On Beckett’s Trilogy
by Sam Kriss
To read Molloy is to become Molloy. Beckett’s prose, the vast flat plain of his single paragraph, forms the landscape you have to traverse. Sometimes you go along at a pretty good pace, your mental crutches clanking fairly against the solid sentences, sometimes you barely hobble through, crawling on your belly through the thick undergrowth of a lexical forest. You travel in straight lines by reading in circles and travel in circles by reading in straight lines, often you are not sure exactly where you are or where you are heading, sometimes a particular word or phrase or sentence brings you to a sudden halt and you need to lie down for a while in a little literary ditch to contemplate it and hope you’re not disturbed. But Beckett doesn’t let you lie there: he kicks you in the back or jabs you with a stick: you can’t stay here, you must move on. For pages and pages we wander, in and out of extended inventories of sucking-stones or buttons; past the tantalising – or terrifying – silhouettes of philosophical concepts that linger here and there on the horizon, visible but never quite within reach; through teasingly brief flashes of past memory. Where are we going? What does Molloy want? To return to his home town again, of course, to return to his mother, but that’s not what drives him onwards: he moves because he moves, he is in a dynamic stasis. As he says:
I longed to go back to the forest. Oh not a real longing. Molloy could stay, wherever he happened to be.
We are not Molloy, though, not yet, even though we travel in his footsteps. Molloy is the ultimate essence of humanity. He is man at his rawest, most stripped-down form, not willing, not wanting, a Schopenhauerian aesthete without any need for music. He sleeps in ditches, he is beaten and harried wherever he goes, he is often confused and sometimes aggrieved but in his voice there is never a note of regret: Molloy suffers from no existential angst, he is not alienated from himself. In not willing, in his infinite passivity, Molloy is completely free. But, for now, at least, we are not Molloy. We still want something. What does the reader want?
To understand, of course. Throughout the whole first section of Molloy, we never quite surrender ourselves to the vague meanderings of the narrative, we are always trying to work out what is going on, to order the narrative, impose some kind of structure – we walk with Molloy, but unlike him, we whine the whole way through. We want to tap Beckett on the back, and tell him (with all necessary deference) that while we are very much enjoying the ride, we would like to know where we are going, and if we’re there yet. A novel should have a point, we insist, or at least it should tell a story, and his appears to be doing neither: could we pause in our journey, just for a moment, and have a little peek at the map? And Beckett – he smiles at us a little, as you might smile at an endearingly errant child, but his eyes are still stern behind those shining round glasses, and he says: No.
But it’s not as if Beckett has some grand master plan he is refusing to let us see: his Trilogy is a Barthesian suicide of the author. Beckett is not Joyce or Eliot: his masterwork is not some literary crossword puzzle that he has set and that we are challenged to untangle. In one of his 1949 Dialogues with Georges Duthuit, Beckett was challenged to explain why artists should feel obliged to paint. His response, in its entirety:
I don’t know.
These are not the words of an author-as-Aufklärer. Molloy is never sure of anything, his narrative is that of an author who admits that he doesn’t know. Witness the first few sentences of the novel:
I am in my mother’s room. It’s I who live there now. I don’t know how I got there.
Molloy can’t say for certain which of his legs is stiff, he can’t quite tell what town he is in, how old he is, how long he’s been travelling for, he continually plays with the idea of explaining or elucidating on some particular point, on forming some kind of solid inventory of his life, and then dismisses it, it is immaterial. Reading his words, we are plunged deep into a kind of limbo, a miasmatic fog of possibilities, we become a catatonic body without organs, all that is solid melts into air.
And then, the long paragraph finally ends, and in the novel’s second part we return to a literary world we are at least somewhat familiar with. The perspective switches – there is the odd flash of Molloyity (‘My report will be long. Perhaps I shall not finish it.’) – but we are now on our own ground once more, in the safe hands of Jacques Moran, who knows how to write in proper paragraphs, who is a tyrant, perhaps, but comfortingly bourgeois. And he is human in the conventional sense, we are no longer faced with the terrifying Real of our reflection in Molloy’s starkness. And, look, thank Christ, what a relief, it seems like we might just get a conventional plot structure as well! Moran must go off to find Molloy, and finally we’ll be able to see our stiff-legged vagrant from the outside: Moran will find him for us, and all we’ll see is a mumbling decrepit geriatric. The unsettling freedom of his narrative will be reduced to a mere stylistic exercise, we won’t really need to consider the implications. There’ll be a confrontation, perhaps, some kind of climax, comfortable catharsis. Nice one, Beckett, you almost had us going for a minute there.
Except that doesn’t happen. Moran does find Molloy, eventually, in a way, but we never get to see him from the outside, because Molloy is inside all of us. Molloy is humanity, the perfect embodiment of our existential freedom: crippled, lame, dazed, unfeeling, unthinking, unwilling. As Moran walks off in search of Molloy, his bourgeois effects slowly fall away from him: he is deserted by his son, he loses all but fifteen shillings of his money, his joints seize up, he wanders, in his seventeen theological questions he cathartically cleanses himself of any notion of the Beyond. He does not find Molloy, he becomes Molloy:
Question. How did I feel? Answer. Much as usual. Question. And yet I had changed and was still changing? Answer. Yes. Question. How was this to be explained? Answer.
This void, this lack of an answer, is the point where Moran sheds his tyranny: both over others and over himself. He is admitting that he does not know. We have been reading the novel backwards, the second half takes place before the first, but its ordering is important, because although Moran turns into Molloy, Molloy was there long before Moran, Molloy has always been there. And in the catastrophic final few lines of the novel, the conventional narrative we so greedily embraced when it first appeared is revealed for the lie it always has been: Beckett turns back on himself, we are shown Moran/Molloy writing the words that opened the second half:
Then I went back into the house and wrote, It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining.
We were wrong in looking for a clear linear direction, we were wrong in looking for comprehensibility, there can be none. Molloy is not just a stumbling old man, he is our freedom, in all its aimless wandering, in all its its ineffable tragedy. When we read this line, we join Moran in his transfiguration, or his reduction: we have become Molloy. Or, in the words of our old pal Freddy Nietzsche, we have become what we are.
This post has been, more than anything, an excuse for me to have a go at getting my head around Molloy. There is a lot I haven’t covered. Why, for instance, does Moran compare his newly stiffened knee to a clitoris? There are probably some interesting psychoanalytical readings to be made here, but I don’t have a clue. I haven’t read much of the critical debate around the Trilogy, so if I’m wrong about everything, please let me know. I may attempt at some point to make some similar explorations through Malone Dies and The Unnameable, but no promises.