11. Samuel Beckett: The Trilogy: Molloy (1950, French; 1955, Grove Press), Malone Dies (1951, French; 1956, Grove Press), The Unnamable (1955, French; 1958, Grove Press) (Irish)
Now we jump forward to the period, 1979-80, when I was 20, living in Philadelphia, and enjoying a spell of unemployment, lasting a little over a year, while not being enrolled in any course of study either. I was studying myself, I guess. The movements of my own mind. I was keeping a journal steadily, so I was always writing. And I was writing poems I was reading publically at local open readings in the city.
My reading was whatever I felt would be most conducive to my growth as a writer. And I feel, in terms of 'books that left a mark,' I should choose something from this time because I really had my antennae out, back then. And what I was after were those figures who did not write 'conventional fiction' in any way, shape, or form. It seems to me I could put forward a few possibilities that I encountered for the first time in this period: Henry Miller (read the two Tropics and also 'The Rosy Crucifixion' trilogy), Vladimir Nabokov (read Lolita and Pale Fire), William Burroughs (read Naked Lunch), and Beckett. It should be noted that all of these books, with the exception of Pale Fire, were first published in America by Grove Press.
So I could say that this was my 'Grove period,' and what that means is that I was interested in narrative more than in what I would at the time have called 'the novel.' The Novel was what Dickens and Dostoyevsky wrote, what Tolstoy and George Eliot wrote, and which continued in our day in the likes of James Michener, Norman Mailer, and so on (Stephen King was starting to get well-known at this time). But there was another strain of writing -- which would get slapped with various terms, 'postmodernist, 'black humorist,' 'anti-novel,' 'fabulist,' and so on -- that didn’t try transporting the reader to a fictionalized version of the real world, a world of things, places, people, and situations, so much as it sought to create a kind of simulacrum of a state of mind.
I don’t mean to put Miller, Nabokov, Burroughs and Beckett all in the same boat, by any means. But what made them 'Grove authors' was their willingness to push the envelope in terms of 'taste,' in a willingness to be as graphic about sex, bodily functions, and the internal workings of the human mind as Joyce was in Ulysses. And being still 'in the midst' of reading Gravity’s Rainbow, I went in search of fiction less novelistic than TP’s. After all, Pynchon’s novel, for all its wild imaginings and playful style, was still recreating, at least in the early going, a time and place: London and environs during the Blitz. It was still a species of historical fiction.
But these guys were not about rendering historical versimilitude in any compelling way. And of them all, Beckett the least so. Miller was more directly autobiographical, and so the story his narrator told was still some version of Henry Miller’s own story, involving Brooklyn, and Manhattan, and Paris, and the kinds of pre-Beats deadbeats and raconteurs and scribblers and prostitutes and show people, etc., he met in those precincts. Nabokov was more deliberately 'meta-fictional,' creating a reasonable facsimile of lived life, but via a strange, cracked looking-glass in which 'the literary' takes precedence over any other kind of life or meaning. And in Burroughs the looking-glass is cracked by hard drugs, which allows life to be at times more raw than in any other writing, but also closer to borderline dementia.
In Beckett, a method was being pursued that dismantled the Novel and arrived somewhere else. Not in 'autobiography,' not in 'metafiction,' and not in hallucination. Beckett inhabits the land of the pure cogito, but a distortion of Descartes’ version, or (depending on your view) a sublime recasting of it. For what Beckett’s narrators face is a simple fact of all writing, no matter what form it takes: 'I think therefore I am' is meaningless to others if there is no record of that 'think': so there must be writing. But then we (or our thought) have to say 'I write therefore I am,' and, with that, something else happens, for what kind of writing is what 'I am'? None is really me, and I am not really any particular kind of writing. And yet, we have to get beyond that to something else: 'it writes therefore I am written.'
Beckett is willing to face, in his wonderfully sinuous prose, that 'something,' some quality of writing itself, is what is causing the words to appear, and, to the extent that what gets written is something in which I am mirrored, or trapped, or, maybe the best word, by which I am addressed, then it is 'me' as, literally, a body of writing.
Since I was mostly writing in a journal at this time, with no effort to create fictions or stories, with no interest in creating art, except, maybe, when I used ragged right margins to suggest that what I was saying wasn’t 'me' so much as spoken by a poetic persona, maybe with a logic dictated by whatever I thought a poem was, I was struck forcefully, inevitably, and eternally by this first reading of Beckett’s three volumes in that little Grove Press paperback.
I’ve since re-read the first, Molloy, a few times, once even in the French original. But I still haven’t gone back to The Unnamable. I now own a nice Everyman’s Library hardback of the three and, one of these days, I’m going to go back there. I do note that I got through these three before I got through Ulysses or Gravity’s Rainbow or Finnegans Wake, or Proust, and that, perhaps, my willingness to get through them, my need? to do so, was developed by what Beckett did to my head.