In order to describe and discuss these three novels, collectivelyreferred to as The Trilogy, the reader must set aside all previous conceptions and expectations regarding the novel form, for, like no literature since James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939), Samuel Beckett’s awesome postwar work expands the definition of epic literature beyond all recognizable boundaries. While the first-person narrator (whose name and “habits of mind” may change but who represents the author in ever-contracting modes of existence) may on the surface seem cogent and communicative, the convolutions of his train of thought are so complex and reflexive that the “story” of his journey must be pieced together from the shards of his shattered narrative. Taken separately, each novel is its own perplexing narrative through landscapes and womblike environments and journeys in space and time, from the narrator’s search for his mother, through a dying man’s categorization of what is left of his physical world, to an abstract mind-state in which the narrator has become pure voice without substance. Taken together, they offer the rawest, most philosophically honest portrait of the artist ever undertaken by a modern writer.
The narrator of Molloy opens his story with the words, “I am in my mother’s room.” Thus, the narrator begins the cryptic description of the agonizing journey that brought him there, to “finish dying.” Molloy writes a few pages now and then; a man named Jacques Moran (who becomes the first-person narrator of the second part of the novel) gives him money and takes the pages away. To satisfy them (“there is more than one, apparently,” says Molloy), he begins his story: “It was on a road remarkably bare.” Molloy, having slept in a ditch, now progresses by crutches, by bicycle, by long rests and longer digressions, vaguely toward his mother’s hometown. His misadventures along the way constitute a chronicle of all that can go wrong with any journey, geographical or otherwise: missteps, falls, bruises, beatings by strangers, loss of direction, uncertainty regarding the duration of the journey to date, encounters near and distant with other travelers, interruptions caused by sexual urges toward persons of questionable gender, and a pervading sense of the absurdity and meaninglessness of any journey, any effort, whatsoever.
In part 2, Moran receives instructions from Gaber, some sort of supervisor, to “see about Molloy.” If Molloy is introspective and circular, Moran is external, matter-of-fact, and direct, “so patiently turned to the outer world as toward the lesser evil.” Moran’s tracking down of Molloy can also be seen as an inventing of Molloy, so that the best interpretation of the relationship is that Moran actually invented Molloy, who then disobeyed orders by leaving his desk (where Gaber daily expected pages to appear) and by wandering vaguely toward his mother’s home. This device, the character who grows past the author’s expectations into a life of his own, is often seen in postmodern writing—for example, in the work of Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello, Spanish philosopher and novelist Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo, and Argentinian short-story writer Jorge Luis Borges. Here, the genius of Beckett adds yet another twist: Molloy and Moran may be the same person, two sides of the author himself, internal and external, the private and the public, and the celebrity and the anguished soul in the celebrity’s body.
In the second novel of The Trilogy, Malone Dies , things are, on the surface, much less complicated. Malone, possibly the same character as in the earlier novel (and still trying to “finish dying”), is now bedridden, immobilized by the insistent, recurring leg problems so ubiquitous among Beckett’s characters. Within his grasp and...
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eyesight is a strictly limited number of objects, which he inventories in his mind as he contemplates his last moments: a cupboard, a window, a long stick, the bed, and his possessions in the corner in a little heap. A table with castors, which he moves with his long stick, serves as a vehicle for food and chamber pot (“Dish and pot, dish and pot, these are the poles”). The apparent simplicity of his situation, however, does not take into account the teeming mind, cluttered with memories called up willingly and unwillingly as Malone lies on his back, cheek to pillow. The remainder of the novel consists of Malone’s attempts at conjuring, cataloging, admitting, and dismissing those memories as they come, disjointed, confused, separated by periods of sleep (signified in the text by blank lines), like stories he is telling himself. It is once again the author, this time, as always, trying to stop speaking, stop writing, stop creating. As the periods of sleep increase, the narrative tapers off, until Malone imagines “never...anything...there...any more....”
“Where now? Who now? When now?” With this, the startling opening inquiry of The Unnamable, the persona of Molloy/Moran/Malone awakens yet again to the universal Beckettian axiom: “Keep going, going on, call that going, call that on.” This time disembodied, the narrative mind questions again the perceptions as received through the senses, including memory. Here, the narrator is situated at the center of a gray landscape without features, past which the characters from the previous novels march: “Malone is there. Of his mortal liveliness little trace remains.... Perhaps it is Molloy, wearing Malone’s hat.” What follows is page after page of indescribable anguish in the present tense, as the conscious “I” seeks to imagine and describe the moment of finality; the last nine pages of the novel are all one sentence, in which the narrator attempts the impossible task of perceiving the last moment of perception. Echoing the opening sentences, the last phrase—“you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on”—are the most famous and most desperate words of all postmodern Absurdist literature.