Friday, 12 April 2019

Book Review: Murphy by Samuel Beckett

Many ways lead to enlightenment. Some of them – like religion and other established spiritual practice – are conventional and almost generally accepted, while others are so individual that they seem rather absurd, even completely crazy from an outsider’s point of view. They all have in common that it requires great determination and perseverance to pursue them because all along it remains uncertain when or if at all the ultimate goal will be reached. On the other hand, we are only beginning to learn here in the West that following the way is actually more important than arriving. The Irishman in London of the 1930s who is the title hero of Murphy by Samuel Beckett, the 1969 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, tries to reach a presumably blissful state of non-existence through complete inactivity, but just like his earlier lover his new one urges him to take on a job...

Samuel Beckett was born in Dublin, Ireland, in April 1906. Recently graduated in Romance languages he taught in Belfast, Paris (where he made friends with James Joyce) and Dublin before travelling around Europe for a few years. After having published an essay and poems, he wrote two novels, Dream of Fair to Middling Women (posthumously released in 1992) and Murphy (1938), and brought out the short-story collection More Pricks Than Kicks (1934). As from 1937, he lived in Paris, France, except for a period during World War II after which he turned to writing in French. His most important novels, Molloy (1951), Malone Dies (Malone Meurt: 1951) and The Unnamable (L'innommable: 1953), combine to a trilogy, but it was the play Waiting for Godot (En attendant Godot: 1952) that established him as a writer of international fame. In the following decades the prolific author focused on dramatic works for theatre, radio, television and cinema producing little prose. In 1969 the Swedish Academy awarded him the Nobel Prize in Literature for “for his writing, which – in new forms for the novel and drama – in the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation”. Samuel Beckett died in Paris, France, in December 1989.

Urged on by his fiancée Miss Counihan, the Dubliner Murphy settled down in a rundown mew in West Brompton, London, to search a lucrative livelihood, but instead he devotes himself to complete inaction with the design to reach a state of non-existence that he dreams of as pure bliss. He goes so far as to darken the room, to strip naked and to tie himself to his teak rocking chair to prevent every accidental movement. However, much to his despair he can’t escape the world surrounding him even for a moment because he can’t stop perceiving it with his senses.
“[…] The breath was not perceptible. The eyes, cold and unwavering as a gull’s, stared up at an iridescence splashed over the cornice moulding, shrinking and fading. Somewhere a cuckoo-clock, having struck between twenty and thirty, became the echo of a street-cry, which now entering the mew gave Quid pro quo! Quid pro quo! directly.

These were sights and sounds that he did not like. They detained him in the world to which they belonged, but not he, as he fondly hoped. […]”
In addition, Murphy has fallen in love with Celia Kelly, a sensitive Irishwoman who suffers terribly having to earn her living as a prostitute, and he wants to marry her. Celia is a realist, though, and knows all too well that without money they have no future. Therefore she asks him to look for an honest job, but he postpones his search ever again making all kinds of excuses taking recourse even to astrology. When he runs into an old acquaintance one day, a job opportunity offers itself to him and he becomes male nurse at the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat.
“[…] experience as a physical and rational being obliged him to call sanctuary what the psychiatrists called exile and to think of the patients not as banished from a system of benefits but as escaped from a colossal fiasco. If his mind had been on the correct cash-register lines, an indefatigable apparatus for doing sums with the petty cash of current facts, then no doubt the suppression of these would have seemed a deprivation. […]”
He doesn’t mind having to live on the sanatorium’s premises because he realises at once that the patients are just the race of people that he always longed to find and they like him, too. With one of them he even plays non-confrontational chess during his shifts. Meanwhile, Miss Counihan came to London with his former spiritual tutor Neary and one of his former pupils to see what his man-of-all-work found out about Murphy on her behalf. They move in with Celia to wait for him to turn up, but then arrives the news of the accident in his garret…

An omniscient third-person narrator tells the satirical, partly even absurd story of Murphy from the point of view of an unconcerned observer. His attempt at complete physical inactivity probably alludes to Eastern-style meditation, but the author ridicules it making the protagonist exercise a distorted and exaggerated spiritual practice that has little to do with the original. As a result, he appears an idler or a dreamer on the verge of madness rather than a wise man on his way to enlightenment. Despite his eccentricity, he is a very lively character who feels of flesh and blood to me, while all others in the novel are just supporting cast without much depth notwithstanding their idiosyncrasies. In principle, the elaborate plot follows the chronology of events although there are so many flashbacks and even occasional cross-references to other sections of the novel that it requires some attention not to lose track. It is said that the famous chess game with one of the less deranged patients mirrors the plot. Not being a chess player, I’m not in the position to judge this, though. Rich and inventive as it is, Beckett’s language is a pure delight even though a bit difficult at times.

In a nutshell, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Murphy although in general I’m not particularly drawn toward absurd literature. Maybe it helped that as an early work of the en-NOBEL-ed writer it doesn’t yet show all the characteristics present in his later writings; above all, I was spared a minimalistic plot without clear point that would have tried my patience leaving virtually everything to interpretation like the famous play Waiting for Godot, for instance. Thus I could experience the novel as an engaging satire on human desire for transcendence and as a playful debate about body versus mind and reality versus dream. I’m sure that much of its deeper meaning, notably of its criticism was lost on me due to my continental European background as well as to the decades past since the novel’s first release in 1938. At any rate, it’s a remarkable work of literature that deserves my recommendation.

Read also my short review of the play Endgame by Samuel Beckett published on Lagraziana’s Kalliopeion.

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