Reading James Joyce is difficult and often injurious to your mental health and the same thing can be said for reading Joyce’s friend and one-time secretary, Samuel Beckett. In fact, sometimes Beckett is almost too obscure. The way I see it, Joyce gives us way, way too much to absorb and understand, whereas Beckett often gives us so little that we’re lost in the void. Or to put it another way, with Beckett there is often no there there (but the lack of there is so profound).
How many times have you read Waiting For Godot? How many times have you seen it performed (at college, on Broadway, in your wind-blasted backyard)? It’s a powerful experience and sometimes it’s hard to explain why. My favorite part is where Estragon snarls: Are you feeling Lucky … punk!
For those who are interested, there is a series of DVDs providing excellent performances of all of Samuel Beckett’s dramatic pieces: the longer plays right down to the quick pieces and even those that have no dialogue. It’s well worth watching.
But Beckett also wrote less dramatic fiction: again from novels or novel cycles right down to those obscure snippets that might have been composed rapidly on the inside of a Galoise wrapper. Wikipedia posts a selected bibliography for the writer and it’s big and hairy (so go to Wikipedia and memorize it). But for this post I will just transcribe the list of Beckett’s novels:
- Dream of Fair to Middling Women (written 1932; published 1992)
- Murphy (1938); 1947 Beckett’s French version
- Watt (1953); 1968, Beckett’s French version
- Molloy (1951); English version (1955)
- Malone meurt (1951); Malone Dies (1956)
- L’innommable (1953); The Unnamable (1958)
- Comment c’est (1961); How It Is (1964)
- Mercier and Camier (written 1946, published 1970); English translation (1974)
I can say that I have read all but one of these novels. But then, I have a copy of the four volume set of Beckett’s complete works that Grove Press published a few years back (who could resist?).
The most recent Beckett novel I read was Mercier and Camier. It rightly belongs in the early, more comprehensible works of the author. It is in itself very interesting but also shows how Beckett’s vision was progressing and how the themes of his later works were developing. Mercer and Camier, although short and understandable, might well be considered an early treatment in the development culminating in Waiting For Godot.
One fascinating and helpful technique Beckett uses in the novel is to pause periodically and iterate a synopsis of all that went before. Here is a part of the first summary:
- Meeting of Mercier and Camier.
- Saint Ruth Square.
- The beech.
- The rain.
- The shelter.
- The dogs.
- Distress of Camier.
- The ranger.
- The bicycle.
- Words with the ranger.
- Mercier and Camier confer.
- Results of this conference.
- Bright too late.
- The bell.
- Mercer and Camier set out.
In this novel, the summary is a reminder but I suspect that in other novels by the author a summary would help the reader to understand what he or she just read. Too bad Beckett dropped the idea in his later novels. Then again, didn’t Joyce give Stuart Gilbert a summary for Ulysses that may have compromised critical thinking for years (although it sold a lot of copies of The Odyssey)?
That’s about all I want to say about what goes on in Mercier and Camier. It is well worth reading as is all of Samuel Beckett. But for a taste of the later, more thoughtful and certainly more confusing Beckett, here is a video of one of those works without words: