Why Murphy is better than Molloy

The great McCrum had the temerity recently to place Murphy over Molloy in his 100 greatest novels (in English) list, and was roundly rebuked by a section of his audience for doing so – e.g. “I don’t think anyone who has any decent knowledge of Beckett’s novels would place “Murphy” above “Molloy”, “Malone Dies” and especially “The Unnamable”. Compared to that one, “Murphy” really is just a cheerful, simplistic introduction to his themes and methods that were far better developed in his later work.”

I think the key word and difference here is “cheerful”. What is cheerful and exuberant is self-evidently inferior to what is pared-down and dour; a cheerful man will always, without doubt, have a more simplistic view of the world than, say, a depressed one – after all, if his view was any more complex, he wouldn’t be cheerful. This is true even when it is the same man and he’s writing the same novel – because, after all, Beckett never wrote a different novel than the one he was always writing. I would be interested to read a cogent argument which sought to demonstrate that Molloy was a more profound text than Murphy, without being able to use immaterial matters such as his style or humour or obscurity as part of that argument.

That’s not to say there aren’t funny moments in Molloy. I laughed, for instance, at the following (this is scene from every Beckett novel where the incorrigible Beckett-tramp character visits the women who is trying to reclaim him for humanity):

She had a parrot, very pretty, all the most approved colours. I understood him better than his mistress. I don’t mean I understood him better than I understood her. He exclaimed from time to time, Fuck the son of a bitch, fuck the son of a bitch. He must have belonged to an American sailor, before he belonged to Lousse. He didn’t say much else. No, I’m wrong, he also said, Putain de merde! He must have belonged to a French sailor before he belonged to the American sailor. Putain de merde! Unless he had hit on it alone, it wouldn’t surprise me. Lousse tried to make him say, Pretty Polly! I think it was too late. He listened, his head on one side, pondered, then said, Fuck the son of bitch. It was clear he was doing his best.

Actually, this wasn’t the funniest passage: that was the passage towards the end that begins: “Certain questions of a theological nature preoccupied me strangely. As for example.” (You’ll have to read it). At times, I think he can’t quite keep that younger, juvenile humorist inside him down; quite ruins his po-faced profundity.

The whole is written in the same monotonous affectless style: – that’s both the first half of the novel narrated by Molloy, and the second half of the novel related by Moran. You wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the two if it wasn’t for the subject matter. On the back of my Calder edition it says that “Moran is a more recognisable type of character, but during the long descent into disability and despair, he becomes increasingly like the object of his quest”; somewhere else I’m sure I read that Moran can be seen gradually becoming Molloy, or he is Molloy at an earlier stage; but I feel this overlooks the obvious fact that Beckett could only write one character and one plot, so it’s no surprise they seem to converge. Beckett appears to acknowledge this when he has Moran reference Molloy together with Murphy, Watt, Mercier etc. as similar types for his investigations.

I just feel any work, and Beckett in particular, will benefit from the leven of humour and an exuberant use of language; I’d be surprised if too many people felt a greater sense of joy in reading Molloy than Murphy – and for joy I might substitute pleasure – and for pleasure, aesthetic pleasure. (But surely literature’s purposes isn’t to give pleasure? Surely its purpose is the re-state the essential dullness of everyday life). This is not to suggest Beckett is boring: there is a long passage in which Molloy (or is it Moran?) moves pebbles from pocket to pocket – I mean, it goes on for quite a few pages – and it’s really remarkably interesting and enthralling.

Another reason I read Molloy was to investigate Tom McCarthy’s claim from his well-regarded essay on Writing Machines: “The same real – the Holocaust in particular – impinges on all of Beckett’s work, whose unnameables and catastrophes convey the horror and unspeakability of this event to which they never refer far more profoundly than the directly representational writing of, say, Primo Levi.” – While it was certainly true, Beckett doesn’t refer to the holocaust once in Molloy, not even as far as I could tell obliquely; I was nonetheless unconvinced that the lack of commentary on the holocaust constituted any kind of commentary on the holocaust – it wasn’t clear to this reader (Molloy/Moran is an outsider, but he isn’t persecuted particularly, indeed people try to help him; society wishes him to conform, it’s true, but the outcome as always with Beckett is that he doesn’t and continues on in his own individual way; perhaps Molloy/Moran is Beckett’s idea of the Superman and his transvaluation of all values, or a comment on Nazi misinterpretation of the same); – which is all a pity, because as a writer, I’m interested technically in how Beckett intends to achieve the feat of conveying the unspeakability of something by, not speaking of it. (Will he just use commonplace implication? Or is it after all just some oxymoronic critical fuckwittery*?). Perhaps I’ll have to wait till I get to The Unnamable, eh?

*A few other not inapposite collected examples

  • “It is as if we were seeing everything, without anything being visible.” M Blanchot
  • “clarity reveals everything except itself.” M Blanchot
  • “When Muriel Spark uses an unsubtle method, however, she uses it with subtlety.” A Thirlwell
  • “obscure lucidity” E Heller
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5 thoughts on “Why Murphy is better than Molloy

  1. Why is it that every time I visit your blog I leave with my belief reinforced that Tom McCarthy is a fucking worthless, cunty poseur?

  2. That line about Primo Levi is appalling. I did not think that McCarthy could appall me.

  3. It probably just the way I characterise him. I’m still inclined to believe that McCarthy is in fact just a situationist prank; he’s always been in awe of the art world – hence the shock value of this particular comment, no doubt.

    My recollection of Levi is that he used a dispassionate style to create a kind of scientific objectivism – and this isn’t perhaps so far away from Beckett, or from the new novelists; he wasn’t interested in character or emotion so much as depicting how the system worked. In fact, I would say there are far more familiar representational novelistic techniques in Beckett.

  4. Three M.’s. I have not read Murphy but am eager to do so now. The humor of Molloy, as I recall it, stretched from end to end and often had me laughing aloud. I have not revisited McCarthy since Remainder, and don’t intend to. I dare not ask what he might have to say about Vassily Grossman.

  5. I’m always surprised when people say they’re not going to read someone just because I’ve criticised them (although I daresay people have a wider view than just this). I’m actually slightly interested in reading at least some of McCarthy’s new novel, because unlike all his previous novels, which have seemed to me nothing more than the usual mediocre literary fiction, this one actually sounds like it might be quite avant-garde. Unreadable, but avant-garde. And I’d just like to check this.

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