Sunday, May 24, 2009

Samuel Beckett's "Murphy": Book Review

This novel's often been neglected by comparison with the prose and drama after WWII, but admirers of Flann O'Brien's wit and slapdash satire sprinkled with Joycean erudition and unpredictable characters will find enough to admire. (N.B.: Four stars by comparison with what follows, which in hindsight will allow us better to appreciate what this novel sets in motion for Beckett's rise to mastery over his domain.) Already, the references veer towards obscurity, the vocabulary stretches for the archly observed and the totally original phrase, and while the author, just entering his thirties, already possesses the mordant perspective on life and love, there's a coltish kicking about the familiar realms of flat and asylum, city park and pub, that keep you tethered to a somewhat recognizable setting of Dublin (best not mention Cork) and London.

As with "Watt," the learning's considerable and not always comprehensible to those of us less gifted or leg-pulling than Beckett or Joyce; many critics tend to see the student trying to match his teacher, but I see more a proto-O'Brien voice, enamored with weary cliché and existentialist horror, utter dread and light mockery, character-type send-ups and human foibles. There's a poetic sense of life's fragility amidst the sharpened exchanges of cruelty and cant. "He thought of the four caged owls in Battersea Park, whose joys and sorrows did not begin until dusk." (106) "Is it its back that the moon can never turn to the earth, or its face?" (131) "Each leaf as it fell had an access of new life, a sudden frenzy of freedom at contact with the earth, before it lay down with the others." (150)

Who has not felt like Murphy? "For what was working for a living but a procuring and a pimping for the money-bags, one's lecherous tyrants the money-bags, so that they might breed?" (76) Or, known the backstabbing ridicule we do to each other, as Celia watches him retreat, perhaps from her forever: "His figure so excited the derision of a group of boys playing football in the road that they stopped their game. She watched him multiplied in their burlesque long after her eyes could see him no more." (143)
The novel's plot focuses less on the protagonist than you may expect, and follows mostly those who pursue him from Dublin over to London, all bent on manipulating him while betraying each other. Murphy's "unredeemed split self" gains much attention, and the sixth chapter's depiction of his tripartite, somewhat Freudian, spherical mind, dark, light, and half-lit, signals Beckett's signature concern for his later works. The mind-body problem haunts everyone here, from kite-loving Mr. Kelly at the Round Pond to one-eyed, hat-wearing Cooper. Outer reality vs. interior sanctuary, as represented in the Magdalene Mental Mercyseat's inmates, attracts Murphy: "here was the race he had long since despaired of finding." (166)

Eventually, he will see nothing, literally. Endon's chess game ended, Murphy will meet his maker in spectacular sense, finding perhaps the freedom within the merging where light meets dark. For those who trail him to his departure, the problems continue, as for us all in our own narratives. Beckett's story for us may bewilder more than entertain, but even in what some dismiss as a rather juvenile effort, the immense questions of mortality, mentality, and human purpose in a crazy world in and out of the asylum prove this to be a rewarding, if off-kilter and nervously narrated, story of one's man's attempt to outrun his demons by rocking in his trusty chair towards his own enigmatic, inexplicable, and unverifiable enlightenment.

(Posted to Amazon US 5-24-09. I use an older Picador graphic rather than generic Grove paperback cover. The illustrations match the day's passage, seen from the motion of the chair under the skylight in M's garret. Thanks to Pere Ubu at Flickr. Probably neither the band nor the Jarry-built original.)

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