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War of the words

September 18, 2008

Murphy isn’t as poetic as, say, Molloy.  I was a bit disappointed to discover that.  There is little of the bleakness (other than maybe the down and outness of Murphy’s London), the romantic gloom of blasted heaths, rainy ditches and lonesome trees on country roads.  It’s a comedy, so I tried to relax, not sweat it too much.  It’s a bit Vaudevillian—Beckett likes to use comedy duos; Bim and Ticklepenny, Neary and Wylie.  It’s generally thought that Beckett was finding his voice with this first novel.  Joyce, whom he knew from his time in Paris in the early ‘30s, was looming large in his mind.  While Joyce confidently evokes a psychological realism along with close-up views of the real world, Dublin with an unblinking camera, Beckett works with Murphy the slacker who he gently mocks from the very first paragraph:

“The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.  Murphy sat out of it, as though he were free, in a mew in West Brompton.  Here for what might have been six months, he had eaten, drunk, slept, and put his clothes on and off in a medium-sized cage of north-western aspect commanding an unbroken view of medium-sized cages of south-eastern aspect.  Soon he would have to buckle to and start eating, drinking, sleeping, and putting his clothes on and off, in quite alien surroundings.”

There are strange slippages of words here.  “On the nothing new,”  “Murphy sat out of it”, clothes that he puts “on and off”.   Beckett, famously, had a problem with language and words.  Murphy was written in 1936, high-Modernism beginning to flicker perhaps and he, a rebellious young artist pushing the envelope.  In a letter to a friend, he wrote;

“It is indeed becoming more and more difficult, even senseless, for me to write an official English. And more and more my own language appears to me like a veil that must be torn apart in order to get at the things (or the Nothingness) behind it.”

So in that first paragraph, Beckett uses his little flock of repeating hyphenated words, “medium-sized cage of north-western aspect…” to depict a 20th century nothingness, a sense of entrapment in 1930s London. Scholars have published many a paper on this central aspect of SB.

But it’s a comedy.  And Beckett’s declared a war on words seasoned with a healthy disdain for current conventions.  What’s a young writer to do?  He shows off a bit, with authorial asides and other pre-postmodern (is that a word?) hijinks;

 “Miss Counihan had never enjoyed anything quite so much as this slow-motion osmosis of love’s spittle.

The above passage is carefully calculated to deprave the cultivated reader.” 


“It is so easy to lose personal freshness.”


“The story that Miss Carridge had to tell was very pathetic and tedious.  It brightened up a little with her reconstruction of the death scene, cupidity lending wings to her imagination.”

There’s also the long list of Celia’s vital statistics—a page full of her measurements and other important data—a list that would not be out of place in a story by Donald Barthelme, an ardent admirer of Beckett.  And the chess game accompanied by a pseudo commentary straight out of a twisted chess journal.

It’s a wonder the thing got published.

Go ahead. It's good for you.




From → Beckett--Murphy

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