How’s this for an image. Take Albert Camus, especially the Camus who wrote The Stranger, and place him into a large vat. Heat this Camus soup until all that is not essentially Camus boils off leaving a sort of “Essence of Albert.” Take that essence and infuse it into an Irish expatriate to get the Samuel Beckett who created
In The Stranger, Camus presents Mersault, a jarringly disconnected character who kills an Arab on the beach for no apparent reason. Mersault spends the remainder of the novel failing to defend himself, failing to show remorse, and generally failing to respond to others in the ways that those people might expect him to respond. As vexing as Mersault’s life seems, he seems positively gregarious by comparison with Beckett’s Malone.
Malone narrates his tale from a bed in a hospital, asylum, prison, or some similar venue. Even he is not sure where he is, how he got there, or much of anything else. In preparation for his death, which would be tough for a first-person narrator to present, Malone embarks on writing a series of stories and then completing an inventory of his possessions. Fairly quickly, he decides that writing about an animal and a stone, the second and third proposed stories, should be jettisoned from his list. Instead, he focuses on telling a single story about a character whose name he changes in mid-stream and yet who seems to merge into his own story as the book proceeds.
Unlike Mersault with his single pointless murder, Malone claims six murders, each as inexplicable as the one Camus described. But then everything in Malone’s life is inexplicable. He seems connected to no one. He doesn’t even seem particularly connected to himself. Malone has desires and needs, which are and sometimes are not met, but, beyond his peculiar intention to write a story before his apparently imminent death, Malone expresses no goals or aspirations.
What infuriates me about Beckett, both in Godot and in Malone, is the very intentional manner in which he proclaims the utter pointlessness of life. As compelling as Beckett’s prose seems from the page, the world of randomness that he works so hard to present in a well-crafted and orderly fashion simply does not seem worthy of attention. Malone is a brief novel, yet even this brevity proves difficult to endure. I find it difficult to care about the story that Malone presents, because it does not seem entirely clear that Malone himself cares.
As with so many writers from the mid-twentieth century, Beckett seems to believe that pointlessness can stand by itself as a point for a literary creation. Like extreme versions of deconstruction, which state with confidence that no one can state anything with any certainty, Beckett’s flavor of existentialism defeats itself. Were it not for his extraordinary voice, Beckett would be as unreadable as Sartre. However, when an extraordinary voice like Saul Bellow can explore the difficulties of finding meaning in a slippery and ambiguous world, my patience for Beckett is decidedly limited.