Acts Without Words I and II by Samuel Beckett

Act Without Words I

Act Without Words I (a mime for one player) is a short mime piece written by Samuel Beckett. It was originally performed after Beckett’s major play, Endgame, during the latter’s first run in London. It was Beckett’s first attempt at the genre and dates from a period when he had just experimented with his first play, Waiting For Godot, and his first radio play, All That Fall. You can view a modern production of it on YouTube.

The scene is a desert on to which a man is abruptly ‘flung backwards’. Mysterious whistles draw his attention in various directions. A number of more or less desirable objects, notably a carafe of water, are dangled before him. He tries to reach up to the water but it is out of reach.

A number of cuboid boxes, obviously designed to make it easier for him to reach the water, descend from the flies, each one’s arrival signalled by a blast on the whistle. But however ingeniously he piles them on top of one another, the water is always moved to be just out of reach.

After ten or so minutes of painfully frustrated efforts, in the end the protagonist sinks into complete immobility. The whistle sounds – but he no longer pays attention. The water is dangled right in front of his face, but he doesn’t move. Even the palm tree in the shade of which he has been sitting is whisked off into the flies. He remains immobile, looking at his hands.

The meaning(s)

It’s a variation on the theme of Godot except with one protagonist instead of the four we meet in the play.

Tragic

If you take a bleak and nihilistic view of Beckett, then the mime depicts a man flung on to the stage of life, at first obeying the call of a number of impulses, drawn to the pursuit of illusory objectives by whistles blown from the wings, but finding peace only when he has learned the pointlessness of even trying to attain any of these objective, and finally refusing any of the physical satisfactions dangled before him. He can find peace only through ‘the recognition of the nothingness which is the only reality’.

Actually a number of Beckett critics including Ruby Cohn and Ihab Hassan have dismissed it as too obvious and too pat. ‘Oh dear, life is meaningless, what shall I do?’ When stated that bluntly, it is a cliché.

Comic

That said, the putting of a man through a number of humiliating tasks which he can never achieve, in a wordless mime, is strikingly similar to early, black-and-white, comedy films. Take the 1916 short film One am written, directed and starring Charlie Chaplin. In its 34 minute duration a posh man in a top hat who is very drunk is dropped off outside his house by a taxi and then spends the next 30 minutes trying to find his key, get into the house and then taking an awesome amount of time getting up the stairs.

Or take the Laurel and Hardy comedy short, The Music Box, in which the hapless duo are deliverymen tasked with delivering a big, heavy piano up the longest flight of stairs in California.

Viewed through this lens, the protagonist is reduced not to nihilistic despair, but to sulky refusal to take part in this stupid game. Both, it seems to me, are valid interpretations of the work and, if you like, of ‘life itself’.

Portentous

In The Faber Companion to Samuel Beckett, C.J. Ackerley and S.E. Gontarski suggest that the protagonist’s final refusal to play, to be tempted by the water dangling in front of him, is not a sulk, it represents his rejection of purely physical needs and his rebellion against his fate. In refusing and rising above purely physical needs, he is enacting the psychological process described by Albert Camus in his lengthy sociological work, The Rebel (1951). Maybe…

From a deluge of words to wordlessness

What strikes me about this play or mime is the fact that a mime, in effect, consists entirely of stage directions.

In this respect Beckett’s work presents an interesting trajectory, from the vast solid cliffs of prose in The Beckett Trilogy via the light and fast-moving dialogue of his main plays (Waiting For Godot, Endgame, Krapp’s Last Tape) to the abandonment of the written or spoken word altogether and the reduction of the dramatic event to action, pure and simple, of wordless mime consisting solely of stage directions.

Beckett’s stage directions

It also reminds the viewer of the extreme precision and pedantry of Beckett’s stage directions. Beckett was always obsessive about the physical behaviour of his characters, regarding humans as closer to automata than people, as evidence in the numerous obsessively detailed descriptions of physical options and behaviours in the novel Watt.

He carried this obsessive attention to the minutiae of physical action over into his plays and became notorious among directors and actors for the extreme precision of his stage directors and his inflexible insistence that they must be followed to the letter, precisely as he had written them.

As you read through the plays, as you come across more mimes and musical movements and so on, you realise that the composition of the stage directions was every bit as precise and detailed and calculated for effect as the actual prose and dialogue and speeches.

And of course no member of the audience is aware of this but the reader of the piece sees that it ends with the four-times repeated stage direction He does not move, reminding us of the famous stage direction at the bitter end of Godot – They do not move.

Suicide

Speaking of Waiting For Godot at one point in Act Without Words the protagonist takes the length of rope he’s been given and obviously plans to hang himself from the palm tree which is more or less the only feature in the desert landscape.

This reminds us of Estragon’s throwaway suggestion in Waiting For Godot that the two tramps hang themselves and, of course, both suggestions turning out to be fruitless. You don’t get out of it that easy, this thing called life.

Act Without Words II

Act Without Words II is another short mime, written a few years after the first one. It, also, was composed in French before being translated into English by the author although, being a mime, there was no dialogue to translate, just the stage directions. The London premiere was directed by Michael Horovitz and performed at the Institute of Contemporary Arts on 25 January 1960.

Even more than the first one, number II is another work which depends entirely on the precision of the choreography. Two men are in sacks. A long stick enters from stage right and pokes one of the sacks. Character A struggles out of his sack and elaborately gets dressed before picking up the second sack and placing it further from the stick, before undressing and getting back into his sack. The same procedure is then applied to the other sack containing Character B, who is poked, struggles out of his sack, does callisthenics, cleans his teeth, gets dressed and so on. His job is to move the other sack, containing Character A further along the stage, before he, too, undresses and gets back into his sack. And so on, Forever.

Anyone who’s read Watt or Molloy will recognise the helpless, Aspergers syndrome-like obsessiveness of the repeated behaviour, of numerous apparently pointless repetitions carried out with minute variations and exasperating precision. This, the work says, is how utterly pointless our lives are with all the gettings-up and breakfasts and showers and dressing and going to work. All variations on the same bloody pointless and endlessly similar actions. Is this it? Is this all?

To emphasise the precision he wants and the clinical emptiness of the actions, Beckett includes a diagram of the changing positions of the sacks relative to each other.

The Goad

At the height of the Swinging Sixties, in 1966, photographer Paul Joyce (the great-grand-nephew of James Joyce) saw Act Without Words II as part of a Sunday evening performance at the Aldwich theatre and thought it would make a fun short experimental film. Joyce approached the cast, Freddie Jones and Geoffrey Hinscliff, and they said okay, so, after a little thought, Joyce transposed the production from the theatre to a rubbish dump in Rainham, Essex.

The way there are two characters who fuss about their clothes, and wear silly outfits, and both wear bowler hats, reminds us of Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting For Godot – just as Character A eating a carrot reminds us of Vladimir offering Estragon a carrot, who proceeds to make such a palaver about eating it, in act one of Godot.

Having started to think about silent comedy classics, it’s hard not to miss the suggestion that Character A’s ill-fitting suit and round hat is at least in part a reference to Charlie Chaplin’s tramp character, while Character B’s skinny physique, bony face and pork pie hat is strongly reminiscent of Buster Keaton.

It is an absurdist reductio ad absurdum, but it is telling us something less about Life, than about literature and film – namely that the comic and the bleakly nihilistic are very closely allied. If you slip on a banana skin and band your nose it’s a tragedy; if someone else does, it’s a comedy.

Both these mimes strike me as having next to nothing to say about ‘Life’ – what a ridiculous idea! – but do make you reflect a bit about the thin line which separates tragedy from comedy, the humdrum from the absurd, the serious and po-faced from the farcically hilarious.


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 full 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

  • All That Fall (1957) Radio play
  • *Act Without Words I & II (1957) Stage plays
  • *Endgame (1958) Stage play
  • *Krapp’s Last Tape (1958) Stage play
  • *Rough for Theatre I & II – Stage plays
  • Embers (1959) – Radio play
  • *Happy Days (1961) – Stage play
  • Rough for Radio I & II (1961) Radio plays
  • Words and Music (1961) Radio play
  • Cascando (1961) Radio play
  • *Play (1963) Stage play
  • How it Is (1964) Novel
  • *Come and Go (1965) Stage play
  • Imagination Dead Imagine (1965) Short story
  • Eh Joe (1967) Television play
  • *Breath (1969) Stage play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

  • The Lost Ones (1972) Short story
  • *Not I (1972) Stage play
  • *That Time (1975) Stage play
  • *Footfalls (1976) Stage play
  • … but the clouds… (1976) Television play
  • All Strange Away (1976) Short story
  • Ghost Trio (1977) Television play
  • Company (1979) Short story
  • *A Piece of Monologue (1980) Stage play
  • *Rockaby (1981) Stage play
  • Quad (1981) Television play
  • Ill Seen Ill Said (1981) Short novel
  • *Ohio Impromptu (1981) Stage play
  • *Catastrophe (1982) Stage play
  • Worstward Ho (1983) Prose
  • Nacht und Träume (1983) Television play
  • *What Where (1983) Stage play
  • Stirrings Still (1989) Short prose

Waiting For Godot by Samuel Beckett (1953)

ESTRAGON: Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful!

Beckett dashed off Waiting For Godot in just four months, October 1948 to January 1949. It was written in a break between the second novel of the Beckett Trilogy, Malone Dies (written November 1947 to May 1948) and the third and final instalment of the trilogy, The Unnamable, which Beckett laboured over from March 1949 to January 1950.

Godot was, therefore, written during the Berlin Airlift (June 1948 to September 1949) when many people thought Europe was on the brink of a Third World War, when nuclear apocalypse was on a lot of people’s minds.

All these books were first written in French, as was Waiting For Godot, whose original French title is En Attendant Godot.

Waiting For Godot was first produced at a tiny French theatre, the Théâtre de Babylone in Paris, starting in December 1952. It was an immediate critical success, moved to a larger theatre, and at a stroke established Beckett in the front rank of contemporary theatre, aligning him with the movement called Theatre of the Absurd. The English-language version premiered at the Royal Court in London in 1955.

It’s odd to consider that Godot came at the end of such a sustained run of prose writings. It’s not as if it was the glorious conclusion of a lifetime spent in the theatre, the exact opposite; with the exception of a minor play, Eleutheria, which wasn’t published in English till 1996, Godot was the first proper play Beckett wrote and certainly his first staged play. I wonder how many other playwrights achieved such international fame on the basis of their first play?

Roots in the Beckett Trilogy

The prose of its immediate predecessors in Beckett’s oeuvre, Molloy and Malone Dies can be characterised in lots of ways, but among these are that it is:

Dense

Molloy only has two paragraphs, the second one being well over a hundred pages long. The point being the reader is confronted with a solid, uninterrupted, dense and clotted wall of prose which is very difficult to parse and make sense of it. Reading blocks like this makes you realise how hugely important it is that most texts (novels, poems, newspaper or magazine articles) are chopped up into bite-sized chunks, into paragraphs, sometimes with headings, into chapters, sometimes with titles, and in a conventional novel, when there’s dialogue each new speech from different characters generally starts a new paragraph. Not in the Beckett Trilogy texts.

Episodes

This explains one of the most salient but little-noticed aspects of the three novels, which is that, when they are presented, for example in readings, dramatic productions, on the radio or on TV they are broken up into episodes. This indicates both that it is very hard to process the novels as one continuous block, but also indicates that, despite the appearance of a wall of text, they are in fact composed of discrete sections, up to a point anyway.

Comedy

If you have the stamina to read them closely, you also notice there’s actually quite a variety of styles in the prose. A high-level categorisation might suggest about four approaches.

There’s the main, core Beckett style in which characters bemoan their fate – ‘no hope, I don’t know, I don’t understand, was it he, am I me, I can’t go on, I must go on’ – that kind of thing. In the play Vladimir is fond of repeating ‘Nothing to be done’.

There’s the learnèd style, when the character, on the face of it a tramp or derelict or senile hospital inmate, surprises you with a learned disquisition, begins to talk about hypotheses, and let us consider the evidence, and on the one hand this but on the other hand that – and slips into Latin and makes learned references to Greek myths or the arcane mysteries of astrology or uses rare and obscure terminology.

The ‘academic’ style reaches a deranged apogee in Lucky’s long, dementedly learned soliloquy in act 1.

There’s the swearing. Not many of the commentators I’ve read mention the fact that Beckett’s characters from time to time drop the pretence of being university lecturers and just say fuck it, balls to all that, what a load of ballocks, and go on to dwell at length on their ability to have a good shit, piss against a tree, masturbate with a good hard prick and gain entry now and then to a cunt.

In Waiting For Godot the tramps suggest hanging themselves on the basis that at least it will give them erections, and half-way through act one, Vladimir runs offstage to have a pee. Elsewhere, swearwords are freely used.

VLADIMIR: That seems intelligent all right. But there’s one thing I’m afraid of.
ESTRAGON: What?
VLADIMIR: That Lucky might get going all of a sudden. Then we’d be ballocksed

And there’s the moment towards the end when Vladimir, Pozzo and Lucky are in a heap and Estragon asks, ‘Who farted?’ It doesn’t get more crude or Rabelaisian than that?

Lastly, there’s the comedy. Some is broad physical farce, as when the characters fall over as when Moran and his son fall off their overloaded bicycle. Some derives from the demented precision with which his autistic characters describe physical processes in autistic obsessive detail, as when Molloy takes a page to describe all the ways he can arrange sixteen sucking stones in his four pockets. Some could almost come from a character-based sitcom, as the couple of pages describing the romance of mad Malone and senile old Moll.

Othertimes there’s sly comedy, as when the unnamable says he’ll stop asking questions and immediately goes on to ask four questions in a row. And there are other, more elusive moments of humour, which depend on the switch from one register to another as when, after a prolonged learned lecture about something, the narrator might make a very blunt, down-to-earth Irish comment (and this is where a lot of the swearing comes in).

Differences between the monologues of the Beckett trilogy and a stage play

So, quite clearly, I am not considering Waiting For Godot as a standalone play, but considering it as situated, almost embedded within, the writing of the Trilogy, which took place around it, before and after it, and with which it shares almost all its themes and style.

From this perspective, there are four standout features about the play – its brevity, dialogue, action and the present.

The qualities of a monologue

Part of the reason the novels are so dense is because Beckett cast them all in the form of monologues. Now the thing about a monologue – as Beckett and his readers find out, to their cost – is you can’t have an intermission. In a novel, characters can come together and have an important scene but then you can cut away, to anything you want, other characters, description of the setting, philosophical musings, whatever. But a monologue, by its nature, has to carry on.

By contrast, Waiting For Godot is broken up into dialogue, true dialogue, dialogue which doesn’t have to explain everything (as a monologue tends to have to), which can be supplemented by the actors’ physical gestures, and so can be brief, incredibly brief, sometimes just a few words, sometimes no words at all, just a look or gesture.

So someone like me, who has just struggled through the 400 or more dense pages of the Beckett Trilogy, can hardly believe how empty Waiting For Godot is. There’s more empty space on the page than text.

And, as mentioned, you also realise what an enormous amount of information is conveyed when two characters converse. As any human knows, the real meaning of an exchange need not be at all what is said in the words. It can be the opposite of what is said, or fractions of the overt meaning which are refracted through sarcasm, irony, tone of voice and the situation, such as saying ‘Oh great’ when the wings fall off your airplane.

Dealing in dialogue creates entire new dimensions of meaning which were unavailable in the monologues.

Physical activity

Third aspect is physical activity. Characters can do things onstage which are just as eloquent as any words they say, such as shoot someone, kiss someone and so on.

Now the characters in the Trilogy monologues often remembered incidents and conversations, such as Jacques Moran’s arguments with his maid Martha and his endless bullying of his son. But these dialogues or conversations, such as they are, are always viewed through the narrating consciousness and this, in all three books, is mad, weird, demented, gaga, deranged, so highly biased. Everything is perceived through the same rather grim, grey spectacles.

In the real world

Lastly, it happens before our eyes. It’s difficult to over-emphasise what a difference this makes from the huge, leviathan monologues. In those vast swamps of prose, each word or phrase potentially brings to mind other incidents or characters or phrases we have read about earlier, creating a hyper-complex polyphonic texture of references and echoes, which Beckett works hard to make sometimes unbearably dense and heavy.

Now, human beings are predatory mammals and we are designed to watch, monitor and assess all the activity in our surroundings for threat or promise. So by startling contrast to the book-bound monologues, there is a huge sensory and psychological pleasure to be had just from watching people move about on stage. We are designed to always be fascinated by what other people are doing.

And the vital corollary of this is that it is sooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo much easier to watch a couple of guys pottering about onstage and, at long intervals saying a few words to each other, sooooooooooooooooooo much easier than it is reading the monologues. It feels like Friday night down the pub after a very hard week’s work. Waiting For Godot is an almost physically easier, lighter, more understandable and pleasurable read than the Trilogy.

Waiting For Godot, the plot

So a couple of tramps, Vladimir (‘Didi’) and Estragon (‘Gogo’), are onstage, representing outdoors somewhere, fussing with their boots, squabbling about trivia, and tell each other (and thereby the audience) that they can’t go anywhere or settle to do anything because they are waiting for Godot.

Now whether you want to interpret the poverty of their language, physical decrepitude and mental abilities as a comment on the human condition or just take them as a pair of tragi-comic tramps, and whether you want to interpret Godot as referring to God or Death or some other factor which brings meaning to human life but which is always just out of reach or unattainable – all this is entirely up to you.

The play is in two parts. Now, given that Beckett’s central theme is decline and fall and entropy and collapse and deterioration, if you think about it, the minimum number of parts he’d require to dramatise this theme is two – one before and one after, or, more accurately, ‘Now’, followed by ‘A little later’.

Beckett could have used more parts, but a third or fourth part would simply have demonstrated even more decline and collapse. It is more tactful – it says enough – just to have the two. Thus in part two we meet the two tramps exactly where we left them, except worse off, degraded in clothes and attitude.

Then there’s the other two characters, Pozzo and Lucky. Coming to it cold, it feels very much as if the play, as well as the characters, are killing time a bit before Pozzo and Lucky arrive. Pozzo is a fountain of energy. He is leading Lucky (ironic name) by a thick heavy rope, Lucky being little more than an exhausted slave who he abuses, whips and insults.

And it is entirely predictable that, when they reappear in act two, this pair also will be significantly degraded – most strikingly, and cruelly, in the fact that the once-ebullient Pozzo is now blind.

Details

Bowler hats

All four characters in Waiting For Godot and several characters in the Trilogy wear hats, specifically Gaber when he comes to give his ‘mission’ to Moran. On an obvious visual level, Vladimir and Estragon with their bowler hats and their incessant repartee can easily be made to appear an absurdist Laurel and Hardy.

There’s a small tic or trope which combines the comedy of their repartee with the more ‘serious’ theme of the way they’re blocked, the way their conversations, their language – like them – gets nowhere. This is when their conversation turns a bit lyrical and they try to outdo each other with comparisons or analogies:

VLADIMIR: It’s only beginning.
ESTRAGON: It’s awful.
VLADIMIR: Worse than the pantomime.
ESTRAGON: The circus.
VLADIMIR: The music-hall.
ESTRAGON: The circus.

The point being the way that in these little passages, Estragon always repeats his comparison definitively and aggressively with an air of finality, bringing the pair’s little flight of imagination to a roadblock halt.

VLADIMIR: It’d pass the time. (Estragon hesitates.) I assure you, it’d be an occupation.
ESTRAGON: A relaxation.
VLADIMIR: A recreation.
ESTRAGON: A relaxation.

Maybe it’s a tiny symptom of their lack of imagination, or maybe Estragon’s refusal to let the flight of fancy fly… but either way, it’s a small symptom of the way they are trapped, cabined and confined by themselves.

Comedy

Obviously everything depends on your definition of comedy or your sense of humour, how dark or light it is. The notion that they suggest hanging themselves (‘well, it’d pass the time’) is funny. When Estragon comes to the front of the stage, looks out over the audience and declares ‘Inspiring prospects!’, that’s funny, and like lots of tricks is repeated in act 2 when they contemplate escaping in the direction of the auditorium, but then recoil, as if in horror of the audience!

Or when at the start of act 2, Vladimir tries to lift Estragon’s mood by persuading him to say ‘I am happy’ and then, after a pause, Estragon dolefully says, ‘What shall we do now we’re happy?’

Godot

Estragon says he’s Vladimir’s friend. Vladimir says Godot said he’d be along for them on Saturday. At least he thinks it was Saturday. Godot has a horse. Pozzo knows that Godot has the tramps’ immediate future in his hands. Estragon asks why they don’t just drop waiting for bloody Godot and leave?

VLADIMIR: He’d punish us.

Inconsequentiality

I identified the central role played by inconsequentiality in the monologues, the way subjects often crop up with no relation, or the narrator says something, rejects it, moves on as if it doesn’t matter, in fact all the monologuists continually repeat the notion that ‘it doesn’t matter’.

Similarly, when you look at the dialogue in Godot you realise Vladimir and Estragon move from one subject to another with no link or thread. Their arbitrary disconnectedness is part of the so-called absurdity.

For example, Estragon suggests they hang themselves which sounds quite tragic, but then goes onto undermine any sense of seriousness by commenting, ‘After all, it would pass the time’. Nothing matters. Or only the trivial matters, like who’s wearing whose shoes, or hat. That’s what I mean by the play’s studied inconsequentiality.

Lucky’s monologue

It may seem deranged to the average theatre-goer, but it is a small excerpt of the kind of thing you encounter in the Trilogy by the hundreds of pages.

One of the thieves

Vladimir points out to Estragon that one of the thieves was saved, a ‘reasonable percentage’. Now, the story of the thief who was saved (Christ was crucified in the middle of two thieves undergoing the same punishment; one of them said he believed in Jesus and Jesus promised he’d see him that day in Paradise) occurs not once but twice in the trilogy (once in a particularly grotesque satire, because the decrepit old lady Moll has two ear-rings which depict the two thieves, and one massive canine in her mouth which has been ingeniously carved to depict Christ on the cross).

The extended and comically pedantic explanation of the theological problems this story throws up are reminiscent of the comically pedantic episode of Molloy and the sucking stones and its avatars in the other novels. The elaborate swapping round of inanimate objects anticipates the comic business with the hats in act 2.

Passing the time

Basically the play is about the activity of waiting. It consists of the two characters wondering how to pass the time before Godot arrives. This is more or less the same plight as Malone in Malone Dies who spends some 150 pages telling himself stories to pass the time until he, well, dies, and, in a much more confused way, in The Unnamable where the narrator talks interminably about making time pass and creating an endless discourse to fill time.

Vladimir asks Estragon if ‘they’ beat him, certainly they did, Estragon replies. This interested me because an omnipresent and menacing ‘they’ dominate the long text Beckett went on to write immediately after this, The Unnamable. What’s notable about this little exchange – as so many aspects of Beckett – is how inconsequential it is. The characters don’t seem to care much and the subject doesn’t recur.

At one point in act two Estragon remarks ‘that wasn’t such a bad little canter’, referring to a patch of conversation they’ve managed to rustle up, to pass the time. In act two they have the bright idea of abusing each other (‘it’d pass the time’). This is exactly the mentality of Malone, who tells the reader he is going to try out different subjects, and tell entire stories, to while away the time until he dies.

Estragon says they’ve been trying to pass the time like this for half a century.

Philosophy

Obviously Godot was premiered just as the Existentialist philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre and to some extent Albert Camus was sweeping the cultural strongholds of the Western world i.e. art, literature, theatre and universities. Everyone wanted to live in Paris, wear black polo-necked jumpers and shades, smoke Gauloise cigarettes, and talk smoochily about the pointlessness of life, the futility of existence, and outdo each other’s expressions of Despair.

Beckett’s novels were little known because they are so damn difficult to read, but Godot, for the reasons I’ve explained above, is a masterpiece of simplification and dramatisation. It’s almost like an advert for the Existentialist movement, with the ‘why are we here? what is it all about?’ existentialism of Gogo and Didi, supplemented by what could easily be interpreted by communist and Marxist critics (ten a penny in Paris – France had the largest Communist Party in the free West) as the searing indictment of the Master-Slave relationship in the characters of Pozzo and Lucky.

It had the lot.

But 70 years later, in the post-modern era of identity politics and digital technology, a lot of the so-called philosophy of the piece has been superseded. For most students nowadays, the meaning of life is trying to find a job, somewhere to live and pay off their student debts. All of us are now caught up in the coronavirus pandemic and some of us were very worried about global warming before the virus hit.

In this content, I tentatively suggest that the philosophy of the play feels dated and contrived. The most famous moment in the play is when Pozzo, in the second act now blind, suddenly bursts out in anger at the endless questioning of Vladimir and says:

POZZO: One day, is that not enough for you, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we’ll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you? (Calmer.)

And then delivers the play’s Big Message.

They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.

In the Faber edition I have, and the online edition I used, this line is printed in bold, just to make it perfectly clear to the slow learners at the back of the class that this is THE AUTHOR’S MESSAGE. I couldn’t help finding that rather funny.

But also find it, how shall I be tactful – untrue. I was present in the operating theatre when they delivered my children, both times by Caesarian section, and my wife did not give birth astride the grave. My kids are now in their twenties and, believe me, their lives have not consisted of a brief gleam of light and then the grave, but an incredible number of nappies which needed to be changed, meals cooked, and school runs undertaken.

When I was 17 I could work myself up into hysterics about the fact that I was going to die, Oh my God! Die! Cease to be! Is there a God? An afterlife? Will I go to hell? What if there’s nothing? What if you feel the worms eating through your rotting flesh etc?

But you grow up. You have to get a job, find somewhere to live, maybe marry, maybe have kids, then find yourself on the treadmill of mortgages and schools. Nothing feels that dramatic, pure and intense any more.

To sum up, for me Godot resonates with not one but two kinds of nostalgia. Nostalgia for a Paris of the 1950s and 60s which I never experienced but read about and seemed so cool and ‘deep’ and intense. And nostalgia for myself at 17, when I found statements like this impossibly deep and meaningful, when they shook me to my core.

Now reading Godot doesn’t stir me in either of these ways, but it does impress me with the artfulness of its construction, the variety of tones and registers, the range of humour and comic styles from bleak nihilism to Charlie Chaplin slapstick. Now, I am impressed by its complexity and success as a work of art and for the way that, while you read it and a little afterwards, its stirring rhetoric and bleak vision is genuinely moving and disturbing… until the realities of the actual world reassert themselves.

Going on

The phrase ‘go on’, as in ‘I can’t go on’, ‘we must go on’ emerges as the key phrase and concept of The Unnamable and is given pride of place right at the end of that text.

… it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know. I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on. I’ll go on.

Two points:

1. This same phrase, about ‘going on’, is also used throughout Waiting For Godot. Both Vladimir and Estragon, at various points, wailing that they can’t go on.

2. But Beckett wasn’t a fool, he wasn’t going to use the same phrase to conclude two big works of art, and so Godot ends with another talismanic phrase, ‘Let’s go’ and the famous stage direction (They do not move).

What I’m getting at is the way Beckett a) very consciously ended these works with heavily meaningful and symbolic phrases, and b) that they are carefully prepared for by seeding the phrase (and idea) throughout the preceding text. Thus the simple words ‘let’s go’ have already appeared at least half a dozen times in the course of the play, meaning that by the time they’re used as the final words they have built up a poetic charge, a resonance, which strikes the imagination.

This careful preparation, this artful leading up to their final words partly explains why, for many people, the last words of both The Unnamable and Waiting For Godot are the best known. (And they share the word ‘go’ and the underlying thought that ‘going’ is impossible.)

Summary

Any reader of the Beckett Trilogy can see how Beckett took its themes and tricks of style and structure and reduced them, in Waiting For Godot, to an almost bare minimum. But by casting them in dramatic form, with undeniably ‘real’ physical characters, and tapping into all the energy and dynamism created by real dialogue and physical activity onstage (there’s a surprising amount of running about, falling over, whipping, dancing and so on in the play), created a completely new thing – a devastatingly brilliant, funny, terrifying, and linguistically powerful, varied and haunting work of art.

Godot may no longer have the impact it once had because social conditions and beliefs have changed so much. But it is still a work of genius.

VLADIMIR: That passed the time.


Credit

En Attendant Godot by Samuel Beckett was published in French in 1953. The English translation by Beckett himself was published in 1958. Page references are to the 1988 Faber paperback edition.

Related links

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was part of 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 1939-45

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

  • All That Fall (1957) Radio play
  • *Act Without Words I & II (1957) Stage plays
  • *Endgame (1958) Stage play
  • *Krapp’s Last Tape (1958) Stage play
  • *Rough for Theatre I & II – Stage plays
  • Embers (1959) – Radio play
  • *Happy Days (1961) – Stage play
  • Rough for Radio I & II (1961) Radio plays
  • Words and Music (1961) Radio play
  • Cascando (1961) Radio play
  • *Play (1963) Stage play
  • How it Is (1964) Novel
  • *Come and Go (1965) Stage play
  • Imagination Dead Imagine (1965) Short story
  • Eh Joe (1967) Television play
  • *Breath (1969) Stage play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

  • The Lost Ones (1972) Short story
  • *Not I (1972) Stage play
  • *That Time (1975) Stage play
  • *Footfalls (1976) Stage play
  • … but the clouds… (1976) Television play
  • All Strange Away (1976) Short story
  • Ghost Trio (1977) Television play
  • Company (1979) Short story
  • *A Piece of Monologue (1980) Stage play
  • *Rockaby (1981) Stage play
  • Quad (1981) Television play
  • Ill Seen Ill Said (1981) Short novel
  • *Ohio Impromptu (1981) Stage play
  • *Catastrophe (1982) Stage play
  • Worstward Ho (1983) Prose
  • Nacht und Träume (1983) Television play
  • *What Where (1983) Stage play
  • Stirrings Still (1989) Short prose

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 part of 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 1939-45

*Waiting For Godot 1953

  • All That Fall (1957) Radio play
  • *Act Without Words I & II (1957) Stage plays
  • *Endgame (1958) Stage play
  • *Krapp’s Last Tape (1958) Stage play
  • *Rough for Theatre I & II – Stage plays
  • Embers (1959) – Radio play
  • *Happy Days (1961) – Stage play
  • Rough for Radio I & II (1961) Radio plays
  • Words and Music (1961) Radio play
  • Cascando (1961) Radio play
  • *Play (1963) Stage play
  • How it Is (1964) Novel
  • *Come and Go (1965) Stage play
  • Imagination Dead Imagine (1965) Short story
  • Eh Joe (1967) Television play
  • *Breath (1969) Stage play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

  • The Lost Ones (1972) Short story
  • *Not I (1972) Stage play
  • *That Time (1975) Stage play
  • *Footfalls (1976) Stage play
  • … but the clouds… (1976) Television play
  • All Strange Away (1976) Short story
  • Ghost Trio (1977) Television play
  • Company (1979) Short story
  • *A Piece of Monologue (1980) Stage play
  • *Rockaby (1981) Stage play
  • Quad (1981) Television play
  • Ill Seen Ill Said (1981) Short novel
  • *Ohio Impromptu (1981) Stage play
  • *Catastrophe (1982) Stage play
  • Worstward Ho (1983) Prose
  • Nacht und Träume (1983) Television play
  • *What Where (1983) Stage play
  • Stirrings Still (1989) Short prose

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 part of 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 1939-45

*Waiting For Godot 1953

  • All That Fall (1957) Radio play
  • *Act Without Words I & II (1957) Stage plays
  • *Endgame (1958) Stage play
  • *Krapp’s Last Tape (1958) Stage play
  • *Rough for Theatre I & II – Stage plays
  • Embers (1959) – Radio play
  • *Happy Days (1961) – Stage play
  • Rough for Radio I & II (1961) Radio plays
  • Words and Music (1961) Radio play
  • Cascando (1961) Radio play
  • *Play (1963) Stage play
  • How it Is (1964) Novel
  • *Come and Go (1965) Stage play
  • Imagination Dead Imagine (1965) Short story
  • Eh Joe (1967) Television play
  • *Breath (1969) Stage play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

  • The Lost Ones (1972) Short story
  • *Not I (1972) Stage play
  • *That Time (1975) Stage play
  • *Footfalls (1976) Stage play
  • … but the clouds… (1976) Television play
  • All Strange Away (1976) Short story
  • Ghost Trio (1977) Television play
  • Company (1979) Short story
  • *A Piece of Monologue (1980) Stage play
  • *Rockaby (1981) Stage play
  • Quad (1981) Television play
  • Ill Seen Ill Said (1981) Short novel
  • *Ohio Impromptu (1981) Stage play
  • *Catastrophe (1982) Stage play
  • Worstward Ho (1983) Prose
  • Nacht und Träume (1983) Television play
  • *What Where (1983) Stage play
  • Stirrings Still (1989) Short prose

Watt by Samuel Beckett (1953)

‘If I tell you all this in such detail, the reason is, believe me, that I cannot, much as I should like, and for reasons that I shall not go into, for they are unknown to me, do otherwise.’
(Arthur, in part three of Watt)

It’s a challenge, but I came to really enjoy this book.

Watt was Samuel Beckett’s second published novel in English (the first being Murphy, published 1938). It was begun in 1941 but largely written while Beckett was hiding from the Nazis in a small French town in the Vaucluse in south-east France, and completed in December 1944. He revised and rewrote it as he went, experimenting not only with plot and style, but with structure and tone and, indeed, the entire conception of what a fiction is and can be.

It wasn’t published until a long time later, in 1953, and then only by the Olympia Press in Paris, a disresreputable publisher of pornography whose owner prided himself on publishing unpublishable literary masterpieces (he also published novels by Vladimir Nabokov and Henry Miller). (Publishing with Olympia established Beckett’s copyright and helped him to negotiate with English and American publishers).

Fragments

In later life Beckett dismissed the book as ‘a game, a means of keeping sane’, as ‘an exercise’ to stave off the long evenings hidden away in a French farmhouse. Its long and claustrophobic gestation possibly accounts for the complex mess of the manuscript which contains all sorts of loose leaves, doodles, fragments of plot. It was, Beckett told George Reavey in 1947, ‘an unsatisfactory book, written in dribs and drabs’. After the war Beckett carried this ever-evolving mess with him, to Paris and then back to Dublin, working over and through to a final version of the book. Four excerpts were published in literary magazines between 1950 and 1953.

The patchwork assembly of the text is recognised in the series of ‘addenda’, 37 fragments which he added at the end of the main text, concepts, sentences, scenes and phrase apparently intended for the novel but not used. Or used to form intriguing and suggestive ‘addenda’.

The general approach

Watt is another of Beckett’s tramps-cum-simpletons-cum alzheimer victims. Some kind of autistic, he struggles to fathom the most basic human interactions.

Watt had watched people smile and thought he understood how it was done. And it was true that Watt’s smile, when he smiled, resembled more a smile than a sneer, for example, or a yawn. But there was something wanting to Watt’s smile, some little thing was lacking, and people who saw it for the first time, and most people who saw it saw it for the first time, were sometimes in doubt as to what expression exactly was intended. To many it seemed a simple sucking of the teeth.
Watt used this smile sparingly.

Mind you, neither can the narrator or Beckett. All Beckett’s fictions come from a very similar place and depict people who can barely speak or communicate, who don’t understand basic human interactions, who are at the threshold of ordinary human behaviour, who can barely walk let alone speak, who fall, crawl, pull themselves forward by clutching tufts of grass through the mud of this world, obsessively repeating endless repeated phrases of endless repetition.

That, at least, is the enormously powerful impression you get from The Beckett Trilogy. The text of Watt, however, had not yet gone as far in that direction, although it has gone a long way in a very weird direction.

Paragraphs For a start the text is cast in paragraphs, lots of paragraphs, often fairly short. This may sound a trivial thing but Molloy starts with 80 pages of uninterrupted unrelieved prose, a Berlin Wall of prose, with no paragraphs or breaks of any kind, which turns out to be a real struggle to read.

Having your text chopped up into the conventional format of paragraphs which indicate when a new character speaks, or when a new action or topic starts and ends, is a vastly useful visual convention of typography – you only realise just how powerful and useful it is when it is completely absent in a work like Molloy. So Watt may use disorientating techniques but it feels much easier to read than the Trilogy.

To give an example, the conversation between Mr Hackett the hunchback, Mr Nixon and his wife Tetty, may well have surreal aspects – such as Tetty’s anecdote about giving birth by herself in the middle of a dinner party – but it is told in the format of paragraphs clearly indicating who is speaking when, and noting when characters change position or pause a bit – and so the texture of the reading experience is overwhelmingly traditional.

No speech marks Right at the start of his career, back in 1904 or so, Beckett’s mentor James Joyce had decided never to use speech marks or inverted apostrophes in his fiction and Beckett follows him in this mannerism. But it is a fairly easy-to-assimilate convention and you quickly get used to spotting what is dialogue and what is descriptive prose.

Conventional vocabulary Since we’ve mentioned Joyce, another thing worth pointing out is the utter conventionality of Beckett’s lexicon. He uses traditional words in a generally traditional way, nowhere is there a trace of the wild experiments with the English language which Joyce took to giddy heights in Ulysses and then burst all bounds in Finnegans Wake.

It also marks a distinct shift from the lexicon of More Pricks Than Kicks (1934) and Murphy (1938) which both indulged in the extreme complexification of the prose via orotund and arcane argots and terminologies. Here he is describing a character called ‘the Frica’ in the Dream:

A septic pudding hoodwinks her, a stodgy turban of pain it laps her horse face. The eyehole is clogged with the bulbus, the round pale globe goggles exposed. Solitary meditation has furnished her with nostrils of generous bore. The mouth champs an invisible bit, foam gathers at the bitter commissures. The crateriform brisket, lipped with sills of paunch, cowers ironically behind a maternity tunic…

Beckett’s prose in Watt has undergone a thorough detoxification. Trace of the spastic pedantry of the previous texts still survives, but with nothing like the same intensity:

He had seen all from his warm nest of books and periodicals. But now that the best was past he came out on the platform, with the intention of closing his stall, for the night. He therefore lowered and locked the corrugated apron. He seemed a man of more than usual acerbity, and to suffer from unremitting mental, moral and perhaps even physical pain. One noticed his cap, perhaps because of the snowwhite forehead and damp black curly hair on which it sat. The eye came always in the end to the scowling mouth and from there on up to the rest. His moustache, handsome in itself, was for obscure reasons unimportant. But one thought of him as the man who, among other things, never left off his cap, a plain blue cloth cap, with a peak and knob. For he never left off his bicycle-clips either. These were of a kind that caused his trouser-ends to stick out wide, on either side. He was short and limped dreadfully. When he got started he moved rapidly, in a series of aborted genuflexions.

There isn’t the same fol-de-rol of recherche terminology. But there is still the fundamental attitude, the satirical deployment of an over-learnèd diction to a banal subject – ‘a series of aborted genuflexions’.

Beckett’s pedantic stage directions It is drily comic. It is droll, maybe, like clever undergraduates using over-elaborate language to impress each other with the absurdity of their erudition. This taste for the sly humour of extreme pedantry remained one of Beckett’s core qualities. An often overlooked aspect of his plays is the way the stage directions became things of extreme precision, which are both deadly serious and comic at the same time, like the precise nature of the bowler hats worn in Waiting For Godot. Indeed, some of the plays are entirely wordless, consisting solely of directions for actions the actors must perform and so are closer to mime or choreography. Any reader of the later plays gets used to the way the stage directions are often longer, more detailed and hyper-precise than the language involved in a production (if any).

So your response to Watt will depend on whether you enjoy, whether you find humour in the application of finicky, over-philosophical, over-learnèd and extended meditations on trivial everyday events.

In the opening scene Mr Hackett the hunchback and Mrs and Mrs Nixon spend four pages speculating why Watt got off the tram at the stop just opposite the bench where they are sitting. They work through all the potential reasons for his alighting just there with the scrupulous thoroughness of the medieval scholastic philosophers to whom Beckett owes a large debt.

Watt gets into a compartment of a train. He thinks it is empty but then realises a man is sitting in it (in a classic example Beckett-the-narrator playing with the conventions of what is, and what is not, implied by sentences in fiction. You write one thing, the reader understands the situation to be just so. You write another thing which flatly contradicts the first thing, and the reader realises just how slippery and imprecise language is, or how slippery the narrator is, or the text. Or perception. Or consciousness itself).

My name is Spiro, said the gentleman.
Here then was a sensible man at last. He began with the essential and then, working on, would deal with the less important matters, one after the other, in an orderly way.

The scholastic method of generating content Watt’s asperger’s syndrome-like obsessiveness is central to Becket’s method, and echoes or consciously revives, the medieval scholastic obsession with categorising all possible eventualities of an occurrence, or working systematically through every possible attribute of an entity. It is absolutely no surprise at all that the man in the train compartment, Spiro, turns out to be the editor of a Catholic journal (named Crux) which delights in setting elaborate brainteasers based on obscure areas of Christian theology, one of which he proceeds to share with Watt:

A rat, or other small animal, eats of a consecrated wafer.
1) Does he ingest the Real Body, or does he not?
2) If he does not, what has become of it?
3) If he does, what is to be done with him?

The thing about this kind of scholastic, super-categorising, hair-splittingly logical approach to trivialities is that it can generate endless text out of next to nothing. How many angels can dance on the head of a pin was a question that could trigger medieval schoolmen to hours of learned debate, bringing in huge amounts of learning about angels, their bodies corporeal or non-corporeal, their abilities to change shape and size, and so on. Questions like this were set in medieval university exams not because anyone wanted to know the answer, but so the candidates could display their command of the gigantic schemas of categories and entities and types.

This is one way of looking at Beckett – as a kind of machine who generated huge amounts of prose (in his novels) by deploying mechanistic and scholastic methodologies to absolute trivia. In More Pricks Than Kicks Beckett devotes a page to the complex methodology Belacqua Shuah employs to make two pieces of toast. In Molloy he spends an entire page enumerating the method Molloy develops for sucking 16 pebbles he has collected from the seashore and stores in his four pockets, so that he sucks them each in turn, while transferring them between pockets in a fair and just way.

Given this technique for generating prose, there doesn’t need to be any plot at all, no storyline in the traditional sense, and little sense or purpose to the narrative, for the text nonetheless to ramify out in all directions till it fills 200 pages of paragraph-less prose, and reading it makes you feel like you’re having a nervous breakdown.

Watt heard nothing of this, because of other voices, singing, crying, stating, murmuring, things unintelligible, in his ear. With these, if he was not familiar, he was not unfamiliar either. So he was not alarmed, unduly. Now these voices, sometimes they sang only, and sometimes they cried only, and sometimes they stated only, and sometimes they murmured only, and sometimes they sang and cried, and sometimes they sang and stated, and sometimes they sang and murmured, and sometimes they cried and stated, and sometimes they cried and murmured, and sometimes they stated and murmured, and sometimes they sang and cried and stated, and sometimes they sang and cried and murmured, and sometimes they cried and stated and murmured, and sometimes they sang and cried and stated and murmured, all together, at the same time, as now, to mention only these four kinds of voices, for there were others.

See? Once you establish this method, you can apply it to anything, in fact the more trivial and silly the better, since it brings out the absurdity of the procedure and, by extension, the absurdity of trying to describe anything at all, the absurdity of writing fiction, the absurdity of being human.

Watt’s way of advancing due east, for example, was to turn his bust as far as possible towards the north and at the same time to fling out his right leg as far as possible towards the south, and then to turn his bust as far as possible towards the south and at the same time to fling out his left leg as far as possible towards the north, and then again to turn his bust as far as possible towards the north and to fling out his right leg as far as possible towards the south, and then again to turn his bust as far as possible towards the south and to fling out his left leg as far as possible towards the north, and so on, over and over again, many many times, until he reached his destination, and could sit down. So, standing first on one leg, and then on the other, he moved forward, a headlong tardigrade, in a straight line. The knees, on these occasions, did not bend. They could have, but they did not. No knees could better bend than Watt’s, when they chose, there was nothing the matter with Watt’s knees, as may appear. But when out walking they did not bend, for some obscure reason. Notwithstanding this, the feet fell, heel and sole together, flat upon the ground, and left it, for the air’s uncharted ways, with manifest repugnancy. The arms were content to dangle, in perfect equipendency.

Forever and ever this kind of thing can be spooled out like a spider spins webs all its life long.

Use an Irish accent If you read it in a traditional English voice, like mine, it can get quite tiresome. Which is why you should have a go at reading it aloud with a slight Irish accent. If you do this, or hear it with your mind’s ear read in an Irish accent, you can catch the sly humour behind the entire thing and make out the very dry twinkle in old Sam Beckett’s beady eyes.

And you can see why, after exhausting the possibilities of prose in the enormous trilogy, he discovered the far more potent effect of doing this kind of thing onstage, of having actors read his prose out loud. Not only read out his mechanical variations on trivial actions, but actually have them act them out. Thus he gets the puppet characters of Godot or Happy Days or Endgame to go through obsessive physical and verbal repetitions which reduce the idea of human agency to an absolute null. And yet… with a shrewd, beady, half-smile hovering around his dry lips…

(This playful disinterest in plot, and greater interest in the games implicit in language, the silliness of set phrases and so on, is a quality shared with another bleak joker, Kurt Vonnegut. When Beckett describes Watt’s walk as ‘a funambulistic stagger’ the phrase reminded me of the made-up ‘chrono-synclastic infundibula’ which plays a central role in Vonnegut’s first novel The Sirens of Titan.)

The plot

Watt has four parts.

Part one

‘Hunchy’ Hackett sits on what he considers ‘his’ bench. He is joined by Mr and Mrs Nixon who, among other things, tell the story of how she gave birth in the middle of a posh dinner party (she went upstairs and delivered the baby herself before coming back down, leading the child by the hand). Night is falling. They observe someone alight from a stopping tram and identify him as Watt. There is a typically scholastic debate about why he chose this particular tram stop.

Cut to Watt hurrying to the train station and colliding with a man pushing a big milk churn. He picks it up along with Watt’s hat, the whole incident observed by the elderly keeper of the newsagent’s booth, who now closes it up. Watt enters the train in what he thinks is an empty compartment but then realises it has an occupant, who introduces himself as Spiro, editor of a Catholic popular magazine, Crux.

Watt alights (apparently) and walks along a road. His method of walking is described with characteristic obsessive pedantry. It once impressed a Lady McCann who observed his odd method of ambulation. He is tired. He lies down in a ditch (an image of utter dejection which was to be obsessively repeated in the falling, crawling, creeping protagonists of the Trilogy).

He hears a choir singing a song and, in that 1930s avant-garde way, the text includes a two-page transcription of it. Watt bestirs himself, picks up his bags and continues to the house of a Mr Knott, where we have a typical piece of obsessively repetitive Beckettiana:

The house was in darkness.
Finding the front door locked, Watt went to the back door. He could not very well ring, or knock, for the house was in darkness.
Finding the back door locked also, Watt returned to the front door.
Finding the front door locked still, Watt returned to the back door.
Finding the back door now open, oh not open wide, but on the latch, as the saying is, Watt was able to enter the house.
Watt was surprised to find the back door, so lately locked, now open. Two explanations of this occurred to him. The first was this, that his science of the locked door, so seldom at fault, had been so on this occasion, and that the back door, when he had found it locked, had not been locked, but open. And the second was this, that the back door, when he had found it locked, had in effect been locked, but had subsequently been opened, from within, or without, by some person, while he Watt had been employed in going, to and fro, from the back door to the front door, and from the front door to the back door.

See what I mean by the technique which can spool an infinite amount of prose, of ratiocination, out of almost nothing. Every human action can be subjected to a) this degree of mindless mechanical repetition and b) unnecessarily thorough pedantic over-analysis. Either you find it irksome or, you adjust your mood to suit Beckett’s approach and find it dryly humorous, absurd, absurdist.

Watt enters the apparently empty house and sits in the kitchen by the ‘range’, taking off his hat, revealing his grey-red hair. A man enters and delivers a breathless, surreal and absurdist monologue of the kind which will dominate the Trilogy. It is really a very long monologue, 25 pages of the kind of solid block prose we will see in the Trilogy and the demented, repetitive, obscure, mad obsessive dwelling on trivial or inconsequential subject matter which characterises all Beckett’s prose.

In terms of ‘facts’, what emerges is the speaker is Arsene, the owner of the house’s former manservant, along with one Erskine and two serving girls, Ann and Mary.

Part two

The narrating voice settles into a series of philosophical meditations on the nature of reality, of our experience of the outer and inner worlds and the difference between them, the nature of time and of mind.

For Watt now found himself in the midst of things which, if they consented to be named, did so as it were with reluctance.

These lengthy and repetitive lucubrations centre on a number of characteristically minor or trivial events, such as the visit to the house of the Galls, a father and son pair of piano tuners. Then there is the case of the pot, which gives rise to a long excursus on the nature of pot-ness.

Looking at a pot, for example, or thinking of a pot, at one of Mr Knott’s pots, of one of Mr Knott’s pots, it was in vain that Watt said, Pot, pot. Well, perhaps not quite in vain, but very nearly. For it was not a pot, the more he looked, the more he reflected, the more he felt sure of that, that it was not a pot at all. It resembled a pot, it was almost a pot, but it was not a pot of which one could say, Pot, pot, and be comforted. It was in vain that it answered, with unexceptionable adequacy, all the purposes, and performed all the offices, of a pot, it was not a pot. And it was just this hairbreadth departure from the nature of a true pot that so excruciated Watt. For if the approximation had been less close, then Watt would have been less anguished.

It’s passages like this – and this is only a small excerpt from the long passage about the pot – that bespeak a kind of mental illness, that lead me to make the comparisons with an autistic or asperger-like inability to relate to the world, to be thrown into anxiety, into panic, by nothing, by looking at a pot.

There is a master of the house, one Mr Knott, whose names seems as much of a joke as Watt’s. Watt is Knott. Watt is not Knott. Knott is not Watt. We could go on all day, and Beckett does. The obsessive manner of Watt knocking on the front door when he first arrives, then going round to knock on the back door, then returning to the front to knock on the front door again, then returning to the back to knock on the back door again, are a fleabite compared to some of the monstrosities of obsessive repetition, or repetitions with variations, the text contains.

Watt prepares Mr Knott’s meals by mixing up a precise list of ingredients and medicines into a sort of gruel which must be served punctually at 12 noon and 7pm. Sometimes Mr Knott leaves the bowl empty, at other times leaves varying percentages of the gruel in it.

Twelve possibilities occurred to Watt, in this connection:

  1. Mr Knott was responsible for the arrangement, and knew that he was responsible for the arrangement, and knew that such an arrangement existed, and was content.
  2. Mr Knott was not responsible for the arrangement, but knew who was responsible for the arrangement, and knew that such an arrangement existed, and was content.
  3. Mr Knott was responsible for the arrangement, and knew that he was responsible for the arrangement, but did not know that any such arrangement existed, and was content.
  4. Mr Knott was not responsible for the arrangement, but knew who was responsible for the arrangement, but did not know that any such arrangement existed, and was content.
  5. Mr Knott was responsible for the arrangement, but did not know who was responsible for the arrangement, nor that any such arrangement existed, and was content.
  6. Mr Knott was not responsible for the arrangement, nor knew who was responsible for the arrangement, nor that any such arrangement existed, and was content.
  7. Mr Knott was responsible for the arrangement, but did not know who was responsible for the arrangement, and knew that such an arrangement existed, and was content.
  8. Mr Knott was not responsible for the arrangement, nor knew who was responsible for the arrangement, and knew that such an arrangement existed, and was content.
  9. Mr Knott was responsible for the arrangement, but knew who was responsible for the arrangement, and knew that such an arrangement existed, and was content.
  10. Mr Knott was not responsible for the arrangement, but knew that he was responsible for the arrangement, and knew that such an arrangement existed, and was content.
  11. Mr Knott was responsible for the arrangement, but knew who was responsible for the arrangement, but did not know that any such arrangement existed, and was content.
  12. Mr Knott was not responsible for the arrangement, but knew that he was responsible for the arrangement, but did not know that any such arrangement existed, and was content.

All these passages say something about the madness of thinking, the madness of writing, and the madness of language. The anxiety about Knott’s dinner develops seamlessly into an even more elaborated worry about the dog Watt is ordered to give any leftovers of Mr Knott’s dinner to, worries whether such a dog might or might not exist, and then a detailed consideration of four possible permutations by which such a dog might be prevailed upon to eat the leftovers. Which leads into a consideration of the family which is required to manage the complex system of dogs which have been conjured up to eat Mr Knott’s leftovers, and who are named the Lynch family and who Beckett proceeds to list and describe at exorbitant length, 28 of them in total. When Liz, the wife of Sam, dies shortly after giving birth to her twentieth baby:

This loss was a great loss to the family Lynch, this loss of a woman of forty goodlooking years.
For not only was a wife, a mother, a mother-in-law, an aunt, a sister, a sister-in-law, a cousin, a niece-in-law, a niece, a niece-in-law, a daughter-in-law, a granddaughter-in-law and of course a grandmother, snatched from her grandfather-in-law, her father-in-law, her uncles-in-law, her aunt, her aunts-in-law, her cousins, her brothers-in-law, her sisters, her niece, her nephew, her sons-in-law, her daughters, her sons, her husband and of course her four little grandchildren (who however exhibited no sign of emotion other than that of curiosity, being too young no doubt to realise the dreadful thing that had happened, for their total age amounted to no more than sixteen years), never to return, but the Lynch millennium was retarded by almost one year and a half, assuming that during that time all were spared, and so could not be expected before roughly two years from the date of Liz’s departure, instead of in a mere five months time, as would have been the case if Liz together with the rest of the family had been spared, and even five or six days sooner if the infant had been spared also, as he was to be sure, but at his mother’s expense, with the result that the goal towards which the whole family was striving receded to the tune of a good nineteen months, if not more, assuming all the others to be spared, in the meantime.

As you read this sort of thing, it’s hard not to think of Beckett’s own description that he wrote the book as an exercise, as experiments in dribs and drabs, on the long long nights hidden away in a house in the Vaucluse, with a pen, some notebooks and far too much time on his hands.

We are now in the clutches of the Lynch family and their absurd wish that the total of their combined ages reaches a thousand, something which keeps being prevented when one or other of them dies unexpectedly. Meanwhile one of the uglier cousins has twins. Which leads into an extended consideration of who impregnated her which requires a long, detailed description of the fornicatory habits of all the male members of family (cousin Sam in his wheelchair, cousin Tom with his manic depression, Uncle Jack…?)

After pages about the Lynch family, we revert to Watt, during his era of service on the ground floor, and a further disquisition about the name and nature of the dog the two members of the Lynch family, the dwarves Art and Con (remember the hunchback Mr Hackett at the start of the ‘story’), are tasked with bringing to the door of Mr Knott’s house every evening at 9pm to receive whatever leftover there may be. Or not. The dog is called Kate and we have it fully explained which Lynch family member she is named after. Kate dies and is replaced by another dog named Cis.

Eventually the book gets beyond the complex issue of the dig which eats Mr Knott’s leftovers and settles on the even more vexed matter of why the other servant in the house, Erskine, seems to spend so much of his time running up and down stairs from the ground floor to the first floor to the second floor and back down again, presumably at Mr Knott’s command, whereas Watt, at least in the first phase of his employment, remains on the ground floor throughout his working day. The possible reasons why are given the Beckett treatment i.e. a thorough working through of every conceivable reason.

Then there is the bell which goes off anytime day or night to summon Erskine to Mr Knott’s room. Same kind of treatment i.e. a thorough working through of every conceivable reason, including a list of every possible part of the human anatomy which could be used to press a bell. Watt decides he needs to discover the layout of Erskine’s room and in particular the location of the bell. But:

Erskine’s room was always locked, and the key in Erskine’s pocket. Or rather, Erskine’s room was never unlocked, nor the key out of Erskine’s pocket, longer than two or three seconds at a stretch, which was the time that Erskine took to take the key from his pocket, unlock his door on the outside, glide into his room, lock his door again on the inside and slip the key back into his pocket, or take the key from his pocket, unlock his door on the inside, glide out of his room, lock the door again on the outside and slip the key back into his pocket. For if Erskine’s room had been always locked, and the key always in Erskine’s pocket, then Erskine himself, for all his agility, would have been hard set to glide in and out of his room, in the way he did, unless he had glided in and out by the window, or the chimney. But in and out by the window he could not have glided, without breaking his neck, nor in and out by the chimney, without being crushed to death. And this was true also of Watt.

Abruptly a first-person narrator enters the text who informs us that everything written so far was told him by Watt many years later and over the course of many years, and that he took it all down in his notebook. Which gives rise to extensive, repetitive and thorough reflections on epistemology and the limits of knowledge, specially when it comes to narratives.

And so always, when the impossibility of my knowing, of Watt’s having known, what I know, what Watt knew, seems absolute, and insurmountable, and undeniable, and uncoercible, it could be shown that I know, because Watt told me, and that Watt knew, because someone told him, or because he found out for himself. For I know nothing, in this connexion, but what Watt told me.

We don’t know his name and the text moves back to the issue of Watt breaking into Erskine’s bedroom where he discovers a mysterious geometric painting hanging on the wall which gives rise to a very deep meditation on the nature of perspective and space and time and experience within it.

Time passes and Watt wonders how long he will be serving on the ground floor, how long his predecessors did, was it service of fixed duration, or did it vary from servant to servant?

For the service to be considered was not the service of one servant, but of two servants, and even of three servants, and even of an infinity of servants, of whom the first could not out till the second up, nor the second up till the third in, nor the third in till the first out, nor the first out till the third in, nor the third in till the second up, nor the second up till the first out, every going, every being, every coming consisting with a being and a coming, a coming and a going, a going and a being, nay with all the beings and all the comings, with all the comings and all the goings, with all the goings and all the beings, of all the servants that had ever served Mr Knott, of all the servants that ever would serve Mr Knott.

Repetition with variations. Obsessive repetition of the variations of a small number of variables, like the stones Molloy sucks or the toast that Belacqua Shuah methodically burns. The passage about the possible permutations of the servants goes on for four densely-written pages. Then he remembers lying on a beach at night and hearing three frogs who croak, respectively, Krak!, Krek! and Krik! at precise numerical intervals, such that the next two pages contain a table enumerating the froggy croaks.

Which leads into a memory of Watt’s sort-of affair with Mrs Gorman the fishwoman who came round to his house every Thursday evening. Sometimes she sat on his lap, sometimes he sat on hers, which immediately sparks two pages describing all the possible permutations of lap-sitting, along with a calculation of how long it took to change position, with the additional complexity of the time required to kiss or simply clasp each other, leading into ever-more complex calculations and permutations.

Mr Graves the old gardener comes regularly to the back door. Watt brings him a cup of tea in the morning or a bottle of stout in the evening.

Watt literally bumps into Mr Knott once when the owner is staring at a daisy and a worm at his feet. They do not speak. At numerous other times he glimpses the mysterious owner through windows, which often distort his appearance so he appears sometimes tall, sometimes short, sometimes stout, sometimes thin.

Watt realises he is tired and bored, service on the ground floor has tired him out. Then one fine winter morning he comes downstairs to find a new man in the kitchen, named Arthur. And on that word part two terminates.

Part three

Is narrated by a person called Sam but his narrative voice is identical to all that came before:

Watt seldom left his mansion and I seldom left mine. And when the kind of weather we liked did induce us to leave our mansions, and go out into the garden, it did not always do so at the same time. For the kind of weather that I liked, while resembling the kind of weather that Watt liked, had certain properties that the kind of weather that Watt liked had not, and lacked certain properties that the kind of weather that Watt liked had.

It appears they are both in an institution whose halls are crowded with what the narrator calls ‘scum’, playing ball all the time. The reference to mansions appears to be ironic. Watt appears to have ended up in a lunatic asylum, as does Murphy in his book. It is the logical place for all Beckett protagonists to end up since they are clearly suffering from advanced mental illness and inability to cope with everyday experience or any human interaction.

Watt and the protagonist are in some kind of institution, they can wander freely in separate gardens, divided by barbed wire fences. This is the most genuinely surreal. The narrator discovers a hole in his fence which parallels a hole in Watt’s fence and crawls through to him, watches him advance backwards towards him, wearing his clothes back to front, and when Watt speaks, his words are back to front.

The narrator says he has a little notebook, so maybe he is the same narrator with a little notebook who popped up in part two, saying he kept extensive notes of Watt’s stories. They often walk together in their favourite weather, sunny windy days. Then Watt’s defect deepens and he starts talking by reversing the spelling of words. In fact the narrator documents a further sequence of linguistic oddities, all laid out with the usual obsession for precise variation.

Then he took it into his head to invert, no longer the order of the words in the sentence, nor that of the letters in the word, nor that of the sentences in the period, nor simultaneously that of the words in the sentence and that of the letters in the word, nor simultaneously that of the words in the sentence and that of the sentences in the period, nor simultaneously that of the letters in the word and that of the sentences in the period, nor simultaneously that of the letters in the word and that of the words in the sentence and that of the sentences in the period, ho no, but, in the brief course of the same period, now that of the words in the sentence, now that of the letters in the word, now that of the sentences in the period, now simultaneously that of the words in the sentence and that of the letters in the word, now simultaneously that of the words in the sentence and that of the sentences in the period, now simultaneously that of the letters in the word and that of the sentences in the period, and now simultaneously that of the letters in the word and that of the words in the sentence and that of the sentences in the period.

Watt describes an afternoon when he, Mr Knott, Mr Graves and Arthur are all in the garden together. Arthur makes his recommendation of Bando to Mr Graves and then proceeds to give a long, rambling, surreal or absurdist account of an academic expedition into darkest Ireland carried out by one Ernest Louit as recounted to the committee of crusty old academics who commissioned him. All this is set in Beckett’s old university, Trinity College, Dublin.

There are five crusty old dons on the committee and there is a spectacularly Beckettian, obsessive-compulsive 3-page description of precisely who was looking at who and where they were sitting and what they saw. But this is as nothing compared to the subsequent scene in which Louit brings along and presents to the committee the ageing peasant Mr Nackybal who turns out to have the uncanny ability to rattle off the square root or the cube root of very large figures. Beckett’s obsessive compulsive, obsessively repetitive mannerisms go into overdrive.

After about 25 pages of the story of Mr Nackybal Arthur abruptly tires, breaks off and goes into Mr Knott’s house. Watt is relieved, it was a very draining story. The story having desisted we move onto a few aspects of Mr Knott, and a fantastically obsessive iteration of all the possible combinations of footwear he could wear. This is surpassed by this description of Mr Knott’s activities in his room:

Here he stood. Here he sat. Here he knelt. Here he lay. Here he moved, to and fro, from the door to the window, from the window to the door; from the window to the door, from the door to the window; from the fire to the bed, from the bed to the fire; from the bed to the fire, from the fire to the bed; from the door to the fire, from the fire to the door; from the fire to the door, from the door to the fire; from the window to the bed, from the bed to the window; from the bed to the window, from the window to the bed; from the fire to the window, from the window to the fire; from the window to the fire, from the fire to the window; from the bed to the door, from the door to the bed; from the door to the bed, from the bed to the door; from the door to the window, from the window to the fire; from the fire to the window, from the window to the door; from the window to the door, from the door to the bed; from the bed to the door, from the door to the window; from the fire to the bed, from the bed to the window; from the window to the bed, from the bed to the fire; from the bed to the fire, from the fire to the door; from the door to the fire, from the fire to the bed; from the door to the window, from the window to the bed; from the bed to the window, from the window to the door; from the window to the door, from the door to the fire; from the fire to the door, from the door to the window; from the fire to the bed, from the bed to the door; from the door to the bed, from the bed to the fire; from the bed to the fire, from the fire to the window; from the window to the fire, from the fire to the bed; from the door to the fire, from the fire to the window; from the window to the fire, from the fire to the door; from the window to the bed, from the bed to the door; from the door to the bed, from the bed to the window; from the fire to the window, from the window to the bed; from the bed to the window, from the window to the fire; from the bed to the door, from the door to the fire; from the fire to the door, from the door to the bed.

This scales new heights of mad compulsive repetition with a large number of small variations, even for Beckett.

It’s hard not to feel, as these mad repetition scenes mount up, that this kind of mathematical iteration is what replaces, in Beckett, a sensual feel for language. He subjects language to endless algorithmic combinations, but very rarely do you read a sentence which is vivid and breath-taking. Often it is like reading a computer program. Quite regularly there are softer sentences which appear to be recalling a kind of Tennysonian, ‘poetic’, susurration.

At ten the steps came, clearer, clearer, fainter, fainter, on the stairs, on the landing, on the stairs again, and through the open door the light, from darkness slowly brightening, to darkness slowly darkening, the steps of Arthur, the light of poor Arthur, little by little mounting to his rest, at his habitual hour.

But these are never quite convincing or consistent. Beckett is much more at home in the mechanical, in algorithmic repetitions, in perfunctory combinations, creating a new kind of 20th century ‘poetry’, based on objective descriptions, computer manuals, algorithmic permutations or – as here – a parody of bureaucratic forms:

I come from —, said Mr Micks, and he described the place whence he came. I was born at —, he said, and the site and circumstances of his ejection were unfolded. My dear parents, he said, and Mr and Mrs Micks, heroic figures, unique in the annals of cloistered fornication, filled the kitchen. He said further, At the age of fifteen, My beloved wife, My beloved dog, Till at last. Happily Mr Micks was childless.

The last few pages of part three describe Watt’s encounters with Mr Knott, or their joint presence in rooms, but they never communicate, Watt discovers or understands as little about him as when he started in his employ. On the penultimate page there is one of Beckett’s algorithmic fantasias listing all possible permutations of the elements of Mr Knott’s physical appearance, which is even longer than the one above describing the moving furniture in his bedroom.

Eventually we come to the end. Watt gives a final description of the characteristically obsessive patterns or permutations which Mr Knott applied to putting on his slippers, or shoes, or overshoes, or boots, or one slipper and one shoe, or one boot and one slipper etc etc.

And then, quite abruptly, it appears that Watt has told the narrator everything he can, or everything the narrator was able to make out from Watt’s umpteen peculiar ways of speaking, as enumerated earlier. And so Watt returns, moving backwards, through the holes in the fences between their respective gardens, and then walks backwards across his park, continually stumbling over roots and into brambles, back towards his ‘pavilion’.

Which is all very weird and disturbing. This walking backwards across dreamily huge parks, and then talking backwards, is part nonsense in the manner of Lear or Carrol, maybe, but feels more like a disturbing 20th century sci-fi dystopia or bad dream. I found it emotionally upsetting.

Part four

The shortest of the four sections. One night a stranger is sitting in the kitchen when Watt comes down for his night-time drink of milk and to smoke the remains of his cheap cigar. It is Micks, a man who has arrived, like he did all those years ago, out of nowhere. Watt realises it is time to leave Mr Knott’s house, goes upstairs, packs his two little bags, gives Micks a talk much as Arsene gave him (only infinitely shorter) and leaves the house forever. In fact he finds himself out the house, walking down the avenue and then along the road from the house, before he’s really aware of it, and regrets not having said a formal goodbye to Micks.

It’s the early hours so the station is closed. He climbs over the wicket gate, looks up at the night sky, looks back along the highway and sees a peculiar figure shuffling towards the station. It gets larger and larger and then gets smaller and smaller. So it goes.

The station master, Mr Case, is awake and reading a book by Irish writer, poet, critic etc George Russell. Watt asks if he can wait in the waiting room but as this requires entry through the ticket office, which is locked up, this triggers two pages of complex calculations about keys and locks and the correct sequence of opening, closing and relocking doors which eventually results in the answer Yes. Watt says that on reflection he would rather stay outside on the platform walking up and down.

Which makes it odd that we then find him in the waiting room lying down, possibly having a hallucination or memory of an old lady talking. There’s another unusually mysterious and ‘sensitive’ moments, which intersperse the mad combinatory passages:

He lay on the seat, without thought or sensation, except for a slight feeling of chill in one foot. In his skull the voices whispering their canon were like a patter of mice, a flurry of little grey paws in the dust.

It gets slowly very dark. And the slowly the light of dawn appears and Watt can make out shapes in the waiting room, first a chair, then a fireplace, then a picture of a horse in a field. At that point the morning staff of the station arrive, notably Mr Nixon, a loud whistling sort of gentleman who kicks the waiting room door open with great vigour. What he didn’t know was that Watt was directly in its path.

The text now becomes deliberately tricksy, a ‘hiatus’ is indicated in the manuscript, as if it were a venerable relic, and then the message that ‘MS is illegible’. Watt sees the ceiling of the room with preternatural clarity, but from the behaviour of Mr Nixon, Mr Gorman his superior and Mr Case, it seems that Watt is now lying on the floor, badly concussed and bleeding a little from the mouth or nose. (Mr Gorman? Is the husband of the Mrs Gorman the fishwoman who Watt was described as having an affair with earlier in the book?).

The traditional morning commuters turn up including Lady McCann, and Arsy Cox and Herring-gut Waller and Cack-faced Miller and Mrs Penny-a-hoist Pim.

(This all reminds me of the radio play Beckett wrote for the BBC ten years later, All That Fall, which involves a gabby old Irish lady cadging a lift to a railway station. It has the same claustrophobic smallness.)

They all decide something must be done but don’t know what. They don’t know Watt. Nixon and Gorman appear to manhandle the firebucket over to Watt’s prone form and try to tip the water over him, though from the generally lamenting tone, it seems (it’s all described with deliberate obscurity) as if they drop the bucket itself onto Watt.

Then to their surprise, Watt stands up, takes up his bags, walks through to the ticket office and asks to buy a ticket. He doesn’t know where he wants to go. When quizzed, he replies ‘to the end of the line’. ‘Which end?’ Mr Nolan asks, ‘the round end of the square end?’ The nearer end, Watt decides.

So I think what has happened is Watt has been seriously concussed, possibly suffered brain damage and this is the precursor to him going, or being taken, to the institution we found him in, in the disturbing part three.

The last page leaves Watt altogether and gives us a last little flare-up of Beckettian combinatorial obsessiveness.

Mr Nolan looked at Mr Case, Mr Case at Mr Nolan, Mr Gorman at Mr Case, Mr Gorman at Mr Nolan, Mr Nolan at Mr Gorman, Mr Case at Mr Gorman, Mr Gorman again at Mr Case, again at Mr Nolan, and then straight before him, at nothing in particular. And so they stayed a little while, Mr Case and Mr Nolan looking at Mr Gorman, and Mr Gorman looking straight before him, at nothing in particular, though the sky falling to the hills, and the hills falling to the plain, made as pretty a picture, in the early morning light, as a man could hope to meet with, in a day’s march.

This is the final paragraph. In it you can see the obsessive variation trope, but note also the way it ends with a thumping cliché. It is an ending of sorts but an ending which takes the mickey out of endings. But it doesn’t quite avoid the feeling that this is partly because Beckett is not necessarily any good at endings. This is partly because, philosophically, he appears to regard all things as taking part in an endless flux in all directions, through all directions and through time. But a few works after Watt he was to stumble across a form of words which captures this, the sense of endlessness, and one which captures both his bleak nihilism and his determination:

‘You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on…’

No wonder this formula is then repeated with variations (arguably Beckett’s basic imaginative trope, as Watt abundantly demonstrates) in his subsequent fictions, most famously at the end of Waiting For Godot:

Well, shall we go.
Yes, let’s go.
(They do not move)

Repeated until, like much else in Beckett, it itself becomes a formula and a new cliché, as predictably bleak as a Mills and Boon happy ever after is predictably sentimental.

The addenda

At the end of the book are 30 or so fragments which Beckett couldn’t find place for in the text, but which he attached nonetheless. They include fragments of sentences, songs, definitions, one-line summaries of events, learned references phrases in foreign languages, sheet music, a summary of the second picture to be seen in Erskine’s room and so on.

None of them contain any great revelations, mainly it’s just more of the same banal and trivial events. Nonetheless, puzzling over their implications or how they might have been included or altered the text, has kept scholars happily absorbed ever since. They are humorously introduced with the author’s note:

The following precious and illuminating material should be carefully studied. Only fatigue and disgust prevented its incorporation.

Looking at the Amazon reviews of the book, ‘fatigue and disgust’ are what some readers of the book have experienced, who haven’t been able to approach it, who haven’t learned to approach it with the correct tangential, amused attitude, completely liberated from the desire expectation to have character or plot or dialogue that makes sense in a supposed ‘novel’.

And who haven’t been able to see, beneath or behind the obsessive repetition and deliberate anti-plot and anti-character, the sly smile of the Dante-loving cricketer from Dublin.

Thoughts

Experiments

The Wikipedia article humorously quotes S. E. Gontarski’s description of Watt as ‘the white whale of Beckett studies, a mass of documentation that defies attempts to make sense of it.’ But it makes total sense if you see it as a congeries of fragmentary exercises stitched together and this is how Beckett himself consistently referred to it.

Much later Beckett said that Watt was written in Roussillon as ‘just an exercise’ while he was waiting for the war to end and it certainly reads like a series of exercises or experiments in the obsessive-autistic manner I’ve described. The use of repetition has you initially grasping to keep the meanings in mind but after a while you submit to it like trance music and go into a kind of Beckett zone where you know none of it means anything but are lulled by the insistent repetitions with variations.

Banned

Like UlyssesWatt was immediately banned in Ireland. It’s not for the explicit sex, as there is none. The episode of the Lynch family more than hints at incest. There’s a description of cousin Ann’s ‘splendid bosom, white and fat and elastic’ and of Sam managing to have sex with countless local ladies despite being confined to a wheelchair. In part three the character Arthur refers to a product named Bando which appears to help with erectile disfunction, and openly criticises the Irish Free State for banning it.

Just as offensive might have been the blunt descriptions of bodily functions i.e. pooing and peeing, number ones and number twos, the description of 64-year-old Mr Nackybal scratching ‘a diffuse ano-scrotal prurit’.

And there is a steady stream of mocking references to God and his son, not blasphemous in the French manner, just casually disrespectful. And a few swearwords, arse and bugger, balls, the word ‘erection’ is mentioned once! Maybe, taken together, that sufficed to trigger the censor’s stamp.


Related links

More Beckett reviews

An asterisk indicates that a work was part of the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays and were released as a set in 2002.

The Second World War 1939-45

*Waiting For Godot 1953

  • All That Fall (1957) Radio play
  • *Act Without Words I & II (1957) Stage plays
  • *Endgame (1958) Stage play
  • *Krapp’s Last Tape (1958) Stage play
  • *Rough for Theatre I & II – Stage plays
  • Embers (1959) – Radio play
  • *Happy Days (1961) – Stage play
  • Rough for Radio I & II (1961) Radio plays
  • Words and Music (1961) Radio play
  • Cascando (1961) Radio play
  • *Play (1963) Stage play
  • How it Is (1964) Novel
  • *Come and Go (1965) Stage play
  • Imagination Dead Imagine (1965) Short story
  • Eh Joe (1967) Television play
  • *Breath (1969) Stage play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

  • The Lost Ones (1972) Short story
  • *Not I (1972) Stage play
  • *That Time (1975) Stage play
  • *Footfalls (1976) Stage play
  • … but the clouds… (1976) Television play
  • All Strange Away (1976) Short story
  • Ghost Trio (1977) Television play
  • Company (1979) Short story
  • *A Piece of Monologue (1980) Stage play
  • *Rockaby (1981) Stage play
  • Quad (1981) Television play
  • Ill Seen Ill Said (1981) Short novel
  • *Ohio Impromptu (1981) Stage play
  • *Catastrophe (1982) Stage play
  • Worstward Ho (1983) Prose
  • Nacht und Träume (1983) Television play
  • *What Where (1983) Stage play
  • Stirrings Still (1989) Short prose

Murphy by Samuel Beckett (1938)

‘Unless you want me to call a policewoman,’ said Murphy, ‘cease your clumsy genustuprations.’
(Murphy page 56)

This is Beckett’s first published novel. I expected it to be an improvement on his first published book, the collection of linked short stories, More Pricks Than Kicks, but the essential feel, the worldview and style are very much the same.

Hard to read

It’s a very difficult book to read. Though only 170 pages long it took three days because I was so reluctant to pick it up and quick to put it down to do almost anything else.

The prose is mannered, stilted and extremely repetitive. Quite quickly I realised that its paragraphs rarely move the story along or analyse character: they almost exclusively consist of repetitions, iterated phrases spinning out a handful of ideas or words, sometimes driving you mad with frustration, irritation and boredom.

Take this passage where the lead figure, Murphy, has moved into a garret which he discovers has no form of heating. ‘No heating!!’ he exclaims to the friend, August Ticklepenny, who has fixed him up with a new job and the garret. ‘Why couldn’t someone just extend the electricity or gas up there to fuel a heater?’

He went on to speak of tubes and wires. Was it not just the beauty of tubes and wires, that they could be extended? Was it not their chief characteristic, the ease with which they could be extended? What was the point of going in for tubes and wires at all, if you did not extend them without compunction whenever necessary? Did they not cry out for extension? Ticklepenny thought he would never stop, saying feverishly the same thing in slightly different ways. (p.103)

Repetition

‘Saying feverishly the same thing in slightly different ways’. Now arguably this was to be Beckett’s central contribution to 20th century literature, Repetition, the depiction of characters absolutely paralysed in their physical activities or thought processes and doomed to endless repetition.

In this respect Beckett is obviously undertaking quite radical experiments with the form of the novel, largely throwing out traditional notions of ‘plot’ or ‘character’ or ‘character development’ in order to focus on ‘saying feverishly the same thing in slightly different ways’ to such an extent as to create a new sort of poetic.

But so even the most trivial aspects of the lead character’s life are described with a pedantic thoroughness which are surely on the obsessive-compulsive spectrum.

  • When he stops in a tea room for a cup of tea, Murphy spends at least a page working through a series of ploys he could use to get the reluctant waitress, Vera, to top up his cup for free.
  • When Murphy takes the six biscuits he bought at the tearooms to Hyde Park, he lays them out on their paper bag on the grass, and then elaborately works through all the possible permutations of eating them in different orders, 120 ways, apparently, though it all depends whether he keeps the ginger biscuit fixed as the first choice, or mixes it in with the rest.
  • When Murphy starts work at the lunatic asylum, we are given a grindingly precise description of the layout of the building in every detail, which lacks any warmth or sympathy, is completely irrelevant to the ‘plot’, but pursues the description with obsessive pendantry.

I am probably using the term incorrectly, but it seems to me the narrative has a kind of autistic quality. It doesn’t bother much to describe other people or relationships between people – the ‘dialogue’ mostly just reveals misunderstanding and the ‘characters’ inability to communicate.

Comic?

Now, from some angles this obsession with the most trivial details could be made to seem comic – that a grown man puts so very much thought into how to arrange his six biscuits sounds, in principle, like it could be handled comically. The trouble is that, in practice, I found it grindingly boring, but more than that, brain-inflamingly frustrating.

For page after page the text maintains its obsessive and repetitive focus on the inner workings of the over-educated, under-motivated slob of an antihero as he shuffles round London, not really trying to get a job and surviving on a pittance while he does the only thing he enjoys, which is pore and pick over his own interminable mental lucubrations at gigantic length.

He distinguished between the actual and the virtual of his mind, not as between form and the formless yearning for form, but as between that of which he had both mental and physical experience and that of which he had mental experience only. Thus the form of the kick was actual; that of caress virtual. The mind felt its actual part to be above and bright, its virtual beneath and fading into dark, without however connecting this with the ethical yoyo. The mental experience was cut off from the physical experience, its criteria were not those of the physical experience, the agreement of part of its content with physical fact did not confer worth on that part. It did not function and could not be disposed according to a principle of worth. It was made up of light fading into dark, of above and beneath, but not of good and bad. It contained forms with parallel in another mode and forms without, but not right forms and wrong forms. It felt no issue between its light and dark, no need for its light to devour its dark. The need was now to be in the light, now in the half light, now in the dark. That was all. (p.70)

1. To be fair, this is not a completely characteristic passage, it comes from the four pages of chapter 6 in which the narrative comes to a dead stop while the narrator undertakes to explain to us the nature of ‘Murphy’s mind’. But the basic ‘ideas’ expressed in it underpin the whole book, and the obsession with the inner workings of Murphy’s self-absorbed consciousness is very much the book’s real subject.

2. Spending this much time on the experience of consciousness reminds us that Murphy was published in the late 1930s, when Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology was one of the dominating intellectual themes on the continent, picked up and refracted through the heavyweight existential philosophy of Martin Heidegger.

The phenomenological approach of examining and describing the inner workings of the mind is important to the writings of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. In fact, Sartre’s first novel, Nausea, was published in this same year as Murphy, 1938, and is also about an aimlessly unhappy man (a post-graduate researcher in Sartre’s case), so obsessed with his own thoughts and feelings that the real world becomes intolerably alien and threatening to him, filling him with the nausea of the book’s title.

The plot

Murphy is a shiftless layabout, a ‘seedy solipsist’ (p.53) (much like Belacqua, the male protagonist of Beckett’s previous (and first) book, More Pricks Than Kicks).

He’s living in London. He’s met a streetwalker named Celia on the corner of Stadium Street and Cremorne Road in Chelsea (which nowadays looks like this). Celia is now haplessly trying to look after weird Murphy. His favourite hobby is tying himself to an armchair in dingy flats (in this he foreshadows the various trapped protagonists of Beckett’s later plays) and rocking rocking rocking back and forth, a process described several times in numbing detail.

As with Belacqua, it struck me that Murphy is a glaring epitome of the clever young would-be writer who is full of fluent sentences and feel for language, but has no real subject to write about. He wanders the streets not really looking for a job and feeling mighty superior about it.

For what was all working for a living but a procuring and a pimping for the money-bags, one’s lecherous tyrants the money-bags, so that they might breed. (p.49)

(This vaunting superiority to the bourgeoisie with their regular jobs and pay packets reminds me of the intellectually superior but wretchedly poor protagonist of George Orwell’s 1936 novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying. A common delusion among young layabouts of all ages, that being poor but ‘free’ is superior to having a job, money and a life.)

Celia reports all this to her paternal grandfather, Mr Willoughby Kelly, who suggests she chucks him.

Meanwhile, in faraway Dublin (288 miles as the crow flies), Professor Neary smashes his head against the statue of Cuchulain inside the General Post Office building because he is in love with Celia, how or why, I never understood. He is rescued by one of his students, Needle Wylie who promises to track her down for him, by employing a private detective, Cooper. They meet the very beautiful Miss Counihan. It emerges that Murphy was till recently a student of Prof Neary’s and made all sorts of promises of love to Miss Counihan before leaving for London, after which no-one has heard from him.

Murphy goes to a tea rooms and spends a lot of time finagling to get a free top-up of tea from the reluctant waitress Vera. This process takes a long time. I could quote the several pages it stretches on for. Everything happens with a teeth-pulling slowness.

He is approached by an impecunious Irish poet, Austin Ticklepenny, who bewails his job at a mental home, the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat. ‘Mental Mercyseat’ made me laugh, though it’s more Irish than English-sounding, and is obviously one of the many aspects of the book which are intended to be funny, like most of the characters’ names.

Murphy escapes from Ticklepenny, having dumped him with paying for the tea and biscuits ha ha! much to the frustration of Vera the waitress, and takes a bus to Hyde Park, where he is debating in what order to eat his biscuits when he is asked by a clairvoyant to mind her dachshund while she feeds the sheep (which apparently lived in Hyde Park back in those days) lettuce which she’s brought for them.

After the immense thoroughness of Murphy’s calculations about the biscuit, the dog eats them while he’s not looking! The sheep refuse the lettuce. Murphy falls asleep.

Murphy awakes in the park. It’s night. When he gets back to the flat he shares with Celia he discovers her spread-eagled, face-down on the bed. Why? Well, first we have to read chapter six describing in great detail the tripartite character of Murphy’s cerebellum and sensorium, and then the narrative moves on to more distractions so that we never, in fact, find out.

The old man in the room above is found having slashed his throat with a razor. Celia negotiates with the hard-bitten old landlady, the virgin Miss Carridge, for her and Murphy to move into the dead man’s smaller room and so pay less rent. With his usual punning obscurity, Murphy says to Celia:

‘A decayed valet severs the connexion and you set up a niobaloo as though he were your fourteen children.’

This is typical of the ‘dialogue’ which is not really intended to be communication between human beings in the way you and I are used to. Instead it is a laborious literary in-joke.

Niobe is a figure from Greek legend whose children were slain by the gods and lay unburied while she wept for them. This figure of weeping Niobe is a commonplace classical reference in Elizabethan literature i.e. Shakespeare. Beckett has made it into a very James Joycean joke/pun by combining the words Niobe and hullabaloo into niobaloo. So this apparently gibberish sentence can be explicated as Murphy criticising Celia for weeping for some dead old servant as extravagantly as Niobe did for her children. ‘Severs the connexion’ being a fancy phrase for ‘dying’ which obviously references the severing of the old man’s artery.

Whether you enjoy this book, and a lot of Beckett in general, will come down to whether you found pleasure in that sentence, whether you were able to decode its literary references, and whether you think it was worth the effort.

I can see what he’s trying to do, I can see how he is making his hero into a kind of linguistic car crash and that he is highlighting the absurdity of all communication, and the absurdity of language as a whole, and the ridiculousness of texts themselves.

I think I understand the intention, and appreciate a lot of his strategies of repetition and numbingly detailed analysis of language and thought. And if you read short passages, it has a gladsome liberating effect. But if you try to read it as a novel i.e. to read extended sections at one go, it becomes very wearing.

Murphy goes off to see about starting the job he had discussed with Ticklepenny at the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat (chuckle).

Celia takes the Tube to Hyde Park to see if she can find her wheelchair-bound protector, Mr Kelly, flying his kite, because this is his hobby. Unbeknownst to her, Celia is followed by a man named Cooper who is acting as a private detective for Wylie so as to find Celia so as to reconcile her with his revered Professor Neary.

Maybe I slept through the paragraphs where it was explained but I never did understand why Neary was so besotted with Celia. Anyway, Celia doesn’t find Kelly in the park. Cooper doesn’t speak to Celia, but follows her home to the flat she shares with Murphy in Holloway.

Meanwhile, Murphy is introduced to the head nurse at the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat, Mr Thomas (‘Bim’) Clinch who, it turns out, has staffed the place with his family, including his twin brother Mr Timothy (‘Bom’) Clinch and an aged uncle, ‘Bum’ – obviously humorous names. It is obviously intended at some level as a comedy.

Murphy is enraptured by the place and especially the offer of a garret room on the premises, instantly moving into it and pulling up the ladder up to it in order to prevent anyone else ever entering it. Solipsist heaven! He forgets all about Celia.

Chapter 10 is long. The private eye Cooper joins Neary, Wylie and Miss Counihan (who is convinced she is in love with Murphy) to discuss their plans, and then they all proceed to meet Celia in her flat. The dialogue throughout this chapter is, I think, some kind of satire on all the normal dialogue ever written by novelists and playwrights. It applies Beckett’s overlocution and vocabularical exuberance to every single statement… for twenty pages!

‘One of the innumerable small retail redeemers,’ sneered Miss Counihan, ‘lodging her pennyworth of pique in the post-golgothan kitty.’
But for Murphy’s horror of the mental belch, Celia would have recognised this phrase, if she had heard it. (p.144)

If you recall, Wylie has paid Cooper to find Celia so as to bring her together with his infatuated patron, Professor Neary.

But they all behave so incomprehensibly that I just read the words and sentences for their verbal quality, ignoring the dialogue and so-called ‘plot’ because I suspect both are made complex and/or impenetrable, deliberately to frustrate and provoke the ‘conventional’ reader.

I think the characters all agree to spend the night in Celia’s flat while they wait for Murphy to return there.

But Murphy doesn’t return. He does a night shift at the mental home. Some paragraphs describe his closeness to the dwarfish psychotic Mr Endon. On this night shift Mr Endon somehow gets out of his cell and releases some other inmates but any reader hoping for mayhem or some kind of romantic climax is disappointed, for all the inmates are all locked safely back up – though not without a compulsive-obsessive description of the home’s elaborate security systems and the schedule according to which warders are meant to visit each cell throughout the night.

Murphy plays a game of chess with Mr Endon. The game is laid out in standard chess notation in the text so we can follow it. In fact it includes po-faced comments on particular moves, as if it was annotating a fiendishly clever game between grand masters. But in fact, if you play it out, as I did on my own chess set, you quickly realise it’s gibberish, not played with any serious intent.

In fact there’s a useful video on YouTube which works through the entire chess game in Murphy. After just two moves you can see it’s unorthodox and after four or five you realise it’s a nonsense game, a mockery of a game. On the YouTube video you can hear the (Russian?) guy who made it laughing at the ridiculousness of the moves.

For me this epitomises the book, as Beckett may well have intended it to. In every respect – in terms of narrative, plot, style, dialogue, character and setting, Murphy is – deliberately – a travesty of a mockery of a sham.

From small puns to larger pratfalls to the inconsequence of most of the dialogue, to the silliness of the plot, the entire text is a ‘joke’, or a series of interlocking ‘jokes’, clever, witty and, in some passages actually quite funny – but taken as a whole a very heavy and demanding read.

After the night shift ends Murphy heads back to his garret, stripping off his clothes as he walks through the dark grounds, till he’s naked. He lies in the wet grass trying to remember Celia, his mother, his father, anyone, and failing. He goes up to his garret, sits naked in his beloved rocking chair, rocking rocking rocking back and forth, as usual described in autistic detail. I use this word because several friends have autistic sons and this kind of rocking back and forth, sometimes accompanied by moaning, is a big feature of their behaviour as I have personally witnessed it.

Then the gas heater Murphy’s rigged up explodes and kills him. Oh. That was unexpected.

In the next chapter Celia, Miss Conihoun, Neary, Wylie and Cooper are summoned from Celia’s flat by the head of the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat  Dr Angus Killiecrankie, to learn that Murphy is dead.

They are taken to see his scorched corpse in the refrigerator room. They confirm Murphy’s identity, Celia pointing out the birth mark on his thigh, which gives rise to the bad taste joke that, by being important to the identification, it is also a kind death mark. Birth mark, death mark, I see the play on words, indeed the play on ideas. Maybe someone with a different sense of humour from mine would find this very witty.

One by one the various characters drift off, some pairing off on the way.

In the short final chapter Celia takes her grandad to Hyde Park to fly his kite. She is absent for a while during which she has sex with someone for money. She needs money, after all. Old Mr Kelly dozes off and his kite string falls out of his hand, snaps and the kite flies off into the sky, lost forever. He clambers out of his wheelchair and totters after it yelling in despair till Celia catches him up, with help from passersby restores him to the wheelchair, and pushes him home.

The End.


Superelaborate style

There are far fewer really arcane and obscure words in Murphy than in Pricks, which is a shame because I enjoyed looking them up. But Murphy‘s basic approach is still one of exorbitant super-pedantry and arch contrivance for its own sake.

The blue glitter of Mr Kelly’s eyes in the uttermost depths of their orbits became fixed, then veiled by the classic pythonic glaze. He raised his left hand, where Celia’s tears had not yet dried, and seated it pronate on the crown of his skull – that was the position. In vain. He raised his right hand and laid the forefinger along his nose. He then returned both hands to their points of departure with Celia’s on the counterpane, the glitter came back into his eyes and he pronounced:
‘Chuck him.’ (p.17)

I suppose this might be funny if you have the right sense of humour. Sometimes I do. I found some of it funny, the insistence on a madly pedantic precisionism, the more trivial the gesture or thought the more extreme description is devoted to it. Thus the text is worried and nagged by an obsessive attention to the characters’ precise physical positions and movements. Often it is more modern ballet than fiction.

(This obsession with characters’ precise positions and movements would become central to Beckett’s plays of the 1950s and 60s, where every gesture of the stricken protagonists becomes charged with hypertrophic punctilio.)

And intellectual tricksiness. The adjective ‘pythonic’ in the quote above refers to the oracle at Delphi in ancient Greece, where the supernatural pythia supposedly spoke its prophecies through the mouth of a woman put into a demonic trance. So that one phrase ‘classic pythonic’ is enough to indicate – to those in on the joke – that the text is (absurdly) comparing Grandad Kelly to an ancient Greek oracle – an absurdly mock heroic comparison.

This fact goes some way to explaining the glitter of his eyes and his generally unnatural gestures, notably placing his left hand ‘pronate’ on his skull, pronate meaning “to turn into a prone position; to rotate (the hand or forearm) so that the surface of the palm is downward or toward the back”.

And once you’ve grasped this fact you realise that the whole paragraph is, in its arch, contrived way, an elaborate joke. The joke is in the contrast between the classical epitome and its degraded modern-day embodiment. It is in other words, the classic Modernist trope of holding up the classical world as perfect, as a model of dignity and decorum (implicitly in Eliot’s The Waste Land, more overtly in Joyce’s Ulysses) and contrasting it with the sorry sordid shambles of the modern world.

This is why many critical studies of Beckett describe him as the last of the Modernists, a Johnny-come-lately to the game of contrasting the marmoreal perfection of the classics with the squalid spit and sawdust de nos jours.

The same structural disjunction underlies the boom-boom ending when, after a paragraph making this calculated intellectual parallel, which is leading the (informed) reader to expect a declaration of potency and magnificence – all Grandad Kelly comes out with is the bathetically commonplace output, the pub slang expression: ‘Chuck him’.

Bathos refers to rhetorical anticlimax – an abrupt transition from a lofty style or grand topic to a common or vulgar one (Wikipedia)

I happened to ‘get’ this joke because I had the opportunity of a very literary education, so I spotted the python allusion and thus grasped the overall dynamic of the paragraph and the mock comic intention. But I doubt whether anyone who studied more worthwhile subjects than ancient and modern literature would get the reference or realise the humour.

So is it funny? Yes, to the correct audience.

Humourless humour

Is a joke which isn’t really funny still a joke? Does a joke need humour to be a joke? Can you have an utterly humourless joke, which has the structure of a joke, the shape of a joke, a build-up and a pay-off – but none of the warmth and collusion required for humour? These are some of the questions Murphy raised in my mind.

The modern introduction to the edition I read is by a Beckett scholar who talks breezily about Murphy being a great comic novel but, perhaps wisely, doesn’t give any actual examples of its comedy.

Is there comedy in the sustained mock-heroic tone, the use throughout of ridiculously highfalutin’ language to describe what are in fact very humdrum activities?

At this moment Murphy would willingly have waived his expectation of Antepurgatory for five minutes in his chair, renounced the lee of Belacqua’s rock and his embryonal repose, looking down at dawn across the reeds to the trembling of the austral sea and the sun obliquing to the north as it rose, immune from expiation until he should have dreamed it all through again, with the downright dreaming of an infant, from the spermarium to the crematorium. (p.51)

It’s a very distinct and striking style of writing. But is it funny? Is it meant to be?

Neary arrived the following morning, Cooper threw himself on his mercy, abated not one tittle of the truth and was turned off with contumely. (p.77)

For me this is the central question in reading early Beckett: I can see that much of it is intended to be arch, contrived, dry, bookish, intellectual, rarefied, allusive and ultra-clever humour – but I wonder if many other people do, and I wonder whether any of us should give a damn.

This was a joke that did not amuse Celia, at the best of times and places it could not have amused her. That did not matter. So far from being adapted to her, it was not addressed to her. It amused Murphy, that was all that mattered. (p.88)

‘It amused Murphy, that was all that mattered.’

Since Murphy is transparently another avatar of frustrated, impoverished, unpublished, would-be highbrow writer Beckett, maybe we can simply say, ‘It amused Beckett, that was all that mattered’. Beckett and his tiny number of pre-war readers. The introduction is very long on the book’s textual history, and very short on actual analysis, but it does include its sales figure.

1938 – 568 copies
1939 – 23
1940 – 20
1941 – 7

The remaining stock was destroyed in an air raid. In all, Beckett made £20 out of this book – before income tax. Not Harry Potter, is it?

It was only after Waiting For Godot completely transformed his fortunes in 1953, that publishers rereleased Beckett’s early novels and they quickly found a place in a retrospectively-created canon of his works, now used as evidence to interpret the difficult post-war plays, and to argue for his mock heroic, comedic roots.

Leslie Fiedler

Leslie Fiedler (1917 – 2003) was an American literary critic whose writings about American novelists I really enjoyed as a student. About Beckett, and Murphy in particular, he wrote in the New York Times:

Too much of the merely mannered is present, too much evidence of a desire to twit the bourgeoisie, too many asides, too many heavy-handed cryptic remarks, too much clumsy surrealist horseplay.

Which I agree with. But I can also see that amidst the mechanical verbiage of this over-erudite novel is the core Beckett which will emerge after the Second World War; that once he had abandoned the attempt to have realistic characters or plots or dialogue, he would arrive at grim scenarios where human puppets, trapped in repetitive plights, repeat the same meaningless gestures over and again and speak a speech composed of the inane repetition of shreds and tatters of clichéd, stereotyped, worn-out language.

As Fiedler also points out:

But the eerie deadpan humour is already at work: the gravely mathematical working out of all the possibilities of the most trivial situation, the savage eagerness to find in the disgusting occasions for laughs. It is as vaudevillian of the avant-garde that Beckett especially tickles us, converting its most solemn devices into quite serious gags.

‘Serious gags’. Maybe that phrase encapsulates the difficulty I’m having coming to terms with this book.

Astride the grave

Typical of the stretched humour is a paragraph describing how Murphy’s problems go right back to his vagitus. I had to look up ‘vagitus’ to find out that it means ‘a new-born baby’s first cry’ – and then read on to process the extended ‘joke’ that Murphy’s vagitus was not on the international agreed standard of A (on the musical scale) but a woeful double flat of A, thus missing the correct note by two semi-tones.

Never mind, writes the author – ‘His rattle will make amends’ (p.47), obviously meaning his death rattle. Birth-cry, death-cry. Everything comedic is here, a kind of structural symmetry, a neatness of vision and phrasing – everything except the warmth or the unexpected jolt which characterises a good joke.

Instead, this paragraph’s flat, obvious nihilism reminds me of one of the most famous quotes from the 1953 play which made Beckett’s name, Waiting For Godot:

They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.

This kind of self-pitying, maudlin, depressiveness strikes me as very male. Having been present at the birth of both my children I know that no-one gives birth astride the grave, they give birth in a cluttered operating theatre surrounded by surgeons and nurses, in a welter of blood and other substances. And – contrary to Beckett – it is actually quite a happy moment for all concerned.

Believing in Beckett’s words involves a kind of wilful denial of the world as we know it to be. The focus on the grim and pointless is contrived. I.e. it is not necessary. I.e. it is a choice whether to enter his artificial and gloomy worldview or not. Ditto the style.

Irish

About half way through I had a kind of breakthrough. To keep myself going in what seemed a never-ending slog, I read chapter 9 – the long description of Murphy’s arrival at, and work duties in, the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat (I grant you the name is quite funny) – out loud and in an Irish accent.

Suddenly, it all made a lot more sense. Read – perceived and processed – in a received English, BBC accent, lots of the text seems pretentious and flat. You can hear this in the impeccably English pronunciation of actor Ronald Pickup, reading a clip from Murphy on YouTube. The prose falls dead from his lips.

Read, however, in the accent of a Dublin chancer, with a bit of a brogue and touch of the blarney and comic inappropriateness, as of two peasants discussing the finer points of your man St Augustine, I realised that quite a lot of the time the text is winking at you slyly, out of the corner of its eye.

Here is Murphy reflecting on the notion that the mental cases in the sanatorium are in fact correct to despise the worldly chaos of the scientists and psychiatrists. They are in fact happy to be locked up in their little worlds – as indeed Murphy would love to be completely sealed in his, but keeps falling afoul of the horrible quotidien.

(It’s a separate issue that this is a dangerously childish, misinformed and romantically adolescent view of mental illness which isn’t – as I have witnessed it in my own family – much of a seraphic, Buddhist self-containment.)

Anyway, Murphy thinks:

The melancholic’s melancholy, the manic’s fits of fury, the paranoid’s despair, were no doubt as little autonomous as the long fat face of a mute. Left in peace [by the authorities] they would have been as happy as Larry, short for Lazarus, whose raising seemed to Murphy perhaps the one occasion on which the Messiah had overstepped the mark. (p.113)

‘The Messiah overstepped the mark’. Saying it out loud in a cod Irish accent suddenly recalled the tone of all those characters in James Joyce who discuss religion and politics in floods of high-flown language which are liable at any time to give way to a sly crack or gutter phrase, all the better to puncture the mood.

‘Ah, sweet Jaysus, he was a good man, I’ll grant you that, but not always strictly following the orders of Him Upstairs, if you know what I mean. Ahr, that raising of Lazarus from the dead, sure I think that was overstepping the mark a bit, what do you say, Seamus?’

Maybe as an Englishman I’m not allowed to try on this accent, but it is the mocking sacrilegious tone found in Joyce’s early stories, the Joyce who gave us ‘The Ballad of Joking Jesus’.

From this point onwards it struck me that the prose ought to be declaimed in a larger-than-life Irish accent, as of a Dublin pub politician declaiming with the gift on him of a divine afflatus, giving maximum weight to every rare and toothsome topic, rolling and relishing his fine array of grandee locutions but keen to avoid the accusation of being a preening gobshite by occasionally ducking into street slang for the humour it gives the audience of his erogatory ejaculations.

Murphy meets the improvident drunken Irish poet Augustus Ticklepenny who had been prescribed work at the mental home in a bid by an estimable German doctor to cure him of his alcoholism. Being relieved of the stressful burden of writing poetic epics for the Ole Country turns out to work surprisingly well.

This view of the matter will not seem strange to anyone familiar with the class of pentameter that Ticklepenny felt it his duty to Erin to compose, as free as a canary in the fifth foot (a cruel sacrifice, for Ticklepenny hiccuped in end rimes) and at the caesura as hard and fast as his own divine flatus and otherwise bulging with  as many minor beauties from the gaelic prosodoturfy as could be sucked out of a mug of porter. No wonder he felt a new man washing the bottles and emptying the slops of the better-class mentally deranged. (p.57)

Only in the scenes in the mental home did the book make total sense to me. Here is the appropriate subject for Murphy’s spavined consciousness and it is no coincidence that Murphy surprises Bim, Bom and Ticklepenny by turning out to have a wonderful empathy with the closed-in mental cases, shut up in their own worlds. For that is how he would devoutly love to be, himself.

The fully at home feel of the asylum scenes tend to show up the earlier scenes of being pointless in London for the rather shabby contrivances they are (counting biscuits in Hyde Park!) and when we return to what has now become the travelling gang of Neary, Wylie, Counihan, Cooper and Celia the narrative falls apart, and the dialogue becomes dismayingly divagatory – as presumably intended.

The text – like the lead ‘character’ – is only really at home amid a certain kind of utterly fictional mental illness. Which also points forward to the bleak post-war plays, much shorter, much more focused, than his earlier palaverously periphrastic prose.


Contraptions and contrivances

1. Astrology

The first half of the book is threaded with an elaborate concern for astrology, with Murphy very aware of the position of planets rising and falling in the various star signs and so on, and the narrator similarly concerned to pin down the precise dates, times, and positions of the planets when various events occur. Thus Celia meets Murphy ‘on midsummer’s night, the sun being then in the Crab’ (p.10).

In chapter three Murphy opens a long analysis of his star signs, lucky numbers, days, colours, years and so on that has been generated for him by ‘Ramaswami Krishnasawmi Narayanaswami Suk’.

Is this meant to be a satire on the post-Great War fad for all things spiritual, of the kind that snared W.B. Yeats or Conan Doyle? Murphy periodically relates Suk’s predictions to all the subsequent happenings in the book.

For Chaucer in the 1300s, astrology is a sign of his intellectual delight in the beautiful complexity of God’s wonderful creation. It closely counterpoises lots of events in The Canterbury Tales, notably the long Knight’s Tale which is awash with astrological symbolism.

In Beckett, this transient interest in astrology feels very like a) another elaborate but somehow contentless scaffold, a machine to help generate more reams of prose b) an affectless piss-take.

It is indicative that the astrology theme disappears in the book’s second half. In my opinion this is because the reality of the mental home eclipses it i.e. the text finds its proper subject matter.

2. Timeframe

Much is made in commentary and introduction of the elaborate timeframe of the novel, with characters and narrator carefully referring to specific days, weeks, months in which events occur, referring back to them, calculating the time past or to go before further meetings or activities.

Fine. I can see this generating innumerable PhDs, but, again, it doesn’t really add to any enjoyment of the narrative, unless you accept that the needless becluttering of the text with bootless incunabula is the point of the text. The divagations are the purpose.

Sex

Surprisingly for such an alienated, disconnected narrative, there are regular references to sex. I think that some, maybe all of them, are at least partly there to cause controversy and fuss in the faraway 1930s, the decade when Joyce’s Ulysses and Lady Chatterly’s Lover were still banned.

For example, it is broadly hinted that Celia, the streetwalker enjoys being tied up and ravished, what we might nowadays call BDSM.

She could not go where livings were being made without feeling that they were being made away. She could not sit for long in the chair without the impulse stirring, tremulously, as for an exquisite depravity, to be naked and bound. (p.44)

And it is strongly hinted that Ticklepenny has his job at the sanatorium – and wangles a job for Murphy – because he is the gay boyfriend of the head man there, ‘Bim’ Clinch.

Earlier in the book there is a not-so-subtle reference to kissing and not of the kind which removes the clapper from the bell i.e. French kissing.

In the final stages Miss Counihan emerges as a Baywatch babe:

Miss Counihan rose, gathered her things together, walked to the door and unlocked it with the key that she exiled for that purpose from her bosom. Standing in profile against the blazing corridor, with her high buttocks and her low breasts, she looked not merely queenly, but on for anything. (p.136)

‘On for anything’ another example of bathos, of ending a mock heroic description with a crude, pub locution.

Maybe these deliberately close to the knuckle references are what Fiedler meant by ‘twitting the bourgeoisie’.

The Beckett vision

There may or may not be an absurdist, nihilist, existential, phenomenological, post-Christian or whatever philosophy behind the novel. One thing that is certain is that phrases periodically pop out which certainly do anticipate the monocular and above all repetitive vision of the post-war plays.

So all things hobble together for the only possible (p.141)

So all things limp together for the only possible. (p.146)

Buried amid the textual tapenade, are ripe examples of the tone, the phraseology and the crippled worldview of the plays which made Beckett famous.

Kneeling at the bedside, the hand starting in thick black ridges between his fingers, his lips, his nose and forehead almost touching Mr Endon’s, seeing himself stigmatised in those eyes that did not see him, Murphy heard words demanding so strongly to be spoken that he spoke them, right into Mr Endon’s face, Murphy who did not speak at all in an ordinary way unless spoken to, and not always even then.

‘the last at last seen of him
himself unseen by him
and of himself.’

A rest.
‘The last Mr Murphy saw of Mr Endon was Mr Murphy unseen by Mr Endon. This was also the last Murphy saw of Murphy.’
A rest.
‘The relation between Mr Murphy and Mr Endon could not have been better summed up than by the former’s sorrow at seeing himself in the latter’s immunity from seeing anything but himself.’
A long rest.
‘Mr Murphy is a speck in Mr Endon’s unseen.’
That was the whole extent of the little afflatulence. (p.156)

The poetry of paucity, the prosody of impoverishment.


Credit

Murphy by Samuel Beckett was published in 1938 by G. Routledge and Company. All page references are to the 2009 Faber paperback edition.

Related links

More Beckett reviews

The Second World War

Waiting For Godot (1953)

  • All That Fall (1957)
  • Endgame (1958)
  • Krapp’s Last Tape (1958)
  • Embers (1959)
  • Happy Days (1961)
  • How it Is (1964)
  • Imagination Dead Imagine (1965)
  • Eh Joe and other writings (1967)
  • Without Words (1967)

1969 – awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature

  • The Lost Ones (1972)
  • Not I (1973)
  • First Love (1973)
  • Footfalls (1976)
  • All Strange Away (1976)
  • Company (1980)
  • Rockaby and other short pieces (1981)
  • Ill Seen Ill Said (1981)
  • Worstward Ho (1983)
  • Stirrings Still (1989)

The Day of Creation by J.G. Ballard (1987)

The sutures of my skull were opening, letting the cool wind into the chambers of my brain. I stared up at the cloudless, cyanide sky, like the domed roof of some deep psychosis. (p.275)

This is a poor book. It is long, packed with detail, has an exotic setting, a reliably demented protagonist on a mad, quixotic quest – and yet it feels like a shadow of Ballard’s earlier works.

The Day of Creation shows the peculiar thing that happened to Ballard’s writing after he had revealed the source of his strange delirious worldview by describing his boyhood in a Japanese internment camp during World War Two in Empire of the Sun. It was like cutting off Samson’s hair. Overnight the neuroses which had enmeshed Ballard’s fiction, were freed and disappeared. The weird alchemy which held together Ballard’s first ten or so classic novels, and nearly a hundred short stories of obsession and psychological collapse, didn’t exactly disappear but somehow, magically, lost their genuinely disturbing power.

One symptom of this is that Ballard’s novels got longer. The Atrocity Exhibition barely stretches to 110 pages but I think it’s his best book. Crash, 171 pages, Concrete Island 126 pages, High Rise 140 – he was best in short, extremely concentrated, bursts.

By contrast The Day of Creation is a bloated 287 pages long and has lost its reason for existence long before the end.

The plot – part one

The story is told in the first person by Doctor John Mallory (if I had a pound for every Ballard protagonist who is a doctor). Having been born and raised in British Hong Kong, Mallory didn’t fit in at medical school in Cambridge or in England more generally, and so took up jobs with aid agencies, ending up working for the World Health Organisation.

A series of overseas assignments ends with one bringing him to the dead end town of Port-la-Nouvelle somewhere in the heart of Africa, between Chad and Sudan.

I found the opening chapters of the book deeply confusing. It took me a while to understand that it opens with Mallory being forced to his knees by a soldiers from a rebel group led by skinny, angry rebel leader, General Harare, once a dental student, now afflicted with boils and bad teeth, whose guerrillas periodically invade what is left of Port-la-Nouvelle, do a little gentle looting and return to the forest.

Specifically, he finds himself on the wrong end of a rifle held by a 12-year-old rebel girl who probably has a tale of terrible suffering behind her but when Mallory moves to take the rifle off her, she pulls the trigger. Luckily there’s a duff cartridge in the chamber so the gun doesn’t fire. He seizes the rifle and throws it away.

We learn that all this is being photographed by a young Japanese woman photographer, Miss Matsuoka, a type of the ambitious and amoral photojournalist. About fifteen minutes later the rebels have been fled as the town’s official army force arrives led by the ‘huge and clumsy’, 6-foot (p.28) Captain Kagwa and the situation sort of returns to normal.

‘Normal’ is that Mallory has been here in this empty town for the best part of six months, living in a scruffy trailer and, by his own admission, hitting the whiskey bottle at breakfast and carrying on drinking all day (p.72).

He had a brief affair with one of the only other white people in the locality, Nora Warrender. She kept a little sanctuary for wild animals with her husband till her husband was shot dead by the rebels. Mallory caught her on the rebound and they slept together for a few days until Mallory realised she had absolutely no interest in him whatsoever.

What seems like half an hour after the traumatic encounter with the rebels, a light airplane flies in and disgorges none other than Professor Sangar, sometime biologist-turned-television documentary maker, who has flown in on some cock-and-bull mercy mission with a plane full of rice, an assistant and a camera crew for whom he can pose as saviour.

Except that, as the deeply antagonistic Mallory who takes an instant dislike to the preening fool bluntly points out to him: a) the locals don’t eat rice, at all, their stock food is manioc, and b) there’s no locals here, anyway; they’ve all long ago fled the rebel guerrillas.

Sangar is actually laconically laid back about all this but is accompanied by an extremely tense and jumpy assistant, an Indian named Mr Pal who takes umbrage at every one of Mallory’s sarcastic quips.

All this is presumably intended to be satire on TV bullshit artists, particularly scientists-turned-TV gurus (remember that the car-sex-obsessed lead figure of Crash is a once-reputable scientist-turned-TV presenter). But not only is it crude satire, but it feels very clumsily deployed.

In fact the whole opening thirty or forty pages felt deeply clumsy, introducing characters pell-mell in the midst of events which are so badly described I didn’t understand what was going on.

What is the book about?

In a similar manner, it took me some while to understand the central plot of the book, in fact I only actually understood it from the blurb on the back:

Mallory has remained in Port-la-Nouvelle, despite having no patients to speak of (they’ve all run off to avoid the rebels) because he has developed the entirely irrational, quixotic and obsessive idea of rewatering this dry, arid part of central Africa.

The Port has jetties and quays which stretch out into Lake Kotto but this is bone dry, having dried up two years earlier, and whose bottom is not just dry but covered in parched dust.

Similarly, the one-time river which flowed into it is an arid ditch. Mallory has been using the small funds given to him by the WHO to pay for the drilling of a series of wells across the lake bottom, driven by a mad fantasy of a third river Nile to fertilise this whole region.

What happens next I found incomprehensible in every way. Mere pages after the rebels have left, and way before we have really understood and processed the depths of Mallory’s quest, and entirely by accident, a bulldozer which is meant to be extending the town’s small runway, lifts the immense root of a rotted old oak tree out of the sand at the end of the runway and… a trickle of water emerges. A trickle which turns into a stream, and then a good solid flow of water.

I didn’t really understand how such a flood of water comes from one dislodged tree root and I struggled to understand what happens next: which is that the source of this water appears to move, to shift location from coming out of one small scooped hole, and turns into a flood which moves further and further back into the jungle. As well as flowing downstream to begin to refill the barren lake, the source moves backwards, upstream. We find Mallory wading miles into the jungle to try and find the ever-receding source.

In some mystical way the accidental breaking open of a small spring changes morphs into a mighty river whose source is deep in the jungle, and the river becomes so mighty that, as the days go by, it gets bigger and bigger, it refills Lake Kotto, so that Port-la-Nouvelle’s piers and jetties are once more lapped by water and the level rises so high that it starts to threaten the runway and the lower parts of the town with inundantion.

But here’s the thing which I found genuinely incomprehensible: because the water didn’t come from the wells he’s sunk – and despite the fact that the river is doing just what he wanted it to, namely rewatering the region – Mallory takes against it and declares the river his enemy.

As futilely as he once drilled wells in a bone dry lake-bed, now he futilely tries to block, dam and reroute the river. It’s become Him against The River. I didn’t understand this, follow it or believe it, but it becomes the core of the remaining two hundred or so pages.

Ballard loses it

Now, I have faithfully accompanied Ballard as he described the manias of obsessed protagonists who feel compelled to revisit the derelict gantries of Cape Kennedy, or live in hotels in abandoned resorts, or go to die on the derelict beaches of nuclear testing sites, or set off south towards the radioactive wastelands and — I understood all of them.

Ballard had the gift of taking you inside the heads of each of his deranged protagonists to the unnerving extent that you began to understand their obsessions and visions.

But not in this book. The basic obsession is overthrown in the first thirty pages. Mallory’s abrupt taking against the river and declaring it The Enemy seems utterly irrational and unnecessary. His alienated relations with Captain Kagwa or the worn widow-woman Nora Warrender are, on paper, right out of the standard Ballard handbook for the detached, alienated relationships between the handful of characters which his books normally describe. But somehow, eerily, without any of the real psychological punch which all his previous novels conveyed.

Lacking the strange and uncanny setting of so many of his earlier stories, the unnamed African location comes over as strangely dull and boring. Ballard’s described tropical jungle before. Compare and contrast Day of Creation with the opening scenes of The Crystal World which are dazzling, or the just-as-good opening pages of the brilliant short story A Question of Re-Entry.

Those stories had some pretty cheesy, clichéd elements (like the globetrotting media star who’s turned his back on fame to live with a primitive tribe in the Amazon rainforest who is at the heart of Re-Entry). But they were carried by the fierceness of vision, the charge of Ballard’s imagination, and also the sentence-by-sentence brilliance of Ballard’s language.

But overnight his gift with the English language seems to have abandoned him, and the force that drives his earlier fictions – the powerful combination of intense scenario with crisp but somehow visionary prose – has evaporated. Instead the book is a collection of mannerisms. Whatever ‘it’ is, Ballard had lost it.

The plot – part two

The first effect of Mallory’s ill-fated attempts to dam and reroute the river (why?) is that the half-built dam made of logs and empty oil drums suddenly gives way. Mallory himself is caught by the flood and tumbled down to the bottom of the gravelly torrent, is nearly drowned and only just rescued up by Kagwan’s soldiers to spend the next few weeks recuperating at Nora Warrender’s refuge for rare animals, where he lives in uneasy company with her group of feminist black women.

And where he learns that the collapsing dam made of oil drums and logs had caught up the Japanese snapper Miss Matsuoka and killed her. This seems to have no impact on anyone at all, least of all the reader.

After all this confused motives and off plotting, it’s only around page 100 that the book finally settles into a groove. Recovered from his near-drowning, Mallory decides to steal the knackered old ferry, the Salammbo, which has just arrived at the newly navigable quayside of Port-la-Nouvelle, and to use it to follow the river to its source. I still don’t understand why he wants to do this, but it is at least a comprehensible narrative device: the quest, the odyssey.

The 12-year-old girl who tried to shoot him, then ran off into then jungle, has emerged in recent days as a kind of damaged orphan and built herself a home-made coracle made from plastic wrapped over a metal frame. She’s paddling around in the river in the darkness on the night when Mallory wades out into the river under the noses of a couple of Captain Kwanga’s half-asleep guards, and stealthily unties the front and rear mooring ropes.

As the boat slowly starts to drift away from the quay, the soldiers realise what’s up and start shouting, one of them clambers down into the shallow river and bangs with his rifle butt on the steamer’s sides. But Mallory manages to ignite the starter motor, then get the big diesel motor engaged and, as the Salammbo heaves about and begins to head upstream into the magic river, two things happen: the soldiers start shooting at it, and the girl paddles enthusiastically close to the steamer but then loses control and, just as her coracle is crushed under its heavy progress, Mallory pulls her to safety, then returns to the helm.

And so they set off up this fanciful African river, this unlikely pair, Mallory the shiftless doctor, a heavy drinker crushed by a sense of failure and inadequacy, who has entered into an irrationally intense love-hate relationship with the river, and the girl whose name, we learn, is Noon, whose black face bears networks of scars she’s picked up in an obviously abused childhood and who, as a result, Mallory thinks suffers from mutism. She is dumb.

It is a journey or metaphysical quest up a river in Africa undertaken by a man named Mallory, just as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a metaphysical quest up a river in Africa undertaken by a man named Marlow. Hence the Heart of Darkness-style illustration on the first edition of the book. But unfortunately, Conrad’s novel is a timeless classic, whereas this novel is a confused mess.

Cover of the first edition of The Day of Creation showing the old steamboat Salammbo which Mallory steals

The steamer had been operating as a ferry. It is carrying on its deck a black Mercedes limousine, ordered by Captain Kwanga who has grand visions of himself rising to become governor of a province which is newly enriched by the new river flowing through it. For the next hundred pages or so Kwanga’s repeated attempts to recapture the Salammbo are motivated by angry wish to get hold of his stolen limo.

Things happen. Noon turns out to be a handy pilot, warming Mallory about sandbanks and blockages ahead, as they chug forward under the protection of the overarching tropical canopy. There’s a bag of rice in the boat, which Mallory boils a ration of each day, and Noon turns out to be a dab hand at jumping into the river and spearing fish on a spear she’s made from a sharp leaf. Nonetheless, quite quickly Mallory is feeling feverish. He hadn’t been eating properly to begin with, had been drinking heavily, and now is not eating enough. This combined with his weakness from his near-death experience when he was half-drowned when the ramshackle dam collapsed fifty pages earlier, all means that he is in very poor shape, and quickly becomes feverish.

And THIS, you realise, is the place Ballard wanted to get to: the first half of the book often felt clumsy and rushed because this is the point, the core, the aim, the focus of the narrative, possibly the image Ballard began with: the image of a half-mad, obsessed, feverish white man struggling to steer a decrepit steamer up a mysterious river in the heart of Africa, helped only by a dumb-mute African girl. Possibly this is the key image you’re meant to take away from the novel, and it is weird and intense, if with a rather heavy sense of déjà vu.

Captain Kagwa comes chasing him in a military helicopter which, to being with, strafes the steamer with machine guns. The second time they return, the helicopter is equipped with pontoons which means they can land on the water, and discover that Mallory has run aground on the half-submerged equipment of a quarry which the river has flooded. Thus Kagwa can warily clamber out along the submerged metal to within hailing distance of the bridge.

At that point Kagwa lets off a pistol shot which misses Mallory although a ricochet cuts part of his scalp. Mallory lifts the rusty old Lee-Enfield rifle which originally belonged to Noon (the one she nearly shot him with) and shoots, not Kagwa, but one of the helicopter’s landing pontoons which bursts and starts to deflate so that the helicopter almost immediately starts to lapse into the water. The pilot shouts at Kagwa who clambers his way back to it and just about manages to climb in as the chopper rises into the sky.

Exhausted, and bleeding from his head, Mallory collapses. He’d found a deckchair from somewhere and now Noon resourcefully rigs up a sun canopy over it. In this deckchair Mallory lapses into the classic Ballardian mental state of fever dreams, delirium, hallucination and driving obsession. He must get to the source of the river (whether to block it for good or rechannel it into the desert to make the Sahara bloom, is unclear and increasingly inconsequential).

There I sat like a totem, propped in the bows of this strange ship piloted by a child on its journey towards the sun. (p.139)

(This, incidentally, reminds the hard-core Ballard fan of the scene in The Drowned World where the central figure, Dr Robert Kerans, is captured by the crew of a pirate ship and tied to an old chair placed on a table and worshipped as a tribal god.)

I didn’t mention something which happened earlier. Irrationally convinced that it was he who created the river (although we saw that it arose by sheer accident when a bulldozer clearing the huge stump of a dead oak tree at the end of the town’s runway unwittingly releasing an underground stream), Mallory is not surprised when Sangar laconically informs him that rivers need to be registered with the authorities and with national geographic societies etc, and so he – Sangar – has used his radio to contact world geographical societies and magnanimously named the river – the Mallory.

This seemed improbable and silly at the time, and becomes more and more silly as the book progresses. But then again, the book’s intention is not ‘realistic’, but entirely programmatic. Contriving to get the river named after him allows Mallory to hallucinate that the river is his alter-ego, his other self, an ally and an opponent, as he enters the increasingly fevered state.

After our escape from Captain Kagwa I was aware that a duel was taking place between myself and the Mallory (p.139)

This sounds intriguing, if pretty contrived, but repetition soon drains it of meaning and brings out its silliness.

Already I had begun to resent the river, and realised that in the Mallory I had created a dangerous rival. (p.143)

I needed to destroy the Mallory, but at the same time I wanted to enlarge it… (p.146)

During his numerous trips to the engine room to adjust and fix the motor, Mallory has picked up an elaborate set of oil streaks across his increasingly thin and wasted body, not to mention rust and paint marks and blood stains from the wound in his head. When Noon looks at him, Mallory realises that he is turning into a savage. Heart of Darkness all over again.

And then they bump into Sangar the documentary film-maker and his sidekick, Mr Pal again. The pair are cruising the other way down the River Mallory (with the current) in a long ancient launch, loaded, obscurely with defunct television monitors, and Sangar greets Mallory in his sly, laconic way. The ferry collides with their overloaded launch and Mallory has to help the pair aboard with as much of their equipment as they can save before the launch sinks. He discovers that both Sangar and Mr Pal are as emaciated and malnourished as he is.

Suddenly I realised that the entire dynamic of the story is from Waiting For Godot. In part one of Waiting For Godot we are introduced to a handful of characters engaged in absurd projects, led by the two tramps Vladimir and Estragon. But the play is in two parts, and part two opens to reveal the same handful of characters, but this time in a significantly advanced state of decay. Same here: Sangar and Mr Pal are in almost as bad shape as Mallory, both have lost lots of weight and have running sores.

  • With its swollen eyelids and fungal skin infection, [Mr Pal]’s youthful face resembled that of a starved apprentice in a backstreet tannery. (p.158)

And I thought again of Godot when I read this sentence, right at the end of the book when a weakened Mallory tries to help injured Sangar to his feet amid the mud and detritus of the burst barrage:

Together we tottered in the shifting earth, trying to find our footing in the sliding mud, two tramps dancing on a garbage hill. (p.262)

Surely that is a conscious decision to reference Godot which is about two utterly destitute tramps.

More than that, their intention of making some kind of ‘documentary’ about Mallory and his quixotic quest, has also degraded. They don’t have batteries for their equipment. No lights, no tapes. They do appear to actually film sequences of Mallory and the girl, but it appears hopelessly random.

Ballard’s intention is obviously to say something important about the TV Age. He has his illiterate, mute freedom-fighter girl-child, Noon, become entranced with Sangar’s camera equipment and, finding herself caught on tape by Mr Pal, she begins to practice posing for the camera. Ballard editorialises that she has leapt from the Stone Age to the late 20th century in a few days, bypassing language on the way (p.160)

In these passages about the decrepit TV presenter and his desperately ill assistant (who ends up dying of malnutrition-caused infections) you get the strong sense that it is probably more interesting to read Ballard’s interviews about the TV age and the other subjects touched on in the book, than these rather clumsily fictionalised ‘ideas’.

In another surreal touch (one of many consciously surreal touches with which the book is stuffed) Sangar and Pil’s equipment – cameras and tapes and monitors and mixing desks – which Mallory brought aboard the steamer from their sinking launch, contains tapes of what appear to be radio programs about Africa. These are of a jokey Marxist provenance so that the words ‘neo-colonial’ and ’empire’ are liberally thrown around. The satirical-surreal aspect is that the mute damaged black girl, Noon, is fascinated by the tapes, and spends hours inside the limousine playing them over and over on the car’s expensive sound system. Damaged, mute African girl plays expensive tapes of Western lecturers sounding off about neo-colonialism. That rustling sound you can hear is a thousand doctorates about Ballard and neo-colonialism being finalised for submission to their Cultural Studies tutors.

Sangar and Pal both go drastically downhill as the steamer putters north. Pal slips into a delirious fever and eventually dies. Sangar is covered in sores and eventually tries to attack Mallory, who pushes him overboard into the river, before passing out.

Mallory wakes up in a bed surrounded by bare bosoms. Slowly he realises he has been ‘rescued’ from the Salammbo by none other than Nora Wallender, now with short cropped hair, and leader of a gang of four tough, possibly vengeful black women.

He has woken up aboard the Diana, ‘a bordello boat, the white ship of the widows’ – previously a floating brothel to service government soldiers, hence the way its bedrooms or ‘cubicles’ are covered with rococo paintings of topless nymphs cavorting in a fantasy French countryside.

He remains there for three or four days, fantasising about taking control of the boat and captaining these black Amazons, only to discover he is barely strong enough to stand up, and any of the women can just nudge him and he collapses. He realises some of the women go ashore, not only to stalk and shoot birds to cook and eat, but he watches them stalk and shoot a male soldier. Maybe they’re taking their revenge on all the men who ever fucked them.

Suddenly one day the Diana starts sinking. The women think it’s holed, but Mallory realises the level of the river is falling. While the women try to identify the leak, Mallory grabs Noon’s arm, they jump into the river and make it back to the Salammbo.

One week later they arrive at the place where passage of the river becomes impossible because of cataracts. Not only that, but local farmers have dammed one wing of the river with an extensive barrage and siphoned the water off into an extensive system of irrigation channels. ‘His’ river has turned the desert green again.

He is promptly arrested by General Harare and brought to him at the ruined infirmary of the abandoned French airfield at Bonneville. All of the scenes with either Captain Kagwa or General Harare are tripe. Ballard’s ear for dialogue was always poor, and the ‘conversations’ between these characters are a mix of raw ‘ideas’ and show-off sentences – ‘They have water now, doctor, their precious see-through gold’ – with very little concern for notions of character or psychology. They all sound the same.

The plot becomes even less rational than before. Close up Mallory can see that the water from the makeshift-dammed river has been used very badly; the nomad farmers simply don’t know how to manage water. Thus most of it is polluted with human faeces, and mixed with engine oil so it ends up polluting not nurturing their crops, while the nomads continue to live on hovels assembled from the detritus of the abandoned French air base, sheets of asbestos and the like.

Similarly, having been more or less co-opted into General Harare’s ragtag crew, Mallory suggests that they completely dam the Mallory, dry it up and so prevent Harare’s enemy, Captain Kagwa advancing up the river with his boats.

Harare agrees and so Mallory rams the Salammbo into place on the cascades between the river bank and a central island, thus creating a caisson around which the native women can build a dam across the second branch of the Mallory, damming it for good and drying up the river course all the way back down to Port-la-Nouvelle. The barrage is an impressive collection of post-industrial detritus:

Less than a month later the barrage across the river was complete, and the Salammbo, which had carried us so untiringly from Port-la-Nouvelle, sat in its last anchorage, surrounded by a refuse tip of freezers and enamel stoves, water coolers, aircraft tail-planes and radio antennae, together forming a terminal moraine of modern technology.

Ballard-land! Like the ziggurats of abandoned washing machines or televisions erected around the The Unreal City.

Mallory gets used to life in Harare’s crew. They let him continue sleeping in the wrecked bridge of the Salammbo, while he treats Harare’s sick soldiers with ineffectual medicine. Everyone is suffering fevers brought on by the foetid, malarial waters of the River Mallory, which have been diverted into a thousand blocked, unflowing, brackish irrigation channels, breeding grounds for mosquitoes and infectious diseases.

There is some kind of satirical irony going on here – that Mallory’s intention had been to ‘turn the Sahara green again’ but the reality turns out to be a poisonous fiasco. Is he telling us it is pointless digging wells and irrigating the Third World?

Meanwhile, the Diana, the brothel ship, which Mallory and Noon had escaped from a few chapters earlier, shows up and moors next to the barrage built around the Salammbo. Nora Warrender and her crew of four black widows quickly recruit young widows from the surrounding nomad villages, rig up the ship’s lights to a generator, open a bar and it’s business as usual, with groups of soldiers rowing out to the ship to drink beer and then be taken below by the sometimes teenage whores, to be serviced.

Ballard, as usual alert to surreal possibilities, has his almost-blind and malnourished TV presenter Sangar rig up a basic closed-circuit TV network playing into a TV monitor set up in the bar, so the drunken sailors can watch themselves getting drunk. Sangar sits out of the way of the violent drunks, leaning his head against a cage of marmosets, these fierce creatures chatting away as if describing to Sangar a seen he can no longer see with his own eyes.

In a deep fever, staggering with hunger, Mallory finds himself stumbling belowdecks on the Diana, waking to find a very young whore dressed in flashy clothes wiping his feverish brow, who he then only half-remembers touching up, pushing back onto the sweat and semen-stained mattress, and fucking. He drifts back to sleep. Later, the presence of her ancient Lee-Enfield rifle clinches the fact that this was Noon.

I know Ballard’s books are meant to be transgressive in all kinds of ways, but – personally – I didn’t like the way the central character is described increasingly lusting after Noon’s barely pubescent body, noticing her budding breasts etc, as the journey progresses.

And now this ritual deflowering. It’s not so much that it’s a pedophilic scene, as that it’s just so horribly inevitable: hairy, sweaty, deranged middle-aged man is put into forced proximity with a 12-year-old girl who keeps stripping off to go fishing in the river and… It seems so hairily, sweatily inevitable that he’ll end up fucking her. How much more interesting if they had kept up a strange adult-damaged child relationship right to the end.

I felt soiled by this scene.

Next thing that happens is Captain Kagwa’s gunships and helicopter arrive, having fought their way steadily upstream despite the river being dammed up. They make a heavily armed attack on the Diana and in doing so destroy the barrage, unleashing a tidal waves which sweeps down into the pool below it, sweeping away all Kagwa and Harare’s fighting men.

The next chapter starts with Mallory surveying the devastation. On the one hand this is an impressive scene; on the other, Mallory subjects it to the same rubbish, cheapjack psychology which underpins the entire narrative, the notion that Mallory somehow ‘created’ the river, has been engaged in a duel with it, and has finally ‘destroyed’ it, although not before it poisoned and infected a host of nomads who dammed it up and are now dropping like flies due to malaria.

‘You poisoned her, Mallory, with your sick river, like all these desert people. They’re sick with your dream…’ (p.263)

He sets out in search of Noon (as he has done plenty of times before), kicking the decrepit Sangar out of the way after having a typically stagey dialogue with him about who’s to blame for this disaster, ‘It’s all your fault etc’.

Mallory climbs the muddy, rubbish-strewn river bank up to the (by now) heavily battered limousine parked on the bank of the now empty, slimy river. Sure enough Noon is inside, sick and ill. Mallory is just trying to reassure her when Kagwa’s helicopter clatters into the clearing (yet again). It lands with the same old French pilot handling a carbine and watching as Captain Kagwa gets out and walks towards the limo, unbuttoning his holster.

At that moment Noon pushes her hand into Mallory’s hand. She is clutching some bit of metal which, he suddenly realises, is a bullet. For the entire length of this humungous narrative she has guarded this, the third and final of her bullets. In a typically salacious detail, Noon forces Mallory’s nails into her nipple ‘to give him courage’.

Mallory puts the bullet into the breech, cocks the bolt and, as Kagwa walks towards them coolly taking his gun from his holster, Mallory shoots him through the head.

That kind of blunt assassination reminds me of similar moments in previous fictions, particularly when the protagonist of The Drought simply rises to his feet and shoots dead the man who’d been preventing his people get to the beach.

Anyway, so that’s General Harare and Captain Kagwa dead. Mallory goes to check on Sangar but when he gets back to the limo, Noon has gone. Again.

Cut to a few days later and Mallory has rigged up a kind of raft with an outboard motor and has headed up over the cataracts, into the upper river, looking for Noon (again). He’s brought Sanger along with him. He was about to abandon him by the wrecked barrage, but suddenly saw Nora Warrender and the widow whores watching him (like a Greek chorus) and was shamed into bringing Sanger along, clutching his (by now) utterly broken and ruined cine-camera.

(This demented character clinging on to a cine-camera which is broken beyond repair but has become a psychological talisman is a direct copy of Wilder, the TV documentary maker who sets off to climb the massive luxury apartment building in High Rise, at first to make a documentary about the occupants, but by the end he has forgotten the point of his quest, and the gutted camera is just one among many trinkets and talismans he has picked up in his increasingly psychotic odyssey.)

Mallory and Sangar now enter a primeval zone of hard rocks and lizards. In case we hadn’t realised it, Ballard rams home the symbolism that the journey up the river is also a journey back in time, or at least time zones. They keep glimpsing Noon in her metal skiff, just half a mile ahead then disappearing round a bend in the narrowing river.

Finally they arrive at a ‘When dinosaurs ruled the earth’ landscape of volcanic rock and trilobite fossils where the water smells of sulphur and hot springs and the Mallory opens out into a huge ‘primeval lake… the original mud world’.

Here Mallory repeats the rather forlorn attempt to explain how the river came about: some tectonic shift fractured the bed of a huge primeval lake and created an underground river which the soldier in his bulldozer released when he dug up the giant tree root way back at the start of the novel; and then, in the bit that doesn’t make any sense, the river somehow went overground, creating an actual surface river; and that’s the river which the narrator, with breath-taking irrationality, is convinced that ‘he created’ (p.279).

I never really understood or bought into this basic premise of the book, which is why I remained outside its imaginative forcefield.

Finally, exhausted beyond endurance, the reader arrives at the final pages, in which Mallory clambers out of the river into the warm sulphur mud banks and wades through these towards the last of several pools above which rises the source of the damn river. It narrows, three feet wide, two feet wide, then only a hand’s-width wide. Mallory kneels by its silvery presence amid the hot sand, trying to cradle it, to separate it from the silver sand and then:

The Mallory died in my arms.

We are now so far beyond narrative logic that we are in a Surrealist painting: a mad doctor kneels at the source of a mythical African river cradling it as it dies in his arms.

Looking up he scans around for Noon and sees her in the distance, turning to look back at him, with the body and face of a woman his own age. Surrealism. Drugs. Hallucination. And then, of course, she vanishes without a trace.

He kicks the walls of some pools which are drying out, makes them puddle together and push Noon’s abandoned skiff into a further pool, he lets himself slip and be carried down back towards the raft where Sanger is still desperately clinging with his smashed cine-camera, and both of them, too weak to move, let the raft slowly set off on its last journey to the sea.

Epilogue

Two years later. The river has long disappeared and Lake Katto and Port-la-Nouvelle have returned to their former dusty barrenness. It took three weeks for Sanger and Mallory’s raft to drift back the full length of the river, and then for them to be picked up police and taken to hospital. During his long recovery, Sanger disclaimed all knowledge of Mallory.

Did Mallory dream the whole thing? Above all, did he dream Noon? Did such a girl ever exist, or was she an entirely fictional justification for his psychotic quest to go to the source of the river?

The events definitely happened. He’s been flown by government helicopters up the dry bed of the river and seen the Salammbo still embedded in the ruined barrage. But of Captain Kagwa and General Harare and their men, and Nora Warrender and her vengeful widow women, no trace has ever been found.

Mallory has got another job working for WHO 30 miles away to the south-west. But every weekend Mallory drives back to this dusty town, and scours the footprints left in the dry mud along the river bank. He swears he has seen the distinctive footprints of his dream girl-woman.

Sooner or later she will reappear, and I am certain that when she comes the Mallory will return, and once again run the waters of its dream across the dust of a waiting heart. (p.287)


Ballardian clichés

Antagonists Ballard characters, even as they go slowly mad, always need an antagonist. In some ways his stories are like narratives stripped down to the basic bare-bone structure:

Protagonist sets out on Quest; has one loyal Helper; two or three peripheral characters; and is pitched against an Antagonist, who dogs his steps and blocks his path.

In this book the Antagonist is Captain Kwanga, and this explains the surreal detail of the captain’s Mercedes limousine being trapped aboard the steamer Mallory has stolen. It gives a sort of rational pretext for what is really a far deeper narrative structure which Ballard wants to construct (and which, by this stage, the regular Ballard reader may well be a bit bored with).

Calm The other characters are always telling Mallory to calm down and not get so carried away, there are continual references by everyone to his unhealthy obsessions.

I totally understand how these references are designed to portray Mallory as a deeply unreliable narrator, and how it justifies Ballard’s intention to make Mallory’s obsession with the river so utterly irrational. My complaint is that, in the half dozen or so narratives preceding Creation, Ballard had used just the exact same technique and precisely the same word, so that the narrator of Hello America or Empire of the Sun is repeatedly told by the other characters to calm down. I get it. He is using a tried and tested technique. Except that in the other books, it works. Here it just feels like going through the motions:

  • Calming myself, I stood and watched Captain Kagwa climb the gangplank

Dreams All-too-easily the word ‘dream’ slips off the end of Ballard’s pen, to describe the protagonist’s hopes, ideas and intentions. Everything becomes a dream. The whole location and situation becomes a dream.

  • When I returned to the launch Sangar and Mr Pal were still sitting together against the engine-locker, two Alice-like figures stranded in this backwater of the wrong dream. (p.156)
  • I knew now why I liked her to bathe naked in the river, to immerse herself in that larger dream that sustained our journey. (p.169)
  • ‘You’re still obsessed with this absurd dream? To reach the source of the river?’ (p.174)
  • An immense white dream flows silently across the land, spreading over the drained surface of the lake. (p.284)

Fever The narrator quickly gets a fever as most Ballard characters do. Then, up at the barrage, the rancid waters of the dammed Mallory ensure that everyone gets a fever. The word ‘fever’ or ‘feverish’ appears on every page. The idea and the word ‘fever’ are essential and utterly predictable elements in Ballardland.

Illness In pretty much all his core stories, Ballard characters become ill and quickly deteriorate to advanced stages of malnutrition and illness. It’s where Ballard like to have his characters.

  • Exposure sores covered my face and forehead, flourishing in my beard like fungi in a damp meadow. (p.172)
  • Sangar’s face was covered by the brim of his wide straw hat, but I could see that his lips and cheekbones were pocked with insect bites that had festered for weeks, his neck inflamed by a sun-induced viral response. (p.173)

Put bluntly, Ballard has to move his protagonists as quickly as possible into a condition of almost complete collapse in order to justify his prose style, which is one of almost continual fever dreams and hallucinations.

The plots are not sequences of meaningful events in the traditional sense, but scenarios concocted to position his characters into situations where they can experience Ballard’s intense, weird and visionary psychological states.

There were unstated bonds between myself and this antique vessel. The metal debris in which it was embedded set up a constant wailing and groaning, and in my fever I almost believed that I was embarked on an even stranger voyage across the garbage pits of the planet. (p.235)

Ballard’s imagination is a non-stop fountain of weird sentences like that, but the rest of his creative mind sometimes struggles to concoct the ‘plots’ or situations which can justify them.

Motives Ballard characters are always unsure of their own motives and everyone else’s motives. In pre-Empire books this creates an unsettling ambience of uncertainty and human alienation. It makes all the human relationships ‘ambiguous’ and fractious. In the post-Empire books it is just part of his schtick.

  • I was wary of revealing myself to this likeable but sly opportunist, particularly as I was still unsure of my own motives. (p.157)

Naked Nakedness has become an increasingly prominent aspect of these later stories. It’s a very prominent feature of The Unlimited Dream Company that the protagonist early on strips off and from then on dares the inhabitants of Shepperton to look at him and acknowledge it. It’s an important part of the apparition of ‘President Manson’ in Hello America that he is naked, sitting naked in an old wicker chair in front of a huge array of TV monitors so that Ballard gets to describe the images projected from the screens flickering across his pale, fat naked body.

And here, in this book, it’s an important element that soon after he’s stolen the steamer, Mallory strips off, partly to be naked with all the continual sense of sexual arousal that implies, partly so that his body can display the increasingly complicated matrix of diesel oil smears, rust from old machinery, paint from the peeling ship’s hull and bloodstains, a coded indication of his decay.

It is typical that it is only after three or four days aboard the Diana and mingling with its female crew, that Mallory realises he has been naked all along. Neither he nor any of the women have noticed or commented on it. It’s as if Ballard is mounting a sustained campaign to get his readers to relax about being naked. Like every other aspect of his liberal 1960s treatment of human sexuality, this seems terribly naive and dated now, now we are in the grip of a new Victorianism which is reviving fear and revulsion at male sexuality.

Physical collapse In Empire of the Sun the extreme physical deterioration of the characters was explained by their situation i.e. years of slowly starving on minimum rations from their Japanese gaolers which, in the last months of captivity, dwindled almost to nothing.

So it’s all-too-easy to believe in the bone-thin characters, wasted and exhausted, covered in festering sores and with bleeding gums, who stagger through that narrative. In this book, however, all Mallory or Sangar would have to do it contact the outside world and a World Health Organisation plane would fly in all the money and food they wanted. Thus the malnutrition to which Ballard submits both Mallory and Sangar seems utterly wilful and contrived and unnecessary and therefore silly, therefore a bit insulting to the memory of the genuinely starved characters in Empire.

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Credit

The Day of Creation by J.G. Ballard was published by Victor Gollancz in 1987. References are to the 1993 Flamingo paperback edition.


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György Lukács on Franz Kafka (1955)

Brief biography of György Lukács

From the 1920s to the 1960s György Lukács was one of the leading Marxist philosophers and literary critics in Europe.

Born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1885, the son of a very affluent Jewish banker, he benefited from a superb education and was a leading intellectual at Budapest university, combining interests in literature and (Neo-Kantian) philosophy, and founded a salon which featured leading Hungarian writers and composers during the Great War.

The experience of the war (although he was himself exempted from military service) radicalised Lukács and he joined the Communist Party in 1918. His cultural eminence led to him being appointed People’s Commissar for Education and Culture in the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic which lasted from 21 March to 1 August 1919 and took its orders directly from Lenin. Lukács was an enthusiastic exponent of Lenin’s theory of Red Terror.

When the Republic was overthrown by army generals who instituted the right-wing dictatorship which was to run Hungary between the wars, Lukács fled to Vienna where he spent the 1920s developing a philosophical basis for a Leninist version of Marxism.

In 1930 he was ‘summoned’ to Moscow to work at the Institute of Philosophy of the Russian Academy of Sciences, although he soon got caught up in Stalin’s purges and was sent into exile in Tashkent. But Lukács survived, unlike an estimated 80% of Hungarian exiles in Russia, who perished.

At the war’s end he was sent back to Hungary to take part in the new Hungarian communist government, where he was directly responsible for written attacks on non-communist intellectuals, and took part in the removal of independent and non-communist intellectuals from their jobs, many being forced to take jobs as manual labourers.

Lickspittle apparatchik though that makes him sound, Lukács in fact trod a careful line which managed to be critical of Stalinism, albeit in coded and often abstruse phraseology. Due to his experience and seniority he was made a minister in the government of Imry Nagy which in 1956 tried to break away from Russia’s control during the so-called Hungarian Uprising. Nagy’s government was suppressed by the Soviets, and Lukács along with the rest of the Nagy government was exiled to Romania. Nagy himself was executed, Lukács only just escaped that fate. Yet again he had experienced the brutal and repressive force of Soviet tyranny.

He was allowed back to Budapest in 1957, abandoned his former criticisms of the Soviet Union, engaged in public self-criticism, and was allowed to keep his academic posts, continue writing and publishing his theoretical and critical works, up to his death in 1971.

His was a highly representative life of a certain kind of Central European intellectual in the twentieth century. He was reviled at the time by the people whose lives he blighted and by a wide range of liberal and conservative opponents.

Modernism as a symptom of capitalist society

In 1955 Lukács delivered a series of lectures on the clash between Realism and Modernism and a year later the lectures were published in essay form in a short book titled The Meaning of Contemporary Realism.

The message is simple: Realism good, Modernism bad. Simple enough, but the interest and, for me at any rate, the great pleasure to be had from reading this book is in the secondary arguments, in the premises and working through of the ideas and theories and insights which support this basic conclusion.

He begins with a sweeping premise: the era we live in is dominated by the conflict between capitalism and socialism. Looking back at the nineteenth century we can see how Realism in the arts emerged with the newly triumphant bourgeoisie, and was a result of the new social conditions brought about by their rise and overthrow of the last vestiges of power of the European aristocracy.

(Realist authors would include Stendhal, Balzac and early Flaubert in France, Tolstoy in Russia, George Eliot in England, Mark Twain in America.)

Realism in literature was followed by Naturalism in the final third of the century, which paid determined attention to the grim social conditions of mature capitalist society but also, in the hands of a novelist like Zola, began the process of reducing human beings to ciphers worked on by malign environments. Darwinism could be made to make people appear simple tools of their genetic inheritance, socialist theories could make people appear pawns and slaves of their working environments.

Zola saw his novels as sociological experiments. For Lukács he had already lost the tricky balance the realists maintained between character and ‘type’ – which helps to explain why Zola wrote nearly forty novels without a single memorable character in any of them.

(Naturalist authors are spearheaded by Zola in France, with maybe Jack London in America, George Gissing and Arthur Morrison in England.)

By the end of the century a shoal of movements erupted which prioritised an interest in decadence, perversion, the macabre and gruesome, the so-called Decadent movement and the gloomy atmosphere of Symbolism.

This brings us to the eruption of Modernism about the time of the First World War, the movement which, Lukács claims, is still praised and defended by bourgeois capitalist critics at the time he’s writing (1955). But for Lukács, Modernism represents a colossal failure of humanity: it turns its back on history and society, its protagonists are almost all loners undergoing nervous breakdowns, hopelessly alienated from societies which are portrayed as stuck, static, incapable of change or improvement.

From T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land to Samuel Beckett in Waiting For Godot Modernist writers depict complete psychological collapse, in Beckett’s case the degradation of human beings into almost wordless vegetables. He backs it up with references to Musil’s The Man Without Qualities and other European works which foreground hopelessness and despair, and he was, of course, writing during the heyday of French existentialism, which became a byword in the 1950s for black sweaters and anguish.

All of these works and writers, Lukács argues, are symptoms of the alienating effect of living under Western capitalism. All these writers, artists and composers bear out Marx’s insight that in the capitalist system people are alienated from each other and from themselves.

Specific points

This makes Lukács sound like a cumbersome Stalinist commissar, but in fact the book is a pleasure to read from start to finish because i) it moves relatively quickly, not belabouring the points ii) it makes references to all kinds of writers, most from the European and not the Anglo-Saxon tradition, and iii) it features a whole series of thought-provoking ideas.

Time There is a fascinating discussion of subjective versus objective time, and how Modernists of all stripe, including Modernist philosophers, became fascinated by trying to describe the undifferentiated flow of sense impressions and ideas which became known as stream-of-consciousness, most famously in the works of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.

He compares and contrasts their approaches with the way Thomas Mann uses what, at first sight, is stream of consciousness to capture the thoughts of the poet Goethe in his novel Lotte in Weimar. Mann is a realist writer and so, in Lukács’s opinion, the stream of consciousness is deployed as a tool within which particular individuals and events emerge against a clearly defined social backdrop.

Static versus dynamic Joyce’s worldview is static. More than one critic pointed out how Ulysses portrays a Dublin trapped in stasis and his masterpiece, Finnegan’s Wake, portrays a vast circular movement. But, says Lukács, human beings only achieve their personhood, only become fully human, by interacting with other humans in a constantly changing, dynamic society. Realist authors select characters and details to portray their understanding of this ceaseless dialectic between the individual and society.

Solipsism and nihilism A full and proper understanding of society in all its relations is empowering, an analysis and understanding which gives people the confidence to mobile and change things. By contrast, Lukács accuses Modernists of turning their back on healthy interaction with the world, of rejecting society, and rejecting a historical understanding of how societies change and evolve.

And it is no great leap to go from the belief that nothing ever changes, to despair. Rejecting society and history leads the protagonists of Modernist fictions to:

1. be confined within the limits of their own subjective experiences (Joyce, stream of consciousness)
2. ultimately deprive the protagonist of even a self a personal history, since that history is (in a normal person) largely the interaction between themselves and the host of others, starting with their family and moving outwards, which constitute society

By exalting man’s subjectivity, at the expense of the objective reality of his environment, man’s subjectivity is itself impoverished. (p.24)

Man is reduced to a sequence of unrelated experiential fragments. (p.26)

Lukács invokes the teachings of Heidegger, as the godfather of 20th century existentialism, with his fundamental idea of Geworfenheit ins Dasein, of having been ‘thrown-into’-Being’, abandoned in a godless universe etc etc, all the self-pitying tropes which were promoted by existentialist philosophers, critics, playwrights, novelists, film-makers, rock stars and millions of teenagers in their lonely bedrooms ever since.

The individual, retreating into himself in despair at the cruelty of the age, may experience an intoxicated fascination with his forlorn condition. (p.38)

By contrast, Lukács invokes the fundamental insight of one of the founders of western philosophy – Aristotle – that man is a social animal: we only fully live and have our being in a social context. This insight goes through to Hegel in the early nineteenth century, who applies his mental model of the dialectic to the continual interplay between the healthily-adjusted individual and the society they find themselves in.

How does this play out in fiction? Well, the realist novelist such as George Eliot or Tolstoy chooses representative types, puts them in a narrative which represents realistic actions which capture the possibilities of their society, and selects details which highlight, bolster and bring out these two aspects. By and large things change in a realist novel, not least the characters, sometimes against the backdrop of dramatic social events (Middlemarch, War and Peace).

It is the interplay between a character and his or her fully realised environment, from Homer’s Achilles to Thomas Mann’s Adrian Leverkuhn, which gives us fully developed sense of character and, deeper than this, a dynamic sense of human potential. At bottom, the subject of the realist author is human change and development.

Moreover, he goes on to point out that all literature is, at some level, realistic. It would be impossible to have a totally non-realist novel (as you can have an utterly abstract work of art). More to his point, about the value of society and history:

A writer’s pattern of choice is a function of his personality. But personality is not in fact timesless and absolute, however it may appear to the individual consciousness. Talent and character may be innate; but the manner in which they develop, or fail to develop, depends on the writer’s interaction with his environment, on his relationships with other human beings. His life is part of the life of his times; no matter whether he is conscious of this, approves or disapproves. He is part of a larger social and historical whole. (p.54)

The Modernist, on the other hand rejects all this. More often than not their characters are extremes, psychopaths, neurotic, going mad, and he points to all of Samuel Beckett’s characters, but also the many mentally challenged characters in William Faulkner, of the man adrift on a sea of phenomena in Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities. Details are chosen not to highlight their representativeness but to bring out the freakishness of themselves and the uncanny world they inhabit. And the plot or story is often sick and twisted, or barely exists, or revels in degradation and decline (Beckett).

(I laughed out loud when he described the way Beckett stands at the end of this tradition, as an example of ‘a fully standardised nihilistic modernism’, making him sound like a standard edition family saloon or entry level fridge freezer, p.53)

In a striking manoeuvre he invokes Freud as a godfather to Modernism, pointing out that Freud himself openly declared that his way of gaining insight into the structure of the ‘normal’ mind was via study of a colourful array of neurotics, obsessives and phobics. I.e. one of the major planks of though underlying all Modernist psychology, Freudianism, is based on the morbid and the unnatural (p.30)

Franz Kafka

Which brings us to Kafka. Kafka, for Lukács, even more than Beckett, for all his genius, represents the acme of the sickness that is Modernism. He points out a detail I’d forgotten which is that, as Joseph K is being led away to be executed, he thinks of flies stuck on flypaper, tearing their little legs off. This, Lukács says, is the vision at the heart of all Kafka’s fiction and at the heart of the Modernist worldview – humans are helpless insects, totally impotent, paralysed in a society they don’t understand, trapped in unintelligible situations.

Kafka’s angst is the experience par excellence of modernism. (p.36)

Lukács dwells on Kafka’s brilliant way with details, his eye for the telling aspect of a person or situation which brings it to life. But Lukács uses this fact to bring out the world of difference between the realistic detail in a realist fiction, which has been chosen because it is representative of the real world, properly conceived and understood – and the details in Kafka, which he chose with absolute genius to convey his sense of utter, paralysing futility and nonsense.

Kafka’s fictions are absolutely brilliant allegories, but allegories of nothing, allegories of emptiness (pp.44-45).

Thoughts

Pros

This is just a selection of some of Lukács’s insights in this short and, for the most part, very readable book. He may have been a slimeball, he may have been a criminal, he may have been a hypocrite, he may have been a toady to power – but there is no denying he was a clever man, very well read, and he conveys his learning fairly lightly. He doesn’t set out to be impenetrable as most French theorists do.

And he’s candid enough to admit that many of the experiments and new techniques and works written by the Modernists were dazzling masterpieces, and to concede that much of the stuff written under the aegis of Stalin’s Socialist Realism was tripe. He’s too sophisticated to defend rubbish.

But his basic critique that the Modernist works which Western critics, to this day, tend to uncritically adulate, do tend to foreground the outsider, the alienated, the loner, often with severe psychological problems, in fictions which often lack much plot or any interaction with other characters, and in which both hero and author have largely turned their back on wider society – this is very insightful. His analysis of the aspects of Modernist fiction is useful and stimulating.

And, having just read Kafka’s biography, his diagnosis of Kafka’s writings as the brilliant masterpieces of a very sick mind are completely spot on. I like the way he brings out the important of the just-so detail in Kafka’s works, the precise details which tip the whole thing over into paranoid nightmare.

Cons

But all that said, later on in the book an unnervingly more dogmatic tone emerges. Scattered references early in the book about the Cold War and the Peace Movement coalesce into political polemic. He links his concept of the Good Realist writers directly with the 1950s Peace Movement, which was strongly promoted by the Soviet Union amid disingenuous claims to want to end the Cold War (while all the time retaining a vice-like grip on Eastern Europe and funding destabilising communist insurgents around the world).

By contrast, he explicitly links some of the philosophers and authors of angst (most notoriously Heidegger) with Nazism and so tries to tar all Modernist authors with the taint of Fascism.

In other words, Lukács disappoints by making a direct and rather crude connection between a writer’s underlying worldviews and developments in international politics. He is not crude enough to blame individual writers for Fascism or capitalism – but he does point out repeatedly that they base their works on the same worldview that accepts the exploitation and alienation implicit in the capitalist system.

For most of the first half I enjoyed Lukács’s dissection of the psychopathology of Modernism. But when he began to directly relate it to capitalist-imperialism and to lecture the reader on how it led to The Wrong Side in the Cold War, the book suddenly felt crude, simplistic and hectoring.

When he suddenly states that:

The diabolical character of the world of modern capitalism, and man’s impotence in the face of it, is the real subject matter of Kafka’s writing (p.77)

I thought, How can such a clever, well-read man write something so crude?

  1. Kafka’s visions of human life crushed by a faceless and persecuting bureaucracy could equally well have come out of Czarist Russia with its notorious secret police.
  2. Kafka didn’t in fact live in an advanced capitalist society such as America, Britain or Germany – the endless useless bureaucracy of his books is not that of snappily efficient America or Germany, but precisely that of provincial Bohemia, a sleepy backwater entangled in the vast and impenetrable civil service of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
  3. And Kafka would have been horribly out of place in any social system, at any time, as his biography brings home.

Worst of all, when, in the middle of the book, Lukács says that what counts about a writer isn’t their actual works, not their words or pages or techniques or style, but the general tendency of their thought… the implication is that this tendency can be measured by a commissar like himself, and suddenly I could hear the tones of Zhdanov and the other Soviet dictators of culture, whose crude diktats resulted in countless artists and writers being arbitrarily arrested and despatched to die in the gulag, crying out as they went that they meant no offence – while the apparatchiks calmly replied that they weren’t being punished for anything they’d actually said or done: they were being condemned to ten years hard labour for the tendency of their work.

At moments in this suave and sophisticated book, you suddenly glimpse the truncheon and the barbed wire of actual communist tyranny, which gives it a sudden thrill and horror not normally encountered in a genteel volume of literary criticism.

So it’s a complicated business, reading Lukács.


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Dates are dates of composition.

The Castle by Franz Kafka (1926)

[K.’s assistants] rushed to the [telephone], asked for the connection – how eager they were about it! in externals they were absurdly docile – and inquired if K. could come with them next morning into the Castle. The ‘No’ of the answer was audible even to K. at his table. But the answer went on and was still more explicit, it ran as follows: ‘Neither to-morrow nor at any other time.’

‘When can my master come to the Castle?’
‘Never,’ was the answer.

Plot

In The Trial Joseph K is ‘arrested’ (although he remained, in practice, entirely free to continue going about his business as he wishes) and spends the rest of the increasingly fraught story having encounters with Court officials, friends, lawyers and other advisers who (he hopes) can help him make his case to the Court and clear his name. But there never actually is a trial, Joseph K never gets to meet any important official, all the officials he does meet turn out to be powerless, he never manages to clear his name and, in the sudden, short, final chapter, he is taken to a quarry and miserably murdered. Kafka wrote The Trial in an intense burst in the second half of 1914 and abandoned it in January 1915.

Seven years later, Kafka began writing The Castle, working intensely on it from January to September 1922. But didn’t finish this novel, either, and the manuscript breaks off in mid sentence.

It opens with a Land Surveyor, referred to throughout simply as K., arriving in the depths of a snowy winter at an unnamed village in the shadow of a looming castle (which turns out more to be a ramshackle collection of low buildings) and checking into a rundown inn, the Bridge Inn, for the night. Here he is not made particularly welcome, and a young man bursts in to tell him he needs a pass to be there, and rings up the Castle to confirm the fact.

This sets the tone for the rest of the (unfinished) novel which K. spends trying to get an audience or meeting with anyone up at the Castle who can tell him what his task is, and what he’s been hired to do. In this he fails as completely as Joseph K. does to find anyone to present  his case to. Instead K. ends up wasting most of his time in interminable conversations with characters from the village – starting with the landlord and landlady of the Bridge Inn, and their daughter, and his two so-called assistants, and a messenger from the Castle who K. hopes will get him an entrée there but rapidly turns out rarely to actually visit it. And so on. K’s asks them all for help and advice about how to get an interview with anyone of importance at the Castle, but their replies and interpretations are so tortuous, convoluted and contradictory hat he never makes it anywhere near the famous Castle, and then the text stops in mid sentence.

Just like The Trial, then, The Castle is an exercise in long-winded, verbose and dialogue-heavy delaying.

Just like Joseph K, K. meets a sequence of people, and has long exchanges with each of them about his plight, which, far from clarifying the situation, leave him steadily more puzzled and confused than when he started.

‘You misunderstand everything, even a person’s silence.’ (The landlady to K., p.72)

Just like Joseph K, K. forms immediate and very sexual relationships with the women that he meets. In K’s case this is Frieda, the serving woman in another inn which K. goes to in the hope of meeting the legendary Castle official, Klamm. In a bizarre scene, which i had to reread to make sure I had it right, K. ends up making love to this barmaid who he’s only just met, on the floor behind the counter, among the beer slops and fag ends.

Just like Joseph K, K. becomes increasingly obsessed with his forlorn quest, until it is all he can think about day and night – the simple goal of gaining access to the Castle, which is turned down by officials on the phone, pooh-poohed by the peasants that he meets, mocked by his landlady, and generally ridiculed by everyone he meets, while he is slowly, step-by-step, reduced in status, worn down and humiliated.

Decline and entropy

Reading The Trial acclimatised me to numerous aspects of Kafka’s approach or worldview. One is that things are never as grand or formal or impressive as they initially seem; they are always disappointing. The movement is always downwards.

‘You’re still Klamm’s sweetheart, and not my wife yet by a long chalk. Sometimes that makes me quite dejected, I feel then as if I had lost everything, I feel as if I had only newly come to the village, yet not full of hope, as I actually came, but with the knowledge that only disappointments await me, and that I will have to swallow them down one after another to the very dregs…’ (p.126)

In The Trial an impressive-sounding magistrate turns out to be a shabby little fat man with no control over anything. Joseph’s uncle recommends a well-connected advocate who, in the event, turns out to be ill and bed-ridden, and who candidly admits that advocates like himself are virtually powerless – in fact they may end up damaging a client’s chances. People’s reputations and power decay virtually in front of us. Every new opportunity turns out to be a dead end or worse, a setback.

Well, The Castle is dominated and defined by the same trajectory, by a hundred little fallings-off and declines and disappointments. The very first disappointment is that the Castle itself turns out to be a lot less castle-ey than we were led to believe.

It was neither an old stronghold nor a new mansion, but a rambling pile consisting of innumerable small buildings closely packed together and of one or two storeys; if K. had not known that it was a castle he might have taken it for a little town… on approaching it he was disappointed in the Castle; it was after all only a wretched-looking town, a huddle of village houses, whose sole merit, if any, lay in being built of stone, but the plaster had long since flaked off and the stone seemed to be crumbling away.

An early example of people being disappointing is the young man who bullies K. within an hour of him arriving at the Bridge Inn, officiously telling K. he needs a pass to stay at an inn and documents to prove he is who he says he is, who rings up the Castle and generally throws his weight about. But later the landlord of the inn tells K. that this young man is only the son of an insignificant under-castellan, a man of no importance or authority.

Also early on, there’s a small symbolic enactment of this relentless entropy in the incident of the bell. The morning after his arrival in the village K. sets off to walk up to the Castle but gets bogged down in the deep snowdrifts in the village, eventually has to knock on a peasant door for help, before being given a sleigh ride back to the inn where he’s staying. As he’s being driven away:

A bell began to ring merrily up there, a bell which for at least a second made his heart palpitate for its tone was menacing, too, as if it threatened him with the fulfilment of his vague desire. This great bell soon died away, however, and its place was taken by a feeble monotonous little tinkle which might have come from the Castle, but might have been somewhere in the village. It certainly harmonized better with the slow-going journey, with the wretched-looking yet inexorable driver…

It’s a small moment, but it’s typical of the way that in things great and small, from the overall shape of the entire narrative down to tiny details – everything falls away into a state of confusion and uncertainty:

‘If you had followed my explanation more carefully, then you must have seen that the question of your being summoned here is far too difficult to be settled here and now in the course of a short conversation.’
‘So the only remaining conclusion,’ said K., ‘is that everything is very unclear and insoluble…’ (p.66)

Take the handsome, slender messenger who comes to the Bridge Inn from the Castle and announces himself as Barnabas. Initially K. hopes Barnabas, as an official messenger, can take him with him up to the Castle, but it turns out that this is a misunderstanding and, after a trudge through the snow, they arrive not at some official residence but at the house of Barnabas’s parents, who turn out to be two decrepit old crones. K.

had been bewitched by Barnabas’s close-fitting, silken-gleaming jacket, which, now that it was unbuttoned, displayed a coarse, dirty grey shirt patched all over, and beneath that the huge muscular chest of a labourer.

Barnabas goes from being a slender official messenger, elegant in fine silk, to a coarse and oafish peasant wearing dirty patched clothes, even as we watch.

It is typical of Kafka that when K. finally manages to see the village Mayor he finds him far from being a superb figure of fitness and power, but ill in bed with gout, fussing and fretting and cared for by his wife, Mizzi. Later (and there’s almost always a ‘later’ moment in Kafka, when someone else comments on an important encounter Joseph K or K. has had, generally undermining and contradicting it), later the landlady tells K. that the Mayor is actually pretty powerless, it’s his skinny mousey wife who’s the power behind the throne.

‘The mayor is someone entirely without consequence, didn’t you realise?’ (p.77)

And so it goes on, Decline. Fall. Entropy. It is characteristic that beautiful young Frieda, within days of starting her affair with K., loses her beauty and goes into a decline (p.122) Everywhere, in aspects large and small, people, bells, buildings turn out to be less impressive or authoritative or even comprehensible than first imagined. Everything disappoints, everywhere the protagonist’s hopes or plans are dashed, on every front he finds himself being squeezed into a narrower and narrower corner.

‘If that is so, madam,” said K., ‘then I beg your pardon, and I’ve misunderstood you. For I thought – erroneously, as it turns out now – that I could take out of your former words that there was still some very tiny hope for me.’

Crowded with people

Another quick and obvious thing you notice is that The Castle, like The Trial, is packed with people. It has a surprisingly large cast:

  • the landlord and the landlady of the Bridge Inn where K is staying
  • Schwarzer, the son of the Castellan who bullyingly tells K. he needs a pass to stay at the inn
  • the peasants drinking in the hotel bar
  • the schoolteacher who tells him everyone is disappointed by the Castle
  • the cottage K. stumbles into up in the village, which contains two men in a bath (one of them the tanner Lasemann), an old man a woman breast-feeding, and a horde of screaming children
  • Arthur and Jeremiah, two thin men walking by the cottage who are hailed by the owner
  • the stooping coachman called Gerstacker who drives K back to the Bridge Inn in his sledge, after K. has got lost wandering the streets of the village
  • Barnabas the messenger who arrives at the Bridge Inn with a letter for K.
  • Barnabas’s family, consisting of his aged mother and father and sisters Olga and Amalia
  • Klamm, the legendary official from the Castle who everyone talks about and K. becomes obsessed with meeting
  • Momus, Klamm’s secretary
  • Vallabene, Castle official Momus works for
  • Frieda, daughter of the Bridge Inn landlady, and mistress of Klamm, who is working at the Count’s Inn where K. goes to find Klamm, and who K. has an affair with
  • the Mayor and his mousey wife, Mizzi
  • Sordini, a minor official in the Castle, who features in the Mayor’s extremely long-winded explanation of the bureaucracy up at the castle
  • the schoolmistress Gisa who sets her cat to scratch K. (p.117)
  • Pepi the stocky sturdy replacement for Frieda as barmaid at the Herrenhof (it is a minor element of the ‘Kafkaesque’ that the male protagonist is always horny; within moments of meeting Pepi K. is lusting after every bit as much as he did after Frieda [and the word used is ‘lust’, p.91])

Not only a fairly large cast but more intricately intertwined than in The Trial. Admittedly when K. discovers that the young woman he has so abruptly had sex with, Frieda, is in fact Klamm’s mistress, this very much echoes the situation in The Trial where the young woman, Leni, who throws herself at Joseph K. (to be precise, who falls backwards onto the carpet and pulls Joseph on top of her, thus making her intentions plain) is also the mistress of the Advocate Huld. Same with the Law Court Attendants wife who first with Joseph, but snogs another young man, Barthold, and turns out to ‘belong’ to the Examining magistrate.

Structurally, if we put aside the actual sexual content of these encounters for a moment, they can be seen to be yet another variant on the basic structure from which his texts are built, namely that things turn out to be something other than the protagonist thought. He thinks a woman is flirting with him alone, but she turns out to have multiple other lovers is cognate with the structure of Joseph being recommended to meet the Advocate who turns out to be ineffective and maybe even damaging to his cause.

But when we learn that Frieda is the daughter of the landlady of the Bridge Inn; and that Frieda’s mother was herself, in her time, a mistress of Klamm’s, then the latter book begins to feel more incestuous, more claustrophobic.

Attics and inns

One of the things I noticed in The Trial is the way so many of the ‘offices’ or rooms of supposedly important officials, and of the painter Titorelli, seem to be located right at the top of rickety staircases in dusty airless attics. The same initially happens here.

The house was so small that nothing was available for K. but a little attic room, and even that had caused some difficulty, for two maids who had hitherto slept in it had had to be quartered elsewhere. Nothing indeed had been done but to clear the maids out, the room was otherwise quite unprepared, no sheets on the single bed, only some pillows and a horse-blanket still in the same rumpled state as in the morning.

But in the event K. doesn’t get to meet as varied a selection of bureaucratic officials as Joseph K. and spends more of his time in the two village inns and at the schoolhouse.

Less intense, more surreal

The Trial is the better book. It gives you the pure Kafka experience, the sense of a hyper-sensitive man drowning in a sea of bureaucratic mysteries which he can never solve.

It has its bizarre moments but is mostly a kind of sustained meditation on the nature of the Court which has accused Joseph K and, by extension, of the nature of his guilt which is, in fact, tied to his entire existence. His mere existence implicates Joseph K. and it’s in this sense that Kafka’s friend and executor Max Brod makes the case for it being at bottom a religious book, an examination of the fundamental nature of human existence.

Moreover, the metaphor of ‘the trial’ is extremely large and flexible, it extends out into all kinds of meditations and metaphors to do with an extended range of related subjects such as ‘the Law’ and ‘Guilt’ and ‘Innocence’. Characters can say things which both apply to Joseph K’s plight in a literal sense, but also have quite weighty double-meanings to do with the nature of Divine Law and human existence etc.

And because the legal systems of any country are so complicated and bureaucratic, the central metaphor of a ‘trial’ allows Kafka to generate a potentially endless sequence of characters who are either officials of the Court or experts or advisers about the law or the Court or the bureaucracy and so on. You can see the truth of Max Brod’s comment that the Trial could have been extended almost indefinitely.

By contrast, the fundamental concept of ‘the Castle’ is a lot more vague and limited. The Castle is up on the hill and (supposedly) contains ‘the Count’ and his officials, but it doesn’t really provide a lot of metaphorical or conceptual framework, certainly not as much as the idea of a trial and of the Law.

This may partly explain why The Castle seems less unified and inevitable and quite a bit more random that The Trial. Whereas most of the encounters in The Trial were aligned with the fundamental metaphor of the Court, many of the incidents in The Castle seem simply bizarre and surreal.

Take the case of the assistants. When K. arrives at the Bridge Inn he says his assistants are following him not far behind. Then, impatient, he sets off to explore the village for himself but gets lost in the heavy snowdrifts, is rescued by some villagers who dry him and warm him and who, as they escort him back to their front door, hail a couple of young locals who are walking by. When K. gets back to ‘his’ inn, the one he’s checked into, he discovers the very same pair of men have arrived there and are telling everyone they are K’s assistants. Then – and this is the bizarre thing – K. himself accepts that they are indeed his assistants and treats him for the rest of the book as if they are, even though they haven’t brought the surveying equipment he said they had, and have different names, and behave like irresponsible children most of the time (‘ludicrously childish, irresponsible, and undisciplined’, p.123).

This doesn’t add anything to our understanding of the Court or the purpose of the book, it just becomes a permanent, bizarre addition to the narrative. Their exaggerated childishness and bickering soon reminded me of Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee, which made me see the entire book in a different light; less 20th century ‘surreal’ than in the tradition of Victorian ‘nonsense’ verse and prose.

Similarly, K. is told that the important Court official Klamm is at another inn in the village, the Count’s Inn, and so treks off through the deep snowdrifts to try to meet him. Characteristically, this attempt fails, for Klamm is locked in his private room. But K. he does get chatting (at length – all Kafka dialogue is immensely long-winded) to the barmaid, Frieda, one thing leads to another and suddenly they are in an embrace, rolling among the beer slops on the floor behind the bar. This goes on for hours and, in his characteristically obscure and long-winded way, it appears as if they have sex, then fall asleep there, for most of the night.

As if this wasn’t fantastical enough, when they finally disengage K. and Frieda discover that the two assistants… have been perching on the edge of the bar all night long, and have presumably observed everything which went on.

Now this isn’t a necessary or logical consequence of K.s quest to meet the authorities, it is more a bizarre incident, made more bizarre by the presence of the two assistants perching like buzzards on the bar.

It’s easy to apply the word ‘surreal’ to these moments of Kafka, and he was certainly writing at exactly the moment that the idea of surrealism and the term surrealism were coined (by the French avant-garde poet Guillaume Apollinaire in a play performed in 1917, and taken up and popularised by André Breton, who published his Surrealist Manifesto in 1924). Breton defined surrealism as:

thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation

The early Surrealists were obsessed with ‘automatic writing’ where the writer went into a dream or fugue state and wrote or dictated whatever came into his mind unhindered by any rational censorship or conscious intentions.

Well, on one level, Kafka’s two main novels do indeed have a horrible, irrational dreamlike or nightmare quality, the kind of nightmare where you’re running fast but not moving, or trying to keep above the waves but feel yourself being relentlessly pulled down. Thus the scene where K. is chatting to the barmaid one minute and the next, somehow, having sex with her behind the counter, is a sort of letting loose of usually suppressed sexual fantasies, a delirious improbability carried out in the dream-novel in a way it never could be in real life. And then the detail of the whole thing happening under the gaze of the two bird-like assistants definitely has the uncanny quality of Surrealism.

And yet a lot of other elements in the works are far more conscious and crafted and consistent than that.

For example, the messenger from the castle tells him that, while they try to sort out whether he has actually been hired to do any land surveying for the Count, K. is being offered the post of janitor at the little local school.

Because K. is now in a relationship with Frieda – in fact K. himself offers to marry her and everyone accepts that they are now engaged – he feels obligated to take the job although it is an obvious come-down from the figure he presented on his first arrival at the village, that of a confident, urbane professional man.

Not only is this a very Kafkaesque degradation or lowering of K.’s status, but he is then informed that the school building only contains two classrooms, with no other rooms whatsoever, and that therefore he and Frieda (and the two giggling assistants who follow him everywhere) will have to set up a camp bed every evening in the schoolroom once school is over, but be sure to be up and packed away before the schoolmaster then the children arrive the next day.

In practice this is a profoundly humiliating arrangement and again has a nightmareish quality because, inevitably, the very first morning of the new arrangement Frieda and K. oversleep and find their ‘bedroom’ overrun by schoolchildren laughing and pointing at them as they get out of the rough ‘bed’, made of a straw palliasse on the floor, and pad around in their underwear – at which point the smartly dressed schoolteacher and schoolma’am arrive and are outraged.

I think I’ve had dreams like this, being discovered in a public place half-dressed and with an oppressive sense of being publicly humiliated.

But the point I’m driving at is that true surrealism is bizarre in all directions, is unexpected and unpredictable, tigers turn into steam train, eyes are cut open, it can be fantastical and horrifying and weird. Early surreal works were often scrappy and unfinished precisely because their exponents were trying to achieve spontaneity, to throw off professionalism and reason and control in order to let the unconscious break through.

Whereas, although Kafka may achieve some ‘surreal’ effects with some of his nightmareish scenes and some of the fantasy-like details in them — his dreams invariably head in the same direction – in the direction of humiliating, degrading and wearing down the protagonist.

In this sense, Kafka’s works are highly conscious and contrived and artificial products: they are not at all open-ended and unexpected: the complete opposite: the degradation of Joseph K and K. and Gregor Samsa are highly predictable and move in one direction only – relentlessly down.

Long-winded

A major part of the protagonists’ problems in these two core Kafka novels is that everyone they talk to gives contradictory advice, or starts off urging one course of action but then hedges it with caveats and ends up advising the direct opposite. Joseph K and K. never know who to believe.

Partly this is to do with the convoluted content of each one of these long dialogues, and an analysis of them would take up many volumes. Easier to summarise is their immense length. God, everyone talks to immense and hyper-verbose excess! Here’s the landlady in conversation with K, telling him how naive his hope to meet the Castle official Klamm is.

‘Upon my word,’ said the landlady, with her nose in the air, ‘you put me in mind of my own husband, you’re just as childish and obstinate as he is. You’ve been only a few days in the village and already you think you know everything better than people who have spent their lives here, better than an old woman like me, and better than Frieda who has seen and heard so much in the Herrenhof. I don’t deny that it’s possible once in a while to achieve something in the teeth of every rule and tradition. I’ve never experienced anything of that kind myself, but I believe there are precedents for it. That may well be, but it certainly doesn’t happen in the way you’re trying to do it, simply by saying “No, no”, and sticking to your own opinions and flouting the most well-meant advice. Do you think it’s you I’m anxious about? Did I bother about you in the least so long as you were by yourself? Even though it would have been a good thing and saved a lot of trouble? The only thing I ever said to my husband about you was: “Keep your distance where he’s concerned.” And I should have done that myself to this very day if Frieda hadn’t got mixed up with your affairs. It’s her you have to thank – whether you like it or not – for my interest in you, even for my noticing your existence at all. And you can’t simply shake me off, for I’m the only person who looks after little Frieda, and you’re strictly answerable to me. Maybe Frieda is right, and all that has happened is Klamm’s will, but I have nothing to do with Klamm here and now. I shall never speak to him, he’s quite beyond my reach. But you’re sitting here, keeping my Frieda, and being kept yourself – I don’t see why I shouldn’t tell you – by me. Yes, by me, young man, for let me see you find a lodging anywhere in this village if I throw you out, even it were only a dog-kennel.’

Poor K. thinks he’s understood the gist of this long monologue:

‘Thank you,’ said K., ‘That’s frank and I believe you absolutely. So my position is as uncertain as that, is it, and Frieda’s position, too?’

But, of course, and as usual for Kafka’s protagonists, it immediately turns out that he hasn’t:

‘No!’ interrupted the landlady furiously. ‘Frieda’s position in this respect has nothing at all to do with yours. Frieda belongs to my house, and nobody is entitled to call her position here uncertain.’
‘All right, all right,’ said K., ‘I’ll grant you that, too, especially since Frieda for some reason I’m not able to fathom seems to be too afraid of you to interrupt. Stick to me then for the present. My position is quite uncertain, you don’t deny that, indeed you rather go out of your way to emphasize it. Like everything else you say, that has a fair proportion of truth in it, but it isn’t absolutely true…’

‘Like everything else you say, that has a fair proportion of truth in it, but it isn’t absolutely true.’ That could stand as a motto for both novels.

There is often very little ‘information’ or factual content in these countless dialogues. Instead their sole purpose often consists solely in being so long-winded and tortuous as to perplex and punish the protagonist.

Take this characteristic block of dialogue from the Mayor, who spends Chapter Four explaining to K. the processes at work in the organisation that runs the Castle, how different departments might issue contradictory instructions, how discrepancies might not be cleared up for years, or might suddenly and abruptly be cleared up and yet nobody be told about them, causing yet more confusion. Who, by the end, has thoroughly demoralised poor K. and utterly exhausted the reader.

‘And now I come to a peculiar characteristic of our administrative apparatus. Along with its precision it’s extremely sensitive as well. When an affair has been weighed for a very long time, it may happen, even before the matter has been fully considered, that suddenly in a flash the decision comes in some unforeseen place, that, moreover, can’t be found any longer later on, a decision that settles the matter, if in most cases justly, yet all the same arbitrarily. It’s as if the administrative apparatus were unable any longer to bear the tension, the year-long irritation caused by the same affair – probably trivial in itself-and had hit upon the decision by itself, without the assistance of the officials. Of course a miracle didn’t happen and certainly it was some clerk who hit upon the solution or the unwritten decision, but in any case it couldn’t be discovered by us, at least by us here, or even by the Head Bureau, which clerk had decided in this case and on what grounds. The Control Officials only discovered that much later, but we will never learn it. Besides by this time it would scarcely interest anybody. Now, as I said, it’s just these decisions that are generally excellent. The only annoying thing about them – it’s usually the case with such things – is that one learns too late about them and so in the meantime keeps on still passionately canvassing things that were decided long ago. I don’t know whether in your case a decision of this kind happened – some people say yes, others no – but if it had happened then the summons would have been sent to you and you would have made the long journey to this place, much time would have passed, and in the meanwhile Sordini would have been working away here all the time on the same case until he was exhausted. Brunswick would have been intriguing, and I would have been plagued by both of them. I only indicate this possibility, but I know the following for a fact: a Control Official discovered meanwhile that a query had gone out from the Department A to the Town Council many years before regarding a Land Surveyor, without having received a reply up till then. A new inquiry was sent to me, and now the whole business was really cleared up. Department A was satisfied with my answer that a Land Surveyor was not needed, and Sordini was forced to recognize that he had not been equal to this case and, innocently it is true, had got through so much nerve-racking work for nothing. If new work hadn’t come rushing in as ever from every side, and if your case hadn’t been a very unimportant case – one might almost say the least important among the unimportant we might all of us have breathed freely again, I fancy even Sordini himself. Brunswick was the only one that grumbled, but that was only ridiculous. And now imagine to yourself, Land Surveyor, my dismay when after the fortunate end of the whole business – and since then, too, a great deal of time had passed by suddenly you appear and it begins to look as if the whole thing must begin all over again. You’ll understand of course that I’m firmly resolved, so far as I’m concerned, not to let that happen in any case?’

If you find that paragraph hard going, you are not alone. I found much of The Castle very hard to read because it consists of page after page of solid blocks of tortuous dialogue just like this.

I’m tempted to say that it’s not really the situations Kafka’s protagonists find themselves in which are the problem – a) being told you’ve been charged with something but never being able to find out what and b) arriving at a castle to do some work and discovering nobody will acknowledge you or clarify what work you’re meant to be doing, if any.

No, it’s not the situations they’re in which are Kafkaesque, so much as the massive, inordinate, unending stream of interpretations and advice and tips and insider knowledge etc which their situations are subjected to by every single person they come into contact with – that is the core of the Kafkaesque.

At the heart of the Kafkaesque is people’s unending need to talk talk talk. The Kafkaesque would cease to exist if people just shut up. Or spat it out in a sentence. Twitter would sort out K.’s problems in a few moments. But instead, he is forced to listen to monstrously long monologues by the Mayor or the Landlady, which leave him bitterly concluding:

‘This is a great surprise for me. It throws all my calculations out. I can only hope that there’s some misunderstanding.’

But there hasn’t been a misunderstanding. Or, to be more precise, everything is a misunderstanding, everyone is in a permanent state of misunderstanding everyone else.

Meanings

‘It’s so hard to know what’s what,’ said Frieda. (p.142)

Kafka knows what he’s doing as he creates fables with enough layers, and enough symbolism, to be susceptible to multiple levels of interpretation. The three principal ones which first spring to mind are religious and social-cultural and political.

1. Religious I mean the way in which Max Brod mostly interpreted the stories, as allegories or fables of Man looking for the Meaning of Life, for The Answer, trying to find the God or representative of God (priest etc) who will provide peace and fulfilment and knowledge about the True Path – but the permanent sense of frustration and perplexity which the Good Pilgrim is subjected to.

2. By social-cultural one I mean a reading which focuses on the oppressive and entirely secular bureaucracies which seem endless and impenetrable, which sweep us up in their processes and do with us as they please, without us ever finding out who to appeal to or how to get our case heard. Kafka is often taken as being ‘prophetic’ of the way large bureaucracies – whether belonging to the state or the private sector – especially after the Second World War, came to be seen as reducing individuals to the status of ciphers.

It is a characteristic of modern (i.e. since about the First World War) bureaucracies that they rarely admit their errors but prefer to hide behind jargon and contradictory statements.

‘Frankly it isn’t their function to hunt out errors in the vulgar sense, for errors don’t happen, and even when once in a while an error does happen, as in your case, who can say finally that it’s an error?’

3. The Political is a more intense of the bureaucratic interpretation and argues from what we know happened after Kafka’s death i.e. the domination of Europe by terrible, deadly bureaucracies which consigned vast numbers to starvation, forced labour and death, in the name of ‘quotas and collectivisation (in Stalin’s Russia of the 1930s) or in the name or purifying Europe of its race enemies (under Hitler’s Nazis).

4. There is a fourth type of interpretation, which is hermeneutical where ‘hermeneutics’ means:

the theory and methodology of interpretation, especially the interpretation of biblical texts, wisdom literature, and philosophical texts (Wikipedia)

This occurred to me as I read the scene in Chapter Four where K. produces the letter he’s received from Kramm with a flourish and gives it to the Mayor as evidence that he has been taken on as a land surveyor. The Mayor then proceeds to read the letter closely and undermine all its claims to authority and even coherent meaning. When he’s finished, K. says there’s nothing left except the signature.

So you could say that Kafka’s novels revolve around, not so much the big Religious Questions which Max Brod read into them – but more technical philosophical debate about meaning. What does the letter mean? What did the phone call to the Castle mean? What does the landlady’s lengthy advice mean?

K. has lots of encounters, conversations, promises, threats, advice and so on. But almost always he then meets someone who immediately contradicts and undermines them. No meaning remains stable or fixed for long.

Worse, some of the characters suggest that, just possibly, K.’s entire system of meaning is alien to the villagers. According to Frieda her mother, the landlady

‘didn’t hold that you were lying, on the contrary she said that you were childishly open, but your character was so different from ours, she said, that, even when you spoke frankly, it was bound to be difficult for us to believe you.’ (p.138)

Subjected to this continual attrition erosion of meaning, can anything be said to be meaningful? In this respect, then, the books can also be interpreted as very 20th century meditations on the meaning of meaning, and of the difficulty, nay, the impossibility of ever really communicating anything to another human being.

‘He’s always like that, Mr Secretary, he’s always like that. Falsifies the information one gives him, and
then maintains that he received false information.’ (The landlady, p.102)

‘To anyone who knows how to read official communications, and consequently knows still better how to read unofficial letters, all this is only too clear. That you, a stranger, don’t know it doesn’t surprise me.’ (The Mayor, having demolished the content of Klamm’s letter)

Samuel Beckett

As soon as I read the name Klamm, and began to learn that he is a major character who, however, never actually appears, but about whom all the other characters speculate, I thought of the plays of Samuel Beckett – plays with titles such as Krapp’s Last Tape – and of course, of his masterpiece, Waiting For Godot. And the entire book radiates the wordy futility of Beckett’s novels.

Last word

‘Doesn’t the story bore you?’
‘No,’ said K., ‘It amuses me.’
Thereupon the Superintendent said: ‘I’m not telling it to amuse you.’
‘It only amuses me,’ said K., ‘because it gives me an insight into the ludicrous bungling which in certain circumstances may decide the life of a human being.’


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