Molloy by Beckett

Oedipus and the Sphinx after Ingres 1983 - Francis Bacon

A significant departure from earlier Beckett’s stories, Molloy resists summary. It is a strange loop of a novel that winds up where it started out. A dying narrator writes words onto paper, pages that are paid for and collected each week. A journal, a diary, a report perhaps?  Though both parts are written in the first person, the identity of the narrator is unclear, though the author appears to reveal himself.

What a rabble in my head, what a gallery of moribunds. Murphy, Watt, Yerk, Mercier and all the others. I would never have believed that-yes, I believe it willingly. Stories, stories. I have not been able to tell them. I shall not be able to tell this one.

The nature of the narrative is uncertain, yet somehow a story is told.

It is in the tranquillity of decomposition that I remember the long confused emotion which was my life, and that I judge it, as it is said that God will judge me, and with no less impertinence.

Molloy begins his act of remembrance bedridden in his mother’s room. He has “taken her place,” though is unable to remember whether she died before his quest to find her was fulfilled. Through his constrained articulacy Molloy struggles to deliver his narrative, writing “I’ve forgotten how to spell too, and half the words.” The narrative unfolds as Molloy recalls his own unwanted birth:

My mother, I don’t think too harshly of her. I know she did all she could not to have me, except of course the one thing, and if she never succeeded in getting me unstuck, it was that fate had earmarked me for less compassionate sewers.

His mother, Ma, Mag, Countess Caca, “who brought [him] into the world, through the hole in her arse if memory is correct. First taste of shit.” This besmirched beginning sets up a central theme, the intermingling of birth and shit, the narrator’s disgust of birth/mother/women, ending in the pilgrimage to the Turdy Madonna, the holy mother of pregnant women.

Before going too far in pursuit of this theme, it is worth mentioning Simon Critchley’s injunction not “to employ a psychoanalytic register, which much in the novel seems to encourage and which, I think, must be refused because it is so encouraged.” A writer of Beckett’s subtlety, and possessing such dark humour, is more than capable of several psychoanalytic red herrings.

A quest is also at heart of the second part of the novel, this time in search of Molloy. A messenger orders Moran, a detective, to take his son on this quest. The relationship between Moran and his spectral son (of indeterminate age?) is equally appalling and fascinating.

But from time to time. From time to time. What tenderness in these little words, what savagery.

While reading Molloy I scribbled furiously, sentences like my favourite above, trying to make some sense of what I read. My thoughts on Molloy are contingent on subsequent reading of this and secondary material (Hugh Kenner’s suggestion of work “to help you think about it.”) A single reading is insufficient to do justice to this staggering novel-several readings are not enough; Critchley quotes a rare direct reference that Derrida makes to Beckett:

When I found myself, with students, reading some of Beckett’s texts, I would take three lines, I would spend two hours on them, then I would give up because it would not have been possible, or honest, or even interesting, to extract a few ‘significant’ lines from a Beckett text. The composition, the rhetoric, the construction and the rhythm of his works, even the ones that seem the most ‘decomposed’, that’s what ‘remains’ finally the most ‘interesting’, that’s the work, that’s the signature, this remainder which remains when the thematics are exhausted.

Any attempt to give a coherent interpretation of Molloy (and presumably the later work) is contingent, hence the sheer weight of scholarship that exists around Beckett. My bibliography of secondary literature is an attempt to distil just what is worthwhile.

My urge is to turn straight back to page one and start again but I will save that for another time. Though slightly delayed, my Trilogy companion Emily will also be posting her undoubtedly more astute thoughts on Molloy.

18 thoughts on “Molloy by Beckett

  1. I finally posted on Molloy, so felt I could come over here and read yours!

    Love that Derrida quote, especially its emphasis on rhythms – that’s what initially struck me about Beckett years ago when I first read him. The amazing prose rhythms of short passages as well as the flow of the overall composition. I wanted to perform the whole thing in monologue; it just begs to be spoken. And your and his focus on the “decomposition” theme – I’m especially intrigued by that in Malone Dies.

    It is extremely daunting to write and think about Beckett, both because I love these books so and because they’re difficult. Many re-reads are in order, you’re very right.

    • Have you read any of the Trilogy in French, Emily? I’d be interested in whether the writing has that rhythmic quality, or whether he only found that rhythm when translating back to English.

      • I haven’t, but I’m very interested to read Beckett in French. (In a way it’s harder to motivate myself, though, knowing that he translated them himself & the English versions are therefore to some degree as much “originals” as the French.) At the end of this long and somewhat annoying comments thread, there’s an intriguing hint that some of the rhythmical richness may be native to English, or may have originated in the translation process.

          • Anthony, you might want to have a look at Mark Nixon’s work on Sam, I’ve been reading, thinking about Sam for so long and I cannot do without him. by now I’ve little patience with the predations of post structuralism that is lazy – rather than offering due diligence to Derrida himself. Mark Nixon’s work takes a different tack altogether, and is a model of its kind

  2. Pingback: A Year in Reading: 2011 « Time's Flow Stemmed

  3. I’ve just completed Molloy and I am on to Malone Dies now(reading the trilogy). And I must admit that I am completely blown over. Though I also loved Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Endgame, but these monologues have left me stupified. Nice to read your thoughts on it 🙂

  4. I’m realizing I’m a little late for these comments but I’m working on a response to Beckett’s MOLLOY for a graduate class presentation and really enjoyed Critchley’s quote of Derrida at the end. I’m curious though where this came from so I may cite the source…? I searched “crtichley on derrida on beckett” and the internet doesn’t seem to understand.

  5. I am re- reading Molloy & feeling embarrassed at what I missed the first time. Your post makes me feel relieved that I am not the only one who has to read it multiple times to “get” it.

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