The TBR Challenge: Beckett

Today I finished my 12th book for Emily’s TBR challenge (you can see my list in the sidebar to the right). That is, I read my 12th book out of a planned 20, and I’m in the middle of a 13th. Considering the fact that the challenge goes until the end of this year, I’d say I’m doing quite well. I’m enjoying having a longish list of books to choose from, which gives some structure to my choices but also isn’t too limiting. We’ll see how I feel when I get down to just a couple books left, but since I have more than six months to read them, I have plenty of time and can read books off as well as on the list. I like this structure so much, I might compile another list of 20 when I’ve completed this one, just for the fun of it.

So the book I finished today is Samuel Beckett’s novel Molloy. Well, that was an interesting read. It was odd and wonderful in the way you expect from Samuel Beckett, if you’ve read him before. I could tell that this book was written by the same author who wrote Waiting for Godot and Endgame, two plays I’ve read and/or taught, and which I enjoyed in a bewildered, bemused kind of way. I responded to this novel in much the same spirit.

The book splits into two parts, and I’ll admit to liking the first part much better than the second. The first part is told in the first person from Molloy’s perspective, and it’s a stream of consciousness narrative of his journey through some unnamed territory. He’s no regular traveler, though; he’s a vagrant, with no money, very few possessions, and one simple quest — to find his mother. He’s not sure where she is, though, and he’s also not sure where he is; all he knows is that he wants to find his mother, but he keeps running into obstacles that keep him away. He’s physically decrepit, first of all, with one bad leg and a “good” leg that is in danger of going bad, and a whole host of other ailments. He travels around on a bicycle that he can’t move very well. He can’t remember much either, and he keeps running into people who arrest him or insist on taking him in, which he wants none of.

What makes this narrative appealing is the rambling voice, which is comic, bawdy, philosophical, and despairing by turns. He moves from a wonderfully funny meditation on how to store his 16 “sucking stones” — stones that keep him from feeling the full extent of his hunger — so that he sucks on each one equally and in order, to serious thoughts on death, to comic passages on the body, and back to seriousness again. It’s absurd and crazy and sometimes moving.

The second section is narrated by a mysterious detective-type named Moran who receives instructions to find Molloy. This part of the book is about his preparations for and execution of this mission (or his attempted execution of it). While Molloy is endearing in an odd sort of way, Moran is an ugly character: he treats his son and his housekeeper abominably, and he’s full of pride, hypocrisy, and cruelty. As he sets out to find Molloy, his world begins to fall apart around him until he becomes a lot like Molloy himself — lost, physically falling apart, despairing, hopeless.

While I didn’t enjoy the second half as much I did the first, I still loved the bizarreness of it all. This is the kind of novel where you have to get rid of your expectations of what a novel usually is and accept a completely different kind of world, with entirely different rules. I like the challenge of this, at least now and then. It’s not a difficult novel, really; it’s just off in its own corner far away from all the other novels, doing its own unique thing.

For my 13th book in the TBR challenge, I’m reading a collection of essays by the poet Louise Glück, Proofs and Theories. I’ve read only the first essay so far, which I thought was wonderful: it’s an autobiographical essay on the experiences that turned her into the type of poet she has become. The writing is thoughtful and smart, writing to take one’s time with.

And now I need to go choose another novel. I’ll probably pick something not on the TBR challenge list, just for a change of pace. But I have no idea what it will be.

10 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

10 responses to “The TBR Challenge: Beckett

  1. The only prose I know by Beckett is his short story, ‘Ping’ which I think is simply brilliant. I used to read it with my first year undergrads who clearly thought I was totally mad when I told them it was the greatest story in the anthology we were using. I hope I managed to convince them otherwise by the end of the course.

  2. The trilogy that begins with this book is one of my favorite pieces of literature of all time! Love it, love it, love it. I agree with you that Moran is a lot less pleasant to spend time with than Molloy, but I like the odd symmetry in how they end up in such similar situations/crises, and how all the odd “landmarks” that Molloy has passed loop back around in Moran’s part of the narrative. I also find it oddly compelling how peoples’ bodies become bizarrely unresponsive in Beckett – it seems like he likes to think about connections we take for granted becoming unmoored, both between the body & mind, and between cause & effect, problem & solution, etc. Your post made me want to re-read these books!

  3. I’ve never tried Beckett before–always thinking I would do better with his work in a group read or classroom setting but not sure that will ever happen. I tend to group certain authors off on their own and should be more willing to try them and read outside my comfort zone. You’re doing really well with your list! I always make a short list of books that I want to read over the course of the year but haven’t done well in reading them–maybe it’s time to revisit my own list.

  4. I adore Molloy, in its entirety! I haven’t read Malone Meurt but I did read The Unnameable a couple of years ago (which apparently students dub ‘The Unreadable’) and enjoyed it too. He is SO bizarre and yet the world he describes, being so dictated by genuine emotion, is wholly recognisable. And I love Gluck’s poems too. I’ve never read her essays – how tempting do they sound??!

  5. I’ve only ever read Waiting for Godot and liked it. Your post really makes me want to read more Beckett! This one sounds delightfully odd. When next I am in the mood for something of that nature I will definitely keep this in mind. You are doing really well on the challenge. I don’t know where I am at in my list I have lost track and will have to take a look soon.

  6. Pingback: TBR Challenge Update | So Many Books

  7. I’ve seen the stage production of Waiting for Godot. And because visually there isn’t much going on, so maybe reading the play would be more enjoyable… at least you can re-read certain lines.

    And Stefanie, in a way, reading Beatrice and Virgil (the play within the story) reminds me of Beckett’s WFG.

    You have some interesting titles on your TBR list, Dorothy. I’ve got Jacob’s Room on my shelf for a few years now… maybe I’ll wait to read your review first.

    On another note, just wonder what’s your take on New Yorker’s ‘Top 20 Under 40′.

  8. Study Window — oh, how interesting! I haven’t read any of Beckett’s short stories, but I’m curious. I can well imagine how the students might respond :)

    Emily — how great that you love these books so much. Nice commentary! You are right, of course, that the connections between the two sections are what is really interesting about reading the second part. And yes, he does send you off into a bizarre world where nothing quite makes sense, and it’s such an interesting experience. Perhaps I should look into the rest of the trilogy?

    Danielle — well, you would have no trouble with Beckett, I’m sure, but I do understand — I put off reading this book for a LONG time! If you’re tempted to read Beckett ever, his plays are very fast reads and wouldn’t take long.

    Litlove — another Molloy fan! I should read the other books in the trilogy, I think. You are so right that the emotional world is recognizable, even if other parts aren’t. And the Gluck essays are great. They make me want to return to her poetry.

    Stefanie — he’s perfect for when you’re in the mood to try something strange and experimental and also fun. I love his play Endgame as well as Waiting for Godot. Happy Days is really good too — and bizarre!

    Arti — I’d love to see Waiting for Godot on stage, even though there’s a risk it might not be terribly exciting. It would be great to see what they made of it. About the 20 under 40 … I suppose, as they say, it’s a good starting place for conversation, but I’m not terribly interested in that kind of list. I don’t read enough contemporary fiction to be that interested in exploring the people more. But I suppose it’s at least a starting point for exploring what’s going on in fiction today.

  9. Congratulations in sticking to your TBR challenge! It sounds like the great variety of books on your list is what makes it so easy to stick to. I’m looking forward to hearing about book #13!

  10. Debby — thanks! Yes, the variety definitely helps, although we’ll see how I do when I’m down to just a few books and the variety is gone. I might chuck the list at that point and start over, which wouldn’t be a bad thing, I think.

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