Wednesday, April 21, 2010

340. Malone Dies – Samuel Beckett

History: It was first published in 1951, in French, as Malone Meurt, and later translated into English by the author.
The second novel in Beckett's "Trilogy" (beginning with Molloy and ending with The Unnamable), it can be described as the space between wholeness and disintegration, action and total inertia. Along with the other two novels that compose the trilogy, it marked the beginning of Beckett's most significant writing, where the questions of language and the fundamentals of constructing a non-traditional narrative became a central idea in his work. One does not get a sense of plot, character development, or even setting in this novel, as with most of his subsequent writing (e.g., Texts for Nothing, Fizzles, and How It Is). Malone Dies can be seen as the point in which Beckett took another direction with his writing, where the bareness of consciousness played a huge part in all his subsequent writings.
Plot: Malone is an old man who lies naked in bed in either asylum or hospital--he is not sure which. Most of his personal effects have been taken from him, though he has retained some, notably his exercise book, brimless hat, and pencil. He alternates between writing his own situation and that of a boy named Sapo. When he reaches the point in the story where Sapo becomes a man, he changes Sapo's name to Macmann, finding Sapo a ludicrous name. Not long after, Malone admits to having killed six men, but seems to think it not a big deal—particularly the last, a total stranger whom he cut across the neck with a razor.
Eventually, Macmann falls over in mud and is taken to an institution called St. John's of God. There he is provided with an attendant nurse—an elderly, thick-lipped woman named Moll, with crosses of bone on either ear representing the two thieves crucified with Jesus on Good Friday, and a crucifix carved on her tooth representing Jesus. The two eventually begin a stumbling sexual affair, but after a while she does not return, and he learns that she has died.
The new nurse is a man named Lemuel, and there is an animosity between the two. Macmann (and sometimes Malone drifts into the first-person) has an issue with a stick that he uses to reach things and Lemuel takes it away.
At the end of the novel, Lemuel is assigned to take his group of five inmates on a trip to a nearby island on the charitable dime of a Lady Pedal. His five inmates are Macmann and four others. They are described by Malone as: a young man, the Saxon ("though he was far from being any such thing"), a small thin man with an umbrella, and a "misshapen giant, bearded." Lemuel requests "excursion soup"--the regularly served broth but with a piece of fat bacon to support the constitution—from the chef at the institution, though after receiving the soup he sucks each piece of bacon of its juice and fat before depositing it back into the soup. Lemuel takes his group out on the terrace where they are greeted by a waggonette driven by a coachman and Lady Pedal, along with two colossi in sailor suits named Ernest and Maurice.
They leave the grounds of St. John's and take a boat to the island to picnic and see Druid remains. Lady Pedal tells Maurice to stay by the dinghy while she and Ernest disembark the boat to look for a picnicking site. The bearded giant refuses to leave the boat, leaving no room for the Saxon to get off in turn. When Lady Pedal and Ernest are out of sight, Lemuel kills Maurice from behind with a hatchet. Ernest comes back for them and Lemuel kills him, too, to the delight of the Saxon. When Lady Pedal sees this, she faints, falls, and breaks a bone in the process. Malone as narrator is not sure which bone, though he ventures Lady Pedal broke her hip. Lemuel makes the others get back in the boat. It is now night and the six float far out in the bay. The novel closes with an image of Lemuel holding his bloodied hatchet up.
Review: The novel follows the stream of consciousness narration of an old man who lies dying in an unnamed room. It is never explicitly revealed of what he is dying or if he’s in a hospital, an asylum, or his home. He relates a tale which may be inspired by (and feature elements of) his own experience, the story of a nondescript man who ends up in the care of an institution populated by eccentric characters including a masochistic careprovider. From the beginning Malone makes it clear that he is resigned to his forthcoming death, speculating as to how long it will take, going through the dates of the theological year with its saints’ days and public holidays, and wishing terrible things in this or the next world to all who have crossed his path. He is not in a hurry to die; boredom is worse, but he has an inventive mind and can think up little stories, even if they are not entirely made up, about people and families, their public and private habits and ways of getting through life, with vignettes that give colour to daily commonplaces that might shock or disturb some readers or listeners, accustomed to very different ways of living, and who might not want to think too much about the unpleasantnesses of life. Sexual descriptions, which might awaken an erotic response if phrased by another, become in Malone’s (or Beckett’s) speculations, either comic or extremely off-putting, comparing, for instance, the single remaining tooth in a sexual partner’s mouth to Christ’s cross. There is comedy and pathos in the situation of Lambert, convinced that pigs will fatten better if kept in permanent darkness, and he remains unconvinced by the repeated experience of always having in the end ‘a weak pig, blind and lean’ to slaughter that he would curse for its ingratitude. The casualness of farmyard killing, even of coddled pets, is brought home to the reader as unconventionally as the sexual descriptions, human activities that might be enjoyed or could lead to disgust.
But the story never comes to an end. It continually spirals off into sub-narratives in which aspects of character and society are illustrated and criticized and the lines between prose and poetry are blurred. Beckett was once again exploring the limits of narrative form and asks his audience to join him on a surreal journey through the haunted landscape of memory and imagination.
In spite of the universality of his themes with their applicability to all cultures and nationalities, and persons of all classes and backgrounds, Samuel Beckett’s work always has an Irish feel and it is rural Ireland that is most often recalled. In reality, of course, the occasion described or the place where it is set might be very different. Beckett has admitted that the situation of Malone is not unlike that of an elderly man with whom he shared for at least a few days, a room hidden in a loft outside Paris in late 1940 when he was wanted by the Gestapo. The man was the Jewish father of Nathalie Sarraute, who shortly after died in that hidden room. In the same way references to places far from his native Dublin crop up in different Beckett works, nearly all of them based on his early life and his wartime experiences. In translating himself or in supervising translations into other languages, even into the American versions of some of his work, there are changes of association and even place names to fit into local resonances and associations. But the feeling of Ireland nevertheless pervades everything, whether written before or after the war. Most of that was, after escaping capture in Paris, spent at Roussillion in the Vaucluse, a mountainous region that he describes accurately enough in many works, but still manages to make sound like the Irish landscape, which tends to be flat with low, rolling hills.
Opening Line: “I should soon be quite dead at last in spite of all.”
Closing Line: “Lemuel is in charge, he raises his hatchet on which the blood will never dry, but not to hit anyone, he will not hit anyone, he will not hit anyone any more, he will not touch anyone any more, either with it or with it or with it or with or or with it or with his hammer or with his stick or with his fist or in thought in dream I mean never he will never or with his pencil or with his stick or or light light I mean never there he will never
never anything there any more”
Quotes: "Nothing is more real than nothing",
Rating: Awful.

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