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Samuel Beckett, whose centenary is celebrated April 13, pictured his project before he understood it: that exhausted journey toward an impossible goal replicated in miniature by so many of his characters. It happens in Murphy (1938), his first published novel, which can be found, along with the rest of his official oeuvre, in the four-volume Grove Centenary Edition. Murphy, a youngish layabout with a yen for oblivion, finally finds a job that suits him, as much as anything could be said to suit him. (That immediate downward qualification is the Beckett tic afflicting everyone who ingests his work at an impressionable age.) He signs on as a nurse in a mental institution.
There he becomes fascinated with one patient in particular, a Mr. Endon, who has retreated so far into himself as to be inaccessible to the outer world, precisely the condition to which Murphy himself aspires. Perhaps blasphemously, Murphy desires some sort of communion with his idol, but how to effect it? Verbal communication is out of the question, since Mr. Endon never speaks and perhaps never hears. Touch, the sensual communication that continually lures Murphy back to the world, much to his own disgust, is likewise ruled out. Mathematics provides the answer, Murphy believes, specifically the geometry of the chessboard. And here, miraculously, Mr. Endon is eager to engage—if not with Murphy as opponent, at least with chess as a means of objectifying his own containment.
And so begins the most memorable chess match in fiction, a combat of no combat in which Murphy valiantly tries to sacrifice his pieces to his opponent, or at minimum receive some acknowledgement that they are playing the same game, while Mr. Endon answers only his own challenge, moving his pieces out onto the board in complicated patterns before returning them to (almost) their original positions.
Mr. Endon reappears in various guises in Beckett’s later work—as Mr. Knott in
Watt (1943) and most famously as Godot, a role in which he shows himself most perfectly by not appearing at all. He is the terminus, the void which Beckett’s characters yearn for and cannot attain (never end, always on). That chess game grew into perhaps the last truly fundamental contribution to world literature: an attempt to find the words for silence, doomed from its inception, which makes the writer’s perseverance in the task both heroic and comic. And he knew this, too. Like Murphy, Beckett could only fail. The challenge was to fail successfully, lose definitively, and to this end he was still admonishing himself, even in one of his last works, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
But Beckett had not yet found his voice when he wrote Murphy, which describes but doesn’t enact the attempt. (That begins in earnest with the trilogy of novels that form the central hub of his oeuvre—Molloy, Malone Dies (both 1951), and The Unnameable (1953). He hadn’t yet realized that the game must be played not through but in language, by gnawing away from the inside, excising the superfluous, pushing it to its limit of expressiveness, only, continually, to find another limit after that—”For to End Yet Again,” as one title puts it. And that’s comic too, a metaphysical slapstick like Buster Keaton nailing pancakes over the multiplying holes of his sinking ship,creating a new opening with every hammer blow.
It’s also tragic, this compulsion to speak, to act, to remain in light while desiring only darkness and stillness and silence But Beckett joined those extremes—which are also the extremes of high culture and low comedy, measured diction and uncontrollable farting—more systematically than anyone had ever thought to do. He recognized the pain in the pratfall and also that “nothing is funnier than unhappiness.”
At the center, between the poles, there is melancholy. So much of Beckett’s work is haunted by love and lost connection, thwarted attempts to bridge two solitudes. It’s the central wound no art can heal. Krapp fast-forwards impatiently through the tape recording of the moment he discovered his vocation but dwells on his last encounter with a girl he loved, lingering on a line addressed to her half-closed eyes: “Let me in.”
Beckett found the space next to silence and darkness in every medium he turned to. He was perhaps the first to fully exploit the embarrassment of theater—incorporating dead patches and literalizing the compulsion to perform, such as by isolating a mouth in full babble, unwilling to identify itself with the words it spews, in Not I. His radio plays are built around the provisional presence of the human voice, his film around an attempt to escape the omnivorous eye of the camera, and his television plays around a steady drone of speech, penetrating intimate environments uninvited with the nagging perseverance of memory. He had a sharp eye for essences.
But his deepest and most complicated endgame was played out in prose, the struggle of language against itself. The Grove Centenary Edition puts it all together and offers readers a new opportunity to fail along in his persistent shadow.