20 classics #11: Malone Dies by Samuel Beckett

I’m reading 20 classic, modern-classic or cult books. Read more about this project here. See the other classics here.

Why did I want to read it?

I adore Beckett’s plays Waiting for Godot and Endgame. Masterpieces.

When was it published?

Originally published as Malone Meurt in Paris and first in English in 1956 (author’s own translation) by Grove Press. My edition is by Faber & Faber, 2010.

What’s it about?

Like most of Beckett’s work, not much and a whole lot, all at once. Malone is lying on a bed in a room. He is dying. He is making up stories.

Tell us more about the author.

Samuel Beckett is undoubtedly one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century, an early postmodernist and a key writer of the ‘theatre of the absurd’. He wrote Malone meurt between November 1947 and May 1948 ‘at the height of a period of intense creative activity’ according to Peter Boxall in the preface of my edition, in which he also wrote the novels Molloy and L’Innomable (which came to be known as the Trilogy) and the play En attendant Godot. Godot was the work which first brought him international recognition. Beckett was born in Ireland and received a BA from Trinity College, Dublin, before becoming lecteur d’anglais in the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. There, he met and was influenced by renowned Irish author James Joyce. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1969. His works are still incredibly striking—playfully tedious, absurd, moving, gross and funny.

So, what did I think? Does it deserve to be a classic?

For many reasons. Imagine what it was like to break the mould when there was a mould. Exciting. Dangerous. But I think Beckett is still relevant because there is such depth to his work. The ‘absurd’ elements express profound themes: mortality, lack of fulfilment, desperation, distraction, boredom, exasperation, routine and repetition, hopelessness, alienation and a little bit of light shining in.

‘Live and invent. I have tried. I must have tried. Invent. It is not the word. Neither is live. No matter. I have tried. While within me the wild beast of earnestness padded up and down, roaring, ravening, rending. I have done that. And all alone, well hidden, played the clown, all alone, hour after hour, motionless, often standing, spellbound, groaning.’

This is part of Malone’s thought process, in this bed where he is dying. He doesn’t really know where he is. The clues are all contradictory. Sometimes he believes himself large, taking up space. There is always another pen. He makes up stories, about the Lamberts, about Lemuel, and about Macmann and Moll.

Beckett’s characters peel away the layers and reveal us for what we really are.

‘But what matter whether I was born or not, have lived or not, am dead or merely dying, I shall go on doing as I have always done, not knowing what it is I do, nor who I am, nor where I am, nor if I am.’

‘… if my memories are mine, and which you savour doddering about in the wake of the fitful sun, or deeper than the dead, in the corridors of the underground railway and the stench of their harassed mobs scurrying from cradle to grave to get to the right place at the right time. What more do I want? Yes, those were the days, quick to night and well beguiled with the search for warmth and reasonably edible scraps.’

I will try to explain how Beckett makes me feel, as a reader. First, there’s something addictive about the base kind of explorations of his characters. Morning and night, birth through death, we are each just a speck in the universe (with misbehaving body parts). And we stink of failure. He’s the first author I’ve read who has articulated boredom to me, in a quite unironic, un-boring way. Many contemporary writers write ironically about ‘inevitability’, whereas, I think, Beckett is actually very earnest. Some writing that is supposedly ‘absurd’ falls down, because it is either too distant (and ‘clever’), or is closer to bizarre. Beckett is an anti-realist who never departs from a notion of what is true. What could be more real, or true, than facing death?

I adore the small, tangible objects that tie Malone (and other Beckett characters) to a living, breathing (if altered, exaggerated, grotesque or confusing) world—objects so simple as a club, a brimless hat, and one old boot.

‘… I never saw a boot with so many eyeholes, useless for the most part, having ceased to be holes, and become slits. All these things are together in the corner in a heap. I could lay hold of them, even now, in the dark, I need only wish to do so.’

The objects have ‘remained quietly in their place, in the corner’ while he has been in the room, but it is also impossible for him to know, ‘from one moment to the next, what is mine and what is not…’ Objects, and reality, are tangible and exist (and are his), and are also intangible, and do not exist (and are not his).

Beckett is comforting to me, as a reader, in a way that is like looking at the stars. Your blood beats quick and warm, at the realisation that the universe is so large and cold. Tangible, intangible.

There is… taking up space, making up stories (distraction?) and someone, in the night, has bloodied your cane. Feeling the carpet under your feet and the silence at your questions. Not being able to be outside yourself, as Malone is unable to move from his bed. Not alone. Only alone. Writing crap. Tedium.

‘But the part he [Macmann] struck most readily, with his hammer, was the head, and that is understandable, for it too is a bony part, and sensitive, and difficult to miss, and the seat of all shit and misery, so you rain blows upon it, with more pleasure than on the leg for example, which never did you any harm, it’s only human.’

What’s next?

I got distracted from Doris Lessing, but I’ve picked up Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.

9 thoughts on “20 classics #11: Malone Dies by Samuel Beckett

  1. It is fun to find you reading Beckett. Recently I discovered the 4-dvd set of Beckett on Film, where 19 film directors take on 19 of his plays. The first dvd includes Waiting for Godot, and this weekend my plans include watching John Hurt in Krapp’s Last Tape. The caliber of actors and directors so far has been top notch.

  2. There’s a certain library here in Perth which has that Beckett DVD set. Also includes Michael Gambon in Endgame, and Jeremy Irons in something else. I’m sure there must be a few floating around on ebay or Amazon, although I haven’t actually looked for it.

    “I got distracted from Doris Lessing…” Awwwww. I hold very grave fears for the future of your artistic aesthetic 🙂

    • It’s very expensive online, I checked. But yes, I should check out the local library.

      And don’t worry, I’ll get back to her… 😉

  3. Pingback: Waiting for Godot – Andy revels in a bit of existential slapstick « Wellreadweare's Blog

  4. Of everything I’ve read re: Beckett this essay is among the top. Reading Beckett should be more intuitive less academic IMHO. Let it hit you in the gut or float you along, lay you flat, elate you….the most important thing is to show up.

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