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Book Review: Novels I of Samuel Beckett (MurphyWattMercier and Camier)

August 6, 2015

Novels I of Samuel Beckett: Volume I of The Grove Centenary EditionsNovels I of Samuel Beckett: Volume I of The Grove Centenary Editions by Samuel Beckett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I purchased the four-volume The Grove Centenary Editions of Samuel Beckett Boxed Set in 2007, I went straight to the second volume, having read all of Beckett’s plays and then The Complete Short Prose, 1929-1989 on the recommendation of my unreciprocated college crush, Katherine E. Ellison, who had also recommended to me the Trilogy of Molloy (1951), Malone Dies (1951), and The Unnamable (1953). I didn’t know much about these early books, which on glancing through, look startling conventional by comparison to the later books, although the principal characters are mentioned near the end of The Unnamable drawing all the books together (except the later How It Is, which came out in 1961). At the end of Mercier and Camier, Watt meets the title characters, and Mercier mentions having known Murphy. Watt makes a statement that seems to obliquely refer to The Unnamable, which was yet to be written in 1946 but probably would have been well known to most readers when the book was finally published in 1970. These three books all have a wit and charm and even the weirdness of the later books despite their more conventional form.

Murphy is the most amusing of the three books. It is told in third person about an eccentric and suicidal fellow trying to put together a respectable life and not doing a good job of it. He wants to marry his lover, Celia Kelly, but her grandfather, Willoughby, who is elderly and confined to a wheelchair, is proud of her that she is able to support herself through prostitution! That this is the 1930s is readily apparent, since a guy can walk into a hospital and get a job as a nurse without any special training. The world seems more open to possibilities then than it does now, if the story is at all realistic, which it probably isn’t. Murphy is eventually successful in his suicide attempts, surviving one that is especially bloody but rescued by his landlady, but the book ends with the Kellys flying a kite in the park. The book has a comic tone throughout, lightening up its overall dark story. It’s a shame that the most recent issue of this book has a green cover, since such a big deal is made that lemon yellow is Murphy’s favorite color, and the previous edition of this book did, as well.

I had thought the cover of the collected volume was some sort of metaphor for Murphy, but it is a concrete, if upside down and backwards, representation of an abstract painting in Watt’s room when he is moved to the second floor of the mansion in Watt, which is the most difficult of the three novels here. In many ways, it is a literary breakthrough in dealing with the minutiae of everyday thought, but it goes to far, often lapsing into tedious Shrödinger’s cat lists of possibilities, such as what Watt’s employer could wear on his feet at any given day, often unmatching. I recently wrote the Wikipedia article on catalogue arias, and these do seem like they could be good material for setting, but I don’t think Beckett’s estate would ever allow that as long as copyright laws protect it. It’s a bit dry at times, which doesn’t mean it’s not often laugh-out-loud funny. The book is narrated in the first person minor by Sam, a servant in a neighboring house who rescues Watt from a hole in a barbed wire fence, who is probably meant to be Beckett himself, although as English majors we are taught never to assume such things. Watt narrated his story in pretty intense detail to Sam, since it reads like third person limited omniscient, and Sam barely appears in the book. I really messed up on adding the characters because there’s a giant family I thought sure was only Watt’s reverie that are pretty well shown to be real people by the end of the book. I am surprised man and dog aren’t poisoned by the concoction Watt makes, however. Watt himself is a milk drinker, although often assumed to be a drunken derelict by those who see him, even though he is said by those who know him to never touch alcohol. I found it ironic, considering I’m still living in a homeless shelter, drink a lot of milk, and never drink alcohol. The book begins and ends with Watt coming and going to the house via foot and train, and incidents at the station. His arrival is strange, but he seems to be welcome, if not expected, and his departure seems random, as if he just decided he didn’t want his job anymore. Weird detail about the length of the station master’s arm is memorable for a totally gratuitous mention of the glans penis.

Mercier and Camier is probably the most accessible and Waiting for Godot-like of the three books, in that it focuses on two character rather than one, and has numerous exchanges that allowed me to complete it in less than four days of commutes. The last page notes that the English version is a fourth shorter than the French version (Beckett himself was the translator). So little happens in the title characters’ journeys that lists of incidents after every two chapters are really quite helpful in recalling what happened. The book starts claiming it was witness by the unnamed narrator, possibly Sam again, but with nothing explicit, although, as mentioned, the two do meet Watt at the end. Inspector Francis Xavier Camier, short and stout, is best friends with Mr. Mercier, tall and bearded, who dislikes his wife, and the two are described as younger old men, I’m guessing late 50s-early 60s. The book was written in 1946 and the characters were around at the turn of the century. The opening of chapter four really reads like the two are a gay couple, although I wonder if I’m reading too much in. One of my graduate school colleagues said that when he showed Astaire and Rogers movies to his media students, they would assume that Fred Astaire and Edward Everett Horton’s characters are gay, but this actually has them naked under bed covers at the house of a woman named Helen in whom neither seems to have any but platonic interest.

The two do have major encounters with police at three points in the book. The second is extremely brutal and unprovoked, and the cop’s head at the end of the encounter is described as like part of a shell peeling off the egg, although the prose is such that one can’t be sure if they invoked what in the United States would be Plummer v. State. They are never punished, which may have had something to do with its initial rejection, although sales of Murphy were the publisher’s official reason for non-acceptances. The use of F and C words, and the graphic description of dog fornication at the beginning, make me wonder if Beckett ever submitted it to Viking, which published his mentor, James Joyce, whose use of F and C words in Ulysses resulted in a winning court case. Colm Toíbín’s introduction has quite a bit of Beckett biography as well as details about his own court case dealing with obscenity. In spite of some of the vulgar language, it is hard to see any of these three novels as the least bit obscene by contemporary standards.

When Watt meets them at the end of the book, he’s not very much in character, drinking three rounds of alcohol and smashing Camier’s walking stick, which is an heirloom, causing Camier to reflect upon how little the two ever talk about each other, and probably leads to his separation from Mercier at the end of the book.

All three books made me laugh out loud at intentional humor, while also reading as both profound and spare. They seem like great books to be read aloud, even if you wouldn’t want kids around. While Beckett’s most serious devotees generally find Beckett’s novels superior to his theatrical work, they do have a definite theatricality to them due to his very deliberate use of language, impacted by the fact that he had started writing in French and translating back into English because the English language is so much bigger and full of loan words, and felt that his writing was too poetic in English. It still seems to me poetic in English, and my knowledge of French makes me want to get an untranslated copy. Reading Beckett is like reading few other novelists’ work, distinctive even in a less radical form than the subsequent four novels, and quite a different voice, I believe, from Joyce (although, as I write this, I have read only Finnegans Wake and a few stories from Dubliners, including “The Dead,” although I have purchased the Norton A Portait of the Artist as a Young Man and expect to read it soon). I have now read all of Beckett’s novels except the omitted Dream of Fair to Middling Women, which was published posthumously and not included in this collection, although the edition made available at the time of this edition had a cover that looked almost uniform with these editions, unfortunately no longer easily available.

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