifestations has impressed everyone who’s read his great work, The Divine Comedy, for the past 700 years.

Maybe Beckett imagined himself doing something similar, he was certainly a lifelong devotee of Dante – except that the wonderful cohesiveness of medieval philosophy, medieval theology, medieval society and medieval culture had long since been lost and fragmented by the mid-20th century.

Maybe a modern approach to the same problem – a deeper analysis of the human condition which seeks to probe beneath the superficial details of character, plot and dialogue – can only be achieved via fragments, offcuts, shards and that explains Beckett’s approach.

Hence the shortness of Beckett’s later prose pieces, along with the sense that they are approaching the same thing over and over again, but each time from a slightly different angle. ‘Fail again fail better,’ as one of his t-shirt mottos has it.

So the cylinder of The Lost Ones may well be a vision of hell but there are no flames or demons and it is a weirdly modern, almost absurdist, hell – a hell of rubber walls, damaged ladders and tunnels which don’t lead anywhere.

Sentiment

Beckett clearly set out, in both his prose and plays, to reject bourgeois conventions of plot, psychology or character. Difficult to achieve in plays where the human actors generally require at least some kind of identification, even if they’re three mannekins in jars, as in Play, or three old ladies on a bench, as in Come and Go. Much easier to achieve in prose, which is one of the things which makes his run of prose works during the 1960s so interesting:

  • All Strange Away (1964)
  • Imagination Dead Imagine (1965)
  • How it Is (1964)
  • Enough (1965)
  • Ping (1966)
  • Lessness (1970)

But something that’s often overlooked by critics who focus on his fifth-form nihilism, is the way many of these texts include unexpectedly sentimental passages, especially at the end. He fights it, he resists it, but endings are difficult, just ending, point blank, somehow feels crude.

Thus it is that, rather than concluding The Lost Ones after he has exhaustively described the inside of the cylinder, Beckett provides a kind of coda, in which he imagines the behaviour of the very last survivor. Some time in the remote future all the other inhabitants will not exactly have died, but been worn down to immobility. Leaving just one (male) survivor) to totter over to the sitting woman who represents ‘north’.

There is nothing at first sight to distinguish him from the others dead still where they stand or sit in abandonment beyond recall… And sure enough there he stirs this last of all if a man and slowly draws himself up and some time later opens his burnt eyes. At the foot of the ladders propped against the wall with scant regard to harmony no climber waits his turn. The aged vanquished of the third zone has none about him now but others in his image motionless and bowed…

There he opens then his eyes this last of all if a man and some time later threads his way to that first among the vanquished so often taken for a guide. On his knees he parts the heavy hair and raises the unresisting head. Once devoured the face thus laid bare the eyes at a touch of the thumbs open without demur. In those calm wastes he lets his wander till they are the first to close and the head relinquished falls back into its place. He himself after a pause impossible to time finds at last his place and pose whereupon dark descends and at the same instant the temperature comes to rest not far from freezing point.

Hushed in the same breath the faint stridulence mentioned above whence suddenly such silence as to drown all the faint breathings put together. So much roughly speaking for the last state of the cylinder and of this little people of searchers one first of whom if a man in some unthinkable past for the first time bowed his head if this notion is maintained.

This final sentimental scene wasn’t at all necessary. It reminds me of the scene at the end of The Time Traveller where the protagonist stings our imaginations by describing the final, expiring days of the dead earth; or any other science fiction story which portrays the last survivor of some tribe or group (‘this little people of searchers’) that the reader has become attached to, and so tugs a bit at our heartstrings. This sentimental coda is strangely at odds with the clinical reportage of so much else of the text.

Notes from The Faber Companion to Samuel Beckett

  • Beckett wrote the original work in French with the title Le Dépeupleur then translated it himself.
  • The Lost Ones is Beckett’s longest later prose work.
  • He began it in 1965 and worked on it intermittently till publication in 1970.
  • The final paragraph which, as I point out, brings out a plangent, sentimental mood, was written separately from most of the text, just before publication.
  • This ‘softening’ is also detectable in the change from the French to the English title. The French title means ‘The Depopulator’ which suggests Death and that the entire work is a sort of allegory of being dead. Whereas the English title, ‘The Lost Ones’, is much softer, more romantic, echoes the sentimental name of ‘the lost boys’ in Peter Pan. I doubt if Beckett consciously intended this, but I think it is there in the finished work.
  • The cylinder has 205 inhabitants: 120 climbers, 60 remaining on the floor looking for their loved ones; 20 sedentary searchers; five vanquished, chief among them the woman known as The North.

What are we to make of The Lost Ones?

I don’t think you need to think about it too much. I’ve read hundreds of science fiction and other types of tales which give you the exact dimensions of a spaceship or room, give a detailed description of its contents, which is all preparation for moving onto the human action. Phrasing it like that makes you realise that a lot of these Beckett prose works amount to an obsessively detailed description of the mise en scène and then… a kind of walking away before what you could call the human or humanistic element begins.

That said, The Lost Ones differs significantly from his other prose works of the period because it is so readable. The sentences work, and contain the familiar elements of subject, verb and object. The following passage is typical of many and extraordinarily accessible for Beckett:

The ladders. These are the only objects. They are single without exception and vary greatly in size. The shortest measure not less than six metres. Some are fitted with a sliding extension.

What does it all mean? Well, the reference to Dante is an unmistakable nod to the notion of hell and the afterlife, but pretty much all the other details militate anything like a conventional idea of hell. And I don’t think there are any (and the Beckett Companion doesn’t mention any) riffs or references to any other traditional aspects of hell or Christian theology.

No, it feels more like a standalone imagining which we, the readers, can situate anywhere we want to. It reminds me a bit of Arthur C. Clarke’s brilliant science fiction novel, Rendezvous With Rama, which is about a mysterious hollow cylinder full of strange artefacts. And the constantly circulating crowd jostling against each other remind me of two of J.G. Ballard’s short stories about an overpopulated world, Billennium (1962) and The Concentration City (1957). And the last man standing who staggers over to the barely alive last woman remind me of countless ‘last survivor’ stories.

For these reasons, although The Lost Ones is weird, it is at least readable, and that alone makes it quite a bit less weird than most of the other prose works Beckett was writing at the time.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Eh Joe by Samuel Beckett (1967)

Beckett wrote his first play for television, Eh Joe, in May 1965. The first English broadcast of Eh Joe was on BBC2 on 4 July 1966, with Jack MacGowran playing Joe and Siân Phillips as Voice.

The play is another of Beckett’s ‘skullscapes’ in the sense of being entirely about an older male figure ‘trapped’ inside a space – in this case a shabby room very like the room in Film – while he is addressed by an interminable female voice accusing him of various crimes, so trapped that the setup becomes a metaphor for being inside the protagonist’s head.

Where does the voice come from? Is it real? Is it the voice of his conscience? Is it from within what the Voice calls his ‘penny farthing hell you call your mind’? Or is it in some sense ‘real’, external to him, an objective entity?

In any case, the man is dumb, says nothing, is forced to listen, to let the Voice play out.

Voices, unnamed abstract voices, play a big role in Beckett’s works. In his two most extreme novels, The Unnamable and How It Is, the text is driven by a voice which speaks to and through the protagonist and which appears to be more ‘real’ than him. Many Beckett protagonists are driven by the voice in their head, which dominates them, propels them forward, which haunts them with fragments of memory and, to some extent, gives them such reality as they possess.

In Eh Joe the voice is particularly haunting and accusatory. Is it saying he killed his father and mother or merely laid their tormenting ghosts to rest? It strongly implies he was responsible for a lover he abandoned committing suicide? In the other texts I’ve mentioned, the protagonist to some extent talks back or discusses the voice or voices in his head. There is something extremely stifling in the way which, in Eh Joe, the male figure can not reply, can not move, can not speak, but is utterly paralysed by the Voice and forced to listen to its accusations.

Stage directions

As so often with the plays from the 1960s onwards, the preciseness of the physical and visual direction Beckett wrote for it are as thought provoking as the ‘content’. For Eh Joe there are one and a half pages of detailed directions and just five pages of text. The directions start with a brief sketch of Joe’s persona and appearance.

Joe
Joe, late fifties, grey hair, old dressing-gown, carpet slippers, in his room.

The play opens in a shabby knackered bedsit to reveal a shabby knackered man pottering about. Like a child he methodically goes through his room as if checking for monsters. As he does so the camera follows him until he finally settles on the edge of his shabby bed, and then… we hear a voice, sly and beguiling. Beckett was very specific indeed about how the voice should sound.

Voice
Low, distinct, remote, little colour, absolutely steady rhythm, slightly slower than normal. Between phrases a beat of one second at least. Between paragraphs about seven, i.e. three before camera starts to advance and four for advance before it is stopped by voice resuming.

The voice is clearly accusing him. Actresses and directors left records of working directly with Beckett on this play. Billie Whitelaw says Beckett kept on saying “‘No colour, no colour” and “slow”… absolutely flat; absolutely on a monotone.’ She explained how she delivered her lines as a form of ‘Chinese water torture’ so that each phrase of the text was delivered as a drop of water literally dripped into Joe’s head.” In the first TV production the vocal colourlessness Beckett was aiming for was achieved by placing a microphone right up against Sian Phillips’s mouth so that, as she spoke, both high and low frequencies were filtered out, producing a flat, slow, calm accusing voice.

To the American director he often worked with, Alan Schneider, Beckett wrote: ‘Voice should be whispered. A dead voice in his head. Minimum of colour. Attacking. Each sentence a knife going in, pause for withdrawal, then in again.’ In the play itself the Voice says Joe once describes her as having a voice ‘like flint glass’.

The voice comes in ten instalments, paragraphs of monologue. Between each section of monologue the camera moves a little closer to Joe, increasing our sense of claustrophobia, creating a sense of trapment, beginning at a distance and moving closer and closer until the camera is literally staring him in the face. As you might imagine, the precise timing and movement of the camera are also very precisely specified by Beckett.

Camera
Joe’s opening movements followed by camera at constant remove, Joe full length in frame throughout. No need to record room as whole. After this opening pursuit, between first and final closeup of face, camera has nine slight moves in towards face, say four inches each time. Each move is stopped by voice resuming, never camera move and voice together. This would give position of camera when dolly stopped by first word of text as one yard from maximum closeup of face. Camera does not move between paragraphs till clear that pause (say three seconds) longer than between phrases. Then four inches in say four seconds when movement stopped by voice resuming.
Voice Low, distinct, remote, little colour, absolutely steady rhythm, slightly slower than normal. Between phrases a beat of one second at least. Between paragraphs about seven, i.e. three before camera starts to advance and four for advance before it is stopped by voice resuming.

If the Voice and the Camera are the first two elements, the third is Joe’s face. Jack MacGowran was one of Beckett’s favourite actors because of the tired, haunted expressiveness of his face and that is all the male actor is actually called on to do. After the opening minute fiddling with the window, door and cupboard, the main requirement of the play is for him to find the facial expressions to react to the Voice’s accusations and the slow forward advance of the Camera towards him. It is solely about conveying guilt and hauntedness through his expression. The only bit of dynamic he can bring to the role is that, when the Accusing Voice pauses, he can for a moment relax his haunted gaze.

Face
Practically motionless throughout, eyes unblinking during paragraphs, impassive except in so far as it reflects mounting tension of listening. Brief zones of relaxation between paragraphs when perhaps voice has relented for the evening and intentness may relax variously till restored by voice resuming.

‘Zones of relaxation… when perhaps voice has relented’. But it doesn’t relent, for the play’s 18 tense and intense minutes, piling on the accusations, heaping up the guilt on the unspeaking middle-aged man.

Content

So what does the Voice say in these knife-like sentences?

1. The voice asks Joe if he has checked everything. Why is the light on? And the bed, he’s changed the bed, hasn’t he, but it doesn’t make any difference… It crumbles when he lies in the dark…

2. He told her the best was still to come as he hurried her into her coat, she taunts him that no-one can say that phrase like him, ‘the best’s to come’…

3. The Voice says she is not the first to come and haunt him like this. First it was his father, his father’s voice in his head for years, until he found a way to metaphorically throttle him. Then, the Voice says, it was his mother’s voice, getting weaker and weaker ’till you laid her too’, and others, lots of others, all loved him this pitiful man who now spends his nights alone in his shabby bedroom, ‘throttling the dead in  his head.’

4. The Voice knows he pays a woman to come every Saturday, demeaning the transaction with a children’s playground phrase ‘Penny a hoist tuppence as long as you like’, but warns him what it’ll be like if he runs out of money, if he runs out of ‘us‘, presumably meaning women, or women prepared to pander to him.

5. The Voice recalls what it was like in the early days of their relationship, summer, sitting together on the grass watching the ducks, holding hands. He liked her, complimented her on her elocution, said she had a voice like ‘flint glass’. But now he has squeezed her down to a voice, a bare whisper, in  his head. She taunts him: he was able to throttle the other voices, his father’s, his mother’s – but what if she can’t stop hers? Imagine if the whispering goes on forever as he strains to catch the words. She uses the phrase ‘until you join us’ – does that mean she is dead? A Voice from beyond the grave?

6. The Voice mocks Joe’s religious faith, and turns it against him. What happens when He, his God, ‘starts in on you’, starts talking in his head. Does Joe think he’ll be able to throttle that voice as he did his father and mother’s.

7. She taunts him that she found another (presumably another man), better than Joe, kinder, stronger, more intelligent, better looking. Now that’s the kind of taunting which wounds a man.

8. So the Voice has done alright but now she turns to consider one of Joe’s girlfriends who didn’t do so well, a young, slim, pale girl, ‘the green one… the narrow one’. The Voice mocks him with their intimate details, the way her pale eyes opened after they’d made love. But then taunts him – he told her the same lies, told her the best was yet to come, just like he told the Voice. All the time he had an airplane ticket in his pocket, knowing he was going to desert her.

9. The Voice asks whether Joe ever wonders what happened to that girl, the one he abandoned? He tries to throttle the Voice in order not to hear, as he throttled his father and mother’s voices (‘That’s right, Joe, squeeze away’) but he can’t, and this leads us into the final and by far the longest section.

10. In by far the longest section, at some five minutes, the Voice gives a lengthy description of what happened to this young woman that, it is implied, Joe seduced and abandoned. One night, in her slip, she got up and went down to the sea (the sea such a constant presence in Beckett’s works from Malone to Embers to Cascando). She goes down to the sea, lies down in the wash to drown herself, but it doesn’t work. She slips back up to her house and gets a razor, the Gillette razor he himself recommended for her to shave her ‘body hair’, slips back out the house, down to the beach, tries to slash her wrists. Doesn’t work either. Tears a strip from the slip and ties it round the cuts on her wrist. Nips back to the house and gets a bottle of pills. Goes back down the garden, under the viaduct, to the beach, walks along the shoreline swallowing the pills. ‘There’s love for you’, the Voice mocks him.

The Voice torments Joe very effectively, interspersing these descriptions of the young woman’s suicide attempts, with erotic details designed to taunt a sensualist and philanderer like him, the way her wet silk slip clings to her slender body, and the special look in her eyes, before they made love, after they made love.

With whispered intensity the Voice tells Joe to imagine what it must have been like for the young woman, the pale one, the narrow one, lying on the cold stones of the shingly beach, her hands scooping holes, her breasts against the cold stones, lips kissing the stones. The camera is right up in Joe’s face as the Voice taunts him with the exquisite sensual details of the misery of the young woman he seduced and abandoned. The Voice tells Joe to imagine it, imagine the misery and the cold and the lips breasts hands face, more tortured than Him (presumably Christ) and then… the Voice fades out… and is gone.

The smile

In the BBC production, after the Voice has whispered itself into silence…. MacGowran smiles. This, apparently, was a note Beckett himself made to the screenplay which has never been incorporated in the printed text. This final decision utterly transforms the experience of the play and its meaning – up till now we are presented with a man haunted, potentially forever, until he becomes ‘one of us’ i.e. dies, with mental and psychological torment. Here, right at the end, in this tiny but massive addition, Beckett suggests there is relief and escape. Joe has been harrowed but the Voice and all its accusation does, eventually, fade out and leave him. Suddenly there is hope, hope that he might be able to throttle this nagging haunting voice as he has done all the others…

BBC production

So here’s the original BBC2 production with Jack MacGowran playing Joe and Siân Phillips as Voice. I think it’s stunning, both MacGowran and Phillips are brilliant, but so is the staging and direction.

Is the Voice real? Is she the Voice of his conscience haunting him? Or an actual real exterior voice? Is she the product of Christian Guilt or a Freudian cathexis of guilt complexes or Jung’s idea that aspects of the individual’s personality can be hived off to become real, independent entities (the cause of much mental illness)? Or a ghost? Or a voice from beyond the grave, from some afterlife nagging ’till you join us’?

As so often, I don’t think it matters. It can be any or all of the above, plus whatever the viewer wishes to add. That is the point of art and literature, to free the mind from ‘interpretations’. In fact it’s easy to overlook but this is one of Beckett’s most accessible works. Anyone could watch this, with no special knowledge of Beckett, or avant-garde theatre, and simply be spooked. Watched cold with no prior knowledge, the play fits well enough into the tradition of great ghost stories, Gothic thrillers that go back to Dickens and beyond.

Looked at in the context of Beckett’s overall body of works, Eh Joe is an interesting variation on the theme of the Voice, the dominating controlling Voice which creates the narratives of The Unnameable and How It Is but feels quite a lot different. Those works explored a kind of psychologically and artistically extreme vision in which the so-called voices called into being the entire text, while at the same time throwing into doubt their own provenance and blocking or negating the text itself, in texts made up of self-interrogation which create a kind of hallucinatory strangeness.

There’s nothing that weird or difficult or challenging about Eh Joe. Even the quotes are straightforward references to the Bible designed to bring out the way Joe is a (hypocritical) Catholic and at the same time play on his sense of guilt and fear of punishment. I.e. they are easily recognisable accentuators of the guilt and psychological suffering hundreds of Catholic authors have described in such detail across a range of media.

Similarly, the voices in the novels I’ve mentioned are of indeterminable gender, if they even exist at all, which adds multiple layers of complexity and uncertainty. In this play a wronged woman is mocking and taunting her philandering lover i.e. it is a super-familiar genre, and takes its place in a huge line of works, and real life experiences’ Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’ is a distortion of a quote from one of William Congreve’s Restoration comedies, an entire genre of drama devoted to the anger of spurned women lovers. It doesn’t matter whether that saying is true or not, it is a truism of the Restoration comedy genre: but it is obviously very applicable to this play.

Ghost story or woman wronged story or both, Eh Joe is so successful because, despite the technical dressing up of camera angles and creeping zooms etc, it in fact invokes some very familiar genres and employs so many familiar tropes.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

All Strange Away by Samuel Beckett (1964)

But sudden gleam that whatever words given to let fall soundless in the dark that if no sound better none, all right, try sound and if no better say quite speechless, imagine sound and not till then all that black hair toss back into the corner baring face as about to when this happened.

All Strange Away is a powerful short prose text by Samuel Beckett first published in English in 1964. I thought it would be another monologue by a decrepit old man crawling to the end, but although that is the general tone, it is something slightly different. It seems to be the monologue of someone arguing with themselves about how to imagine the scene and the character he’s trying to describe. What scene and what character? Well, there’s the challenge.

Light off and let him be, on the stool, talking to himself in the last person, murmuring, no sound, Now where is he, no, Now he is here. Sitting, standing, walking, kneeling, crawling, lying, creeping, in the dark and in the light, try all.

‘Try all’ seems to be the operative phrase. The narrator, or writer, tries a series of attempts to get down what it is he is trying to convey, imagining various trials or situations or conditions to subject his (fictional) protagonist to. Shall he drag his character out of his frowsy deathbed and off to some place to die in?

Out of the door and down the road in the old hat and coat like after the war, no, not that again.

‘Not that again.’ In the very same sentences where he’s making the suggestions, he refutes them, realises their hopelessness, negates his suggestions even as he makes them. Above all acknowledges the element of hopeless repetition, with the word ‘again’:

A place, that again. Never another question. A place, then someone in it, that again…

OK, a place, let’s start with conceiving a place, what will it be like? He imagines a place five foot square but six foot high – ‘just room to stand and revolve…floor like bleached dirt’ – the light comes on, the character is on a stool, talking in ‘the last person’, light on, takes off coat, no he’s naked, leave it on, he speaks but makes no sound, black sheets of paper gummed to the walls but they, also, reflect the pitiless glare. He has a black shroud on, this character, when the light goes on he gets down on his hands and knees searching for pins in this box, the the light goes off and he still searches, for years this goes on, he clutches the shroud round him till it rots to black ‘flitters’.

The long sentences made up of fragmented clauses are so pared-back that all kinds of syntactic arrangements between the fragments are possible or implied. Used to reading normal, fully-worded, consecutive prose, the reader keeps finding themself completing Beckett’s fragments and sentences, which has two results: 1. it makes the sentences and passages (if you let them, if you’re in the mood) feel incredibly dynamic, packed and overflowing with implications 2. which explains the eerie combination of a frustrating and yet deeply addictive reading experience.

As he was, in the dark any length, then the light when it flows still it ebbs any length, then again, so on, sitting, standing, walking, kneeling, crawling, lying, creeping, all any length, no paper, no pins, no candle, no matches, never were, talking to himself no sound in the last person any length, five foot square, six high, all white when light at full, no way in, none out.

What does he look like, the imagined protagonist?

Imagine eyes burnt ashen blue and lashes gone, lifetime of unseeing glaring, jammed open, one lightning wince per minute on earth, try that.

On the walls are eight pictures, two per wall, light on, no, say one per wall, pictures of who?

Sex

And here we come to another common characteristic of these mid-period Beckett pieces, which is sex. Many of these plays or narratives get so far and then… Beckett seems to run out of ideas and resorts to male-female love, to admittedly pathetic decrepit parodies of romantic love, but love nonetheless.

I’m thinking in particular of the way that, from all the possible memories of his young self and his former life, Krapp in Krapp’s Last Tape ends up settling on just one golden memory, of himself lying in a field with his hand on his true love’s breast.

Same here. Something very weird and abstract abruptly plunges into the all-too-inevitable subject of love, romance, women and sex. In this case the woman is named Emma and Beckett also indulges his fondness, evinced in many of his texts, for the crudest swearwords. These are the pictures on the wall of the protagonist’s cell.

First face alone, lovely beyond words, leave it at that, then deasil breasts alone, then thighs and cunt alone, then arse and hole alone, all lovely beyond words.See how he crouches down and back to see, back of head against face when eyes on cunt, against breasts when on hole, and vice versa, all most clear. So in this soft and mild, crouched down and back with hands on knees to hold himself together, say deasil first from face through hole then back through face, murmuring, Imagine him kissing, caressing, licking, sucking, fucking and buggering all this stuff, no sound.

Charming, as that great literary critic, my mother, would have said. The Beckett Companion summarises this material as ‘The story recalls love-making with “Emma” but the memory is fading’, but that’s not accurate, is it? That sugars the pill and makes it sound more bourgeois and respectable than what is actually written, which is crude and graphic and basic, and deliberately so.

Imagine him kissing, caressing, licking, sucking, fucking and buggering all this stuff, no sound.

Human geometry

Another Beckett element comes into play which is his love of geometry. If you read the plays rather than watching the productions, you’ll know that as the 1950s turned into the 1960s, Beckett’s works became more and more festooned with very detailed stage directions about heights and sizes and angles and positions and movements of the human participants, at the same time as the ‘characters’ or human participants in the works are steadily deprived of names and given letters or numbers. For example, take the way the two characters in Act Without Words II are simply labelled A and B, or the ‘characters’ in Play are labelled M, W1 and W2, combined with the very precise instructions for every element of the onstage action, complete with diagrams which contain numbers, angles, positions and durations.

In this piece the main ‘character’ never has a name but his movements are mapped out in a mockery of a geometry problem:

Call floor angles deasil a, b, c and d and ceiling likewise e, f, g and h, say Jolly at b and Draeger at d, lean him for rest with feet at a and head at g, in dark and light, eyes glaring, murmuring…

(‘Deasil’, by the way, is a Gaelic word which means ‘in the direction of the sun’s apparent course, considered as lucky; clockwise.’ Jolly and Draeger are the names of posters on the walls of the cell, at least until these are replaced in the narrator’s imagination by pictures of Emma’s orifices.)

The misplaced, obsessive precision is carried over into the description of the positioning of the protagonist vis-a-vis the big posters of Emma and her body parts: if there’s one picture on each wall, then, in order to enjoy sight of one, in such a small prison cell, the character must have his head pressed back against another. And Beckett carefully goes through the four possible positions, as is his obsessive wont.

But what if the floor of the cell is hot, almost punishingly hot, and the character wants to lie on it in the most effective way. Hmm. I’m glad you asked, because there are, quite clearly, a number of precise permutations which we shall now go through in sequence:

Sit, knees drawn up, trunk best bowed, head between knees, arms round knees to hold all together. And even lie, arse to knees say diagonal ac, feet say at d, head on left cheek at b. Price to pay and highest lying more flesh touching glowing ground. But say not glowing enough to burn and turning over, see how that works. Arse to knees, say bd, feet say at c, head on right cheek at a. Then arse to knees say again ac, but feet at b and head on left cheek at d. Then arse to knees say again bd, but feet at a and head on right cheek at c. So on other four possibilities when begin again…

‘See how that works’ could be the motto of the piece, indeed of many of Beckett’s prose pieces, like Molloy working out how to suck his stones most efficiently, or any number of the obsessively detailed permutations of physical activity described in Watt.

Emma imprisoned

Then abruptly the narrator/writer says, what if it isn’t the male character in the cell at all, but the lovely Emma?

and how crouching down and back she turns murmuring, Fancy her being all kissed, licked, sucked, fucked and so on by all that, no sound, hands on knees to hold herself together.

‘Fancy her being all kissed, licked, sucked, fucked and so on’ is not something I would summarise, as the Beckett companion does, as ‘The story recalls love-making with “Emma”‘.

Apart from being mildly titillating what these passages do most is remind you how, back in the day, the so-called the avant-garde was addicted to sexual explicitness, as if saying cunt broke taboos, pushed boundaries, subverted bourgeois society.

But what happens when sex is everywhere, we live in a world of multiple, fluid genders and endless pornography of every possible permutation is available at the click of a button on the internet?

In the world of 2020, reading the jolly boundary-breaking swearwords of the 1950s and 60s avant-garde is like watching your Dad try to dance to rave music. Or it is looking back at a simpler world where writers wore jackets and thin black ties for their interviews with plummy BBC interviewers, politely discussing ‘the role of obscenity in literature’, all available now, 60 years later, in spotty, flickery black and white on YouTube.

And thus this text’s strange, haunting combination of anatomical explicitness with geometric precision.

Any length, in dark and light, then topple left, arse to knees say db, feet say at c, head on left cheek at a, left breast puckered in the dust…

The deathless imagination

By this stage, we have the sense that the opening sentence –’Imagination dead imagine’ – can be interpreted as: ‘We might well be in a situation where the imagination is dead, but unfortunately we can’t stop imagining; imagining may well be a bankrupt activity, belonging to the old bourgeois world, before the Holocaust before the atom bombs and yet, no matter how much we despise and reject it and try to move beyond it, that old human instinct to imagine things, to conceive and speak and describe them, seems to be unquenchable. Well, alright, if this is the case, if the old bourgeois forms and imaginings are dead and bankrupt but we don’t appear to be able to stop imagining, then let’s imagine this, let’s test and experiment with imagination reduced to its most minimal amount possible, let’s imagine a cell five foot square and six foot high’ – and off we go…

The entire narrative may give the superficial impression of rambling, but is carefully crafted to convey the feeling of a mind, a writer, trying to reject imagination, rise above imagination, trying to do something new, but continually trapped back into the old tropes and gestures, considering them, then rejecting them, starting again, ‘imagine’ really meaning ‘consider this option, what about this one? No? how about this one…’:

  • imagine light
  • imagine what needed
  • imagine candles and matches
  • imagine eyes burnt ashen blue
  • imagine him kissing
  • imagine lifetime
  • imagine a common housefly
  • imagine hands
  • imagine later, something soft
  • imagine other murmurs
  • imagine turning over

and then the punchline of all these imaginings, the one that contains the title phrase:

  • imagine all strange away

Clearly, imagination is not dead, but works, continues, struggles on, despite the writer’s best efforts to deny or reject it, he cannot evade the ‘so great need of words’. We all need words, words is all we have, even in the last extremities. And so the text continues despite itself, despite its best intentions otherwise, goes on to consider other aspects and approaches to the problem, which include:

– frequent references to the lights in the box cell coming up then fading out, so that the carefully timed duration of these fadings or ‘ebbings’ strongly suggesting stage directions as per Beckett’s countless plays

– suddenly the invocation of names takes a Catholic turn with mention of Mary, Jesus, God and other proper names to be spoken in any combination required, which segues into similar consideration of Greek philosophers (preferably with name of place of birth attached to make you look intelligent and well read)

– and in the piece’s final page the small space that ‘Emma’ was confined in (the man who featured in the early part has vanished) becomes slowly smaller and smaller, forcing her to bend and contort tighter and tighter, the geometric points of her body more and more compacted, until (it doesn’t say this) she must be crushed altogether in the tiny two-foot cuboid

Beckett in 2020

I can see why many people would be utterly repelled by this apparently endless, unpunctuated, pretentious rambling, but I find it utterly entrancing, just as I found The Unnameable by far the strongest of the three Beckett novels precisely because it has most completely abandoned any attempt at character, structure, plot or dialogue in order to become something else completely, something utterly new.

Many critics and readers take Beckett’s works to be masterpieces of nihilism, on a par with the Writing Year Zero extremity of European existentialism or the post-holocaust figurines of Alberto Giacometti. I think I read them in a completely different way. I come to them as a citizen of the year 2020, when humanity hasn’t changed at all, but we have invented even more media – the internet, email, text alerts, social media and all kinds of other channels – with which to bombard ourselves with text and meanings.

Anyone with a mobile device gets bombarded with updates and texts and emails and notifications, telling us to read this guidance, look at this powerpoint, check this spreadsheet, inviting us to like each other’s holiday photos or be outraged at this or that public figure’s latest example of everyday sexism or racism or misogyny or whatever.

The framework of digital media we have erected around ourselves amounts, in my opinion, to a high-tech cage, a prison of thumpingly obvious meanings within which most people find it reassuring to dwell, venting their woke or reactionary views via twitter, sharing their makeup secrets via Instagram and so on, a vast mental prisonhouse of conformity created by its billions of users and consumers.

That’s what 2020 feels like to me. And so Beckett’s oeuvre, his increasingly brief, abstract plays, the surprising number of short prose pieces he produced on the same minimalist themes, all these attempts to float free of narrative and logic seem to me to be wonderfully liberating, freeing the mind of anyone who really engages with them from the prisonhouse of contemporary meaning, the degraded discourse of shouty politics or trashy consumerism which literally billions of people have chosen to plug into their brains and to dominate their imaginations.

I don’t find Beckett’s works ‘difficult’. Just read a piece like this out loud, slowly, savouring the jumps, the gaps in syntax and logic which require you to fill them in, or are the record of someone who has gone beyond needing them and whose journey beyond meaning takes you with it, into an entirely new linguistic space.

Either way they’re exercises in escaping the tyranny of the sensible, the common sensical, the flat trite empty mindless twaddle pumped out by the modern media machine in all directions, 24/7.

Such then the sound roughly and if no clearer so then all the storm unspoken and the silence unbroken unless sound of light and dark or at the moments of change a sound of flow thirty seconds till full then silence any length till sound of ebb thirty seconds till black then silence any length, that might repay hearing and she hearing open then her eyes to lightening or darkening greys and not close them then to keep them closed till next sound of change till full light or dark, that might well be imagined.

When he wrote them, Beckett’s pieces may have been designed to shock the bourgeois world of cocktail parties and lounge suits by their a) aggressive bleakness b) geometrical denial of human individuality and b) resort to crude swearwords. Now, 60 years later, I find their teasing meanings, their reassuring repetitions, the recurring tropes and strategies, oddly comforting.

I like the spare abstract empty prose which his box of tricks generates. I enjoy reading such ‘white’ prose, almost entirely empty of content and amounting to a fabric of teasing repetitions, snatches and fragments. It makes a refreshing change from the oppressive tyranny of forced, shallow, angry 100% obvious meaning which dominates the modern world.

In the second half of the piece, titled Diagram, the text whirls and twirls a number of fragments, clearly intending to create a kind of poetry through the repetition of the image of black hair falling across white skin, interspersing some kind of fragment of a memory of lying in a hammock in the sun, and maybe distant repeated snatches of sobbing… This is the last sentence:

Henceforth no other sounds than these and never were that is than sop to mind faint sighing sound for tremor of sorrow at faint memory of a lying side by side and fancy murmured dead.

Which is an example of the way that Beckett’s supposedly dehumanised, anti-humanistic anti-plays and anti-narratives often end up conveying, albeit in an unorthodox way, a melancholy sense of time fleeting and human loss which is surprisingly straightforward and sentimental. He may be well aware that they are ‘sops to mind’, but that doesn’t stop these moments sticking in the memory because they are so very much what ‘traditional’ literature, especially poetry, is meant to be and do, from the Latin poets’ lachrymae rerum to Wordsworth musing by Tintern Abbey.

Personally, I find it more bracing to focus on the deliberately anti-human elements, the geometrical formulae, the detailed, complex and entirely arbitrary stage directions which mimic, in their heartless elaborateness, the elaborate heartlessness which (presumably) Beckett saw as the essence of human existence.

When Irish eyes are smiling…

And, lastly, never forget that there’s quite a lot of sly humour buried away behind the grim fragments and the struggle to speak, to express anything, in Beckett’s texts. Behind the elaborate machinery of despair, there’s always a sly twinkle in his beady Irish eyes. Here’s a description of ‘Emma’, increasingly contorted as the space she is crammed into becomes ever smaller.

Last look oh not farewell but last for now on right side tripled up and wedged in half the room head against wall at a and arse against wall at C and knees against wall AB an inch or so from head and feet against wall be an inch or so from arse.

‘An inch or so from arse’. Quite.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Words and Music by Samuel Beckett (1961)

Another work from Samuel Beckett’s ‘radio phase’, when he experimented with the possibilities of radio between about 1956 and 1961. It’s a short text (just eight pages in the Faber Collected Shorter Plays) for voice and music, so it tells you a lot about the contribution of musical interludes and silences, that the fully dramatised piece stretches to over 40 minutes.

Characters

There are three entities or ‘characters, Words (who speaks a lot), Music (whose parts consist entirely of patches of music) and a human character named Croak. Right at the beginning, before Croak arrives, Words makes it plain he detests Music:

Music: How much longer cooped up here, in the dark? (With loathing.) With you!

Word tries to keep himself going by giving himself a topic for discourse, namely Sloth and rattling off a paragraph of bombastic nonsense on the subject, before breaking off because he can hear the ‘Distant sound of rapidly shuffling carpet slippers’.

Croak

Croak arrives. He apologises for arriving late, saying something about a face on the stairs. Croak appears to be a lofty impresario who gives subjects for Words (who he calls Joe and who, in reply, calls him ‘My lord’) and Music (who he calls Bob) to describe or embroider as if in a competition. At moments Croak shouts at them, calling them ‘dogs!’, at other moments calls them ‘my comforts’, ‘my balms’. At the beginning he tells them to be friends, reinforcing the impression given by Words’ opening words, that the two hate each other.

The competition of Words and Music

And then, as if at the start of a familiar routine, Croak gives them their first topic for the evening. First Words has his speeches, then Music makes its noise. Croak signals the change between each with the loud thump of a club, presumably on the floor.

After Words and Music have each had a go (accompanied by Croak’s groans and comments) one section is drawn to an end, and then Croak gives them another topic. The topics are:

  • Sloth (ad libbed by Words)
  • Love
  • Age

Morton Feldman’s music

‘Music’ is meant to produce actual music and various composers have risen to the challenge of writing music to represent the contribution of Music to the dialogue. In the original BBC radio production the music was written by Beckett’s cousin, John Beckett, who wrote the music for a number of Beckett’s productions.

The earliest version I can find is this production which features the music of Morton Feldman, the highly experimental avant-garde American composer. I’ve always liked Feldman’s music, it has a slowly penetrating, atonal, modernist simplicity, and its sparseness seems a perfect accompaniment for Beckett’s sparse words and scenario.

A twentieth century masque

Because I’ve been reading 17th century literature recently, this work strikes me as being a kind of twentieth century masque, in which allegorical Types compete for the favour of a judge or adjudicator, in just the same way that, in the classic 17th century masque, allegorical performances were put on for the enjoyment of the king himself (King James or King Charles), who were sometimes asked to display their wisdom and authority by deciding stylised debates between classical virtues or attributes.

Except that, it being the twentieth century and Beckett a writer of the absurd or of nihilistic futility, the words of Words are a meaningless farrago, a pastiche of Shakespearian eloquence whose booming clichés elicit only groans from his master, Croak.

‘What is this love that more than all the cursed deadly or any other of its great movers so moves the soul and soul what is this soul that more than by any of its great movers is by love so moved?’

It’s like a Shakespeare sonnet which has been put through a blender, grammatically it makes sense but has been deliberately mashed to sound like repetitious nonsense, making the rather obvious, schoolboy point that Shakespearean rhetoric comes from an age convinced of its own values and coherent worldview, whereas in our own oh-dear-so-disillusioned age, that kind of confidence and fluency is no longer possible. Alas and lackaday.

Sex

Sex is surprisingly present in many of Beckett’s works, albeit in deliberately harsh, absurdist and anti-romantic forms. Take the second part of Molloy, where Moran casually tells us about his masturbating, or the hint of BDSM sex in Murphy, the narrator of First Love having sex with Lulu, Sam having sex with every woman in the neighbourhood despite being confined to a wheelchair in Watt, references to gay sex and being ‘sucked off’ in Mercier and Camier, MacMann folding his penis up and trying to stuff it in Moll’s dried-up vagina in Malone Dies. Many of the prose texts go out of their way to use the rudest words possible, starting with bugger and shit and working up to the f word and the c word.

My point is we shouldn’t shy away from acknowledging sexual references or vocabulary just because it’s in Nobel Prize Winner. The opposite, he thoroughly enjoyed ‘twitting the bourgeoisie’ as Leslie Fiedler put it, with rancid descriptions of sex and the crudest sex words.

There’s another element which is the surprising presence of the memory of a love affair in Krapp’s Last Tape. Krapp obsessively repeats the memory of a moment when he lay with an unnamed young woman, his hand on her breast.

I don’t for a minute find it a moving memory. Beckett is anti-sentimental. I find it more interesting to entertain the notion that Beckett refined a rhetoric of paucity and impoverishment, of senility and forgetfulness, of mechanical repetitions, he created some great scenarios (man plays tapes of his younger self, woman buried up to her waits in sand who accepts it as perfectly normal, old man conjures Words and Music to compete with each other) but then doesn’t know what to do next and so resorts to sexual imagery and content.

Exactly as this play’s immediate predecessor, Rough For Radio II, starts out being about two characters supervising the violent torture of another but, about half way through, loses interest or gets distracted from the nominal theme, when the pretty young stenographer is asked to take off her overalls, when the torture supervisor orders her to kiss the torture victim and when the torture victim’s chief memories seem to be of a full, milky breast.

I find most of Beckett’s scenarios powerful and impressive, but am quite regularly disappointed by the lack of subject matter. Or the fact the two men in the bunker and the woman up to her waist in sand and, as here, the allegorical figures of Words and Music have so little to say for themselves. Are incapable of anything but tittle tattle and trivia, as when all Words can think of to describe Age is:

‘Huddled o’er . . . the ingle (Pause. Violent thump. Trying to sing.) Waiting for the hag to put the … pan … in the bed…’

Waiting for a hag to bring a bedpan, is that it? So I’m not surprised that, rather as Krapp’s Last Tape runs out of ideas and is forced to resort to a basically sexual memory of the young man lying with his hand on the woman’s breast, so Words and Music appears, similarly, to run out any ideas for content and resorts to… breasts.

… flare of the black disordered hair as though spread wide on water, the brows knitted in a groove suggesting pain but simply concentration more likely all things considered on some consummate inner process, the eyes of course closed in keeping with this, the lashes . . . (pause) . . . the nose … (pause) … nothing, a little pinched perhaps, the lips….. tight, a gleam of tooth biting on the under, no coral, no swell, whereas normally… the whole so blanched and still that were it not for the great white rise and fall of the breasts, spreading as they mount and then subsiding to their natural… aperture…

As a heterosexual man I am all in favour of heaving bosoms but their appearance in three of Beckett’s plays in a row suggests a pattern, one of the oldest writing strategies in the world… if you run out of inspiration, put boobs in it! Maybe you can dress it up quite considerably more academically than that, but that’s what it appears to boil down to – Beckett doesn’t have much to say, what he does have is either gibberish versions of Romantic rhetoric or pseudo-philosophical speculation, images of decrepitude and decay, or, to keep the thing going a little longer (which is, after all, THE central Beckett theme) sex, the most basic, primeval aspect of human nature. If it is a description of a woman’s young nubile body, then her natural… aperture, is obviously her ****.

Which brings me to my final point. We have heard Words describing the heaving bosom, and Croak cry out ‘Lily!’ as if Words is evoking a memory of a woman called Lily (so similar to the repeated memory of the woman’s breast in Krapp’s Last Tape). The final passages of Words and Music have Words repeating the same idea in the same phrases over and over again:

…the brows uncloud, the nostrils dilate, the lips part and the eyes … (pause) … a little colour comes back into the cheeks and the eyes (reverently) … open. (Pause.) Then down a little way (Pause. Change to poetic tone. Low.)
Then down a little way
Through the trash
To where … towards where…

Then down a little way
Through the trash
Towards where…

All dark no begging
No giving no words
No sense no need…

Then down a little way
Through the trash
Towards where
All dark no begging
No giving no words
No sense no need
Through the scum
Down a little way
To whence one glimpse

A glimpse of what, we wonder?

Through the scum
Down a little way
To where one glimpse
Of that wellhead.

What is a wellhead? ‘Wellhead is a general term used to describe the pressure-containing component at the surface of an oil well’ (Science Direct website). Pictures show it to be rather phallic in shape, and it contains pent-up, high-pressure liquid.

So is Words evoking a memory of a woman named Lily giving Croak a blowjob? Moving down, down, past the tummy fluff and pubic hair (the trash and scum) down to his pressure-containing equipment?

And is that why Croak drops his club, says nothing more, and shuffles off, thus ending the play? Is the memory of such unforced (‘No giving no words/No sense no need’) bliss too much for the old man to bear, just as the memory of young Krapp cupping a young woman’s breast in a field is too much for old Krapp to bear?

Long pauses

Maybe. But maybe the more dominant impression of hearing an actual production of Word and Music like this one is of the immense, yawning silences it contains. Pauses. Gaps. Emptinesses. You have to be in just the right mood, very attentive, totally engaged, in order to let the full tapestry of sounds and silence entrance you. Otherwise, all those silences run the risk of alienating the less engaged listener. And repetition. Repetition. Repetition. Beckett’s main literary technique. Beckett’s main literary technique.

The face. (Pause.) The face. (Pause.) The face. (Pause.) The face.


Credit

Words and Music by Samuel Beckett was written towards the end of 1961 and broadcast on the BBC Third Programme on 13 November 1962.

Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Malone Dies by Samuel Beckett (1951)

I wonder why I speak of all this. Ah yes, to relieve the tedium. (Malone Dies p.179)

Malone Dies is the second in a trilogy of novels Beckett wrote after the war, which started with Molloy and ends with The Unnamable, all three quickly coming to be referred to as The Beckett Trilogy. That’s the title of the old Picador paperback edition I bought in the late 1970s and which I read it in.

Beckett wrote Malone Dies in French and it was first published by Paris-based Les Éditions de Minuit in 1951. The English translation, published in 1956, was made by Beckett and introductions and online synopses emphasise that the English version is different from the French version in a number of details.

Introduction

I found Molloy very hard to read:

1. Because it is so verbally boring – Beckett’s style is for long stretches dead and deadening (I asked several friends to try reading some and all gave up after 1 or 2 pages)

2. Because the subject matter is so unrelentingly depressing. Not morbid, as such, it’s just the pointless meanderings of two senile old characters going mad or, more accurately, it’s a hyper-literary playing with the notion of characters going mad or breaking down. It would have a certain documentary interest if it really were the diary of someone going senile, but in fact it’s nothing like that. It is a highly crafted, highly artful, carefully concocted text, stuffed with all kinds of references – literary, philosophical, astrological – along with parodies and pastiches, and the development of stylistic devices to convey the ‘problematics’ of writing itself, the permanently collapsing nature of language, especially when used by a collapsing personality.

What’s depressing is that so much ingenuity has gone into devising texts which are wilfully nonsensical, nonsensical at epic length, and that I am wasting days I will never get back, reading and writing about them.

All went well at first, they all came to me, pleased that someone should want to play with them. If I said, Now I need a hunchback, immediately one came running, proud as punch of his fine hunch that was going to perform. It did not occur to him that I might have to ask him to undress. But it was not long before I found myself alone, in the dark. That is why I gave up trying to play and took to myself for ever shapelessness and speechlessness, incurious wondering, darkness, long stumbling with outstretched arms, hiding. Such is the earnestness from which, for nearly a century now, I have never been able to depart. From now on it will be different. I shall never do anything any more from now on but play.

Things always decline, decay and go downhill in Beckett, with mind-numbing predictability. Thus, whereas the characters in Molloy at least lived and moved about a bit (rode bicycles, hopped about on crutches) the first-person narrator of Malone Dies, the ‘impotent old man’ Malone, is considerably further decayed, is bed-bound and is, well, dying, the key fact stated right at the start:

I shall soon be quite dead at last in spite of all. Perhaps next month… I could die to-day, if I wished, merely by making a little effort. But it is just as well to let myself die, quietly, without rushing things.

But he doesn’t die. He spends a long time spinning stories, making up characters, interspersed with returns to the narrator in bed, bored, speculating about death, fussing about his belongings, visited towards the end by some mysterious visitors.

As to the prose, we are back in the land of ‘I don’t know’ and ‘perhaps’, the two lynchpins of Beckett’s prose style. The easiest way to parody Beckett would be to write a series of trivial rhetorical questions and just put ‘I don’t know’ after them:

  • There it is then divided into five, the time that remains. Into five what? I don’t know.
  • I do not see any fields or hills. And yet they are near. But are they near? I don’t know.
  • No, it is not a question of understanding. Of what then? I don’t know.
  • From now on I shall write on both sides of the page. Where does it come from? I don’t know.
  • That’s the style, as if I still had time to kill. And so I have, deep down I know it well. Then why play at being in a hurry? I don’t know.
  • But what if her purpose, in sorting the lentils, were not to rid them of all that was not lentil, but only of the greater part, what then? I don’t know.
  • But l tell myself so many things, what truth is there in all this babble? I don’t know.

Dementia, senility, atrophy, aphasia, I don’t know, perhaps, all that fall, decline, will it ever end, I’ll go on no i can’t go on i will go on, and on and on and on blah blah blah. Here are some of the hundreds of instances of ‘perhaps’:

  • But perhaps I shall not succeed any better than hitherto. Perhaps as hitherto I shall find myself abandoned, in the dark…
  • Perhaps I shall put the man and the woman in the same story, there is so little difference between a man and a woman, between mine I mean. Perhaps I shall not have time to finish. On the other hand perhaps I shall finish too soon…
  • But perhaps I was stunned with a blow, on the head, in a forest perhaps, yes now that I speak of a forest I vaguely remember a forest…
  • Perhaps she is dead, having pre-deceased – me, perhaps now it is another’s hand that lays and clears my little table. I don’t know how long I have been here, I must have said so. All I know is that I was very old already before I
    found myself here. I call myself an octogenarian, but I cannot prove it. Perhaps I am only a quinquagenarian, or a quadragenarian.
  • Perhaps they think I am dead. Or perhaps they are dead themselves. I say they, though perhaps I should not.

Perhaps he should. Perhaps he shouldn’t. What do you think? I don’t l know.

(Interestingly, Beckett indicates that he is perfectly well aware of his penchant for adding ‘perhaps’ to every other sentence – he has the narrator of The Unnamable say: ‘No more perhapses either, that old trick is worn to a thread’ (p.286) — although he promptly continues to use ‘perhaps’. It really is a lynchpin of his prose style.)

Plot summary

  • while he’s dying Malone decides he will tell himself stories; after some discussion, this settles down into five elements: the present state, three stories and an inventory (p.167)
  • he’s in a room, not he thinks an asylum or a hospital but an institution, for he hears the voices of others and is provided with food – he thinks he got there in an ambulance, which instantly aligns him with Molloy who also doesn’t know how he got there, probably in an ambulance (p.168)
  • he lies in a bed, next to a window, he can see buildings, at night he can see the stars (p.169)
  • every day a hand half opens the door and places food on a table which he then pulls over to the bed using a stick with a hook, the table being on castors, a woman used to do it, come in and fuss around, but now he only sees a withered hand [everything declines and falls] (p.170)
  • he was old when he got there, maybe in his eighties, though he doesn’t know maybe he’s only in his 50s or 60s, who knows (p.171)
  • suddenly we are launched into a story about a man named Saposcat and his son, nicknamed Sapo, the son is good at maths and listens to his parents (his father is a salesman in a shop) discussing ways to earn more money, they want Sapo to become a doctor or surgeon and support them (p.172-3)
  • Malone interrupts his story to comment on his inability to tell this story or any other story (p.174) in fact he keeps interrupting  his own narrative to say ‘this is awful’ – presumably his telling of it, and to explain that bits he gets wrong, facts he’s not sure about, are like fragments of darkness which threaten to swell up and overwhelm him
  • Malone tells us the light has gone out in the building across the way, he imagines a man going for walks with a dog till the dog gets too weak and ill to go, at which point the man realises it’s time to have him put down [everything declines and falls] (p.176)
  • all the time commenting on his own inability to tell the story, Malone carries on painting a portrait of young Sapo as a dreamy, sensitive boy who fails his exams and is hurt overhearing his parents making their plans for him. Long, long passages are gibberish:

Here truly is the air I needed, a lively tenuous air, far from the nourishing murk that is killing me. I shall never go back into this carcass except to find out its time. I want to be there a little before the plunge, close for the last time the old hatch on top of me, say goodbye to the holds where I have lived, go down with my refuge. I was always sentimental. But between now and then I have time to frolic, ashore, in the brave company I have always longed for, always searched for, and which would never have me. Yes, now my mind is easy, I know the game is won, I lost them all till now, but it’s the last that counts. A very fine achievement I must say, or rather would, if I did not fear to contradict myself. Fear to contradict myself! If this continues it is myself I shall lose and the thousand ways that lead there. And I shall resemble the wretches famed in fable, crushed beneath the weight of their wish come true. And I even feel a strange desire come over me, the desire to know what I am doing, and why. So I near the goal I set myself in my young days and which prevented me from living. And on the threshold of being no more I succeed in being another. Very pretty. (p.178)

  • he has a delirious vision of himself playing with what he insists on calling his playthings, turning, dizzy, falling
  • he tries to struggle on and convey some of Sapo’s ideas, but fails, keeps relapsing into the present and fussing about his current plight, for example the way not all his belongings are in the room as he at first thought, for example the missing boot and a zinc ring (p.181)
  • just like the lush description of Moran getting into bed, Malone describes the weight of his body on the bed, the sheets, the dirty windowpane (p.182)
  • abruptly we are introduce to the Lambert family and the father, Big Lambert, who is a butcher, who loves butchering pigs, who comes back after a hard day at the slaughterhouse to regale his family with descriptions of the slaughter (p.184)
  • and suddenly we discover that young Sapo visits the farm, tells his parents he’s off to the countryside to study, but in fact hides his books and steals off to sit in the Lamberts’ farmhouse kitchen and watch the womenfolk work – the repetition of the silence and the darkness and the dust and the fresh goats milk on the table reminds me of D.H. Lawrence – maybe it’s meant to be a parody of D.H. Lawrence (p.186)
  • sometimes a grey hen comes scumbling into the kitchen – this reminds me of Moran’s concern for his grey hen (p.187)
  • after these encounters Sapo would sneak off leaving a shy present for the Lambert family on their farmhouse table
  • a stream of consciousness description of how he writes, little finger poised to indicate the edge of the page, he didn’t want to write but here he is writing etc (p.190)
  • he becomes aware that it’s a week since he wrote the first words of the book, it’s an exercise book, the pages ruled into square, mathematical symbols at the front, his pencil has five sides and is sharpened at both ends, it has fallen off and rolled under his bed, it takes him a long time to find it and then spear it with the stick with a hook on the end although, phew, it is not too damaged (p.192)
  • Mr and Mrs Saposcat give their son a brand new fountain pen as a good luck present for his exams (p.193)
  • Sapo goes to visit the Lamberts and discovers father and son, Louis and Edward, burying a dead mule and we are given the full story of how Big Lambert bargained it off a farmer at the very gates of the Knackers Yard (p.194)
  • Malone tells us that rabbits sometimes die of fright before you break their necks, whereas chickens have no imagination and carrying on scurrying around even after their head’s been cut off (p.197)
  • after the big family meal, Edward (the son) goes up to his room to masturbate in peace, reminding us of that other masturbator, Moran – incest is in the air since both father and son have considered sleeping with the sister/daughter, Lizzie (p.198)
  • Malone is bored of talking about the bloody Lamberts. What’s the point? He had planned to tell another story about a stone, shall he skip forward to that?

What tedium. If I went on to the stone? No, it would be the same thing. The Lamberts, the Lamberts, does it matter about the Lamberts? No, not particularly…I shall try and go on all the same, a little longer, my thoughts elsewhere, I can’t stay here. I shall hear myself talking, afar off, from my far mind, talking of the Lamberts, talking of myself, my mind wandering, far from here, among its ruins.

  • Cut to memories of talking to a Jew named Jackson who kept a parrot (which reminds me of the parrot in Molloy and of the parrot in Mercier and Camier – I’d be surprised if someone hasn’t written a paper about parrots in Beckett) (p.200)
  • reverting to thoughts about whereabouts in the building he is and on which floor, it crosses Malone’s mind that he might be dead already and not noticed the difference (p.201)
  • he considers the quality of light in his room, and the darkness, and this disintegrates into a Nausea-style hyper-awareness of his own body of his perceptions processed within his skull
  • he lost his pencil for two days – he is only called Malone now i.e. might have been called something else once (p.204) in fact refers to ‘the other’ (p.206)
  • a hallucinatory passage where he remembers becoming soft and liquid as mud or hard and contracted as thread – then fantasises that he not yet born, that he will be born into a charnel house, at other times it seems he has had a long life, wandered in town and country and spent time on a beach, washed by surf (echoing the experiences of Molloy) (p.207)

But what matter whether I was born or not, have lived or not, am dead or merely dying, I shall go on doing as I have always done, not knowing what it is I do, nor who I am, nor where I am, nor if I am.

  • then there seems to be a sequence where the narrator slips down into the body of someone else, of ‘he’, sitting on a bench by the river wearing a greatcoat buttoned up to his throat – he’s going to call him Sapo but that’s no long appropriate so renames him ‘Macmann’, not much better, but we’re in a hurry (p.210)
  • Macmann sits with his back to the river watching the tide of humanity in the city, many of them hastening to rendezvous with lovers, and a page long description of the horse of cabs, sad amid the frames, then trotting briskly to their destinations (p.212)
  • turns into a delirious fantasia about age, about the days passing compared to the liquidation of old age, to having to pull yourself along the ground to allotments where grow brambles, rather acid, and frightening off birds and small mammals – the prose becomes visionary:

All strains towards the nearest deeps, and notably my feet, which even in the ordinary way are so much further from me than all the rest, from my head I mean, for that is where I am fled, my feet are leagues away. And to call them in, to be cleaned for example, would I think take me over a month, exclusive of the time required to locate them. Strange, I don’t feel my feet any more, my feet feel nothing any more, and a mercy it is. And yet I feel they are beyond the range of the most powerful telescope. Is that what is known as having a foot in the grave? And similarly for the rest. For a mere local phenomenon is something I would not have noticed, having been nothing but a series or rather a succession of local phenomena all my life, without any result. But my fingers too write in other latitudes and the air that breathes through my pages and turns them without my knowing, when I doze off, so that the subject falls far from the verb and the object lands somewhere in the void, is not the air of this second-last abode, and a mercy it is.

  • they banged his head on the doorframe taking him out on a stretcher, where was he, oh yes passing the 3 or 4 days til he hope he dies, he remembers murdering four, no five men, notably the butler (p.217)
  • he hallucinates light and shade outside the window are those really stars or are they painted not they’re twinkling lights come on he can see people silhouetted
  • back to Macmann, it starts to rain so he lies on the ground to keep his front dry, then clutches at tufts of grass to move, just as Molloy and Moran did (p.219)
  • suddenly he is in a plain far from town or woods, in ‘a wild and practically illimitable part of the country’, exposed to the elements, but thanking his stars his semen never harmed anyone i.e. he’s never had progeny (p.221)
  • a detailed description of the postures Macmann adopts in the rain on the earth, where the mud mixes with his long hair while the author reflects on his strong constitution (p.225)
  • and thrusting himself about in a restless frenzy he takes to rolling, like a cylinder, an indefinite distance (p.226)
  • back in the present, in bed, Malone reviews his possessions, starting with his two pencils and his exercise book and going on to fondly remember the bowl of a pipe he picked up somewhere and the other worn-smooth objects he’s always like holding in his hand as he falls asleep
  • he weighs various systems of defining what are, and are not, his possessions, and whether he possesses them
  • an old photograph of a donkey on a beach wearing a hat, leads into thoughts about decomposition and the fact his poo pot and his urine pot are filling up and no-one’s changed them (p.231)
  • he has lost his stick! overnight! now he is bereft – does he have any possessions left? (p.233)
  • while he considers whether ‘they’ are trying to poison him among other conundrums, he resumes the story of Macmann, namely he wakes up to find himself in an asylum, the House of St John, and is instructed in its regulations (p.235) reminding us of the asylums where both Murphy and Watt end up
  • he is put in the charge of Moll, an old crazy lady who feeds him, washes him, tells him what is and isn’t allowed (p.236)
  • though both old and impotent, Macmann and Moll have a go at sex, he folding up his penis into a package and trying to insert into her dry vagina like stuffing in a sock (p.238)
  • an example of one of Moll’s comically bizarre love letters to Macmann; it genuinely is funny (p.239)
  • Moll wears earring with a small crucifix of Jesus Christ, then shows Macmann more or less the only tooth on her crone’s mouth is an enormous canine craved with the image of Christ on the cross (p.243)
  • they have a passionate physical affair of two old crones, until Moll falls away, starts rubbing her tummy, her hair falls out, and one day a man – Lemuel – comes to tell Macmann Moll is dead (p.244) this man Lemuel often has fits where he dances, screams and hits himself on the head with a hammer
  • cut to Malone having a memory, he is with his mother at a racecourse watching one of the first airplanes loop the loop
  • suddenly someone is there by his bedside, and hits him on the head (p.247)
  • the man in black attends Malone all the time, he has an umbrella which he leans his weight on, he uses it to poke through Malone’s belongings scattered all over the floor, lift up his bedclothes, the man has muddy boots – I begin to wonder if it is Jacques Moran (p.248)
  • when the man in black leaves, softly closing the door and walking away down the corridor whistling, Malone speculates if a whole series of visitors will come over the following days, and fantasises about ‘a little girl’, who he can teach to strip for him, fondle him, fetch him soup, empty his slop buckets and finally close his eyes, put a bung up his arse when he dies, and follow the hearse to the cemetery: ‘Easy, Malone, take it easy you old whore’ (p.251)
  • Malone finds it harder to breathe or hear anything – he cuts away to the Macmann narrative: since Moll’s death Macmann has been leaving the asylum grounds; sometimes he brings back brambles or an entire hyacinth he had pulled up by the root and then Lemuel hands it to Pat who whips Macmann with it (p.53)
  • a poetic description of the location and grounds of the St John asylum behind its walls topped with broken glass, the big lodges by the gates full of deserving families and their swarming brats (p.255)
  • Macmann carried round a photograph Moll gave him of herself as a 14-year-old girl – one day a group outing is announced led by a Lady Pedal – Lemuel goes to the kitchen and orders six portions of excursion soup which is like normal soup but with chunks of bacon in it – then he visits six cells, each with a florid lunatic in it (p.258)
  • Malone feels the end coming but goes back to the Macmann story – Lemuel assembles the five inmates on the terrace ready for Lady Pedal’s outing – they clamber into a wagonette which sets off down the hill and through the lodge gates at a dangerous pace, being overloaded (p.261)
  • the asylum patients, Lemuel, Lady Pedal and two ‘colossi’ dressed in sailor suits and named Ernest and Maurice alight from the wagonette at a quay and take a ferry to an island for a picnic
  • this ends horribly when Lemuel briskly murders the two sailors who brought them there with his hatchet, Lady Pedal on returning faints and breaks her hip, the narrative collapses on the last page, sentences starting in mid word, paragraphs breaking, Lemuel gets Macmann and the other prisoners into the ferry and they set off somewhere, he raises his hatchet but not to kill nobody, nevermore, no, not no-one

And the narrative breaks off like that into a last few lines of prose poetry or maybe fragments.

Maybe this abrupt ending is meant to represent Malone finally bloody dying, although it would be funnier if, à la Tristram Shandy, the last page had had a jagged ink line running down and off the page as of someone dying and their pen sliding across the page.


Arcana

The prose itself is rarely difficult to understand. It’s just the sentences the words are organised into are so often stupefyingly dull. It kept me going through the arid wasteland of his dessicated prose to look for out-of-the-way and rarefied vocabulary, but there are notably few juicy words. Beckett has come a long way since the show-off, arcana-packed diction of the 1930s novel, Murphy.

  • Perhaps I shall not have time to finish. On the other hand perhaps I shall finish too soon. There I am back at my old aporetics.
  • I shall not finish this inventory either, a little bird tells me so, the paraclete perhaps, psittaceously named.
  • Then with clasped hands and tears in my eyes I would have begged it of him as a favour. This humiliation has been denied to me thanks to my aphony.

Rudery

A surprising but regular component of Beckett’s style is his frequent descent into blunt anglo-saxon vulgarity.

  • Lambert was feared and in a position to do as he pleased. And even his young wife had abandoned all hope of bringing him to heel, by means of her cunt, that trump card of young wives. For she knew what he would do to her if she did not open it to him. (p.184)
  • For my arse for example, which can hardly be accused of being the end of anything, if my arse suddenly started to shit at the present moment, which God forbid, I firmly believe the lumps would fall out in Australia.
  • They think they can confuse me and make me lose sight of my programmes. Proper cunts whoever they are. (p.246)
  • Those are men and women, you know, people, without being able to specify further. A stream at long intervals bestrid — but to hell with all this fucking scenery. (p.354)
  • All is ready. Except me. I am being given, if I may venture the expression, birth to into death, such is my impression. The feet are clear already, of the great cunt of existence. (p.260)

Some critics speak high-mindedly about Beckett’s quest to probe the limits of the text or writing. They tend to gloss over the consistent, chest-poking use of cunt and fuck.

Poetic prose

But the point of the novels isn’t their characters, it isn’t even the characters’ quests or journeys or intentions which can be made into metaphors of ‘man’s struggle to find meaning in a meaningless universe’. It’s Beckett’s way with prose.

Weary with my weariness, white last moon, sole regret, not even. To be dead, before her, on her, with her, and turn, dead on dead, about poor mankind, and never have to die any more, from among the living. Not even, not even that. My moon was here below, far below, the little I was able to desire. And one day, soon, soon, one earthlit night, beneath the earth, a dying being will say, like me, in the earthlight, Not even, not even that, and die, without having been able to find a regret.

And he has lots of ways, uses lots of techniques, creates new ways of combining words and sentences, overlays meanings. Thus all the mini-narratives in Malone Dies – about Sapo and Macmann and Moll and Lemuel – exist in counterpoint with the passages where we revert to Malone’s first-person narrative, or the stream of his obsessions.

But absolutely all discussion of Beckett’s work makes it sound too sane and approachable, whereas the whole point is its rebarbatively unapproachable attitude.

And I must say that to me at least and for as long as I can remember the sensation is familiar of a blind and tired hand delving feebly in my particles and letting them trickle between its fingers. And sometimes, when all is quiet, I feel it plunged in me up to the elbow, but gentle, and as though sleeping. But soon it stirs, wakes, fondles, clutches,
ransacks, ravages, avenging its failure to scatter me with one sweep. (p.206)

All the way from this kind of weird poetry to ‘Proper cunts whoever they are.’ It feels like the multiple layers or registers of the book could be taken to pieces like blocks of coloured Lego and you could identify different strands and building blocks. Once you start, I bet you’d find hundreds.

Pontificating

To pontificate is to ‘express one’s opinions in a pompous and dogmatic way’.

Wikipedia tells me this text contains the famous line, ‘Nothing is more real than nothing’. Is that line famous? Is it worth remembering? Does it mean anything? To quote Beckett – I don’t know. Perhaps.

But once it was pointed out, I realised a key component of Beckett’s style is a taste for delivering resonant and grand-sounding generalisations, not about life and a variety of subjects, that would be too interesting: about Beckett’s one subject – the decay and collapse of the mind and the inability of the mind, the narrator or language to convey it, the thing, the collapse of language, of writing… but the determination to keep on writing…

  • The forms are many in which the unchanging seeks relief from its formlessness.

It is a style designed to create acolytes and followers, and these are indeed what Beckett created, from his breakthrough in the 1950s, through the 60s, 70s and 80s, in larger and larger numbers.

Humour

Some passages, taken in isolation, as standalone passages, and read aloud, have power and coherence and are bizarrely funny, a prize example being the love affair of Macmann and Moll. This points forward to the plays where the simple fact of dialogue breaks up the novels’ walls of prose into much more quotable snippets.

But taken as huge, 100-page walls of solid prose, the novels are very difficult to read or process. Selections, snippets, little passages or episodes – it makes sense that this was how they were broken up in the earliest BBC radio or TV adaptations, into something more like speeches. Vastly more accessible.

Thus a reading of selected passages from Malone Dies was broadcast on the BBC Third Programme on 18 June 1958. Beckett selected the passages, which were read by the actor Patrick Magee, and incidental music was composed by Samuel’s cousin John S. Beckett.

Trouble is, you can’t read the entire book like that. Or maybe you need to read the entire thing, marking up shorter passages, and then go back to review and reread just those. To consider these long texts as sort of anthologies of shorter, self-contained passages, more than novels. Perhaps. I don’t know.

Self referentiality and creating a fictional universe

In all three novels the narrators refer, at some point, to protagonists of other Beckett texts:

  • Oh the stories I could tell you if I were easy. What a rabble in my head, what a gallery of moribunds. Murphy, Watt, Yerk, Mercier and all the others.
  • But let us leave these morbid matters and get on with that of my demise, in two or three days if I remember rightly. Then it will be all over with the Murphys, Merciers, Molloys, Morans and Malones, unless it goes on beyond the grave.
  • They fell and I saw them no more. I naturally thought of the pseudocouple Mercier-Camier.
  • I am neither, I needn’t say, Murphy, nor Watt, nor Mercier, nor — no, I can’t even bring myself to name them, nor any of the others whose very names I forget,
  • they taught him thinking, it’s always he who speaks, Mercier never spoke, Moran never spoke, I never spoke
  • All these Murphys, Molloys and Malones do not fool me. They have made me waste my time, suffer for nothing,
  • Am I clothed? I have often asked
    myself this question, then suddenly started talking about Malone’s
    hat, or Molloy’s greatcoat, or Murphy’s suit.

Presumably references in each novel of the trilogy to protagonists from the other novels helps ‘bind’ them together and also brings out the theme of shifting and very unstable identities.

But there is also a mythologising aspect to it, which reminds me of Sherlock Holmes. Holmes? Yes, quite early in the Holmes stories, Dr Watson starts referring to numerous other cases, giving them florid titles, promising to tell us more about them sometime, before he settles on the one he’s going to describe this time. It creates a sense of spaciousness, it makes it feel like the Holmes texts aren’t just a handful of stories, but ramify out in all directions to create the sense of an entire imaginative universe.

Same here.

The Spanish Civil War

In 1937 Nancy Cunard sent out a questionnaire to famous artists and writers asking them to state their position on the Spanish Civil War. 148 writers sent in their replies which were published in a pamphlet which was sold to raise funds for refugees. Beckett sent back the shortest contribution – ¡UPTHEREPUBLIC! – which continues to divide critics, undecided whether to interpret it as passionate or ironic.

Half way through Malone Dies Malone writes:

Yes, that’s what I like about me, at least one of the things, that I can say Up the Republic! for example, or Sweetheart!, for example, without having to wonder if I should not rather have cut my tongue out, or said
something else. (p.216)

So the book contains sneaky references to Beckett’s life as well as works. I wonder how many. I bet hundreds of scholars have spotted thousands of such references.

‘What tedium’

The bottom line is that Malone isn’t dying or anything as grandiose. In my experience, people who know they are going to die are shit scared, whereas Malone is just bored. His phrase ‘what tedium’ clangs throughout the text like that of a bored aristocrat. He confesses to being ‘bored to howls’ (p.206). The text is a way for him to impose his insufferable boredom on the reader. It is an extraordinarily complex labyrinth of language and lexical and literary experimentation. But God, reading it was like having my teeth pulled out. In small selected chunks, yes, a page or so can be attractive, particularly if read aloud. But the full-on hundred pages are a challenge.

But still.. once you’ve made it through… scattered, isolated passages stay in the mind, and many passages repay rereading to relive the peculiar, mind-bending place the book takes you to.

M

Commentators have pointed out that Beckett was attached to the letter M. His protagonists include Murphy, Mercier, Molloy and Malone and one commentator pointed out that Watt’s name begins with an M upside down. In the same jokey, tricksy spirit, Malone can be simply read a ‘M alone’.


Credit

Malone Dies by Samuel Beckett was published in French in 1951. The English translation by Beckett himself was published in 1956. Page references are to the 1979 Picador paperback edition of The Beckett Trilogy, Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable.

Related links

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Molloy by Samuel Beckett – part one (1950)

Not to want to say, not to know what you want to say, not to be able to say what you think you want to say, and never to stop saying, or hardly ever, that is the thing to keep in mind, even in the heat of composition.
(Molloy, page 27)

Molloy is the first of a trilogy of novels which continued with Malone Dies and The Unnamable, and quickly came to be referred to as The Beckett Trilogy. That’s how it’s titled in the old Picador paperback edition I bought in the late 1970s.

Beckett wrote Molloy in French and it was first published by Paris-based Les Éditions de Minuit in 1951. The English translation, published in 1955, is by Beckett and Patrick Bowles.

Molloy is in two parts of equal length. This review is of part one, the long, first-person narrative by Molloy himself.

Beckett’s prose mannerisms

Let’s look at the continuities of style and approach Molloy shares with More Pricks than Kicks, Murphy and The First Love tetralogy of short stories:

Wall of solid prose The book is divided into two halves. The first half of about eighty pages has no paragraph breaks at all. It is like a wall of prose, and sometimes feels like an avalanche of concrete. It is physically difficult to read. It is challenging to know where to stop for a break, and how to mark your place so you find exactly the same place to resume at.

It has a first-person narrator who is fantastically vague about every aspect of his life:

I am in my mother’s room. It’s I who live there now. I don’t know how I got here. Perhaps in an ambulance, certainly a vehicle of some kind. I was helped. I’d never have got there alone. There’s this man who comes every week. Perhaps I got here thanks to him. He says not.

I don’t work for money. For what then? I don’t know. The truth is I don’t know much…

Forgotten To say the narrator is forgetful is an understatement. His main activity is not being able to remember anything.

  • Her name? I’ve forgotten it again
  • I’ve forgotten how to spell too, and half the words.
  • I’ve forgotten the half of it. Ah yes, I too needed her, it seemed. She needed me to help her get rid of her dog, and I needed her. I’ve forgotten for what.

I don’t know The phrase ‘I don’t know’ is a real mannerism or tic, cropping up numerous times on every page.

  • Yet I don’t work for money. For what then? I don’t know. The truth is I don’t know much. For example my mother’s death. Was she already dead when I came? Or did she only die later? I mean enough to bury. I don’t know.
  • She never called me son, fortunately, I couldn’t have borne it, but Dan, I don’t know why, my name is not Dan.
  • They let me keep my hat on, I don’t know why.
  • And the thing in ruins, I don’t know what it is, what it was, nor whether it is not less a question of ruins than the indestructible chaos of timeless things, if that is the right expression.

This is doubly true of the phrase I don’t know why. You just add it to the end of a common-or-garden sentence to make a Beckett phrase. ‘I’m in this room. I don’t know why.’

  • Dear bicycle, I shall not call you bike, you were green, like so many of your generation. I don’t know why
  • She never called me son, fortunately, I couldn’t have borne it, but Dan, I don’t know why
  • They let me keep my hat on, I don’t know why.
  • It was she dug the hole, under a tree. You always bury your dog under a tree, I don’t know why.

It is the poetics of Alzheimer’s Disease, of dementia, a permanent fog of unknowing. Possibly some readers find some of this funny, but it reminds me all too much of my Dad losing his mind, and that wasn’t funny at all.

And when the narrator describes visiting his gaga old mother and devising a method of communicating with her which amounts to giving her a number of taps on the skull, up to five taps, each number meaning a different thing, despite the fact she’d ceased to be able to count beyond two… I can see that it might be designed to have a certain dark humour, but it reminded me of my mother’s state at the end of her life.

She knew it was me, by my smell. Her shrunken, hairy old face lit up, she was happy to smell me. She jabbered away with a rattle of dentures and most of the time didn’t realize what she was saying.

Perhaps Nearly as much of a mannerism is the recurrent use of ‘perhaps’:

  • Perhaps they haven’t buried her yet.
  • All I need now is a son. Perhaps I have one somewhere.
  • I’ll manage this time, then perhaps once more, then perhaps a last time, then nothing more.
  • Perhaps I’m inventing a little, perhaps embellishing…
  • But perhaps I’m remembering things…
  • For the wagons and carts which a little before dawn went thundering by, on their way to market with fruit, eggs,
    butter and perhaps cheese, in one of these perhaps he would have been found, overcome by fatigue or discouragement, perhaps even dead.
  • And she did not try and hold me back but she went and sat down on her dog’s grave, perhaps, which was mine too in a way…

Or The two tics above are accompanied by a less frequent but just as tell-tale mannerism, which is to make a declarative statement then tack ‘or’ and an alternative clause at the end – ‘or nearly x’, ‘or about y’. The narrator describes something, then immediately says ‘or’ it was something else. Much virtue on your ‘or’. It creates a permanent sense of uncertainty and indeterminacy.

  • All that left me cold, or nearly.
  • But deep down I didn’t give a fiddler’s curse about being without, when they were all gone they would be all gone, I wouldn’t be any the worse off, or hardly any.

It’s part of the way that more or less every declarative sentence i.e. one that appears to be conveying a piece of information, is immediately contradicted or queried or undermined by uncertainty.

A and C I never saw again. But perhaps I shall see them again. But shall I be able to recognise them? And am I sure I never saw them again? And what do I mean by seeing and seeing again?

The English language is continually crumbling away and collapsing in his hands.

They Some undefined group – ‘they’ – have done a lot of this to the narrator, like the ‘they’ that kicked the narrator out of his cosy home in the four short stories.

  • What I’d like now is to speak of the things that are left, say my good-byes, finish dying. They don’t want that. Yes,
    there is more than one, apparently.

Highfalutin In fact, one big noticeable change from Beckett’s previous prose fictions is that he has now dropped the Joycean fascination with out-of-the-way vocabulary which clotted Pricks and Murphy and to some extent Watt. There are some arcane words, but only a handful, instead of the riot of incanabula you find in the earlier books.

  • that would have allowed me, before parading in public certain habits such as the finger in the nose, the scratching of the balls, digital emunction and the peripatetic piss, to refer them to the first rules of a reasoned theory.
  • But not knowing exactly what I was doing or avoiding, I did it and avoided it all unsuspecting that one day, much later, I would have to go back over all these acts and omissions, dimmed and mellowed by age, and drag them into the eudemonistic slop.
  • And when I see my hands, on the sheet, which they love to floccillate already, they are not mine, less than ever mine, I have no arms

Presumably this was one major result of Beckett’s decision to start writing his texts in French and then translating them back into English: a) French doesn’t have so many words as English b) and nothing like so many weird and functabulous words c) and therefore sentences which could have been conceived around an arcane English word, can’t be reconceived around one when he translates back from the simpler French, otherwise he’d have to have rewritten the book. Instead the vocabulary is much more limited and plain.

Crudity There is, however, just as much interest in bodily functions described in vulgar words as in all his previous works. He enjoys shocking the bourgeois reader with his potty language:

  • My mother’s death. Was she already dead when I came? Or did she only die later? I mean enough to bury. I don’t know. Perhaps they haven’t buried her yet. In any case I have her room. I sleep in her bed. I piss and shit in her pot.
  • For if they accused me of having made a balls of it…
  • What a story, God send I don’t make a balls of it.
  • I give you my word, I cannot piss, my word of honour, as a gentleman.
  • I shall have occasion to do so later perhaps. When I seek refuge there, beat to the world, all shame drunk, my prick in my rectum, who knows.
  • Unfortunately it is not of them I have to speak, but of her who brought me into the world, through the hole in her arse if my memory is correct. First taste of the shit.
  • How difficult it is to speak of the moon and not lose one’s head, the witless moon. It must be her arse she shows us always.
  • For as long as I had remained at the seaside my weak points, while admittedly increasing in weakness, as was
    only to be expected, only increased imperceptibly, in weakness I mean. So that I would have hesitated to exclaim, with my finger up my arse-hole for example, Jesus-Christ, it’s much worse than yesterday, I can hardly believe it is the same hole.

Or this pretty dithyramb about farting. People talk about Beckett’s bravery in facing the nihilism of the universe or the emptiness of existence. They shouldn’t forget about the farting.

I wrapped myself in swathes of newspaper, and did not shed them until the earth awoke, for good, in April. The Times Literary Supplement was admirably adapted to this purpose, of a never failing toughness and impermeability. Even farts made no impression on it. I can’t help it, gas escapes from my fundament on the least pretext, it’s hard not to mention it now and then, however great my distaste. One day I counted them. Three hundred and fifteen farts in nineteen hours, or an average of over sixteen farts an hour. After all it’s not excessive. Four farts every fifteen minutes. It’s nothing. Not even one fart every four minutes. It’s unbelievable. Damn it, I hardly fart at all, I should never have mentioned it.

Summary of Beckett’s prose mannerisms

So you could argue that, on one level, the text is assembled from these seven or eight mannerisms (plus others I’ve probably missed), and which are deployed over and over and over again.

About thirty pages in the narrator appears to say that he is dead, so maybe this is a literary vision of what death is like:

But it is only since I have ceased to live that I think of these things and the other things. It is in the tranquillity of decomposition that I remember the long confused emotion which was my life…

And again:

And I too am at an end, when I am there, my eyes close, my sufferings cease and I end, I wither as the living can not.

But later he appears to imply that neither of the terms living or dead are adequate to describe his situation. So, characteristically, maybe he is dead and maybe he isn’t. It hardly matters. The situation, the attitude and the prose mannerisms are so like the ones displayed in More Pricks and Murphy and First Love, The Expelled, The Calmative and The End (except for the omission of the highfalutin terms) that any ‘factual’ claims the text makes seem secondary to the consistency of the same old same old prose style.

It isn’t what the prose says that matters – it’s what it does and this is create a kind of quite novel and distinctive kind of poetry of decreptitude.

A flow of prose

It is not quite stream of consciousness but nearly –  one apparent subject leads on to another, seamlessly, in a great mud flow of prose.

This is one of the things which makes it so hard to read – that it isn’t really ‘about’ anything, about particular events or objects or people in ‘the real world’ but flows on continuously, introducing new subjects, people and perspectives, few of them ever named or identified, just abstract de Chirico figures in a barren colourless environment, who bob up for a while – like the men he names A and C – and disappear just as inconsequentially.

Some passages have a real surrealist vibe and could be describing a Max Ernst landscape:

For what possible end to these wastes where true light never was, nor any upright thing, nor any true foundation, but only these leaning things, forever lapsing and crumbling away, beneath a sky without memory of morning or hope of night.

A short example of how the intensity of his worldview, his bleak landscape, can become visionary and beautiful.

Facts as colours

There is one effect I’d like to try and define. For in the endless river of ‘perhaps, or something else, what do you call it, I can’t remember, I don’t know, well that’s one way of putting it’-type prose, just occasionally things like actual ‘facts’ surface for a moment. Nuggets of what, in another text, would be ‘information’ about the narrator or some of the other ‘characters.

For example, the narrator, remembering watching two men set off for a walk into the country, casually mentions that he is on an ‘island’.

Or suddenly mentions that he was on his crutches, hobbling, because of his bad leg (p.14).

Or that he has no teeth.

All I could see was her taut yellow nape which every now and then I set my teeth in, forgetting I had none, such is the power of instinct.

In a normal narrative, these facts might have had ‘significance’ i.e. they would have gone towards building up a picture of the narrator and maybe developing a psychological profile. But there is no psychology in Beckett, or rather there is just the one big Alzheimer Psychology – the inside of a mind which can’t remember anything or make head or tail of anything and isn’t sure whether it’s alive or dead.

Thus these ‘facts’ are not ‘facts’ in the conventional sense. They are more like sudden streaks of paint, a daub of blue here, a splat of red there, which suddenly crystallise certain ‘areas’ of the text, but don’t ‘mean’ anything, certainly don’t carry the literal meaning they would bear in a traditional novel.

Maybe it’s a kind of prose abstract expressionism. Take Blue Poles painted by Jackson Pollock in 1952, the year after Molloy was published.

Blue Poles by Jackson Pollock (1952)

The right-angled splash of red at the top left, what does that ‘tell’ you? Nothing. It just kind of crystallises an area of the canvas, it brings that particular area into focus. The red splash need not have gone there, but it did, and once it did, it adds another layer to an already complex composition, and it feels like a kind of finishing touch, a cherry on the icing that brings that particular area into… focus.

I’m suggesting that the ‘facts’ in Beckett’s text do something similar. On one level – because language can never escape its primary purpose of conveying meaning – on one level we learn that the narrator has a gammy leg and uses crutches. Fine. But when you actually read these nuggets embedded in the vast flow of text, moments like this don’t come over as they would in a normal novel, it’s more as if they’re moments of clarity around which the huge fog of the rest of the text arranges itself, highlights like the tip of an iceberg appearing in an Atlantic of uncertainty – or sudden splashes of red which somehow bring that area of the canvas into focus. They’re part of a design rather than pieces of information.

Words convey meanings. You can take many of the hundreds of ‘facts’ contained in the text and spin these into a meta-narrative, a literary critical interpretation. Or take my view, that the words and even their ‘meanings’ are more like colours deployed on a canvas to create an overall design or effect.

Take the ‘fact’ that the narrator appears to attempt to commit suicide at one point.

I took the vegetable knife from my pocket and set about opening my wrist. But pain soon got the better of me. First I cried out, then I gave up, closed the knife and put it back in my pocket. I wasn’t particularly disappointed, in my heart of hearts I had not hoped for anything better. So much for that.

In a ‘normal’ narrative this would be a big deal. Maybe in Molloy it is, but it doesn’t feel like it and doesn’t shed any particular light on what preceded or what follows it. It’s the apparent inconsequentiality of ‘incidents’ like this which suggests to me that they are more part of an abstract pattern or design than a catalogue of important ‘facts’ which need to be analysed and assembled into a psychological profile.

Other mannerisms

Sex

I like Leslie Fiedler’s description of Beckett ‘twitting the bourgeoisie’ a) because it seems accurate b) because it conveys something of the spotty schoolboy element in Beckett. ‘Miss, Miss, Sam said a naughty word, Miss’. And indeed he enjoys writing arse, prick, piss, shit, and one four occasions, cunt. Ooh. I feel so twitted.

Now the obvious way to twit the bourgeoisie from the era of Madame Bovary or Les Fleurs du Mal (both French books which were banned for immorality in the 1850s) onwards, was to be explicit about sex. But here Sam double-twits the bourgeoisie by writing about sex but in an entirely banal, unglamorous, factual and rather sordid way.

Thus, half-way through the first half of the book, Molloy remembers an affair with a woman whose name, characteristically, he can’t remember (‘She went by the peaceful name of Ruth I think, but I can’t say for certain. Perhaps the name was Edith.’) They have sex, fine, but the point is the entirely blunt, factual, downbeat way the narrator describes it.

She had a hole between her legs, oh not the bunghole I had always imagined, but a slit, and in this I put, or rather she put, my so-called virile member, not without difficulty, and I toiled and moiled until I discharged or gave up trying or was begged by her to stop. A mug’s game in my opinion and tiring on top of that, in the long run. But I lent myself to it with a good enough grace, knowing it was love, for she had told me so. She bent over the couch, because of her rheumatism, and in I went from behind. It was the only position she could bear, because of her lumbago. It seemed all right to me, for I had seen dogs, and I was astonished when she confided that you could go about it differently. I wonder what she meant exactly. Perhaps after all she put me in her rectum. A matter of complete indifference to me, I needn’t tell you. But is it true love, in the rectum? That’s what bothers me sometimes. Have I never known true love, after all? She too was an eminently flat woman and she moved with short stiff steps, leaning on an ebony stick. Perhaps she was a man, yet another of them. But in that case surely our testicles would have collided, while we writhed.

So you there you have Beckettian sex. Frank and factual but treated with the same indifference and puzzlement as everything else in a Beckett narrator’s life. But, you are also aware of the deliberate crudity, designed to offend.

I would have preferred it seems to me an orifice less arid and roomy, that would have given me a higher opinion
of love it seems to me. However. Twixt finger and thumb ’tis heaven in comparison. But love is no doubt above such base contingencies. And not when you are comfortable, but when your frantic member casts about for a rubbing-place, and the unction of a little mucous membrane, and meeting with none does not beat in retreat, but retains its tumefaction, it is then no doubt that true love comes to pass, and wings away, high above the tight fit and the loose.

By the way, Molloy says he met Ruth or Edith or whoever in a rubbish dump, which literary critics might point out as an anticipation of the setting of the entire play Happy Days but which can equally be seen as an indication of the narrowness of Beckett’s range of settings.

Flexible style

As the text progresses it becomes more varied. Beckett deploys different registers of English. Not wildly so, this isn’t Joyce, but he creates a narrating voice which can slip easily into older locutions, invoking older English prose styles or syntax. For example in the sex passage, above, ‘Twixt finger and thumb ’tis heaven in comparison’ feels like a quotation or is certainly cast in the style of 18th century English to achieve that effect.

What I do know for certain is that I never sought to repeat the experience, having I suppose the intuition that it had
been unique and perfect, of its kind, achieved and inimitable, and that it behoved me to preserve its memory, pure of all pastiche, in my heart, even if it meant my resorting from time to time to the alleged joys of so-called self-abuse.

It’s easy to be distracted by the mention of self abuse in this sentence from its other elements, particularly ‘it behoved me’. My point is that his tone of voice is flexible enough to allow 18th century pastiche and more formal registers to weave in and out of the pricks and arses, or the more dully limited passages where he forgets this or that. In other words, when you really come to study it, Beckett achieves a surprisingly flexible and varied style.

So I was able to continue on my way, saying, I am going towards the sun, that is to say in theory towards the East, or perhaps the South-East, for I am no longer with Lousse, but out in the heart again of the pre-established harmony, which makes so sweet a music, which is so sweet a music, for one who has an ear for music.

Or:

But I preferred to abide by my simple feeling and its voice that said, Molloy, your region is vast, you have never left it and you never shall. And wheresoever you wander, within its distant limits, things will always be the same, precisely.

‘Wheresoever you wander’ sounds like Romantic poetry. ‘Saving your presence’ is a 17th century phrase:

But I am human, I fancy, and my progress suffered, from this state of affairs, and from the slow and painful progress it had always been, whatever may have been said to the contrary, was changed, saving your presence, to a veritable calvary, with no limit to its stations and no hope of crucifixion…

Or:

I apologise for having to revert to this lewd orifice, ’tis my muse will have it so.

By contrast, the first part of the following passage seems to be a parody of Communist Party rhetoric, which then, in its last clauses, carries out a characteristic Beckettian tactic of deflating into a common or garden image.

It is indeed a deplorable sight, a deplorable example, for the people, who so need to be encouraged, in their bitter toil, and to have before their eyes manifestations of strength only, of courage and of joy… without which they might collapse, at the end of the day, and roll on the ground.

Clichés

How would you describe those homely common-or-garden phrases which your old ladies or stupid people use, clichés, chatty rags and tatters of speech? Beckett likes including them, as if to undermine, throw away, banalise the endless meandering.

  • And though it is no part of my tottering intentions to treat here in full, as they deserve, these brief moments of the immemorial expiation, I shall nevertheless deal with them briefly, out of the goodness of my heart, so that my story, so clear till now, may not end in darkness,
  • And this is perhaps the moment to observe, better late than never, that when I speak of my progress being slowed down, consequent on the defection of my good leg, I express only an infinitesimal part of the truth
  • The idea of strangulation in particular, however tempting, I always overcame, after a short struggle. And between you and me there was never anything wrong with my respiratory tracts.
  • You can’t have everything, I’ve noticed…

Humour

Some of it clearly is intended to be funny, and is funny. Especially if you say it out loud in an Irish accent.

Oh well, I may as well confess it now, yes, I once rubbed up against [a woman]. I don’t mean my mother, I did more than rub up against her. And if you don’t mind we’ll leave my mother out of all this.

Maybe it’s an optical illusion created by growing familiarity with the text and its mannerisms, but as I became more familiar with the tone and voice, it seemed to me that, as it went on, there were more funny moments. Or turns of phrase which are humorous, especially if said aloud.

…for I knew I was bound to be stopped by the first policeman and asked what I was doing, a question to which I have never been able to find the correct reply.

Molloy contains a celebrated sequence where the narrator debates with himself how to keep the 16 ‘sucking stones’ he has found on the seashore distributed equally between his four pockets. (He sucks stones to keep off hunger and thirst.)

I’ve just come across this sequence being performed by Jack MacGowran on YouTube, and it seems to me the two important things about this are that a) Jack was Irish and so delivered the English text with a noticeable Irish certain lilt from which it hugely benefits, and b) MacGowran was a character actor i.e. used to playing parts which are a bit cartoony, almost caricatures of the humble and downtrodden, for example his performance as the everso ‘umble servant, Petya, in the movie version of Dr Zhivago. Beckett liked MacGowran’s performances of his works. He wrote the solo monologue Eh Joe specifically for MacGowran. Here he is bringing Molloy to life.

Maybe you just have to imagine Molloy as a derelict, half-senile, Irish tramp and then the highfalutin’ words and occasionally ornate phraseology become that of a gentleman beggar, down on his luck.

Maybe. It would be nice to think so. An easy solution to the problems of the text. But I don’t think it solves everything – meaning there are sentences and passages I don’t think fit even the most flexible notion of the erudite tramp, passages which speak with a different voice altogether:

There are things from time to time, in spite of everything, that impose themselves on the understanding with the force of axioms, for unknown reasons.

Kafka’s presence

Kafka’s very short story, A Messenger from the Emperor, is only 388 words long in Ian Johnston’s translation but it is a great example of the way Kafka takes a factual premise and turns it into a kind of surreal vision which piles up obstacles which make every effort to escape or progress more and more impossible in order to convey to readers a claustrophobic sense of the hysteria and panic Kafka felt, according to his letters and diaries, almost all the time.

Beckett does something similar, takes a common or garden object or incident and then quickly extrapolates it beyond all normal limits. Thus, upon escaping from Ruth’s house and hiding out down a dark alley, as day breaks, the narrator suddenly starts talking about the threat from ‘them’, and before we know it, has amplified this trope into a state of Kafkaesque paranoia.

They wake up, hale and hearty, their tongues hanging out for order, beauty and justice baying for their due. Yes, from eight or nine till noon is the dangerous time. But towards noon things quiet down, the most implacable are sated, they go home, it might have been better but they’ve done a good job, there have been a few survivors, but they’ll give no more trouble, each man counts his rats. It may begin again in the early afternoon, after the banquet, the celebrations, the congratulations, the orations, but it’s nothing compared to the morning, mere fun. Coming up to four or five of course there is the night-shift, the watchmen, beginning to bestir themselves. But already the day is over, the shadows lengthen, the walls multiply, you hug the walls, bowed down like a good boy, oozing with obsequiousness, having nothing to hide, hiding from mere terror, looking neither right nor left, hiding but not provocatively, ready to come out, to smile, to listen, to crawl, nauseating but not pestilent, less rat than toad. Then the true night, perilous too, but sweet to him who knows it, who can open to it like the flower to the sun, who himself is night, day and night. No there is not much to be said for the night either, but compared to the day there is much to be said for it, and notably compared to the morning there is everything to be said for it. For the night purge is in the hands of technicians, for the most part. They do nothing else, the bulk of the population have no part in it, preferring their warm beds, all things considered.

Does this scary vision of a city monitored by watchmen and technicians, whose work leaves only ‘a few survivors’ and frightens the narrator into ‘hiding from mere terror’, does this mean anything? Or is it colour? Or can the text be seen as a collage of snippets like this – the sex descriptions with Ruth, the hymn to his bicycle, the description of sucking stones or knocking on his mother’s skull – are they not intended in any way to be a continuous narrative (despite appearing on one seamless chunk of prose) but more like picture-scenes cut out and pasted onto a vast canvas, not following each other in sequence, but placed just so, to counterpoise each other. Perhaps.

At moments like this the text ceases to be a hymn to collapse and decay and becomes something more feverish and excitable:

Oh they weren’t notions like yours, they were notions like mine, all spasm, sweat and trembling, without an atom of common sense or lucidity.

Sequence of incidents

It can’t be called a plot but ‘notable incidents’ occur in this order:

  • the narrator is in his mother’s room and has scattered memories of her
  • he sees two men leave the town and walk into the country, who he names A and C, one walking an orange pomeranian dog (p.10)
  • he’s stopped by a policeman
  • he gets on his bicycle which he loves (p.17)
  • maybe his father’s name was Dan, he communicates with his mother by rapping on her skull (pp.18-19)
  • he’s stopped by a policeman who takes him to the station (p.20)
  • under questioning he remembers his name is Molloy (p.23)
  • the police release him and next thing he knows he’s walking along a canal (p.26)
  • he ponders how much he farts (p.29)
  • he’s back inside the town and obsessed with asking someone whether it is the town he was born in, he can’t tell (p.30)
  • he’s cycling along when he runs over and kills the pet dog, Teddy, of a lady referred to as Mrs Loy or Sophie or Lousse (p.31)
  • she owns a parrot who can only say ‘Fuck the son of a bitch’ (p.36)
  • he wakes to find himself imprisoned in a locked room, stripped and his beard shaved off (p.37)
  • a complex obsessively detailed description of the moon moving across the barred window (p.38)
  • the valet brings him new clothes and he pushes over all the furniture in the room with his crutches (p.41)
  • they return his clothes but without some of his belongings which he enumerates (p.43)
  • the door is open now so he goes downstairs and out into the garden where he sees Loose scattering seeds on the grave of her dead dog (p.44)
  • Lousse seduces him into staying with her, he can do anything he wants but she likes to watch him (p.46)
  • he remembers living with and having regular sex with Edith (p.53)
  • Edith dies while taking a bath in a warm tub which overflows, flooding the lodger below (p.54)
  • one warm airless night he walks out on Lousse, taking his crutches (p.55)
  • he stays in a shelter but is kicked out, then on the steps of a boarding house (p.56)
  • then in the filthy alcove of a back alley where he makes a very half-hearted attempt to slit his wrist with a blunt vegetable knife (p.57)
  • he describes in minute detail a silver toy he stole from Lousse (p.59)
  • he cycles clear of the town and gives the Kafkaesque description of the terror of ‘them’ (p.62)
  • he crawls into a hole and doesn’t know what happened to him for months or years afterwards (p.63)
  • suddenly he’s describing the period he spent by the seaside, living on a beach and a detailed account of his method of sucking stones and trying to keep track of 16 stones divided between four pockets; this goes on for a very long time (p.64)
  • sometimes women come to gawp at him, the strange old joxer on the beach
  • eventually he decides to return to his town, though it requires crossing a great marsh which is being drained in a major public work (p.70)
  • he tells us his stiff leg started growing shorter (p.71) an extended description of how difficult that makes walking, and his attempts to compensate
  • a review of his physical frailties including his big knees, weak legs, silly toes, asthma and arsehole (p.74)
  • he repeats several times that he’s reached an astonishing old age (p.76)
  • he is suddenly in a forest where he encounters a charcoal burner (p.77)
  • when the charcoal burner tries to keep him there by grabbing his sleeve, Molloy hits him over the head with a crutch then kicks him in the ribs (p.78)
  • wandering in the forest, with one of his typical nonsense discussions of how the best way to go in a straight line is plan to walk in a circle (cf the discussions about which direction the moon was heading relative to the window bars, and the very long discussion of how to keep his 16 sucking stones distributed equally between his four pockets) (p.79)
  • out of nowhere comes some kind of ‘solemn warning’ in Latin
  • a meditation what exactly he means when he says ‘I said’, he is obeying the convention of fiction whereas what really happens is more like a feeling bubbling up from inside his body (p.81)
  • he wonders how to get out of the forest and considers crawling, when he hears a gong (p.82)
  • it is deep mid-winter, perhaps, or maybe autumn, when he commences to crawl out of the forest, sometimes on his belly, sometimes on his back (p.83)
  • he reaches the edge of the forest and tumbles into a ditch from where he sees a huge plain extending into the distance and faraway the turrets of a town, is it the town of his birth, where his mother lives, who he still wants to visit – the main motor of the narrative? he doesn’t know, but at that moment hears a voice saying: ‘Don’t fret, Molloy, we’re coming.’

So there’s a variety of locations, namely the unnamed town of his birth, the house of Lousse where he is prisoner for some time, the seaside where he sucks stones and is gawped at by visiting women, and the forest where he kicks the old charcoal burner.

Above all, the text is drenched in negativity, phrases describing failing, collapsing, dying or decaying, the end, end of all etc.

And once again I am, I will not say alone, no, that’s not like me, but, how shall I say, I don’t know, restored to myself, no, I never left myself, free, yes, I don’t know what that means, but it’s the word I mean to use, free to do what, to do nothing, to know, but what, the laws of the mind perhaps, of my mind, that for example water rises in proportion as it drowns you and that you would do better, at least no worse, to obliterate texts than to blacken margins, to fill in the holes of words till all is blank and flat and the whole ghastly business looks like what it is, senseless, speechless, issueless misery.

Biographical snippets

Biographical or factual snippets about the narrator do occasionally surface amid the mud. His name is Molloy. He has a mother he called Mag. She called him Dan, though it’s not his name, maybe his father’s name was Dan. His legs are infirm so he needs crutches. Despite this he loves cycling. He’s cycling on his way to visit his ailing mother when he runs over the pet dog, Teddy, of a lady named Mrs Loy, or Sophie or Lousse, who takes him in. He has a beard.

Literary significance

I can see that it is a masterful experiment in prose content and prose style. Presumably it was radical for the time, just after the war. And yet, certainly in the visual arts, it was an era of year zero painting depicting devastated worlds, post-nuclear worlds. I’m not saying this is that, but Molloy’s extended minimalism falls in with that mood. There are no colours. Everything is grey, the grey of a brain-damaged Alzheimer’s patient unable to make any sense of the constantly shifting pattern of memories and half memories.

And many, many passages just seem like inconsequential gibberish.

The Aegean, ‘thirsting for heat and light, him I killed, he killed himself, early on, in me. The pale gloom of rainy days was better fitted to my taste, no, that’s not it, to my humour, no, that’s not it either, I had neither taste nor humour, I lost them early on. Perhaps what I mean is that the pale gloom, etc., hid me better, without its being on that account particularly pleasing to me. (p.29)

Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe up. Maybe down. Maybe nothing. More varied and strange mixing learned references and crudity and Alzheimer’s tramp with something larger than that, a strange voided narrative voice, perhaps without it maybe moving forward, forward, me, not me, speechless talking. It has a strange and brooding and puzzling and confusing magnificence.

Credit

Molloy by Samuel Beckett was published in French in 1950. The English translation by Patrick Bowles was published in 1955. Page references are to the Picador paperback edition of the Beckett TrilogyMolloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable.


Related links

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

The Calmative by Samuel Beckett (1946)

I’ll tell myself a story, I’ll try and tell myself another story, to try and calm myself…

Panic

In 1946 Beckett wrote four short prose pieces – The CalmativeThe ExpelledThe End and First Love – which announced the arrival of the post-war Beckett, fully formed in his half-comic nihilism and his bookish but spavined style, by turns surreal, literary, pedantic, coarse, but always afflicted by anxiety, obsessions, worries, panics.

Hence the title – in this piece in particular, the narrator unreels an almost stream-of-consciousness flood of half memories and blurred fantasy occurrences, telling anything, any narrative, any story, to keep the panic and the nothingness at bay.

Obsession with the body, its repetitive behaviour, its decay

His own body is the most important factor in any of these narrators’ stories, its decrepitude, decay, collapse, inability, frailty and so on.

But it’s to me this evening something has to happen, to my body as in myth and metamorphosis, this old body to which nothing ever happened, or so little, which never met with anything, loved anything, wished for anything, in its tarnished universe…

Amnesia and uncertainty

Beckett heroes can never remember the past, not completely, only fragments. After all, to remember it clearly would establish a framework and meaning to their lives and that’s exactly what the texts want to deprive them of. Hence all of them sound the same in the way they can only recall fragments.

Yes, this evening it has to be as in the story my father used to read to me, evening after evening, when I was small, and he had all his health, to calm me, evening after evening, year after year it seems to me this evening, which I don’t remember much about, except that it was the adventures of one Joe Breem, or Breen, the son of a lighthouse-keeper, a strong muscular lad of fifteen, those were the words, who swam for miles in the night, a knife between his teeth, after a shark, I forget why, out of sheer heroism…

do you remember, I only just…

And they’re never sure of anything – or, rather, they emphasise their uncertainty, at every opportunity, for the same reason, to create a fog of uncertainty around everything:

I say cathedral, it may not have been, I don’t know…

Suddenly I was descending a wide street, vaguely familiar, but in which I could never have set foot, in my lifetime…

It might have been three or four in the morning just as it might have been ten or eleven in the evening…

He said a time, I don’t remember which, a time that explained nothing, that’s all I remember, and did not calm me…

If it’s not a rude question, he said, how old are you? I don’t know, I said.

A permanent mental, perceptual and cognitive fog.

My mind panting after this and that and always flung back to where there was nothing…

The surreal

Surrealism was founded in the early 1920s partly as a response to the madness of the Great War. It was a dominant visual and literary mood of the 1930s, especially in France where Beckett settled, lived and wrote. Impossible and bizarre juxtapositions are presented deadpan, as (allegedly) happens in dreams. Beckett was of his time, combining surrealism with his own pessimism to create a kind of surrealistic nihilism in which the impossible and absurd is quietly accepted.

I don’t know when I died. It always seemed to me I died old, about ninety years old, and what years, and that my body bore it out, from head to foot. But this evening, alone in my icy bed, I have the feeling I’ll be older than the day, the night, when the sky with all its lights fell upon me, the same I had so often gazed on since my first stumblings on the distant earth. For I’m too frightened this evening to listen to myself rot, waiting for the great red lapses of the heart, the tearings at the caecal walls, and for the slow killings to finish in my skull, the assaults on unshakable pillars, the fornications with corpses.

Note the learned and scholarly terms deployed like sixpences in a Christmas pudding, nuggets of knowingness embedded in a text in which the patently ridiculous is calmly discussed as an everyday matter, in which the absurd is carefully weighed like apples at a greengrocer’s.

Is it possible that in this story I have come back to life, after my death? No, it’s not like me to come back to life, after my death.

No, I didn’t think it would be.

Sexual crudity

All four of these stories have suddenly graphic and crude references to sex. Sex erupts unexpectedly. Certainly not sensually. Maybe it erupts from the texts as it erupts in real life, rupturing the bourgeois tranquillity of everyday life with its animal crudity.

Are thighs much in your thoughts, he said, arses, cunts and environs? I didn’t follow. No more erections naturally, he said. Erections? I said. The penis, he said, you know what the penis is, there, between the legs. Ah that! I said. It thickens, lengthens, stiffens and rises, he said, does it not? I assented, though they were not the terms I would have used. That is what we call an erection, he said.

Note how the narrator is treated as an imbecile and greets all these revelations as a deeply mentally challenged person would. Note how Beckett enjoys using rude words, as he does in all the other stories, in MurphyWatt and Mercier and Camier – he loves to shock the bourgeoisie, in that childish way of the European avant-garde, as if the bourgeoisie didn’t long ago develop a liking for being shocked, in fact they want their money back if their artists don’t ‘shock’ them.

Mottos of pessimism

All I say cancels out, I’ll have said nothing.

I couldn’t get up at the first attempt, nor let us say at the second, and once up, propped against the wall, I wondered if I could go on…

The core and kernel of Waiting For Godot and all the rest of his plays, of his entire worldview, iterated again and again, are all present.

Die without too much pain, a little, that’s worth your while.

Into what nightmare thingness am I fallen?

How tell what remains? But it’s the end.

This kind of sentiment can be repeated indefinitely which is what, in effect, Beckett’s oeuvre amounts to.

To think that in a moment all will be said, all to do again…


Credit

The Calmative by Samuel Beckett was written in French in 1946 and published in Paris in 1954. It was translated into English by Beckett in 1967 and published – along with The ExpelledThe End and other shorter works, into a volume titled Stories and Texts for Nothing.

The ExpelledThe End and The Calmative were then collected, along with First Love, into a Penguin paperback edition, The Expelled and Other Novellas, which is where I read them.

Related links

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Mercier and Camier by Samuel Beckett (1946)

‘What are you musing on, Mercier?’
‘On the horror of existence, confusedly,’ said Mercier.
‘What about a drink?’ said Camier.

After writing a series of experimental texts in English during the 1930s, Mercier et Camier was Beckett’s first attempt at an extended prose piece in French. He wrote it in 1946, while he was living in France after the end of the Second World War. It comes between Watt, which Beckett wrote in the last few years of the war, and directly before the three huge experimental ‘novels’ or texts which became known as The Beckett TrilogyMolloy (1951), Malone Dies (1951) and The Unnamable (1953).

Watt was long, experimental and – ultimately, for its author – unsatisfactory; who knows how to describe what it is for its readers.

Mercier and Camier is a lot shorter but Beckett found it even more unsatisfactory, which is why he refused to publish it in its original French until 1970. It only appeared in English in 1974, in Beckett’s own translation, in which he took the opportunity to make substantial alterations to the original text and to ‘reshape’ it from French to English. That’s the translation I read.

Structure

The Calder and Boyar edition I read is just 123 pages long. It is divided into eight chapters and every pair of chapters is followed by a ‘summary of two preceding chapters’ as in a school textbook.

The prose is lucid but highly mannered. A lot of it is similar to Murphy and Watt, not in style but in that it is writing about writing, writing whose main energy comes from taking the mickey out of traditional writing, that plays with the style of official reports, mixes in everyday phrases or clichés, and so on. It is not very interested in describing the world ‘out there’ but has made a nice safe warm space inside the head, playing with phrases. The general idea is that Mercier and Camier are a pair of vagabonds who intend to leave the city on a journey and Beckett introduces it thus:

Physically it was fairly easy going, without seas or frontiers to be crossed, through regions untormented on the whole, if desolate in parts. Mercier and Camier did not remove from home, they had that great good fortune. They did not have to face, with greater or less success, outlandish ways, tongues, laws, skies, foods, in surroundings little resembling those to which first childhood, then boyhood, then manhood had inured them. The weather, though often inclement (but they knew no better), never exceeded the limits of the temperate, that is to say of what could still be borne, without danger if not without discomfort, by the average native fittingly clad and shod. With regard to money, if it did not run to first class transport or the palatial hotel, still there was enough to keep them going, to and fro, without recourse to alms. It may be said therefore that in this respect too they were fortunate, up to a point. They had to struggle, but less than many must, less perhaps than most of those who venture forth, driven by a need now clear and now obscure.

‘Physically it was fairly easy going… The weather never exceeded the limits of the temperate… With regard to money…’ These sound like phrases from an official report, as does ‘It may be aid that…’

The style goes on to change and pull in other registers and mannerisms, playing with various learned tropes and techniques, but it is more often than not more interested in writing, in the possibilities of types and styles of writing, than in depicting any kind of ‘reality’.

Similarly, the dialogue is more often than not about the dialogue – characters speak about the act of speaking ‘did you say that?’ ‘did i say what?’ ‘did you say what you just said?’ ‘i don’t know, did i just say something?’ – played for laughs, played as a solemn game indicating the difficulties of even the most basic communication, rather than the kind of dialogue you find in most ‘normal’ novels.

More than anything else, unlike the monolithic solid blocks of prose found in The Beckett Trilogy, the pages look like a normal novel, divided up into short, sensible paragraphs which flag up new bits of dialogue or action or description in the traditional manner.

The shortness of the text, the use of short chapters, the breathing space provided by the end of chapter summaries, and the layout of the individual pages, all make Mercier and Camier feel like the most readable novel-style book Beckett ever wrote.

Repetition, absurdity and comedy

We are in an unnamed city. Mercier and Camier meet at their rendezvous point, though not before some misunderstanding. Mercier is first to arrive but gets bored waiting so goes for a stroll. Camier arrives ten minutes later so he goes for a stroll a few minutes before Camier gets back. Camier gets bored waiting then goes for a stroll just a few minutes before Mercier returns to the rendezvous point, hangs about a bit then goes for a stroll, and a few minutes later Camier returns to the rendezvous point, and tuts about where his friend can be, before going off for a stroll.. Repetition is at the core of Beckett’s technique, repetitions with slight variations which quickly build up into monstrous tables of permutations, as we have just seen in the numerous examples given in Watt. Beckett invests sufficient energy in this obsessive schedule of mistimed arrivals that he bothers to give us a table describing it.

In the introduction to Watt, Beckett scholar Chris Ackerley says Beckett is satirising the philosopher René Descartes’ notion that a comprehensive enumeration of what philosophers called the ‘accidents’ of a thing will eventually give you ‘understanding’ of the thing, whereas Beckett’s satirical deployment of this technique is designed to prove that the more you enumerate something, the further you in fact become from understanding it, you just become more bewildered.

In this format, this kind of mathematical precision which can be converted into a timetable is obviously a kind of satire on the timetabled way most of us live our lives, with mobile phones and meeting-reminding programs converting the endless flux of reality into bite-sized five-minute chunks.

But there is also something very powerful and uncanny about repetition. Repeat a word numerous times and it quickly starts to lose meaning and become absurd. Repeat a precise action numerous times and the same. It is as if repetition takes us out of the everyday. Transcendental meditators are instructed to repeat their mantra thousands of times to take them into an other-worldly state. Closer to Beckett’s Ireland, Roman Catholics have series of prayers to repeat as penances or on numerous other formalised occasions.

Repetition of drills with weapons make soldiers proficient, repetitive exercise improves athletes’ performance, makes difficult moves automatic, practice makes perfect. All this is true of the physical world. But in the world of language, repetition doesn’t make perfect or battle ready or match fit. Something different happens.

In Beckett’s hands, repetition can become obsessively patterned – as in the timetable of Mercier and Camier missing each other described above – in which case it reduces humans to automata, like buses meeting or missing a schedule, or the figures which come out of cuckoo clocks on the hour.

Or it can be funny, like two gentlemen bowing and taking their hats off to each other in an indefinite cycle of politeness.

Or it can open the door into Absurdity – highlighting the pointlessness of doing the same things or saying the same things over and over and nothing ever changing.

It is in this respect that Mercier and Camier anticipates Waiting For Godot, in that it is a text interested in repetition and a kind of formal patterning of actions and dialogue, but – crucially – enacted by two protagonists.

In the most intense moments (I say moments, in fact reading them takes hours) of The Beckett Trilogy what you have is one voice giving a running, stream-of-consciousness account of its bewilderment and misery and sense of utter crushing futility – which is what makes reading them, especially The Unnameable such a gruelling experience.

But when you have two characters, even if they’re predisposed to be miserable and depressed, for a man of Beckett’s sly humour, the temptation is to poke fun at his own seriousness, the temptation is to have one character deliver a long speech about the meaninglessness of existence… and then have the other character point out he’s sitting on his hat. Or his shoelaces have come undone, he might trip and do himself a mischief etc. Thus:

‘What are you musing on, Mercier?’
‘On the horror of existence, confusedly,’ said Mercier.
‘What about a drink?’ said Camier.

In other words, just the decision to have two characters opens up the possibility of counterpointing the misery of The Unnameable with a world of slapstick, pratfalls and bathos. And it’s in this respect that Mercier and Camier feels like a dry run for Waiting For Godot.

Aspects of style

Having finally met up, Mercier and Camier embrace just as the heavens open and it starts to tip down. They run into a shelter, still embracing.

Obscenity

Still embracing? Two dogs run into the shelter and start copulating furiously, making Mercier and Camier realise they they also are still embracing. Are they gay? Or straight friends caught in an embarrassingly inappropriate moment? Is Beckett pulling the reader’s leg or tweaking the censor’s nose?

The pair continue to regard the copulating dogs, Camier wonders why they’re still plugged together and Mercier gives a wearied / cynical explanation:

What would you? said Mercier. The ecstasy is past, they yearn to part, to go and piss against a post or eat a morsel of shit, but cannot. So they turn their backs on each other. You’d do as much, if you were they.

A moment later Camier asks if they can sit down as he feels ‘all sucked off’. That is not a usual expression for ‘tired’, it is easier to interpret as a sexual expression. Later the ranger tells the dogs to bugger off. Mercier remarks that the ranger was a hero in the mud of flanders during the Great War while he and Camier were ‘high and dry, masturbating full pelt without fear of interruption…’ In chapter two Mercier says ‘fuck thee’. In chapter 4 Camier mildly remarks: ‘Cunts we may be…’ In chapter 6 Mercier remembers his wife, not very fondly, Toffana, making love to whom was ‘like fucking a quag’.

So why is Beckett dwelling on piss, shit and blowjobs, masturbation, buggery fucks and cunts?

Is it another way of ridiculing the high-mindedness of the Rationalist tradition in Western philosophy (as the satires on Descartes’ method are in Watt?) Or a poke in the eye for anyone who thinks human existence is noble and spiritual? Or was it in the spirit of many other mid-century literary rebels who thought writing ‘shit’ and ‘piss’ was a blow against the Establishment / capitalist system / patriarchy?

Beckett prefers ideas and categories to description

The sounds of the city intrude:

On all hands already the workers were at it again, the air waxed loud with cries of pleasure and pain and with the urbaner notes of those for whom life had exhausted its surprises, as well on the minus side as on the plus. Things too were getting ponderously under way. It was in vain the rain poured down, the whole business was starting again with apparently no less ardour than if the sky had been a cloudless blue.

Dickens or Balzac or maybe E.M. Foster or Virginia Woolf would have given us a world of detail, listing occupations and activities of the city coming to life. In his compendious Modernist classic, Berlin Alexanderplatz, the German novelist, Alfred Döblin, used a blitz of collages and quotes from newspapers, adverts and billboards to convey the over-abundant sensual stimulation of the modern city.

But Beckett’s description is a good example of the way he isn’t at all interested in that notion of urban life and colour – his imagination always generalises, moves to the philosophical categories and ideas underlying any situation, and then plays with these and the language they’re cast in. Ignores the sensuous specific for the ideas and possibilities latent in the language of ideas. It’s this which makes so much of his writing seem grey and abstract – because it is.

Dialogue as experiments with the idea of dialogue

Similarly, the dialogue barely refers to events or things, or only the bare minimum required to make sense. Most of the dialogue is about the nature of dialogue, it is playing with the notion of dialogue and what is concealed or implied in it.

No big ideas, no Freudian sub-texts or subtle implications, it isn’t that purposive. Beckett is just tinkering with fragments of dialogue, arranging and re-arranging them at angles to each other, to see what happens, to see what effects are created. It is like cubism. Picasso and Braque in their cubist paintings depicted really banal everyday objects – tables with newspapers, a bottle of wine and some apples on it. The revolution wasn’t in the subject matter which was as banal as can be. It was in the radical experiment of seeing the same thing from different angles.

So just as cubism takes everyday subject matter and subjects it to multiple perspectives and styles, so Beckett’s dialogue takes mundane chatter and subjects it to multiple perspectives and styles. That, I think, is the spirit to approach lots of the dialogue in Beckett. It is, at best, tangential or inconsequential, random, but it also plays with registers or tones. Characters speak to each other in the style of official reports or philosophical textbooks, the exact opposite of the casual slang or jokey tone most people use in conversations:

We shall never know, said Camier, at what hour we arranged to meet today, so let us drop the subject.
In all this confusion one thing alone is sure, said Mercier, and that is that we met at ten to ten, at the same time as the hands, or rather a moment later.
There is that to be thankful for, said Camier.
The rain had not yet begun, said Mercier.
The morning fervour was intact, said Camier.
Don’t lose our agenda, said Mercier.

So it is a kind of verbal satirical cubism. And once you adapt to its arch stylisation, it can become very funny.

Who owns them dogs? said the ranger.
I don’t see how we can stay, said Camier.
Can it I wonder be the fillip we needed, to get us moving? said Mercier.

And one reason this novel feels so pacey, so unlike the concrete blocks of the Trilogy is because so much of it consists of this slightly surreal, slightly deranged, stylised and often very funny dialogue.

What is more, said Mercier, we have still thought to take, before it is too late.
Thought to take? said Camier.
Those were my words, said Mercier.
I thought all thought was taken, said Camier, and all in order.
All is not, said Mercier.

Tramps discussing Descartes, with half an eye on Laurel and Hardy:

Is thought now taken, said Camier, and all in order?
No, said Mercier.
Will all ever be? said Camier.
I believe so, said Mercier, yes, I believe, not firmly, no, but I believe, yes, the day is coming when all will be in order, at last.
That will be delightful, said Camier.
Let us hope so, said Mercier

The plot

Chapter 1

They are in the Place Satin-Ruth which is dominated by an ancient copper beech, on which a French Field Marshall several centuries earlier had once pinned a label. They are sheltering from the rain in a shelter. A ‘ranger’ sticks his head in and asks if this is their bicycle. They discuss, in their oblique pseudo-philosophical way, the journey ahead. Rather magically night begins to fall. They must have spent the entire day there. They enumerate their belongings (the sack, the umbrella, the raincoat), exit the shelter, pick up the bicycle and push it away, under the watchful eyes of the ranger, who curses them on their way.

Chapter 2

The pair push their bicycle through the busy urban throng.

I’m cold, said Camier.
It was indeed cold.
It is indeed cold, said Mercier

They repair to a pub. Landlord says no bikes so they chain theirs to the railings. Drink for some time and discuss their situation. Decide to press on, go outside, pick up the bike, resume their walk. At a crossroads don’t know which way to go so let the umbrella decide by letting it fall. It points to the left. They see a man in a frock coat walking ahead of them.They both hear the sound of a mixed choir. Then it dawns on them to actually use the umbrella against the pouring rain, but neither of them can get it open, Mercier smashes it to the ground and says ‘fuck thee’ to Camier.

They arrive at Helen’s and notice the grand carpet and the white cockatoo. Helen suddenly appears in the text, with no introduction or explanation, offering them the couch or the bed. Mercier says he will sleep with none. Then:

A nice little suck-off, said Camier, not too prolonged, by all means, but nothing more.
Terminated, said Helen, the nice little suck-offs but nothing more.

Does this mean Helen is a sex worker, and Camier is agreeing to a nice blowjob. By ‘terminated’ does Helen mean she is agreeing to the deal i.e. payment for two blowjobs ‘but nothing more’ i.e. no penetration.

One paragraph later they are ‘back in the street’, the entire night having, apparently, passed. They’re a little way down the road from Helen’s when the pouring rain makes them take shelter in an archway. They realise they’ve mislaid the sack. They enumerate what was in it. Enumerating things is one of Beckett’s most basic techniques.

Camier realises he is hungry and steps out from the archway to go to a shop. Mercier is stricken with anxiety and begs him to come back. Camier relents for a moment but then steps boldly out in the rain to find sustenance.

In his absence Mercier looks up to see a little boy and a little girl standing in the rain, who call him Papa! He shouts ‘fuck off out of here!’ at them and chases them away.

Camier returns and places a cream horn in Mercier’s hand. Mercier squeezes it uncomprehendingly till the cream spills out, and then doubles over in misery, weeping, says he’ll start crawling (as so many Beckett characters end up doing, sooner or later).

Mercier’s mood of misery and futility is interrupted by the sound of a screech of brakes and a crash. They run out into the street and see a fat woman who’s been run over, is lying amid the wreckage of her skirts, with blood flowing. Soon a crowd blocks their view (as crowds are always attracted to car accidents, as described in J.G. Ballard’s novel Crash).

Pepped up by this sight, Mercier feels like a new man, and they resume their journey.

The text is then punctuated by one of the summaries of the content so far. I’ll give the summary of chapter 1.

Summary of two preceding chapters
I
Outset.
Meeting of Mercier and Camier.
Saint Ruth Square.
The beech.
The rain.
The shelter.
The dogs.
Distress of Camier.
The ranger.
The bicycle.
Words with the ranger.
Mercier and Camier confer.
Results of this conference.
Bright too late.
The bell.
Mercier and Camier set out.

Chapter 3

Opens with a macabre first-person account by a narrator who says his parents died in a train crash when he was soon after he was 13 and he was placed with farmers who made him work hard at all sorts of manual tasks, but he turned out – gruesomely – to excel, from the age of 15, at ‘the slaughter of little lambs, calves, kids and porklings and the emasculation of little bullocks, rams, billy goats and piglets’, and smothering geese. At the age of 19 or 20, having got a milkmaid pregnant, he ran away, after setting fire to the barns, granaries and stables. That was 50 years ago (i.e. like so many Beckett narrators, he is now ancient and decrepit).

Only then, at the end of this monologue do we realise that the absence of speech marks Beckett’s deploys throughout the book has, in this instance, fooled us. This isn’t first-person narration, it is the monologue of an old codger in the compartment of the train Mercier and Camier are on. It is a sly, humorous sleight of hand.

The train stops but Mercier and Camier are too slow to get off and relieve themselves of the old man’s company and so, as the train starts up again, so does his monologue, this time a feverish garble which seems to be about whoring and womanising. The train stops at another stop and he gets off, now identified as Mr Madden, ‘He wore gaiters, a yellow block-hat and a rusty frock-coat reaching down to his knees.’ The comic dialogue between our hapless duo resumes. Mercier complains that Camier has booked them onto the stopping train, the slow train south of our Dublin (which was known in those days as the slow and easy):

I knew it, said Mercier. I’ve been shamefully abused. I’d throw myself out of the window if I wasn’t afraid I might sprain my ankle.

Camier says they’ll get down at the next stop and next thing they are in the little settlement surrounding the next station without any description of the train having stopped or them having alighted. The text is full of continual sly jokes like that, or casual underminings of the conventions of fiction. Elsewhere he undermines his own sentences even as he writes them:

It’s … snug, said the man, there is no other word. Patrick! he cried. But there was another word, for he added, in a tone of tentative complicity, whatever that sounds like, It’s … gemütlich.

The narrator uses a description and immediately wonders what the description can mean. The man speaking is an inn-keeper, greeting our travellers, while yelling over his shoulder for Patrick, presumably a servant. Mercier says that he has seen this man in his dreams. A page later we learn he is named Mr Gall, which reminds us of the Mr Gall the piano tuner who prompted a crisis of epistemology in Watt in the eponymous novel.

It is fair day. The farmers have brought their goods and animals to market. The beasts are stuffed in their pens. The narrator describes the farmers as grasping their ‘pricks through the stuff of their pockets’. Mercier summons the manager, they ask for several items off the menu which are all sold out. Camier says his friend Mercier is ‘out on his feet’, is it alright if they take a room for a rest, the manager agrees and our couple go upstairs.

One of the farmers comes over, is greeted by the manager as Mr Graves (which reminds us of Mr Graves the gardener in Watt) and comments the departed pair are ‘a nice pair’ and asks Mr Gall where he got used to such. Is the implication (once again) they Mercier and Camier are gay, and the farmer and manager think they’ve gone upstairs for sex?

Mr Gall appears to change his name and becomes Mr Gast, as the farmers depart and he is suddenly looking out onto a little medieval square, as if in a science fiction or horror story. The barman comes up and describes our pair as: ‘the long hank with the beard [and] the little fat one…’

Mr Gast pops out to find out what’s become of the absent Patrick, and is back a moment later, telling the barman he (Patrick) has died. His penultimate words were for a pint. Mr Gast calls for Teresa who is, fortunately, still alive and she comes out of the loo, a buxom wench carrying a big tray.

A rough tough man enters the bar in his hobnail boots, it is Mr Conaire, explains he’s escaped what he calls ‘the core of the metropolitan gas-chamber’, glimpses buxom Teresa, glances at the barkeeper, who is now named George. Mr Conaire asks the way to the ‘convenience’ and manages to brush against Teresa’s buxomness. Mr Gast has another vision, the present disappears as he sees a distant vista, a desolate moor with a single winding track and a solitary figure…

Mr Conaire reappears from the convenience having had a difficult time of it. Maybe he has constipation. He flirts more with Teresa then says he has an appointment to meet F.X. Camier, private investigator, and gives a description of Camier – ‘Small and fat… red face, scant hair, four chins, protruding paunch, bandy legs, beady pig eyes’ – which George complements with a description of Mercier – ‘A big bony hank with a beard… hardly able to stand, wicked expression’.

George goes up to their room to get them, but discovers Mercier and Camier asleep  and snoring, hand in hand on the floor of the hotel room.

Chapter 4

Our heroes are in the open countryside, not a house in sight, on a bank overlooking a wide field, inhabited only by a goat. But it isn’t a Shakespeare paradise, it is a wintry, cold and gloomy, damp Irish field, the sun is ‘a raw pale blotch’ in the cloudy sky. Camier complains he can feel the cold creeping up his crack. Mercier shares his method of keeping happy, which is to focus on parts of the body which do not hurt.

What shall they do? Camier suggests they need to go back into the town to find the sack, the sack they seem to have misplaced after they left Helen’s place. But maybe the sack itself isn’t the cause or the reason for their sense of want. The sack itself will not supply the truth. Maybe it is some aspect of the sack, as of the bicycle or the umbrella. Camier is disquisiting further on the nature of when Mercier interrupts him to tell him about the dream he had last night, in which his grandmother was carrying her own breasts by their nipples.

Camier loses his temper. Have they not made a solemn vow, ‘No dreams or quotes at any price.’ Camier is dispatched to get provisions from the town, swaggering there on his stumpy legs, while Mercier is left to decide in which direction to collapse.

The text cuts with no explanation to Camier being at the bar in the pub ordering a round of five sandwiches off George and introducing himself to Conaire. Mr Conaire shares a very Beckettian vision of entropy:

Yesterday cakes, today sandwiches, tomorrow crusts and Thursday stones.

We discover he spent the entire previous evening waiting for Camier to appear and fell asleep on a couch. When he woke up in the morning our couple had moved on. Camier is sublimely indifferent and leaves with his sandwiches. Mr Conaire goes for a crap. Mr Gast is absent, picking snowdrops for Patrick’s sheaf. Teresa also is absent.

Back with Mercier, Camier feeds him a sandwich but Mercier throws up. They stagger to their feet and realise they have to press on. Somewhere. For some reason. There’s a page or two of debate about whether to leave the tattered old raincoat where it is, which they do, then lament that they have. They totter back towards the railway station.

Summary of chapters 3 and 4

Chapter 5

They arrive back at the town on Sunday night. Knowing no better, they make their way to Helen’s who lets them stay and presents them with the umbrella, restored to full function. They appear to spend the evening making love, or entwining their naked bodies. So they are gay. Next afternoon they set off for their destination (we are not told what that is), and stop into a pub to wait for dark. And discuss at length and come to Great Conclusions:

1. The lack of money is an evil. But it can turn to a good.
2. What is lost is lost.
3. The bicycle is a great good. But it can turn nasty, if ill employed.
4. There is food for thought in being down and out.
5. There are two needs: the need you have and the need to have it.
6. Intuition leads to many a folly.
7. That which the soul spews forth is never lost.
8. Pockets daily emptier of their last resources are enough to break the stoutest resolution.
9. The male trouser has got stuck in a rut, particularly the fly which should be transferred to the crotch and designed to open trapwise, permitting the testes, regardless of the whole sordid business of micturition, to take the air unobserved. The drawers should of course be transfigured in consequence.
10. Contrary to a prevalent opinion, there are places in nature from which God would appear to be absent.
11. What would one do without women? Explore other channels.
12. Soul: another four-letter word.
13. What can be said of life not already said? Many things. That its arse is a rotten shot, for example.

Beckett loves a list. Our heroes decide to postpone decisive action till the following day and return to Helen’s place to kip. Next morning they set out bravely, not forgetting the umbrella. In fact it’s more like a parasol. Mercier tells Camier he bought it at Khan’s, which appears to be a pawnshop. Camier says it appears to have been manufactured in 1900, the year of the siege of Ladysmith during the Boer War. Camier gives such a vivid description of the siege, that they might have been there as young men.

Now both try and fail to open the wretched thing. Camier disappears back up the stairs (presumably of Helen’s place). Mercier takes advantage of his absence to walk on and enters a Joycean stream of consciousness phantasmagoria of thoughts and impressions about time and passersby. His path crosses an old man, he sees a man guiding a donkey, and urchins playing at marbles in the street, he rattles chains with his big stick, as he staggers senilely on.

Chapter 6

Evening of the same day. Camier is in a pub. Another pub. It is packed with dockers and sailors, a fug or smoke and beer fumes. He closes his eyes and spends two pages imagining Mercier arriving. When he opens them, Mercier has arrived, causing a momentary lull in the male fug of conversation.

They enter an obscure and highly stylised conversation. Where is the umbrella? When Camier was helping Helen, his hand slipped – he explains, as if that explains anything. Is it a sexual reference. Meanwhile the bicycle they left chained to the railings has, with Beckettian entropy, disintegrated, having lost wheels, saddle, bell and carrier, though not, intriguingly, its pump.

They set off into the dark night, supporting each other, though neither knows whither or why. They struggle to speak, Camier wants to ask questions but Mercier explains he has used up all his answers. What happened to the sack? They go into a narrow alleyway. Neither of them can remember how to describe walking. It becomes more than ever like Godot.

Where are we going? said Camier.
Shall I never shake you off? said Mercier.
Do you not know where we are going? said Camier.
What does it matter, said Mercier, where we are going? We are going, that’s enough.
No need to shout, said Camier.

Even the fresh line for each bit of dialogue looks like a play. They end up walking back and forth along this dark alleyway wondering where they’re going, and why, and why in each other’s company. They smell kips which appears to mean the perfume from a brothel. They ask a policeman if there’s a brothel and when he says they should be ashamed at their age, says it’s all they’ve got left. That and masturbation. So are they solidly heterosexual?

The officer arrests them and turns up Camier’s arm and smacks him. He’s about to blow his whistle when Mercier kicks him in the balls and the officer releases Camier, falling to the ground. This gets extremely unpleasant, for Camier seizes the officer’s truncheon and starts beating him round the head, they pull his cape over his head and beat some more, the impression of the head being of a boiled egg without it shell. Seems they’ve murdered him. They run along the alley into a square, across it and into a narrow street, and decide it is best to go back to Helen’s place.

Summary of chapters 5 and 6

Chapter 7

Descriptive passage of open moorland, heather, mountains looming, lights of city in distance, lights of harbour reflected in the sea. Presumably the countryside surrounding Beckett’s family home in Foxrock. Lucky bugger.

Mercier and Camier are making their way across this wild landscape. They have cut themselves cudgels to clear the undergrowth. They spy a wooden cross of a nationalist’s grave and head towards it but lose their thread. Start wondering if there are worms in turf. Feel something spectral is surrounding them.

Night is coming. It gets dark. They do not think they can walk any further (‘if you can call it walking’). They cannot see each other. They totter. They fall in the dark, in the bog, and help each other get up. Eventually. They finally make it to some ruins they’d spied, and collapse. And ‘their hands were freed to go about their old business’. Is that masturbation? And the text mentions their ‘customary cleavings’. Gay sex?

The narrator says the text could end here, frankly. But there is no end. There are never endings.

Here would be the place to make an end. After all it is the end. But there is still day, day after day, afterlife all life long, the dust of all that is dead and buried rising, eddying, settling, burying again. So let him wake, Mercier, Camier…

This is the utterly exhausted, bleak voice of the Beckett Trilogy. They waken separately, stumble out the ruins, each thinking the other has abandoned him, barely able to see in the dark, indistinguishable footfalls, they are heading back to town, of course, because that is what they do as soon as they have left town, their endless itinerary. They come to a fork in the road, Camier takes one road but when Mercier comes up to the fork, he cannot see his compadre and so takes the other. The text has ceased to be light and funny. It is weighed down with the full concrete futility of the books to come.

Such roughly must have been the course of events. The earth dragged on into the light, the brief interminable light.

Chapter 8

‘That’s it’, the text sinks into Beckett despair at the exhausting business of getting up, washing, dressing and all the rest of it, God, the endless waiting for death, dragging on, the dead and unburied with the dying, and the pathetic illusion of life (and so on and so on).

Camier leaves a house. He is an old frail man now, unable to walk without a stick, head on his chest. He is in some street when a heavy hand falls on his shoulder. A big man says he knows him, watched his mother change his diapers, introduces himself as Watt, and says he wishes to introduce him to a Mr Mercier, standing just along the pavement. Watt, says Camier. I knew a fellow named Murphy, died in mysterious circumstances.

Watt takes the two men imperiously by the arms and half drags them along the pavement, they are walking into the sunset (!) – until a police officer blocks their way. Watt defies the police officer, grabs the pair round the waist and hauls them further along the pavement. They collapse into a bar (as men so often do in these stories).

Watt orders whiskey all round. In an obscure roundabout way Mercier and Camier warm up and begin to regard each other in the old friendly way. Suddenly Watt bangs the table loudly and shouts, ‘Bugger life!’ The landlord comes over and angrily tells them to leave. Mercier and Camier go into a perfectly co-ordinated and comic turn, claiming that poor Watt has just lost his darling baby, his wife is at home in paroxysms of grief, they have brought Watt out to console him, could they just have another round and everything will be alright, honest your honour!

They call Watt daddy (despite being decrepitly old themselves). This last section contains a number of mocking anti-religious references, for example, the narrator tells us most of the pub’s clientele are butchers who have been made mild by the blood of the lambs. Ha ha. This undergraduate wit is common in Joyce and, alas, lives on in Beckett, lowering the tone or, more precisely, thinning the texture. Like the fondness for including swearwords in the story. Alright, but… it lets the reader off the hook. It stops being demanding. Swearwords are as easy-to-read, as assimilable as the sentimental clichés he so mocks. They’re just another type of cliché.

The landlord backs down and serves them their second round of drinks. Mercier goes to the window and looks out. The colours of heaven were not quite spent. He resumes his seat and Camier has begun to reminisce about what he remembers of their travels (the goat in the field, Mr Madden who gave the intense soliloquy about being a beast-slaughterer at the start of chapter 3) when Watt starts from his apparent sleep, seizes Camier’s stick and brings it crashing down on the table next to them, at which sits a man with side whiskers quietly reading his paper and sipping his pint. The stick breaks, the table top shatters, the man falls backwards in his chair (still holding his newspaper). Watt flings the shattered stick behind the bar where it brings down a number of glasses and bottles, then bawls:

‘Fuck life!’

Mercier and Camier bolt for the door. From just outside they listen to the uproar within. They both hear someone in the pub shout ‘Up Quin!’ Only those of us who have read the notes for Beckett’s novel, Watt, know that in its early drafts the protagonist was called Quin. Sol that’s quite an obscure reference there, Sam.

Mercier invites Camier for a last pint at another pub. Camier says no but ends up walking with him part of the way home. They reminisce in a fragmentary way about their adventures. Mercier starts crying. The houses grow more sparse. Suddenly space gapes and the earth vanishes but… all it means is they’ve climbed a small, picturesque bridge over the canal. It is gently raining.

High above the horizon the clouds were fraying out in long black strands, fine as weepers’ tresses. Nature at her most thoughtful.

It’s one of those rare moments when Beckett displays an old-fashioned notion of poetic sensibility. They sit on a bench, two old men. Mercier tells Camier to look north, beyond the stars. He seems to be pointing out… stars… flowers…? Camier refers to them as the Blessed Isles? This is obscure. Then, with characteristic bathos, he points out the grim pile of the hospital for skin diseases.

Camier goes to the edge of the canal. I think it is implied he is having a pee. Then returns to the bench. Mercier reminds Camier of the parrot at Helen’s. He has a feeling the parrot is dead. Camier says it’s time to go. Says, Goodbye Mercier. Alone, Mercier watches ‘the sky go out’ and hears all the little sounds which have been hidden from him by the long day.

… human murmurs for example, and the rain on the water.

So this final passage is unexpectedly poignant. 1. This thread of (possibly sentimental) feeling, along with 2. the shortness of the book 3. its conventional division into chapters and into paragraphs of clearly signposted action and snappy dialogue, and 4. the humour of much of the exchanges – yes, Mercier and Camier is definitely Beckett’s most accessible novel.


Related links

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Ovid’s Amores translated by Christopher Marlowe

The bed is for lascivious toyings meet (3.13)

Introduction to Ovid

Publius Ovidius Naso, generally known as Ovid (43 BC – 17/18 AD) was a well-known Latin poet who lived at the time of the Emperor Augustus (63 BC – 14 AD), and a younger contemporary of arguably the greatest poet of ancient Rome, Virgil (70 BC – 19 AD).

After years of success and public honours, at the height of his fame, in 8 AD the emperor ordered Ovid to be summarily exiled to the remote backwater of the Black Sea. Possibly some of his verse had offended, either because of their satire or their erotic content. Possibly he had a relationship with the emperor’s daughter Julia. To this day, scholars aren’t completely sure. Augustus ordered Ovid’s works removed from libraries and destroyed, but that seems to have had little effect on his popularity. He was always among the most widely read and imitated of Latin poets and more copies of his works survive than of any other Latin poet.

Amores is Latin for ‘loves’ and the work consists of 48 poems, all in the first person, which describe the poet’s love affair with a rich and unhappily married woman, named Corinna. The series doesn’t tell a well-defined narrative with beginning, middle and end. Some poems seem to refer to specific events, but more often they address topics arising from the general idea of being in love. Some seem aimed at a generic female figure, others wander off the central topic altogether to make general points about Poetry, or the poet’s Muse. One is an elegy to fellow poet Tibullus, who had done much to establish the genre of the erotic elegy.

The word ‘elegy’ has come to mean a lament for someone who’s died, but in Ovid’s day it had the broader meaning of a poem written to or about a specific person – in this case Corinna, although many of the poems are actually written to figures surrounding her, such as her eunuch.

Scholars credit Ovid with taking aspects of the love elegy and developing them further, in particular a subversive irony and humour, ironising his own role as lover, the beloved’s character and, indeed, the whole palaver of being in love, wooing and all the rest of it.

Summary of the Amores

Book 1 contains 15 poems. The first tells of Ovid’s intention to write epic poetry, which is thwarted when Cupid steals a metrical foot from him, changing his work into love elegy. Poem 4 is didactic and describes principles that Ovid would develop in the Ars Amatoria. The fifth poem, describing sex in the afternoon, first introduces Corinna by name. Poems 8 and 9 deal with Corinna selling her love for gifts, while 11 and 12 describe the poet’s failed attempt to arrange a meeting. Poem 14 discusses Corinna’s disastrous experiment in dyeing her hair and 15 stresses the immortality of Ovid and love poets.

The second book contains 19 poems. The opening poem tells of Ovid’s abandonment of a Gigantomachy in favour of elegy. Poems 2 and 3 are entreaties to a guardian to let the poet see Corinna, poem 6 is a lament for Corinna’s dead parrot; poems 7 and 8 deal with Ovid’s affair with Corinna’s servant and her discovery of it, and 11 and 12 try to prevent Corinna from going on vacation. Poem 13 is a prayer to Isis for Corinna’s illness, 14 a poem against abortion, and 19 a warning to unwary husbands.

Book 3 contains 15 poems. The opening piece depicts personified Tragedy and Elegy fighting over Ovid. Poem 2 describes a visit to the races, 3 and 8 focus on Corinna’s interest in other men, 10 is a complaint to Ceres because of her festival that requires abstinence, 13 is a poem on a festival of Juno, and 9 a lament for Tibullus. In poem 11 Ovid decides not to love Corinna any longer and regrets the poems he has written about her. The final poem is Ovid’s farewell to the erotic muse.

The most accessible poems

I have boldened the poems I found easiest to understand and so most enjoyable, being 1.5, 2.4, 2.10, 2.13 and 2.14 about abortion, 3.6 about impotence, 3.8 the elegy to Tibullus, 3.13 telling his mistress to be discreet.

The summaries in italics are in the Penguin edition and appear to be the summaries given in the original Elizabethan edition.

Book 1

1.1 How he was forced by Cupid to write of love instead of war – At the time epic poetry was written in hexameters which have six ‘feet’ or units per line, whereas love poems were written in pentameters with five ‘feet’. The poet humorously complains that he set out to write bold, manly war poetry but that Cupid stole one of the ‘feet’ of his verse, and so now he is condemned to write love poems. He complains this is topsy turvey, Cupid should not have the power to intervene in poetry, but Cupid replied by shooting him with one of his arrows.

Thus I complaind, but Love unlockt his quiver,
Tooke out the shaft, ordaind my hart to shiver:
And bent his sinewy bow upon his knee,
Saying, Poet heers a worke beseeming thee.
Oh woe is me, he never shootes but hits,
I burne, love in my idle bosome sits.

1.2 First captured by love, he endures being led in triumph by Cupid – What is keeping him awake at night? It is love. He gives examples of types of animals which know that fighting against man’s shackles and bridles only makes it worse. Similarly, he has the wisdom to submit.

Yielding or striving do we give him might,
Let’s yield, a burden easily borne is light.

1.3 To his mistress – He describes his devotion and his good qualities as a lover:

Be thou the happy subject of my books
That I may write things worthy thy fair looks.

1.4 He advises his love what devices and signals they ought to employ when they were at dinner with her husband present – The poet goes to a dinner party along with his lover and her husband and gives a long list of instructions to her not to dally too much or too openly with him, not to hang about his neck, fondle his chin, entwine her legs with his and the secret signs they will use to convey their passion to each other.

View me, my becks, and speaking countenance;
Take, and return each secret amorous glance.
Words without voice shall on my eyebrows sit,
Lines thou shalt read in wine by my hand writ.

1.5 Sex with Corinna – He describes an afternoon when Corinna comes to his rooms and they make love (quoted in full below).

1.6 To her porter, to open the door for him – He begs Corinna’s doorkeeper to let him into the house to see his love. This is an example, believe it or not, of a recognised genre, the paraclausithyron, the ‘door poem’ or ‘lament beside the door’, in which the exclusus amator (‘shut-out lover’) addresses the door or doorkeeper keeping him from his mistress. Horace wrote a poem threatening the door, Tibullus appealed to the door, Propertius wrote a poem in which the door is the speaker. The trope was revived by some of the troubadors, recurs in Victorian poetry, and lives on into our day, witness the 1971 song Can’t You Hear Me Knocking? by the Rolling Stones:

Can’t you hear me knockin’ on your window
Can’t you hear me knockin’ on your door

1.7 That his mistress, who he has beaten, should make peace with him – In a blind rage he hits his lover, then sees her tears and throws himself at her feet in regret.

1.8 He reviles the bawd who has been introducing his mistress to the courtesan’s art – The longest poem in book 1, the poet describes the ancient bawd and procuress Dipsas as a witch and then overhears, from a hiding place, the old crone giving his mistress lessons on how to keep a lover on tenterhooks. At the end of her lecture the poet heartily curses her.

1.9 To Atticus: that a lover may not be lazy, any more than a soldier – The poet compares lovers with soldiers, including the greats of the tale of Troy, and says he is like a soldier, at his mistress’ beck and call as a soldier is of his captain’s.

1.10 To his girl, that she should not demand money for her love – He complains that alone among species, female humans refrain from sex until given gifts, until bought like whores.

The mare asks not the horse, the cow the bull,
Nor the mild ewe gifts from the ram doth pull.
Only a woman gets spoils from a man,
Farms out herself on nights for what she can;
And lets [prevents] what both delight, what both desire,
Making her joy according to her hire.

He swears that the gift he gives his mistress – his – will last long after the gold and jewels that common mistresses demand.

1.11 He pleads with Nape to carry a letter to Corinna – He asks Corinna’s maid to take a message to her and await her reply.

1.12 To those who begrudge the poet eternal fame – He seems to be attacking a book or books or manuscript, maybe it’s a letter announcing his mistress cannot visit.

1.13 To Dawn, not to hurry – He criticises the dawn for waking humanity from its rest and forcing all kinds of people, trades and animals to their daily work.

Poor travellers though tired, rise at thy sight,
And soldiers make them ready to the fight.
The painful hind by thee to field is sent;
Slow oxen early in the yoke are pent.
Thou coz’nest boys of sleep, and dost betray them
To pedants that with cruel lashes pay them.

But, worst of all, parting him from his mistress.

1.14 He consoles his girl, whose hair has fallen out from excessive hair-washing  – He mocks Corinna for cutting off her hair and dyeing the rest and then complaining about the result.

She holds, and views her old locks in her lap;
Ay me! rare gifts unworthy such a hap!

1.15 To those who begrudge the poet eternal fame – The book ends with Ovid describing the immortal fame achieved by the great poets of the past and the subjects they wrote about (Troy, Aeneas, the golden fleece) and that he will be among them (as he, indeed, is).

Therefore when flint and iron wear away,
Verse is immortal and shall ne’er decay.
To[ verse let kings give place and kingly shows,
And banks o’er which gold-bearing Tagus flows.
Let base-conceited wits admire vild things;
Fair Phœbus lead me to the Muses’ springs.

Book 2

2.1 Why he is impelled to write of love, rather than of titanic struggles – The poet describes the sort of audience that he desires, hot maids looking for a husband and boys hurt, like him, by Cupid’s arrows. He jokingly says what good will it do him to write about Achilles or Odysseus, they’re long dead? But if he writes a poem to a pretty woman, he might get a snog out of it!

2.2 To Bagous, to keep a more lax watch over his mistress, who has been entrusted to him – The poet asks Bagous, a woman’s servant, to help him gain access to his mistress in a poem I found largely incomprehensible.

2.3 To the eunuch serving his mistress – The poet addresses a eunuch, arguing he should let him see his mistress.

2.4 That he loves women of all sorts – An unusually comprehensible poem in which the poet explains that he loves every woman he sees, tall or short, dark or fair, coy or brazen, singing or silent, dancing or plodding:

I cannot rule myself but where Love please;
Am driven like a ship upon rough seas.
No one face likes me best, all faces move,
A hundred reasons make me ever love.

2.5 To his faithless mistress – How lucky is a lover who intercepts letters or hears gossip that his lover is unfaithful: because she can deny it and he can believe her. But the poet saw with his own eyes how, when a dinner party had ended, she kissed at length, with tongues, ‘another’ (presumably her husband).

2.6 On the death of his parrot – A pet parrot has died and he expends numerous classical analogies in mourning it. Despite reading the poem several times I can’t work out whether the parrot belonged to Corinna, or the poet, or whether Corinna is meant to be speaking (‘The parrot, from East India to me sent/Is dead…’)

2.7 He swears to his mistress that he has not made love to her maid – The poet complains that she’s always accusing him of something, in this case of sleeping with her handmaiden Cypassis. The poet denies it based on class loyalty, he would never demean himself to have sex with a slave. He throws in an unnerving detail – that her back is ‘rough with stripes’. From being whipped!?

With Venus’ game who will a servant grace?
Or any back, made rough with stripes, embrace?

2.8 To Cypassis, Corinna’s maid – In humorous contrast to the preceding poem, the poet now addresses Cypassis freely admitting that they’ve been having sex, and using classical precedents (Achilles and Agamemnon both had affairs with servants) as freely to justify the affair to Cypassis as he had used others to deny it to Corinna.

The poem appears to take place in real time, i.e. is his part of a dialogue, because after he’s taken the credit for speaking up in her defence when Corinna accused her, he promptly asks her to lie with him as a reward and, when she refuses, gets cross and threatens to reveal the truth to her mistress (which would, presumably, lead to another whipping).

2.9 To Cupid – The poet reproaches Cupid for causing him so much pain in love, for driving him like a headstrong horse or a storm at sea, when he (the poet) is a fellow soldier, a colleague, in love’s wars.

2.10 To Graecinus, that he can love two at once – His friend Graecinus told him it was impossible to be in love with two women at the same time, but he is (‘Which is the loveliest, it is hard to say’)! He describes the joy of two lovers at length and humorously gloats over his enemies who lie alone at night in their big empty beds.

2.11 To his mistress sailing – He is very anxious indeed about a planned sea voyage Corinna is going to make, curses the pioneers of sea adventures, and then invokes a ton of gods to look after her, before anticipating the joy of their reunion when she returns.

2.12 He rejoices that he has conquered his mistress – A humorous poem in which he compares himself to a mighty warrior and says he deserves to be crowned with bay leaves like the traditional victor of a campaign because he has won Corinna who is even at this moment lying on his breast, a victory greater than the defeat of Troy.

2.13 To Isis, to aid Corinna in Labour– He prays to the Egyptian goddess, Isis, and to Lucina goddess of childbirth, to protect and save Corinna who is having an abortion he is sure is from him, save Corinna and, in doing so, also save the anxious poet.

My wench, Lucina, I entreat thee favour;
Worthy she is, thou should’st in mercy save her.

2.14 To his mistress, who has attempted an abortion – The poet laments that, although women are not involved in war, they have come up with ways to harm themselves, namely having abortions which, apparently, involves ‘hid irons’ and ‘dire poison’. If all women had practiced abortion, the world would be empty, there would have been no Priam or Achilles (as usual his mind goes straight to the Trojan Wars), no Romulus and Rome, in fact no Ovid and Corinna.

2.15 To a ring which he has given his mistress – He wishes he were his mistress ring so he could familiarly touch her lap and pap.

2.16 To his mistress, to come to his country estate – He wishes his mistress would come to his country estate in Sulmo (in the Abruzzi, a region of east-central Italy). He gives an extensive description of the region’s natural beauties but says that, without her, it means nothing.

2.17 That he will serve only Corinna – He laments that his mistress is well aware how beautiful she is and this makes her haughty and disdainful. He recalls how many women from classical myth accepted a more junior lover e.g. Venus with club-footed Vulcan.

And thou, my light, accept me howsoever;
Lay in the mid bed, there be my lawgiver.

2.18 To Macer, writing of his love poems – Another poem pointing out that he would like to write of war and high tragedy but his mistress is wriggling on his lap, refuses to go when he orders her, and so his poems end up being about love and his love emotions.

I yield, and back my wit from battles bring,
Domestic acts, and mine own wars to sing.

2.19 – To his rival, her husband, who does not guard his wife – He is irritated with the husband for making Corinna so available. Forbidden love is sweeter, and he rattles off a list of women from myth and legend who were difficult to attain and so fired up their lovers more (Danae kept in a high tower, Io guarded by Juno)

What flies I follow, what follows me I shun.

In fact, he warns the husband, unless he starts protecting her more seriously, Ovid is going to give up being her lover, it’s too easy, it’s boring.

Now I forewarn, unless to keep her stronger
Thou dost begin, she shall be mine no longer.

Book 3

3.1 The poet’s deliberation whether to continue writing elegies or to turn to tragedy – Walking in a wood he is confronted by personifications of Elegy and Tragedy. Tragedy says he has become a laughing stock, writing about his lewd love affairs. Time to fulfil his talents and write Great Things. Elegy replies that she is light and trivial and yet suited for some subjects. She dresses out Venus and Corinna. The poet says he will turn to Grand Things in time and Tragedy appears to grant him a period to continue dawdling with trivial love, before turning to Higher Things. A worry which is still nagging him in 3.10:

When Thebes, when Troy, when Cæsar should be writ,
Alone Corinna moves my wanton wit.

3.2 To his mistress watching the races – He has come to the races, not to look at the horse, but his mistress. As avidly as she feeds on the arduous horse, he feeds on sight of her. There is an extended description of every element of a Roman horse-race and how they can be metaphorically applied to his feverish wooing.

3.3 On his mistress, who has lied to him – He is appalled that his mistress has lied to him and yet looks just as beautiful and desirable as before. Are there no gods, is there no justice? Characteristically, he launches into a long list of legendary figures and asks why the gods bothered punishing them so excessively if they are going to let his mistress off scot-free?

3.4 To a man who guards his wife – He warns a man who is trying to guard his lover from adultery that it will have the opposite effect: forbidden fruit tastes sweeter; it is nature to hanker for what is banned.

3.5 To a torrent, while he is on his way to his mistress – He has travelled day and night to reach his lover and now is prevented by a river in flood as the mountain snows thaw. Characteristically, he then compares the flooded river to numerous other rivers in Graeco-Roman mythology, an extended litany which helps to make this the longest poem in the book.

3.6 He bewails the fact that, in bed with his mistress, he was unable to perform – 

Though both of us performed our true intent,
Yet could I not cast anchor where I meant.

Interestingly, he points out that whatever caused the first failure, it was compounded by shame i.e. embarrassment. Interesting because that is, indeed, how erectile disfunction works, the more aware you become, the worse it gets, and the more humiliated you feel. At several points he directly describes the failing member:

Yet like as if cold hemlock I had drunk,
It mockèd me, hung down the head and sunk…

Yet notwithstanding, like one dead it lay,
Drooping more than a rose pulled yesterday…

3.7 He mourns that his mistress will not receive him – He is consumed with anger and jealousy that his mistress has rejected him, ‘the pure priest of Phoebus and the Muses’, for a battle-scarred hunk whose hands are bloody from the men he’s killed. Alas, poetry and the arts are now worth less than gold – Barbarism!

3.8 He mourns the death of Tibullus – Albius Tibullus (c. 55 BC – 19 BC) was a Latin poet and writer of elegies. In Ovid’s poem Cupid has broken his bow and mourns. He compares Tibullus’ death to those of legendary heroes and says death makes him doubt the existence of the gods.

Outrageous death profanes all holy things,
And on all creatures obscure darkness brings.

It is a sweet and moving elegy, in the modern sense of the word.

3.9 To Ceres, complaining that because of her ceremonies he is not allowed to sleep with his mistress – The Festival of Ceres prevents Ovid from meeting his mistress who lies alone in an empty bed. There is an extended description of Ceres’ history and attributes, before he concludes that he’d rather be celebrating a festival to Venus!

3.10 To his mistress, from whose love he cannot free himself – So many times he has been turned away from her door and slept on the floor. ‘Long have I borne much, mad thy faults me make.’ He has impersonated one of her servants and seen many a sated lover leaving her bedroom, observed her tricks and signs to lovers at dinner parties, put up with her lies and deceptions. But now he has made some kind of break:

Now have I freed myself, and fled the chain,
And what I have borne, shame to bear again.

Now hate and love fight in his breast.

Now love and hate my light breast each way move,
But victory, I think, will hap to love.
I’ll hate, if I can; if not, love ‘gainst my will,

Torn: ‘Nor with thee, nor without thee can I live.’

3.11 He complains that his lover is so well known through his poems that she is available to many rival lovers – Actually, when you stop and reflect on the previous 40 or so poems, you realise that he has not in fact painted a particularly vivid picture of his lover. Horse-racing, his native countryside, the maid he had a fling with, the doorkeeper, her husband, even the details of horse-racing – and lots and lots of references to classical myths, yes, certainly. But in a curious way, the mistress – if her name is Corinna – is strangely absent from many of the poems, and even when she’s explicitly named, a strangely fugitive presence.

Which makes you realise how conventional this poem lamenting that fact that he’s made her famous, actually is.

Characteristically, he turns to classical mythology to give examples of how vivid and blazing and enduring the poet’s myths and fables have been.

3.12 On the feast of Juno – A straightfoward description of the Festival of Juno, which takes place in the town of his wife’s birth, Falsica (Falerii), and its origins. He ends the poem by piously hoping that Juno will favour both him and the townspeople.

3.13 – To his mistress; if she will be licentious, let her do it discreetly – He tells her not to boast about her night’s adventures, if she is going to stray, at least have the decency to be discreet about it. Be as wanton as she likes in bed, but, risen and dressed and in company, be sage and graceful and proper. That will make it easier for him to overlook her infidelities.

3.14 To Venus, putting an end to his elegies – In a relatively short, poignant poem, he bids farewell to ‘tender Love’s mother’ i.e. Venus, to ‘weak elegies’ and his ‘delightful muse’. What gives it a particular feel is that it is almost devoid of the extensive lists of gods and heroes which pad out most of the poems. Instead he speaks fondly of his home among the Paeligni tribe of the Abruzzi. Whereas visitors might think it fitting that Mantua sired the great poet Vergil and Verona was home to Catullus, they might be surprised that the little town of Sulmo was his birthplace. But he loves it and will praise it. And now it is time to move on, to tackle a greater ground with a greater horse. To move onto the more Serious kind of poetry which has periodically nagged him throughout the series.

Marlowe’s translation

Marlowe’s Ovid is the earliest, the least studied of his works and the most dismissed. One reason is the technical inaccuracies, errors and mistranslations which, apparently, crop up in every line, partly Marlowe’s errors, partly because the printed texts he was working from were themselves inaccurate.

This, understandably, irks Latin scholars and has resulted in 400 years of negative reviews. We, however, need not be very troubled by these pedantic concerns about literal accuracy. A hundred years ago Ezra Pound showed that translations can be full of howlers but still be very beautiful (Cathay). The thing deserves to be judged on its own terms.

That said, these poems are often boring and quite hard to follow. Why? Having just read Hero and Leander and the first couple of plays, I think it’s for several inter-connected reasons:

The couplet form

Ovid’s original was written in couplets, that’s to say paired lines, sentences divided into two lines which end with a full stop. The impact of reading a series of self-contained rhymed couplets quickly becomes monotonous. It feels mechanical.

Aye me an Eunuch keepes my mistrisse chaste,
That cannot Venus mutuall pleasure taste.
Who first depriv’d yong boyes of their best part,
With selfe same woundes he gave, he ought to smart.
To kinde requests thou wouldst more gentle prove,
If ever wench had made luke-warme thy love.

It feels like Marlowe is cabined and confined by this format. He is clearly constrained to convey Ovid’s original meaning and struggles to do so within the narrow bounds of the couplet. It routinely feels like he is contorting normal English phrasing or rhythm, so much so that I found it very difficult to understand what entire poems were actually about. 1.2 mentions a husband and husbands generally, but I struggled to understand even one line.

I sawe ones legges with fetters blacke and blewe,
By whom the husband his wives incest knewe.
More he deserv’d, to both great harme he fram’d,
The man did grieve, the woman was defam’d.
Trust me all husbands for such faults are sad
Nor make they any man that heare them glad.
If he loves not, deafe eares thou doest importune,
Or if he loves, thy tale breedes his misfortune.

The pronouns, and the apparent subject, of the poem keep changing so that I’m not sure who’s being talked about. I’ve no idea why incest has cropped up, I’ve no idea who the man is, or the woman is in the first four lines. I don’t understand what faults are being referred to, and I nearly understand the last couplet but don’t really know who the ‘thou’ referred to is. Is it the poet’s lover Corinna? But if so, why does her tale breed ‘his misfortune’?

Latin

Latin is a more compact language than English. Its declensions and conjugations, the way it changes the ends of the words to convey changes in case for nouns, and tense and person for verbs, mean that one Latin word can convey what can easily take two, three or four English words to express.

Latin can elegantly fit into two lines ideas and meanings which English can only fit into the tight straitjacket by mangling word order and meaning. To give one repeated example of this at work, many of the poems start with a ringing couplet whose first line sounds fine because he has written it out at full length, so to speak – but whose second line is incomprehensible, as Marlowe tries to fit into the second line a meaning which really requires one and a half or two. Quite often the second lines are incomprehensible.

I ask but right, let her that caught me late,
Either love, or cause that I may never hate… (?)

Bind fast my hands, they have deservèd chains,
While rage is absent, take some friend the pains…(?)

I, Ovid, poet, of my wantonness,
Born at Peligny, to write more address. (?)

It explains why Marlowe continually distorts normal word order and sense. In the poem about the doorkeeper, he writes:

Little I ask, a little entrance make,
The gate half-ope my bent side in will take.
Long love my body to such use makes slender,
And to get out doth like apt members render.

So, the first line is fairly smooth and understandable, the second is peculiarly phrased (‘bent side’?). The third line is understandable if you make the effort to read it carefully, and the fourth line is gibberish. He’s mangling the English because he’s trying to shoehorn a Latin meaning which simply contains more than an English couplet can handle.

The net effect is that it’s possible to read line after line, poem after poem, without really understanding what they’re about. Easy to begin skipping verse which is so hard to get a grasp of, or reading through entire passages without properly understanding them. Takes this couplet from 1.3:

I love but one, and her I love change never,
If men have faith, I’ll live with thee for ever.

The first line is so compacted you have to read it several times to parse the meaning – the second half of the second line is clear enough, but I don’t quite get why he’ll live with his love forever ‘if men have faith’. What have other men got to do with it? Maybe it means something like, ‘as long as men are faithful, I’ll live with thee forever’, but the little shoebox of the heroic couplet forces him to abbreviate English words so much as to teeter on the incomprehensible.

Contrast with Marlowe the playwright

Taken together what the set highlights, by being such a sharp contrast to it, is Marlowe’s natural gift for a completely different type of verse when he is writing at will and with freedom – for verse which flows freely for entire paragraphs – his gift for rolling lines which convey a luxurious flow of meaning over 5, 6, 7 or more lines, the kind of wonderfully fluent passages you find again and again in the plays. Here is Jupiter flirting with Ganymede at the start of his earliest play, Dido, Queen of Carthage:

Sit on my knee, and call for thy content,
Control proud Fate, and cut the thread of Time;
Why, are not all the gods at thy command,
And Heaven and earth the bounds of thy delight?
Vulcan shall dance to make thee laughing sport,
And my nine daughters sing when thou art sad;
From Juno’s bird I’ll pluck her spotted pride,
To make thee fans wherewith to cool thy face:
And Venus’ swans shall shed their silver down,
To sweeten out the slumbers of thy bed:

What makes this both enjoyable and understandable is they way the same basic thought (‘I’ll give you anything you want, sweet Ganymede’) expands out over ten lines. All the examples repeat the same basic idea – that all the gods will dance at Ganymede’s command – and the reader, having once grasped the basic idea, is freed up to enjoy the poet’s embellishments and elaborations. We readers revel in Marlowe’s inventiveness and fluency and therein lies the mental pleasure, the sense of luxury which derives from the effortlessness with which Marlowe spins out elegantly phrased elaborations of the theme. It’s like a luxury hotel, every room is smoothly and tastefully furnished.

Seeing Marlowe pace up and down the cage of these rhyming couplets, makes you appreciate it even more when you see him released to go bounding joyfully across the open sunny savannah of the blank verse of his plays.

The dead parrot

Whereas in the Ovid translations, the reader continually feels, along with the poet, that his natural grandiloquent discursiveness has been chopped up and cramped into bite-sized couplets. The poem about the death of Corinna’s parrot ought to be funny, the subject is potentially humorous, but the performance feels stuttery and confined.

Elisium hath a wood of holme trees black,
Whose earth doth not perpetuall greene-grasse lacke,
There good birds rest (if we beleeve things hidden)
Whence uncleane fowles are said to be forbidden.
There harrnelesse Swans feed all abroad the river,
There lives the Phoenix one alone bird ever.
There Junoes bird displayes his gorgious feather,
And loving Doves kisse eagerly together.
The Parrat into wood receiv’d with these,
Turnes all the goodly birdes to what she please.

What does ‘if we believe things hidden’ really mean? That belief in the afterlife is some esoteric knowledge? – but it wasn’t. As in hundreds of other lines, the meaning is puzzlingly meaningless or unclear. The line about harmless swans on the river is easy enough to understand but, although you can see the idea lurking behind ‘there lives the Phoenix one alone bird ever’, the actual phrasing feels clumsy and contorted, and poetry is about the actual phrasing.

Juno’s bird (the peacock) displaying her gorgeous feather I understand alright, and the loving turtle doves are a stock cliché – but the final couplet is horrible: ‘The parrot into wood received with these’ is just horrible phrasing, and what does the final line actually mean? Is it something to do with the parrot’s ability to mimic the other birds? I’ve no idea.

Love in the afternoon

Of the 45 poems only one manages to be both completely understandable and to show the extended fluency on a simple idea which distinguishes the more relaxed and fluent verse of his plays – which explains why it’s the one that is always included in anthologies.

Book 1 Elegy 5

In summer’s heat, and mid-time of the day,
To rest my limbs upon a bed I lay;
One window shut, the other open stood,
Which gave such light as twinkles in a wood,
Like twilight glimpse at setting of the sun,
Or night being past, and yet not day begun.
Such light to shamefaced maidens must be shown,
Where they may sport, and seem to be unknown.
Then came Corinna in a long loose gown,
Her white neck hid with tresses hanging down,
Resembling fair Semiramis going to bed
Or Lais of a thousand wooers sped.
I snatched her gown: being thin, the harm was small,
Yet strived she to be covered there withal.
And striving thus, as one that would be cast,
Betrayed herself, and yielded at the last.
Stark naked as she stood before mine eye,
Not one wen in her body could I spy.
What arms and shoulders did I touch and see!
How apt her breasts were to be pressed by me!
How smooth a belly under her waist saw I,
How large a leg, and what a lusty thigh!
To leave the rest, all liked me passing well,
I clinged her naked body, down she fell:
Judge you the rest; being tired she bade me kiss;
Jove send me more such afternoons as this!

And then, it’s about a naked woman and sex, which always helps.

Legacy

There are several points to make.

1. Marlowe’s sonnet sequence

Although they are obviously not sonnets, and he didn’t write them from scratch, nonetheless the Amores can be thought of as ‘Marlowe’s sonnet sequence’. Most other leading poets of the day wrote an extended series of sonnets, all addressed to the same remote and aloof mistress, which they used to explore different moods and subjects, some tragic, some humorous. Examples include Astrophil and Stella by Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser’s sequence Amoretti, Shakespeare’s Sonnets and the set which is sometimes seen as ending the fashion, Michael Drayton’s Idea sequence.

The point is, the Amores played something of the same role for Marlowe, allowing him to experiment with how to phrase in English a wide variety of moods, emotions and tones of voice. Each of the poems tends to make a case i.e. is not a flow of emotion, but a string of rhetorical arguments around a particular love-related issue (jealousy, passion, anger, regret). So you could argue that the Amores was practice, warming up and rehearsal for deploying variations on all these emotions in the mouths of the characters in his plays, for example the variety of arguments deployed by Aeneas and Dido as they fall in and out of love.

2. Grabby openings

One of the often-noted features of both Shakespeare’s sonnets and John Donne’s lyrics, is their colloquial, dramatic, buttonholing opening lines – ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’ or ‘I wonder by my troth what thou and I did till we loved…’ being examples of Shakespeare and Donne, respectively.

The point is you can make the case that Marlowe helped establish this tone – that instead of the long and formal exordium of earlier Renaissance poetry,  Marlowe’s translations leap straight in with colloquial, chatty or arresting openings:

What makes my bed seem hard seeing it is soft?

Thy husband to a banquet goes with me…

Bind fast my hands, they have deservèd chains…

Leave colouring thy tresses, I did cry…

Ay me, an eunuch keeps my mistress chaste… (2.3)

Well, maybe. Maybe some of them. But just as many start with crabbed or obscure lines, simple situational setups, or promising phrases which are then bent and broken:

An old wood stands, uncut of long years’ space,
‘Tis credible some godhead haunts the place…

I sit not here the noble horse to see;
Yet whom thou favour’st, pray may conqueror be.

What, are there gods? herself she hath forswore,
And yet remains the face she had before.

Rude man, ’tis vain thy damsel to commend
To keeper’s trust: their wits should them defend.

Flood with reed-grown slime banks, till I be past
Thy waters stay: I to my mistress haste.

3. The ubiquity of classical mythology

So obvious it’s easy to overlook, but the Amores are stuffed with references to the gods and legends of the ancient world. Probably Marlowe read Horace and Virgil, too, and many other Latin authors, but the way the characters of the gods and the stories of their adventures continually pop into the poet’s mind to illustrate almost every point he’s making, will also characterise the plays – certainly Dido and Tamburlaine – where all the characters invoke the Roman gods, the characters from the tale of Troy, plus stock stories from ancient myth.

4. Classical padding

About half way through I began to notice a pattern to many of the poems: Ovid states the situation and describes it in fairly realistic terms. And then, around line 10, he will suddenly switch to invoking classical precedents. One minute he’s addressing his mistress, doorkeeper, friend etc. Then there is almost always a swerve, a change of tone, and he suddenly begins a (usually very extended) list of comparisons with figures from myth and legend. This suggests two thoughts:

  • It is padding. He can pad out any thought, emotion or moment by invoking a classical precedent and then describing it at length, or alternatively piling up a list of quickfire precedents. Either way, most of the poems are twice as long as the ostensible subject justifies, because they have these long passages invoking Venus and Vulcan and Jove and Achilles and so on.
  • I wonder to what extent people living in those times really did structure, categorise and make sense of their human experience through the filter of classical myth and legend. We nowadays – I think – invoke a range of discourses, popular sayings about mental health, maybe, or gender stereotyping or other cliches, maybe about northerners and southerners, or class-based tropes. I’m not in a position to make a full list and I dare say it varies from person to person. But whereas we might think ‘I’m depressed, I’m stressed, it’s sexism, the management don’t know what they’re doing’ – those kinds of categories – I wonder if denizens of the ancient world actually thought, ‘Well beautiful Venus had an affair with ugly Vulcan, this is like jealous Juno taking her revenge on Hercules, he’s sulking like Achilles’ and so on. Or was it only in the poems? Is it an entirely literary artifact?

5. Poetry lasts forever

People still talk about Troy, the Trojan War, Helen of Troy, getting on for 3,000 years after the stories were first told. Ovid is still mentioned, discussed and quoted long after most of the generals and all the politicians of his day are forgotten. Poetry really does outlast not only men’s lives, but entire civilisations. It’s an ancient trope because it’s true. In this couplet, I like the way he places poetry alongside ‘history’s pretence’.

Poets’ large power is boundless and immense,
Nor have their words true history’s pretence.

That’s a complicated word, ‘pretence’, because it involves effort and aspiration (pretensions), but also acting and dissembling. History is the attempt to make sense of what has happened but, as I’ve made clear in my 350 history reviews, it is always a story, or an attempt to frame a meaningful narrative. And the sense of what history is, what it is for, as well as the actual ‘histories’ of every period, change and mutate over time. But not Ovid’s words, or Marlowe’s. When Marlowe wrote ‘Is this the face that launched a thousand ships’ he made something which will last as long as the English language.

It’s a trope, it’s a cliché which recurs as on of the threads running through the Amores. But it’s true.


Related links

Marlowe’s works

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