I Believe the Word is Entropy

Molloy from Three Novels by Samuel Beckett. Grove Press. 407 pp. $15.95.

I’m not sure I’ve ever read a stranger book than Molloy, the first novel in the famous trilogy that Samuel Beckett published in his early forties. It makes no sense whatsoever, especially in its first eighty-five pages. It concerns a man—the eponymous narrator—who has been living at his mother’s place, then visits his mother, then is trying to get back to his mother from someplace else he has been. I hate to be vague, but that’s the best I can do. In my edition, the first paragraph begins on p. 3 and ends on p. 4; the second paragraph—hold your breath—runs to p. 85. What’s with the paragraphing? If he was going to have a really long one, why not just make it the whole section? As with many questions about this novel, I can only answer: I don’t know.

I realized, several days after I began, that reading this novel was like the experience of meditating: I didn’t really want to do it before I began, but I enjoyed it while I was doing it; the line by line detail was fascinating, and the sentences marvelous, but after I’d finished, I had no idea what I’d just read. What happens in that novel? is an absolutely pointless question. Nothing happens. That is, a lot of little things happen, but they don’t create a story. They’re just one thing after another. They’re like life (which also doesn’t create a story. We do that later, on our own, by falsifying things. There is no story).

Molloy has a bad leg, so he uses crutches, but mostly gets around on a bicycle. As the novel progresses, his physical condition gets worse, so that both legs are pretty bad, he’s not sure which is worse, and somebody steals his bicycle, so he’s hobbling around on the crutches. There is an interlude where he is taken in, or perhaps held against his will, by some other woman (sorry, again, to be vague). Eventually he gets out of that situation and is heading off again to see his mother. There is a sense of urgency, since the last time he saw her she was terribly old, blind deaf and incontinent; she had him when she was young so he too is old. They’re a couple of decrepit old people, though they’re mother and son. After the interlude he’s hobbling through a forest, then comes out to a clearing, and isn’t sure where he is. He wears down so much that, eventually, he’s lying face down on the ground, using his crutches to inch himself forward, whomping them forward, pulling himself along. Sometimes he lies on his back, so he’s kind of doing the backstroke with his crutches. The whole thing is utterly hopeless and ridiculous—of course! this is a work by Samuel Beckett—but he soldiers on. On p. 85, he doesn’t die, but there is an enormous feeling of relief, almost orgasmic, because . . . the paragraph ends.

At that point, to my shock—I was prepared to stick with Molloy forever—the narrator switches to a man named Jacques Moran, a devout Irish Catholic who has received orders to go out and find Molloy, to bring him in. Bring him in where? Why? Who’s doing the ordering? We have no idea: the story suddenly seems Kafkaesque. It also isn’t as likable. Molloy, for all his problems, was a sweet funny man, a sympathetic character. Here he is, for instance, talking about the newspapers in which he wrapped himself to keep out the weather.

“The Times Literary Supplement was admirably adapted to this purpose, of a neverfailing toughness and impermeability. Even farts made no impression on it. I can’t help it, gas escapes from my fundament on the least pretext, it’s hard not to mention it now and then, however great my distaste. One day I counted them. Three hundred and fifteen farts in nineteen hours, or an average of over sixteen farts an hour. After all it’s not excessive. Four farts every fifteen minutes. It’s nothing. Not even one fart every four minutes. It’s unbelievable. Damn it, I hardly fart at all, I should never have mentioned it. Extraordinary how mathematics help you to know yourself.”

Moran is another kettle of fish, a regimented person, terribly regular in his habits. He’s a kind of CIA operative (though we’re in Ireland). He gets this assignment and has no idea why—that’s the nature of his work—but the authorities are convinced he’s the only one who can do this job (perhaps, he realizes, because he’s the only one who does do it), and he’s determined to get his man. He has a teenage son, and his assignment is to take his son with him.

I am familiar with Beckett primarily because of Waiting for Godot, and it occurred to me that since Molloy is waiting, this might be the Father and Son he’s waiting for. That was my first thought. But if there is a mistake one can make with Beckett’s work, it is trying to make sense of it, and that’s what I was doing. My feeling about the two halves of this work is that the first was dominated by a feminine sensibility—not that Molloy was feminine, exactly, but he did obviously care for his mother, and want to take care of her; his whole quest was to get back to a woman—and the second by a male sensibility. Moran has no wife, and his housekeeper exists just to cook for him—he’s abusive to her—and he’s terribly abusive to his son. He says now and then that he’s trying to raise the boy in the right way, but that’s a load of crap. This is abuse, and Moran is a turd.

Eventually on the journey his leg starts to go bad—does that sound familiar?—and he sends his son off to buy a bicycle with a carrier so he can ride along as a passenger. After one final act of abuse (this was the most satisfying moment since the paragraph ended on p. 85) the son deserts his father, takes the bicycle, and takes most of the money. Way to go, kid. The one moment of sanity in the whole novel. Moran the Elder is left to proceed with nothing but an umbrella to help him hobble around. It’s as if he becomes Molloy, or is on his way to doing that. I don’t think that’s the meaning, exactly. But you can’t help noticing.

Needless to say—if Godot and Endgame hadn’t told us already—Beckett had a thing for the down and out. One can’t help thinking of Jesus’ words that it is the meek who are blessed; Beckett is blessing the hell out of his characters. He seems to be saying that it is only the down and out who see the true human condition (that might be why religious seekers put themselves through such ordeals, sitting up all night to meditate, going off to caves for years), or that, despite what we may think, we’re really not accomplishing anything. We’re doing the backstroke on land with a couple of crutches, trying to get back to our mother. This is the view of man from a writer who was productive all his life, often in the worst of conditions (my favorite fact of Beckett’s biography is the number of copies that the short story volume More Pricks Than Kicks sold in its first printing. Two), who loved literature, painting, and music, all the arts, who spoke four languages and quoted literature copiously from all of them, who eventually won the Nobel Prize. Nevertheless, he viewed the world from the gutter. He liked it there.

I don’t know what it’s all about. But I’m looking forward to the rest of the trilogy. The next volume is Malone Dies. Another cheery title.