I mentioned a while ago, in this piece on Mill’s On Liberty, that I am “far more obsessed with society’s more or less ineluctable power to make us conform than I am concerned with, say, the supposed surveillance society in which we live, or the empty uncertainty I’m meant to feel about life in the absence of any meaning” – and perhaps arguing at the same time that a lot of Mill’s mid-c19th ideas were in fact quite modernist (as does the Bradbury edited Modernism book I am occasionally reading, so maybe I’m not just imagining it) – so I was thinking about what modern writers shared this interest with me, if any, and it struck me after about five minutes that Beckett was also quite interested in this idea, since it forms the basis of every single one of his works.
Here is a precis of a Beckett novel (any Beckett novel): a man lives life his way; someone else, usually a woman, comes along and tries to get the man to live life in some other way; the man ignores the woman and continues to live life his way.
This is pretty much what Murphy is about. Murphy “prefers” to sit on his chair, but his inamorata, Celia, would like him to go out to work; so Murphy does go out each day and he wanders about, not really looking for a job, though eventually he finds one. Meanwhile, X is in love with Y, who is in love with Murphy, and Z wishes to help X, but falls in love with Y himself, and since they are all in Dublin while Murphy is in London (in fact, he’s living near where I live; -the novel is one of those tedious middle-class North London novels, and Beckett is one of those tedious middle-class North London writers who thinks he’s Joyce and keeps having his manuscripts rejected by agents), they decide all to come to London to track Murphy down.
Early Beckett is my favourite Beckett. Murphy was his first novel, at least if you disconsider More Pricks than Kicks (people say it is a collection of short stories, but when I read it in my ignorance many years ago it never occurred to me it wasn’t a novel), and it has all the early Beckett hallmarks: brilliant overwrought sentences, usage of obscure words (it’s a while since there were quite so many words in a text I didn’t know; it’s as if, from my point of view, he was already writing in French). Here it might be worth mentioning this review by Edward Docx of Ned Beauman’s Glow (a review I was going to use in another context), which begins, “I once had a wise old American editor who believed that the secret to becoming a great novelist lay in learning the lesson that a brilliant facility with language is beside the point.” I know what he means, but – on the other hand, a brilliant facility with language is also the most important accoutrement of the writer, without which he will never be great; and this early exuberant showing-off often a delicious high-point in a career (I give, like Docx, as an example, Saul Bellow, who lost his way and started at some point writing dull, well-received mature novels) – Beckett being a prime contender here, since, let’s face it, the plot of this novel is immaterial and the writing everything. Some vague notion persists of Beckett as a follower of Joyce, but there is nothing of realism in this – it is very much of the other, the mandarin style (to pursue Cyril Connolly’s alternative classifications of modern prose), the rhetorical, the baroque, the quite mad. This novel has so many quotable lines, though as it happens I shan’t quote any, since I was so enjoying reading them that I forgot to write any of them down. Oh, and it’s funny; not in the way that Kafka or (later) Beckett is funny, in a dark and unfunny way, but actually funny in a deliberately comic and outrageous way.
Here’s Dostoevsky explaining the nature of the Beckettian hero: “[My delight] lay in a clear consciousness of my degradation – in a feeling that I had reached the last wall, and that the whole thing was base, and could never be otherwise, and that no escape therefrom was to be looked for, and that it was not possible for me to become a different man, and that, even if I still retained sufficient faith and energy to become a different man, I should not wish to become so, but that I would rather do nothing at all in the matter, since to undergo such a change might not be worth my while.” – At least, I think that was the passage I wanted to quote.