Introducing the book, the proposer (himself a writer) said that he had now re-read “Molloy” for the third or fourth time. He was a huge admirer of Beckett, and preferred his prose to his better-known drama. He had not encountered him until his mid-twenties, Beckett being too modern to feature in his English degree. The outline of Beckett’s life could be picked up from Wilkipedia, but he would strongly recommend the biography by Deirdre Bair. “Molloy” was part of a trilogy (although Beckett disliked that term) with the other parts being ‘Malone Dies’ and ‘The Unnameable’. It was published in French in 1951.
He had chosen the book because it polarised opinion. Many reacted very strongly against Beckett, finding him very annoying – perhaps some of the group fell into this category? – and why this was so was interesting. But for him Beckett – and “Molloy” – had very positive qualities.
The prediction that some would dislike Beckett proved all too accurate, and the serried guns of the attack were soon trained on “Molloy”.
The book was totally irritating and frustrating – just completely aggravating – and this reader had vowed never to read Beckett again. The only thing of note was Beckett’s attack on religion in his sixteen questions. The book was not hateful, but it was repetitive and rambling, with no beginning or end, and nothing achieved. Its lack of structure meant it was very difficult to read in small chunks – and one member had regularly fallen asleep in trying to read Part 1 at night.
One member, who claimed the eccentricity of always finishing a book once started, found “Molloy” unfortunately reminded him of “Ulysses”, the one book he had been unable to finish. The critics quoted on his copy referred to Beckett’s remarkable sense of humour, but – with the exception of one remark on page one – he had found nothing humorous. Beckett had severely tested his patience with the first 117 page paragraph, and by five pages devoted to stone-sucking. Part II was a bit lighter – and it did have paragraphs.
There was a pattern of sorts – Molloy’s quest for his mother in Part 1, and the private detective’s quest in Part II – but you needed more clues as to what the book was meant to be about. In “Malone Dies” Beckett says Molloy is boring. If so, why does he bore the reader by writing about him? Are we guilty of not applying ourselves as readers – or is the novel actually empty? Is it a case of the Emperor’s clothes? Nevertheless some of the descriptions of the countryside – perhaps Irish countryside – were brilliant, with a lyric beauty. But you were left with a sense of emptiness and despair, as in the ’Unnameable’: “I can’t go on – I’ll go on”.
The question of the relationship between Part 1 and II intrigued another reader. He found himself wondering if Molloy and Malone were not actually the same character? Indeed at one point Molloy says there are really five Molloys.
Another disliked modernism in the novel – which he felt had been an experimental cul de sac from which contemporary novelists had mercifully retreated – and found that “Molloy” confirmed his prejudices. The novel was at the end point of the process of focussing on the internal world and rejecting traditional realist structures – the process that could be seen beginning in last month’s book “Hunger”. “Molloy” – like “Finnegan’s Wake” – was the reductio ad absurdum of this process, but compared badly even with Joyce and very badly with Proust. You could get away with dispensing with traditional forms if you were good enough in terms of language, image or creating atmosphere – but for him “Molloy” failed on all these counts. There was the odd interesting aphorism, and an intriguing analysis of a father/child relationship in Part 2, but for him Beckett was more successful at drama than the novel.
Another also made an unfavourable comparison with Proust. Proust required a lot of concentration, but was very much more rewarding. You only had so much time to devote to reading, and – if it had not been a Book Group book – “Molloy” would have been left unfinished. It was not sufficiently engaging in terms of writing or of characters.
A striking feature was the degree of anal fixation displayed in the book. Not a page could go by without some reference to an a**e or a bowel movement. We had an enema described in detail, and Malone even lived in Turdy!
Undaunted by this fusillade from the attack, the defence made its case, although recognising that the gap between the two viewpoints was not likely to be crossed by means of discussion.
Beckett portrayed an unusually bleak view of the world. For him life was meaningless, and we diverted ourselves by trying to create systems of meaning, whether through religion, work, sport or any other form of activity. Perhaps you devoted yourself to bringing up children, but they too were destined to die. Beckett exposed the props of life as meaningless, and this was very uncomfortable for his readers. Perhaps this was why he upset people?
But Beckett offset this bleak vision with an unusual degree of humour, and was in the line of great Irish humorists. His humour – through wit, epigram and little vignettes – made him preferable to Joyce (with whom he had worked closely). Indeed – although recognising that humour was a very individual response – Beckett was arguably equalled as a comic prose writer only by Dickens. One example of his humour was the scene when the crippled Molloy found another crippled person he could assault. At one level this was funny, but at another it showed how a person you think of as a victim may harbour the same aggressive impulses as the able-bodied.
His wit also made you pay close attention to the surface of language and its meanings, to words as objects in themselves, in a way that you did not when carried along by the sweep of a great prose stylist, such as Enid Wharton. Beckett was like Proust (and to some extent Henry James) in analysing the present moment in great detail, but for Proust words were used to represent things, while Beckett focussed on the surface of the words themselves. You could not glide across his densely packed prose. It forced you to stop and think what words really meant, to the extent that the flow of the narrative was interrupted. Some of his epigrams were worthy of Wilde. There was humour on every page – but if he did not appeal to your sense of humor, then no doubt it would be an irritating book to read.
It was true that Beckett dwelt heavily on anal matters in the book, but more widely he showed throughout his work disgust for the physical, including the process of birth and indeed any human bodily contact. This perhaps reflected the many physical ailments he had suffered from in real life.
An interesting feature of Beckett’s work was that he made frequent reference to the voice in his head. This phenomenon was common enough amongst writers, but in Beckett’s case it could trouble him considerably. He was a tortured individual, and a lot of the writing was in stream of consciousness mode – it just came gushing out, and the voice kept talking. He did not know where the voice came from, or what to do about it.
It was a fair point that Molloy and Malone might be the same person. In fact Beckett really only had one theme – himself. Molloy’s quest for his mother, and his unfinished business with her, reflected Beckett’s own problematic relationship with his mother. Beckett frequently became bored with the characters he invented, and concentrated on his real interest of himself. He was really always writing in the present tense, and the subject was himself – with the focus on words. This became more apparent as the trilogy progressed, with character, plot and narrative falling away, to leave just a talking head. This was not conventional writing – indeed he was trying to reject all conventionality.
So, in sum, this was the case for the defence – Beckett’s value lay in his bravery in dealing with a difficult subject-matter, combined with his humour.
Another perspective from one who had liked the book – perhaps a perspective from the no-man’s land between the attack and the defence – was that it was best to approach the book with low expectations, and to view it as listening to an Irish raconteur with a characteristic gift for language. The prose read like a speaking voice, and the stories– rambling, illogical, with occasional sub-clauses of great detail – were similar to those one could enjoy hearing an Irish raconteur tell in your local pub. And if you couldn’t find one in your pub, you could dip into “Ulysses” instead.
So had the viewpoints of the attack been changed?
Not really. It wasn’t Beckett’s philosophy that was upsetting – after all, that amounted to little more than saying “life’s a bitch and then you’re dead” – it was the tedium and obscurity of the book. In fact he used obscurity to disguise the lack of depth in his thinking. Other writers had produced works of great bleakness – such as “King Lear” or “Jude the Obscure” – that still inspired, for example through their characters and the relationships between them. Even in “Waiting for Godot” there was something of value asserted in the relationship between the characters. (But that had been written in an unusually light-hearted frame of mind!)
And was it funny for a cripple to attack a cripple – did that not reveal a telling lack of empathy on Beckett’s part? His was a solipsistic world, in which only his ego existed – like the world of an infant.
But here was an unexpected area of agreement. Beckett had been fascinated to hear Jung describing a group of people who were “not really born”. He immediately identified himself with this category of people, and would have happily accepted a charge of infantilism.
And there was general agreement that it had been interesting – if painful for many – to explore this corner of the creative map. And the discussion had been the liveliest since that of Dylan’s “Chronicles Vol 1”!
It was surprising to learn that that Beckett had been a successful sportsman, and that he had worked for the French Resistance. That experience was not reflected directly in his work, but perhaps it was reflected in his pessimism? It was easy for people in the UK or the US – not invaded during the World Wars – to underestimate the psychological impact of invasion.
Although it was not necessarily appropriate to dwell on the biographical background, it was also intriguing that the circumstances of Molloy’s initial meeting with Lousse resembled the circumstances in which Beckett had met his own wife.
And then the discussion rolled randomly on, through the links between the wars, modernism and existentialism, touching on the future of the Belgian state and whether an independent Scotland would have to apply to join the EU, and on to famous Belgians, such as Tintin – whose adventures might be a rather less contentious candidate for a future discussion of the Group. No doubt M. Beckett would have been highly amused.