“Beckett’s Trilogy Consumes All” by Adam Moody

Samuel Beckett’s Trilogy makes writing feel exciting and futile. A melancholic, mirthful, exhilarating scream into the void. It progressively strips away the body of the novel, leaving us to gawk at the gaping, rusty, naked foundation. It’s often an exhausting experience, but in its maniacally fatalist subversion of the form it also becomes an experiment in where the novel can go to escape from tropes, clichés, readymade narrative devices—all the stifling elements that we see lazily recycled endlessly.

The Trilogy is the collective title (apparently this title was adopted against Beckett’s wishes, which is baffling and something I’m not prepared to ruminate on at the moment) for the final three novels Beckett wrote—Molloy and Malone Dies were written together and published in 1951 in French with the English translations by Beckett himself (Molloy co-translated by Patrick Bowles) arriving in 1955 and 1956, followed by The Unnamable which was published in French in 1953 with English translation by Beckett published in 1958.

Molloy is the closest of the three to being a traditional novel, but this is a truth that should be discarded. It is a defilement of the traditional novel, presenting itself as a chronicle of a man’s psyche but the man is mad and willfully unreliable, and a mystery but there is no mystery, only mania. Molloy is bedridden is his mother’s home. She is dead, he knows this but doesn’t know how as he has never seen evidence of her death. A mysterious figure monitors him, bringing him food and writing paper. He doesn’t know what he is supposed to write but is convinced that writing is his only escape (via freedom? death?). These details are covered in a single paragraph about a page and a half in length, the next 80 pages are in a single paragraph in which Molloy tells us his story which is a manic series of half-rememberings and misrememberings. He compulsively sucks stones, wraps himself in The Times Literary Supplement to mask his flatulence and mourns a vagrant freedom that feels like a memory but is likely merely an illusion. The second part is narrated by Moran, an agent or detective for a mysterious organization who is assigned to track down Molloy. Along with a profession he has a house, a housekeeper, and a teenage son, but like Molloy there is no real purpose to his task and their fates are linked: complete devolvement into madness. The ploy of this part’s writing style matches the deception of Moran being given the conventional makings of conventional character. There may be regular paragraph breaks, but his derangement is intrinsically linked to Molloy, their thoughts, possessions, and sensory experiences are connected in many ways.

While Molloy is unsure of the purpose of his being forced to write his monologue, Malone Dies makes the endgame of Malone’s lament clear from the start. He too is bedridden, in an empty room in what could be an asylum or hospital, and a mysterious figure refills his food tray and empties his waste buckets. “While waiting I shall tell myself stories,” Malone announces. “I shall be able to tell myself four stories, each on a different theme. One about a man, another about a woman, a third about a thing and finally one about an animal, a bird probably.” As abstract as these plans are, they at least provide a sense of direction for the narrative. Yet by now you should know that no set path will be abided. Malone is continuously diverted from his stories in order to obsessively inventory his possessions: an exercise book, a brimless hat, a two-sided pencil and a stick. These objects are tangible proof of his existence, which he at turns clings to and rejects. Death is pined for and feared.

Malone Dies treats the deathbed lament story as a series of digressions, the aforementioned inventory, abandoned trains of thought, diversionary fictional inventions, and ultimately a howling call to death. There are two distinct narratives: the first following Saposcats (nickname Sapo). Malone’s telling of Sapo’s story starts and stops, with Malone beginning a narrative thread only to abandon it, saying “What tedium,” “Sapo had no friends—no that won’t do,” “This is awful,” etc. Eventually Sapo’s story is abandoned, the chaos in Malone’s brain drowning out his desire to continue. It’s inevitable to read Malone’s erratic attempts at telling a story and see parallels to the act of writing itself. The second significant narrative that Malone crafts follows Macmann, a man of a strangeness similar to Malone’s who is confined to an institution after falling in mud. Was he seriously injured or was the mud accident merely a means to confine him? He is watched over by an elderly nurse named Moll, and the two begin a sexual affair as weird and fumbling as they are (this mirrors the lurid affair Molloy has with an elderly lady). As Malone writes the story of a character who appears to resemble himself in many aspects, the agonized interruptions become less abrupt. They still arrive with a regularity, but instead of reflecting Malone’s disillusionment with his narrative, they reveal the limits of using invention to escape from the mind’s agony. The digressions grow longer and increasingly manic. Moll is abruptly killed off from Macmann’s story and replaced by Lemuel, a taciturn and intimidating man. As Malone’s rantings become less coherent, this chaos in turn appears in the paranoid and ominous situation between Macmann and Lemuel. Malone Dies concludes with the din of Malone’s lament becoming one with Macmann’s story.

The Unnamable abandons the last remaining dregs of traditional narrative structure. It turns its back on Molloy’s debased odyssey of vagrancy as song for freedom, Moran’s belligerent destruction of the detective genre, and Malone’s manic mashing of deathbed rattle and fiction as failed solace. The Unnamable’s narrator is given no name, making the name Unnamable seem perfectly apt. Unnamable’s voice takes Malone’s deranged rant into the void to a further extreme. There is no room where Unnamable is confined, when it does try to describe its surroundings to us the image it conjures is a sort of empty limbo-inspired space. It is monitored by a figure named Mahood, or is Mahood its former self, or perhaps even its creation? Later Worm arrives, and while he is seemingly created by Unnamable eventually the same questions appear surrounding his existence. The narrators of the previous volumes pass through Unnamable’s consciousness, as well as Murphy, Watt, and Mercier and Camier from Beckett’s earlier novels. Unnamable recalls an omniscient narrator gone mad. No longer capable of taking responsibility for its creations, no longer conscious of having created them, its consciousness becomes a void where the inventions now without a purpose drift aimlessly, trapped in the abyss of nonexistence.

The many parallels between the voices of each narrator, each caught in cycles of deranged rambling of extremes differentiated solely by the form each individual work adopts (then defiles), makes this theory rather satisfying. But the works themselves reject any such clean classification. Reading back over them with eyes conditioned to see these connections and immediately you are bombarded with contradictions. Describing The Unnamable to someone, I described it as an assault of language. The Trilogy, as a whole, fits this description: each work attacking you to increasing degrees. The final volume is the crescendo. As the 120 pages of its ceaseless monologue (with no paragraph breaks at all after the first 10 pages) barrels at you, it begins to feel like being in a locked room with a madman with a feral passion for word games. As exhausting as it is to read, with so many tangents running on for pages of hieroglyphics, it is amazing to see how using essentially the same words Beckett crafts at least ten versions of the same existential screech into the void. Maybe Beckett’s final joke is that for two books he makes you think you are simply visiting madmen locked in rooms and then with The Unnamable you find yourself locked in the room, too, and it often feels like it’s the madman/madmen that have locked you in there with them.

Writing about these books and trying to make sense of them feels as futile as the rants of their respective narrators. Beckett’s project is one of rejection, presenting us with a work where all the novelistic expectations are torn away and then proceeding to strip the carcass even further for two more books. But behind this rejection of literary conventions, this playful, corpse-dancing mockery of the form, Beckett is also pushing the novel in a direction that has only grown to feel increasingly aligned with the atmosphere of the times. Beckett may treat the conventional trappings of the novel with disdain, but this isn’t the point of his exercise, you don’t need hundreds of pages of unbroken rantings for that. The Trilogy is an assault of language because to Beckett the novel form has failed language and in retaliation, he has written a series of novels where language consumes all.

Not much needs to be said about reading a trilogy of novels narrated by madmen confined in rooms a year into quarantine. It feels perversely relevant, but of course it does. Beyond that easy connection, though, there is something truly cathartic about reading books that treat the anxiety, paranoia, and desperate thrashings of the mind as being as oppressive and all-consuming as they feel in reality. The world is in chaos, environmentally, politically, morally, etc. ad nauseam, and for most of us it feels like too much to cope with. Beckett is one of the great writers to capture this atmosphere, and with The Trilogy he explores it to exhausting, grueling, and exhilarating extremes. ♦︎

Adam Moody is a contributing editor for The Review of Uncontemporary Fiction, and by day: Operations at Chronicle Books, by night: coated in dust from reading too many old books.