Molloy

New Price: $16.00
Used Price: $2.70

Mentioned in:

The Writer is Not Here: On Nihilism and the Writing Life

When Samuel Beckett was a young man, his parents wanted him to work in the family’s accountancy business and assume his place in Dublin’s Protestant merchant class. As Tim Parks writes in his new book, Life and Work: Writers, Readers, and the Conversations between Them, “a battle of wills ensued between mother and son…As the impasse intensified, [Beckett] developed a number of physical symptoms -- boils, anal cysts, pelvic pains, tachycardia, panic attacks…” The panic attacks would plague Beckett for years, and his biographer Anthony Cronin tells us, in Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist, that he didn’t reflect on his maladies in a conventional manner. In 1935 he attended a lecture by Swiss psychiatrist and former Freud protégé C.J. Jung. Beckett was 29 years old, in analysis, and believed he suffered from a neurotic disorder that “had its origins in infancy, in a time he could not remember,” Cronin writes. In the lecture, Jung described the case of a young girl whose difficulties baffled him until he fell upon a simple, though rather esoteric diagnosis: “The girl had never really been born.” The idea immediately fired Beckett’s imagination. Cronin claims it triggered something crucial in Beckett and would become central to his self-understanding, and a recurring motif in his works. Beckett, he writes, “thought the diagnosis was a profoundly suggestive illumination of his own case, his sense of alienation from the world and of not being ready or fitted to cope with it, to join in its activities as others did, or even to understand the reasons for them." In Life and Work, Parks writes about Beckett and 19 other writers, including Fyodor Dostoevsky, Georges Simenon, Muriel Spark, Peter Stamm, Haruki Murakami, Stieg Larsson, and E.L. James (Parks examining Fifty Shades of Grey is great fun). Here and there in the collection, one occasionally glimpses the true existential cost of the so-called “writer’s life,” where writing is both an act of self-abnegation — with all of its consequent anxieties — as well as a struggle against such a personalized nihilism. Parks tells us that after Beckett published the novel Molloy at the age of 45 — finally setting the stage for literary renown after years of “retyping…for rejection,” as Beckett put it — he had his then girlfriend (and later wife) Suzanne Déchevaux-Dumesnil write to his publisher. She requested they do not enter Molloy for the prestigious Prix des Critiques, because the prizewinner would have to schmooze and make speeches, and “it is impossible for the prizewinner, without serious discourtesy, to refuse to go in for the posturings required by these occasions: warm words for his supporters, interviews, photos, etc. etc. And as (Beckett) feels wholly incapable of this sort of behavior, he prefers not to expose himself.” In light of Beckett’s self-diagnosis, it occurs to me that a man who doesn’t exist, a man who isn’t there, can’t be expected to sign books and sip burgundy with a bunch of boring editors and press types. But this malady isn’t unique to Beckett and his Parisian, mid-century modernist milieu. Julian Barnes had a similar feeling. In his 2008 memoir/treatise on death, Nothing to be Frightened Of, Barnes writes he has a “grown-up fear of just not existing.” Parks believes Barnes is unable to “find consolation for the eventual extinction of his personality… bereft of a reassuring metaphysics and given the findings of science, life this side of the grave is anyway irretrievably devalued, and individual personality doesn’t in fact exist.” For Barnes, it seems to be a rather simple conclusion: If there is no God, then there must be no “me” as well. Parks suggests we can think of personality as something that emerges vis-à-vis “one’s negotiations with others,” and he notes this has always proved problematic for the South African writer J.M. Coetzee. In examining Coetzee’s autobiographic trilogy, Boyhood, Youth, and Summertime, Parks wonders what happens when you come-of-age in 1940s South Africa — at a time when tribal identification is everything — yet you don’t identify with any one community. In Boyhood the protagonist attends a new school where he must self-declare as Christian, Catholic, or Jewish. The boy is from an Afrikaner family, but they speak English instead of Afrikaans. He is born in a Christian milieu, but his parents are agnostic. Because his family is “nothing,” he randomly chooses Catholic, but this doesn’t work either, leading only to ostracization and disgrace. I wonder, if one is outside of all recognized models of community — as some writers are, or at least feel themselves to be — is it possible to know you really exist? It’s unlikely that a gnawing sense of being unborn tops the neuroses of most writers these days, but I’d argue that Beckett’s Jungian insight is more commonly known today as anxiety. In the last century, writers largely handled it by drinking. Beckett’s mentor and friend in Paris, a certain genius named James Joyce, was so fond of the drink he had to forbid himself from starting before six o’ clock—but when dark came, he was as game as Hunter S. Thompson. I think the daily act of sitting alone for hours and purposely conjuring up emotions and disturbing memories — precisely the kinds of things people use Percocet, vodka, food, and Netflix to forget — serves as the ideal petri dish for anxiety. Parks mentions that Barnes and Simenon also suffered from panic attacks. Without doing any real research, I can add the names David Foster Wallace, Philip Roth, Virginia Woolf, John Steinbeck. These are all prose writers, of course. If we begin to add the names of the poets, the list gets real long, real fast. In his essay on Peter Matthiessen, Parks describes a scene in the novel In Paradise, where “pilgrims” are meditating at Auschwitz in a kind of retreat/holocaust remembrance ritual. Parks writes, “The practice of meditation has the effect of breaking down the ego; in hours of silence, the mind intensely focused on breath and body in the present moment, there is no place for the narrative chatter that feeds the constant construction of the self.” In some ways this is not a bad description of the idealized writing state. I think it would certainly fit a kind of Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones, Zen-inspired, Esalen Institute vision of creative writing. But whereas Zen meditation is about an empty mind, writing fiction requires a full page, and that means cultivating lots of narrative chatter, ultimately pulling you back into yourself. But just as writing may induce multifarious forms of anxiety, the right words are also a middle finger to the dying of the light. The God of the Old Testament announced himself to Moses with the startling declaration, “I am who I am.” And writing, at its best, is like that: a declaration of existence, an expression of self-hood and -- when we’re not shaking with fear as Moses did -- a reminder that heaven is not as far from us as it often seems.

Bookends from the New York Times Book Review: The Rejected Questions

Every week, The New York Times Book Review asks two of its 12 “Bookend” columnists to respond to “questions about the world of books.” Here are some prompts that for whatever reason didn’t make the cut. Do you prefer your column to appear on the right or left side of the page? Is it ever okay to burn a book? Do you support the amendment legalizing marriage between works of commercial and literary fiction? When we read fiction, how relevant is the author’s SAT score? What book would you recommend to someone having difficulty thinking up a literary prompt? Is it ethical to dog-ear pages? In the Book of Job, God asks: “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?” Well, where were you? Gird up your loins and answer the guy. What is the Great American Twitter Novel? What will the rise of e-books mean to traditional publishers? What about to those who like to sniff book-binding glue? How do you think the pathetic fallacy will adapt to climate change? Can the state of contemporary literature be used to forecast stock prices? When the “Bookender” crew gets together to drink, who never buys a round? On a related note, what book -- hardcover or paperback -- would you use to bludgeon a fellow columnist? Do you find it disrespectful to read canonical masterpieces in the bathroom? This question comes from Samuel Beckett’s Molloy: “Does it really matter which hand is used to absterge the podex?” When your piece appears, how often do you ever read the facing column on the same topic? Be honest. Do you see the New York Giants’s season as more of a Greek tragedy or a comic picaresque? I’ll take my answer off the air. Which of these statements do you find most true?: 1) Poetry makes nothing happen; 2) Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world; or 3) Poetry helps me get laid. What is the relationship between font and content? I know I screwed up -- and I swear I’ll never see that divorcée from BookExpo America again -- but do you think my darling wife Marcy can find it in her heart to take me back? I’m begging you, please save my marriage by both saying yes. So…The Goldfinch? Discuss. Image Credit: Wikipedia

A Year in Reading: Brian Evenson

Brian Evenson is the author of eight books of fiction, most recently The Open Curtain, which was a finalist for the Edgar Award and the International Horror Guild Award, and was named by Time Out New York as one of the best books of 2006. He is the recipient of both an O. Henry Award and an NEA award.I've decided I should exclude books I blurbed (like Peter Markus' Bob, or Man on Boat or Michael Kimball's Dear Everybody or Atilla Bartis's brilliant but harrowing Tranquility), books by my colleagues (such as Forrest Gander's As a Friend), books I reread (ranging from Beckett's Molloy to Peter Straub's Koko), and books that I loved but will have forgotten about until just moments after this is posted. Of books that came out this year I genuinely enjoyed Kelly Link's Pretty Monsters. It contains a couple of stories published in her earlier collections (including one of my favorites, "The Specialist's Hat") as well as a number of previously uncollected stories. Link walks the boundary between literary and genre (including YA) fiction in way that draws on the strengths of both and always surprises. Check out "The Wizards of Perfil" and what she does with shifting narrative attention or the way she handles dialogue in general. And the storytelling is always good.In terms earlier books, I read Wyndham Lewis's The Revenge for Love (1937) for the first time this year. It's a beautifully written and sophisticated book, often very funny, quite uniformly vicious toward all groups and factions. It's an utterly original and unjustly neglected novel, and Lewis's style is unlike that of anyone else.And finally, the story that has stuck with me most this year is Yu Hua's hard to find "One Kind of Reality" (I found it in Henry Zhao's anthology The Lost Boat but it's in at least one other anthology), which does things with violence, lack of affect and family relationships that I've never experienced before. It's a truly terrifying story, and well worth reading for anyone interested in transgressive fiction.More from A Year in Reading 2008
Surprise Me!

BROWSE BY AUTHOR