How Can You Tell?

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

I think that Malone Dies, the second novel in Beckett’s famous trilogy, concerns the creative process. At the beginning of the novel Malone (the name is arbitrary; it could just as easily be Molloy, or Moran) is in some kind of institution flat on his back on his deathbed. There is a window in his room; he can see another building through it, and hear things above and below him. Someone comes in from time to time, and he’s regularly fed. But he’s convinced he’s dying, and in the time left intends to tell a few stories and enumerate his possessions, apparently just to while away the time.

His situation isn’t as desperate as Molloy’s in the first novel, or even Moran’s. He has shelter and food. He claims he’s further along than they in the dying process, and can’t get out of bed. But at this point in my reading of Beckett—which hasn’t been extensive—I’m beginning to see this as a central part of his message. We’re all dying! Malone’s decision to tell a few stories isn’t all that different from what many people do with their lives, Beckett himself for instance. Malone keeps informing us of his present circumstances; he does eventually enumerate his possessions (in a kind of last will and testament), and he spins out his stories. He intends to tell one story about a man, another about a woman, a third about a thing, and a fourth about an animal, probably a bird, then proceeds to do no such thing. As far as I can tell, he tells one long story about one man, whose name changes in the middle. Like many a creator, he has plans, but things take another turn.

He starts out with a guy named Saposcat, as if he’s really stepping out on us, but by the end of the story the man’s name is Macmann, another “M” name, and very close to the word Man itself, which is what I assume all these M words signify. We see various false starts early on; our creator says something then thinks it’s stupid, backs off, but then he launches ahead and writes decently long passages before returning to his own situation. We see the creator lying there, spinning the story out, and we hear it as he creates it.

I couldn’t possibly praise the sentences too much. Beckett has given up practically every tool a writer has, plot, character development, theme; all he’s left with is language, but in his hands that’s enough. There were any number of passages I thought to quote—the greatest compliment you can pay a writer is that you want to quote everything—but maybe I’ll go with the first one I marked, about sounds in the night. I’m not sure whether this is our narrator speaking or Sapo, but it doesn’t matter.

“ . . . I seem to have again the hearing of my boyhood. Then in my bed, in the dark, on stormy nights, I could tell from one another, in the outcry without, the leaves, the boughs, the groaning trunks, even the grasses and the house that sheltered me. Each tree had its own cry, just as no two whispered alike, when the air was still. I heard from afar the iron gates clashing and dragging at their posts and the wind rushing between their bars. There was nothing, not even the sand on the paths, that did not utter its cry. The still nights too, still as the grave as the saying is, were nights of storm for me, clamorous with countless pantings. These I amused myself with identifying, as I lay there. Yes, I got great amusement, when young, from their so called silence.”

Aren’t these the sentences of someone who loves the world? The famous Zen master Eihei Dogen told us that mountains and rivers and walls and stones preach the dharma, and the Christian injunction is to love God and love your neighbor: how can you love God except through his creation? I begin to understand why Guy Davenport thought of Beckett as a “secret Christian.” Why then this obsession with dissolution, dying, illness, the down and out? Why didn’t Beckett write novels about the beauty of life and living? In a way he did, I suppose, these are sentences about the beauty of life, but they’re wrapped in the bleakest most depressing situation possible. I always think of Beckett as an old writer; in all his photos he looks old and craggy, and he won the Nobel when he was over sixty (though younger than I am now). But the man who wrote these books was in his forties. He was decrepit already?

Malone finally takes stock of his possessions when he feels the end coming on—he constantly thinks death is right around the corner—and they amount to almost nothing, the pencil he’s writing with, sharpened at both ends and almost gone, another pencil that he believes to be in his bed somewhere, though he isn’t able to locate it, his exercise book. We finally get to this long awaited possession inventory, and that’s it. He can’t take even these things with him, but he’s as fixated on them as if he were a billionaire. People and their things!

If Beckett is saying anything about the creative process—and I’m not sure he is; that was a wild stab in the dark—it’s that, however far from ourselves we try to project a character, calling him Sapo, inventing a past for him, we wind up writing about ourselves. Sapo (now Macmann) turns up in some kind of facility himself, bedridden for a while, cared for by various people. For a while his caretaker is a woman, and they have a love affair, complete with some form of intercourse (he apparently folds his soft penis in half and inserts it that way. Beckett’s characters have a genius for improvising). His girlfriend, whom he calls Sucky Molly (don’t ask), writes one of the most beautiful and touching love letters I’ve ever read, and he—in his persona of “Hairy Mac,” writes her some poetry.


Hairy Mac and Sucky Molly
In the ending days and nights
Of unending melancholy
Love it is at last unites.

The affair proceeds at a rapid clip—they don’t have much time—as one is interested in the other, then briefly both are interested, then love wanes, all in what seems a matter of days. Molly dies, and is remembered fondly. The new caretaker, alas, is a man, named Lemuel.

Macmann’s confinement isn’t as severe as Malone’s; he is still mobile, can walk in a kind of exercise yard. Very briefly the story suggests that it might be better not to have this sheltered life, but to be out in the world like Molloy. Macmann muses on his situation.

“I must be happy, he said, it is less pleasant than I should have thought.” One of the great statements ever from a Beckett character. “And he clung closer and closer to the wall, but not too close, for it was guarded, seeking a way out into the desolation of having nobody and nothing, the wilds of the hunted, the scant bread and the scant shelter and the black joy of the solitary way, in helplessness and will-lessness, through all the beauty, the knowing and the loving.”

Maybe that explains why Beckett’s characters are so down and out.

The ending of Macmann’s story, for a Beckett novel, is wild. He almost goes Stephen King on us. It’s also hilarious. Our narrator seems to be getting delirious.

And then, at the end, it may be that he dies. That’s what the title says, and there seems to be some drifting away. You’ll have to read the book and decide.

But as you do that, remember: there’s a third novel coming, and it’s titled The Unnamable.