24.6.14

Brian Evenson on Samuel Beckett's Molloy

An interview with Electric Literature
Samuel Beckett
From Electric Literature:
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 Molloy.I tend to think contemporary American fiction would be more interesting if more writers knew Molloy.

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. 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. [Read More]

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