Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable

Samuel Beckett
Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable by Samuel Beckett book jacket

Greatly influenced by James Joyce’s Ulysses, Beckett’s trilogy is preceded by its reputation for being bleak, difficult and perhaps nihilistic. My advice is to set that aside, unplug the phone for the weekend and prepare for an unparalleled and sometimes side-splittingly funny read.

There is a fierce intelligence at work here, for sure, as a series of narrators peer out from the text at landscapes bleached of colour in predicaments that are only partly-known and little understood. As a metaphor for ‘the human condition’, this lop-sided narration sets out to tease and frustrate us in equal measure. Who are Molloy and Moran and Malone? What is meant by their tramping, rolling in mud, wallowing, creeping, crawling progress towards an unreachable horizon? Is he suggesting that they stand for us?

In some measure Sisyphus, doomed by punishment to roll a rock uphill and then repeat this endlessly, is the model for all of Beckett’s characters. The premise is that any effort they make – whether valiant and heroic or trivial – is in the end pointless. Yet read and re-read Beckett’s six pages of how Molloy sets about to arrange a proper sequence for sucking sixteen pebbles so that the order of their sucking favours each equally, and the detail of this ludicrous task becomes all-absorbing. How they are arranged in the pockets of his greatcoat, what different methods are available for distributing them, then selecting them, call to mind now some fevered computer code where the perfection of the detail overwhelms the reason.

And the solution to which I rallied in the end was to throw away all the stones but one, which I kept now in one pocket, now in another, and which of course I soon lost, or threw away, or gave away, or swallowed. It was a wild part of the coast. I don’t remember having been seriously molested…

Where Joyce’s fiction is encyclopedic, constantly referring outwards and backwards to the classics, to Dublin’s geography, to railway timetables and categories of man-made artifacts, Beckett’s world is internal, spare, of limited and reducing horizons.

The final section of The Unnamable rushes off in almost breathless speculation, almost devoid of punctuation. It is arguably the pinnacle of Absurdist literature.

Written in French, translated into English (mostly) by Beckett himself, the trilogy is international, very Irish, and well worth the time it takes to read. Lacking dialogue, it’s a book about voices in the head. Many are haunting; some are truly funny.