Column Editor: Donna Jacobs (Retired, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, SC 29425)
I was married in March. Every year around our anniversary, my husband and I take a trip. It is a relaxing trip of hiking, fishing, reading, writing, food, wine and possibly some sightseeing. This year was no different. I chose a few books to carry with me. One book comprised the three novels by Samuel Beckett: “Molloy,” “Malone Dies” and “The Unnamable.” It has been in my Nobel Literature collection for a while. I discovered it during one of my random visits to a used bookstore. This is one of my favorite things to do. I chose this book after hearing a story from a musician friend of mine that he had met a woman at a local music venue who was staying in Charleston while editing the Beckett letters. Seems she likes jazz and visits the venue on occasion. Locals believe that Charleston is just as much the birthplace of jazz as New Orleans. I will leave that debate to the locals. I enjoy listening no matter where it was born.
Samuel Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1969 for “for his writing, which — in new forms for the novel and drama — in the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation.” He is regarded as one of the most influential 20th-century authors. One description of his work details “a bleak, tragicomic outlook on human culture, often coupled with black comedy and gallows humour.” I had made quite a choice for light vacation reading.
Beckett was born in Ireland in April of 1906, but a falling out with his mother resulted in a permanent residency in Paris at the outbreak of World War II in 1939. He preferred “France at war to Ireland at peace,” a quote that I find reflected in the tone of his writing. Interestingly, “Molloy,” “Malone Dies” and “The Unnamable” were all written in French and then translated back to English by Beckett. “Molloy” was translated with the help of Patrick Bowles. James Knowlson, Emeritus Professor of French Studies at the University of Reading in London and the Founder of the Beckett International Foundation, penned the “sole” authorized biography of Samuel Beckett, “Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett.” Knowlson states he wrote in French rather than his native English because he could easily write “without style.” What a curious comment for a Nobel Laureate.
“Molloy” opens with the simple sentence: “I am in my mother’s room.” Followed by the declaration, “It’s I who live there now.” Piecing together the influence of his mother, who was described as domineering; James Joyce, who he met while attending Trinity College (1923-1927); and the revelation in his mother’s room during a brief stay in 1945 that he should move from Joyce’s shadow — these two opening lines speak volumes. Knowlson’s argument that “Beckett was rejecting the Joycean principle that knowing more was a way of creatively understanding the world and controlling it…In the future, his work would focus on poverty, failure, exile, and loss — as he put it, on man as a ‘non-knower’ and as a ‘non-can-er.’” The direction change, the acknowledgement of his own stupidity, and the awareness of his growing interest in ignorance and impotence are summed up: “I realized that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, [being] in control of one’s material. He was always adding to it; you only have to look at his proofs to see that. I realized that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than in adding.”
Pretty much sums up “Molloy.”
There are two main characters Molloy and Moran. We are introduced to Molloy first and then to Moran who is employed to find Molloy. I leave you first with Molloy’s thoughts and then Moran’s.
Molloy: “Yes, these imperatives were quite explicit and even detailed until, having set me in motion at last, they began to falter, then went silent, leaving me there like a fool who neither knows where he is going nor why he is going there. And they nearly all bore, as I may have said already, on the same painful and thorny question. …Charming things, hypothetical imperatives. But if I had never succeeded in liquidating this matter of my mother, the fault must not be imputed solely to that voice which deserted me, prematurely.”
Moran: “It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. I am calm. All is sleeping. Nevertheless I get up and go to my desk. I can’t sleep. My lamp sheds soft and steady light. I have trimmed it. It will last till morning. I hear the eagle-owl. What a terrible battle cry! Once I listened to it unmoved. My son is sleeping. Let him sleep. The night will come when he too, unable to sleep, will get up and go to his desk. I shall be forgotten. My report will be long. Perhaps I shall not finish it. My name is Moran, Jacques.”