Brian Evenson on Samuel Beckett’s Molloy
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Colin Winnette asked Brian Evenson to suggest a book. Brian picked Molloy by Samuel Beckett. Then they talked about it
Brian Evenson is the author of many books of fiction, most recently the story collection Windeye and the novel Immobility. In 2009 he published the novel Last Days (which won the American Library Association’s RUSA award for Best Horror Novel of the year) and the story collection Fugue State, both of which were on Time Out New York’s top books of 2009. His novel The Open Curtain (Coffee House Press) was a finalist for an Edgar Award and an IHG Award. His work has been translated into French, Italian, Spanish, Japanese and Slovenian. He lives and works in Providence, Rhode Island, where he teaches in Brown University’s Literary Arts Program. Other books include The Wavering Knife (which won the IHG Award for best story collection), Dark Property, and Altmann’s Tongue. He has translated work by Christian Gailly, Jean Frémon, Claro, Jacques Jouet, Eric Chevillard, Manuela Draeger, Antoine Volodine, and others. He is the recipient of three O. Henry Prizes as well as an NEA fellowship.
Colin Winnette: What motivated this recommendation?
Brian Evenson: It’s a book I’m very fond of, and
I tend to think contemporary American fiction would be more interesting if more writers knew <i>Molloy</i>.
I think it’s also a very funny book (though weird humor sometimes) and has some amazing sentences.
CW: How did you first encounter this book? What was your initial reaction, if you can remember?
BE: At the end of my senior year in high school, we had to read Edward Albee’s play Zoo Story for class. In the note in the textbook for that play, it said that if you’d liked Albee you’d probably also like Samuel Beckett. There was a little used bookstore in an industrial area in Provo, Utah and I ended up picking up Beckett’s Endgame there for a dollar. I loved it — still my favorite Beckett play — and that ended up leading me to Beckett’s trilogy (Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable). I like all three of those books, but Molloy was the one that really blew me away. I was at once intrigued by it and felt like I was missing a lot. I also think that the fact that the first section is just two paragraphs (one a couple of pages long and one about 80 pages long) kept me going: I didn’t feel like I could stop reading until I’d reached the end of a paragraph, and that made for a very strange, anxious experience. I also think its ability to juxtapose two narratives and still work as a whole is really admirable. It was really different than anything else I’d ever read, which may be what kept me going, but I think also when the narrative switches from Molloy to Moran that did something for me and I wanted to keep reading to see how the two narratives would or wouldn’t come together.
CW: What’s your sense of how the Moran section (part II) interacts with the Molloy section (part I)? What’s revealed/complicated?
BE: Well, it’s a discontinuous juxtaposition, one that seems like it’s structured so that the second part will resolve the first part. There are all sorts of gestures made towards that in things said in the Moran section, but as it progresses you begin to realize it’s not going to actually sew up or resolve anything, at least not completely. Instead, it’s almost as if Moran is going through a kind of “Becoming-Molloy” (though that too is discontinuous and not completely parallel). Very little is accomplished by Moran (apart from a death he’s not sure he understands); he returns to where he started from, but that place has fallen apart in his absence just as he too has fallen apart in being absent. And of course the way it ends calls into question everything about the narrative itself and about narrative in general.
CW: Was the connection to Albee profitable (other than motivating you to discover Beckett)?
BE: Not really. I liked Zoo Story and I like the other Albee plays I’ve read or seen, but I feel that Beckett’s a different sort of animal than Albee. But sure, they’re animals that are pretty close evolutionarily even if they’re not the same. I think whoever wrote the notes for the anthology had read Martin Esslin’s The Theater of the Absurd and saw both Beckett and Albee as being part of that tradition. And in any case, I owe Albee a debt for not only changing my idea of what drama could be when I was in high school but also for leading me indirectly to Beckett.
CW: Will you talk a little about Beckett’s apparent obsession with decay, with aging, rot, even mental/psychological decay? Molloy isn’t the only Beckett work that leads you in one direction, only to lose its narrative “trajectory” to decay and stagnance.
BE: I think it’s more than apparent. It has something to do with Beckett’s philosophical notion that we move from the cradle to the grave, that that’s the only direction that anything moves, at least anything organic. As he suggests in Waiting for Godot: We “give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.” We are left each day with a little less — though moments in his work ironize this or call it into question.
Beckett’s about the night, but he’s also about the brief gleam.
CW: How might writers knowing about Molloy make contemporary American fiction more interesting?
BE: I guess what I think — and I’ve talked about this elsewhere — is that there are two very different strands of innovation in American fiction. One can be traced, roughly, back to Joyce (Ulysses in particular) and involves a kind of excessive maximalism and lots of pyrotechnics. David Foster Wallace, for instance (who I admire a lot). There’s a great deal to be admired in that strand, and a lot to be learned from it, but at the same time I feel sometimes like those writers seem like they want to cram the whole world into a paper bag. It’s impressive, in a way, to watch that cramming take place, but what you have in the end often strikes me as being a little too proud of itself, wanting a little too much attention for being virtuosic. The other strand for me is traced back to Beckett and Kafka, who manage to do amazing things with language but also aren’t really interested in being impressive. Those works don’t say “Look at me”; instead they get down to the very serious business of figuring something out, of following and pursuing a line, and then don’t mind cutting out the noise of other things that don’t feel relevant. They’re modest in one way, incisive and deadly in another. I tend to think if more American writers ended up reading Beckett, and Molloy in particular, it’d shift the American sense of what experiment is. I can see it in contemporary French literature — Beckett has had a very positive effect. And then of course there are the non-innovative/non-experimental realms of literature. I think realist writers in particular should be confronted with Molloy’s lack of tidiness.
CW: Are there any contemporary American realist writers who you think have been positively affected by Beckett, or Molloy, in particular?
BE: Hmmmm. Offhand, I can’t really think of any.
I think there are a lot of innovative writers influenced by Beckett but few if any realists.
I think some of those innovative writers might have started as realists, but Beckett’s kind of a gateway drug to places beyond realism.
CW: Do you reread Molloy regularly? How do you approach it? Are you still looking to learn from it?
BE: Yes. I used to reread it once a year; now it’s every few years or so — mainly because I want to forget it enough in between to feel like it’s partly new again. When I was in graduate school I ended up going through the French and English versions and comparing them line by line and wrote an article about the differences and similarities, so I feel like I’ve gone over it more intensively than any other book. When I reread it, it’s like seeing an old friend again, and being reminded of why you’re friends. There are lots of moments I remember from reading to reading, but other moments that I only remember as I’m reading them, and moments which didn’t strike me on an earlier reading that strike me now.
CW: Could you provide a link to that article, for interested folks?
BE: It’s called “Heterotopia and Negativity in Beckett’s Molloy(s)” and was published in Symposium in 1992. You can get to it from that title, though probably need a university library to access the full article.
CW: For those who don’t know, can you talk a little bit about Beckett’s relationship to French? I know he wrote in French, though it wasn’t his first language, and he did so for very particular reasons.
BE: Beckett said he wrote in French “parce qu’en français, c’est plus facile d’écrire sans style” [because in French it’s easier to write without style]. I think you always have a different relationship to your adopted tongue than you do your native tongue, and Beckett felt that writing in French meant stripping away a lot of the stylistic fillips and language games that he was using at the time in English (in writing, for instance his early novel Dream of Fair to Middling Women). It’s a deliberate impoverishment of his syntactic and vocabularic repertoire.
CW: Can you offer some advice for readers interested in Beckett, but who might feel intimidated by this book?
BE: Well, if you can make it through the first two paragraphs, you’re good. After that, you get roughly normal paragraphing. I think it’s a slightly tricky book in that for me a lot of the satisfaction comes from getting through Molloy’s narrative and then entering Moran’s very different narrative, and then starting to make the little connections between the two. The Molloy section deliberately wanders, and gives us very little to hold onto until we get quite far into it. The voice carries us forward, I think, and the obsessions of the narrator, and the idea that it’s a kind of journey, but that’s undercut by Molloy’s own confusion. I think the best way to read Molloy is to relax into it, not worry about whether you’re missing something, and just plunge ahead. The book won’t give answers to some of the questions that it raises (and that more traditional novels would answer) but it gives a lot of satisfactions in terms of what’s going on with language. I think, like Samuel Delany’s Hogg (which is a very different, very extreme book), that there’s going to be the temptation to stop reading, but that if you do you’re not getting the part of the reading that helps you make sense of what you’ve already read. So, persist, don’t worry about what’s significant or not, and just forge ahead.
CW: What are some of the unanswered questions? What’s offered instead?
BE: Why is Molloy in his mother’s room? Who is the man who takes his pages? To what degree is Moran’s story constructed and to what degree is it based/tied to real events? And on and on… What’s offered instead is a lively voice, confusion, humor, and more questions.
CW: Can you talk a little more about the function of obsession in Molloy? For me, Molloy’s obsessive and compulsive behavior compellingly complicates his frequent fatalism. And how might Moran’s deterioration relate?
BE: I think this is something that you find in most of Beckett’s work, not just Molloy, that the obsessiveness and the interest in formulating the world is what drives the work itself. It’s not a tidy sort of directionality, like a 19th century novel plot or a typical story arc, but like little eruptions of obsessiveness. So, in Molloy, suddenly it seems imperative to the narrator to explain his sucking stone system. Or in How It Is there’s a very meticulous outlining of the shape and structure of the world that’s been created and how it all interrelates. It’s an obsession with systematization, which is something that we use to try to control the world around us, to try to make sense of what is difficult to make sense of at all.
CW: In the past, you and I have talked about your love for “…following the articulation of a system or a series of ideas: it doesn’t really matter…how wrong the system or the idea is (or if I know whether it’s wrong or not) as long as I can pursue its development and processing…” Is this interest, on your part, something that drew you to Beckett, or something that developed out of, or alongside, your encounters with his work?
BE: That’s a really good question. I don’t know which came first, but I imagine I responded to it in Beckett because I already had that impulse, that reading Beckett fed something that was already there but buried.
CW: When did you first lock into what appealed to you about what Beckett was doing? Do you remember the moment when you realized this book was going to stick with you?
BE: I think for me I started reading wondering what had happened to Molloy, how he had come to be where he was, and who it was that was having him record his story. That’s a good entry point, and gives a kind of tension that makes you wonder whether his digressions and lack of clarity have something to do with his own suspicions about who his audience is. But, as it progresses, you have to give up at least some of those concerns, slowly realizing you might never have a complete answer. But the offbeat humor is something that gets under your skin slowly. And ultimately for me, by the time we get to the last lines the book has profoundly questioned reality.
CW: The narrative voice is both compelling and destabilizing. As a reader, you’re pulled in two directions at once.
BE: Yes, you are. The voice gives you something to hold onto, but after a while you wonder what it is exactly you’re holding onto. That tension is similar to something Beckett refers to at one point, I can no longer remember where, as the “two-fold vibration.” I like that in that it implies a kind of movement back and forth that strikes me as being more than a tension, and describes for me better the effect it has on the reader.
CW: In many ways, the character of Molloy is a typical Beckett centerpiece. An older, enfeebled figure, attempting a report on his life, while also simply attempting to move (often characters will strain to even lift a leg — I love the description of Molloy riding a bike). It made me suspicious of Moran — a character who, at first, is unlike the majority of characters in the Beckett universe.
BE: Yes, that’s true. Molloy’s a transitional book for Beckett in many regards. For me that’s one of the appeals of it, that it retains something of the structure of a novel at a moment when Beckett is moving past the novel — it’s like it’s the novel’s ghost, I suppose. We feel the way the gestures might go if Beckett were writing at a different time, and he nods toward those gestures and then does what he really wants to do.
CW: There’s something I always wonder, when encountering a hardcore Beckett fan, so I wanted to ask you here, because it seems particularly relevant given your body of work: is death a primary concern of yours? Aging? Decay? I guess I mean personally. How much do these thoughts occupy you, and is work like Beckett’s a balm or an irritant for those concerns?
BE: The Times review of my first story collection pointed out that of the 29 stories in the collection 11 begin with a death in the first paragraph, so I think that yes, it’s likely that there’s an obsession with death for me, at least in my fiction. I don’t think that extends much to my life. I’m not abnormally afraid of death, and not all that scared of aging.
I think there’s a kind of stoicism that comes from growing up in the American West as the descendant of pioneers, where I was raised to just see death and life as two sides of the same coin.
So, I don’t think I’m particularly morbid as a person — most people when they meet me are surprised to find that I’m a fairly gentle, relaxed, happy human — but also don’t think that there’s any reason not to think and write about difficult stuff, partly because they reveal things to us about human experience that might not be revealed by less extreme situations. And yes, for some reason, I do find joy and satisfaction in some of Beckett’s darker moments.
CW: Could you leave us with a passage? Or something to keep in mind?
BE: I love the way Beckett plays with narrative expectation, and the black humor of this book as well. My favorite passage of the novel, which I’ve quoted a few times elsewhere, is “He thrust his hand at me. I have an idea I told him once again to get out of my way. I can still see the hand coming toward me, pallid, opening and closing. As if self-propelled. I do not know what happened then. But a little later, perhaps a long time later, I found him stretched on the ground, his head in a pulp. I am sorry I cannot indicate more clearly how this result was obtained, it would have been something worth reading.”