Molloy by Samuel Beckett, book of a lifetime: A mad, hilarious, strangely gripping episode

 

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Sometime in my teens, our library began to stock vinyl LPs with readings of famous works of literature. Curious, I would borrow at random. So one day I heard a deep Irish voice announce, "I took advantage of being at the seaside to lay in a store of sucking stones." What was this?

A man collects 16 pebbles, or sucking stones, and becomes obsessed with the challenge of sucking them "turn and turn about" in "impeccable succession". The problem is distinguishing between them. He keeps them in the four pockets of his trousers and greatcoat and imagines bizarre distributions that might allow him to transfer his stones from one pocket to another in such a way as never to suck the same one twice before beginning the sequence over.

It is a mad, hilarious, strangely gripping episode that ends in a flurry of contradiction: "But deep down it was all the same to me whether I sucked a different stone each time or always the same stone, until the end of time."

Brilliant. The writer was called Samuel Beckett. The book was Molloy. Since they didn't have it at the library I spent pocket money and bought a Jupiter paperback that I still have today, minus its cover. Read three times over the next couple of years, Molloy entirely changed my sense of what could be done with literature. You have a wonderfully engaging, comic voice remembering distant events in the narrator's life – an attempt to find his mother to ask her for money –yet as you read, every ordinary assumption one has about novels is stripped away from you, the setting, the identity of the characters, the time scheme, the reality of events themselves. In the end, nothing is certain but that the voice will go on trying to put a life together and make sense of it until death calls time on the tale. Reading it at seventeen, I was bewildered and absolutely seduced. There was something inexplicably recognisable about it all.

Later, realising Beckett originally wrote the book in French I was bewildered again. It had seemed so utterly, authentically Irish.

Today, 50 years on, I always slip a couple of lessons on Molloy into the post-grad course I teach on translation; of 20 students there are always one or two who are immediately enchanted. If you want to test your resistance, go to Jack MacGowran Reads Beckett on YouTube and listen to part five. It's the very same voice I picked up in my library in North Finchley, shortly after Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, as I recall.

Tim Parks's new novel, 'Painting Death', is published by Harvill Secker on 3 July

Comments