Keith Ridgway on Beckett's Mercier and Camier

A reflection on Beckett's short novel
Samuel Beckett. Photograph: John Haynes.

Irish novelist Keith Ridgway writes about Samuel Beckett's novel, Mercier and Camier, and the influence it has held on his work:
Beckett's concentration of the human voice led him, perhaps inevitably, to the stage. By 1953 his boiling down of confusion and memory had revealed the sharp gleaming bone of Waiting For Godot. But before doing any of that, before altering forever the way we think about the novel and the play, he did something that has annoyed Beckett scholars and biographers ever since - he wrote Mercier and Camier.

They'll try to tell you that it's not a good book. That it doesn't fit into the great Beckett canon. That its omnipotent narrator and the jokesy tone are throwbacks to the earlier, less interesting author of Murphy and Watt. They may be right. It's certainly true that Beckett had begun the book before his trip back to Ireland - before his "revelation". Perhaps he just wanted to clear his desk, get it out of the way before embarking on his new idea.

The book's detractors certainly comfort themselves with the fact that Beckett refused permission for its publication until 1970, and did not bother translating it into English until 1974. Nevertheless, Mercier and Camier remains, even in the face of what came afterwards, perhaps because of what came afterwards, one of my favourite pieces of Beckett writing.

My mother gave me a gift of the trilogy on my 20th birthday. I had read the novellas by then I think, and I'd heard about this mad three-piece and I was ready to plunge into it. But I was hampered somewhat. I think that I was too young for it. I got some of the jokes, and there were passages that made my heart do strange things, but I felt that I was skating over it, that I was missing the point. I gave up about two-thirds of the way through Molloy. So when, in the university library, I stumbled upon a Beckett book which I'd never heard of, that looked fairly short and digestible, I thought I'd try it instead.

The journey of Mercier and Camier is one I can tell, if I will, for I was with them all the time.

The book is full of familiar Beckettisms. The eponymous pair are tramps, or tramping anyway, around a city and then out of it, and then back. They are aimless but there is something elusive that they feel they need to be doing. They arrange meetings that don't happen, or do happen but at the wrong time, afterwards, as if by accident. They spend their time in circular arguments about splitting up, being shot of each other. They are preoccupied by the weather, a raincoat, an umbrella, a bicycle. All of these are ingredients in later work as well, and they come accompanied here, fleetingly, by those things in Beckett that we know about but cannot really name, those things that occupy so much of the trilogy. Intangible things, traps in the mind, that voice we hear, the stop-start understanding, the ongoing bewilderment, the fear. [Read More]

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