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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Murphy by Samuel Beckett

Reads like this:

In Dublin a week later, that would be September 19th, Neary minus his whiskers was recognized by a former pupil called Wylie, in the General Post Office, contemplating from behind the statue of Cuchulain. Neary had bared his head, as though the holy ground meant something to him. Suddenly he flung aside his hat, sprang forward, seized the dying hero by the thighs and began to dash his head against his buttocks, such as they are. The Civic Guard on duty in the building, roused from a tender reverie by the sound of blows, took in the situation at his leisure, disentangled his baton and advanced with measured tread, thinking he had caught a vandal in the act. Happily Wylie, whose reactions as a street bookmaker’s stand were as rapid as a zebra’s, had already seized Neary round the waist, torn him back from the sacrifice and smuggled him halfway to the exit.
‘Howlt on there, youze,’ said the CG.
Wylie turned back, rapped his forehead and said, as one sane man to another:
‘John o’ God’s. Hundred per cent harmless.’
‘Come back in here, owwathat,’ said the CG.
Wylie, a tiny man, stood at a loss. Neary, almost as large as the CG, though not of course so nobly proportioned, rocked blissfully on the right arm of his rescuer. It was not in the CG’s nature to bandy words, nor had it come into any branch of his training. He resumed his steady advance.
‘Stillorgan,’ said Wylie. ‘Not Dundrum.’
The CG laid his monstrous hand on Wylie’s left arm and exerted a strong pull along the line he had mapped out in his mind. They all moved off in the desired direction, Neary shod with orange-peel.
‘John o’God’s,’ said Wylie. ‘As quiet as a child.’
They drew up behind the statue. A crowd gathered behind them. The CG leaned forward and scrutinized the pillar and draperies.
‘Not a feather out of her,’ said Wylie. ‘No blood, no brains, nothing.’
The CG straightened up and let go Wylie’s arm.
‘Move on,’ he said to the crowd, ‘before yer moved on.’
The crowd obeyed, with the single diastole-systole which is all the law requires. Feeling amply repaid by this superb symbol for the trouble and risk he had taken in issuing an order, the CG inflected his attention to Wylie and said more kindly:
‘Take my advice, mister -‘ He stopped. To devise words of advice was going to tax his ability to the utmost. When would he learn not to plunge into the labyrinths of an opinion when he had not the slightest idea of how he was to emerge? And before a hostile audience! His embarrassment was if possible increased by the expression of strained attention on Wylie’s face, clamped there by the promise of advice.
‘Yes, sergeant,’ said Wylie, and held his breath.
‘Run him back to Stillorgan,’ said the CG. Done it!
Wylie’s face came asunder in gratification.
‘Never fear, sergeant,’ he said, urging Neary towards the exit, ‘back to the cell, blood heat, next best thing to never being born, no heroes, no fisc, no-‘
Neary had been steadily recovering all this time, and now gave such a jerk to Wylie’s arm that the poor little man was nearly pulled off his feet.
‘Where am I?’ said Neary. ‘If and when.’
Wylie rushed him into the street and into a Dalkey tram that had just come in. The crowd dispersed, the better to gather elsewhere. The CG dismissed the whole sordid episode from his mind, the better to brood on a theme very near to his heart.

My copy is the Picador paperback, published by Pan Books in association with Calder and Boyars in London in 1973 and its pages are yellow with age, the spine cracked and, as I read further and further, more cracked so that several of the pages came loose and tried to escape.
The book was first published in the UK in 1938 after being rejected more than forty times. As a prose satire it follows the doings of several characters with enormous vocabularies, at the centre of which waxes the consciousness of Murphy. At the bidding of his lover, Celia Kelly, Murphy finds employment in a mental hospital in London and discovers his own desired reflection in the catatonia of the patients. This allows him to pass over from a consciousness in crisis to a state of total oblivion when he mistakes a gas tap for a lavatory chain.
Pointlessness seems to be the point of the narrative. Pointlessness and entrapment. London is a trap. The entire solar system is a trap, and there is no way out apart from death, the release into silence and the absence of being. None of the Dickensian characters pursuing Murphy around London achieve anything at all. Their dreams are transparent and unattainable. It seemed apt that the book was disintegrating in my hands as I read it, and when I came to the last chapter pages were falling out all over the place and I was waked by random leaves spreading out behind me like the tail of Mr Kelly’s disappearing kite.
Nevertheless, the unsympathetic Murphy and his followers do provide Beckett with a vehicle for innovation and linguistic invention, always ironic, often blackly so, which would be refined and enhanced in later works. In Murphy, the two tramps of Godot are already becoming apparent.

Richard Ellman believes that:

Samuel Beckett is sui generis…He has given a voice to the decrepit and maimed and inarticulate, men and women at the end of their tether, past pose or pretense, past claim of meaningful existence. He seems to say that only there and then, as metabolism lowers, amid God’s paucity, not his plenty, can the core of the human condition be approached… Yet his musical cadences, his wrought and precise sentences, cannot help but stave off the void… Like salamanders we survive in his fire.

4 Responses to “Murphy by Samuel Beckett”

  1. Patti Abbott says:

    Looks brilliant, John. Thanks.

  2. Jim Murdoch says:

    I have the exact same copy of ‘Murphy’. It was the first of Beckett’s prose that I read. I was nineteen at the time and so much of it went over my head. It’s been a while since I last read it but it’s also pretty tatty. My ‘Collected Shorter Plays’ did fall to pieces. It was so bad that I had to upgrade it about a year ago. But I still couldn’t bear to throw it out.

    I clearly remember my first reading of the book though. I got through the first chapter with the rocking chair and I thought: What the heck have I bought? But by the time I got to the pub and the ashes I’d forgotten all about that. I never warmed to the character of Murphy though it’s not that surprising I suppose when you consider his philosophy of life.

    jb says: One doesn’t really warm to him. Some of the others more so; though Beckett is a little mean with all of the characters in the book, especially the women.

  3. Dick says:

    My copy of ‘Murphy’ was bought in 1962 in a recherché little bookshop in Cecil Court, just off the Charing Cross Road. There was a small treasure trove of New Directions and Grove Press paperbacks scattered around and the ‘Murphy’ was a 1957 Grove Press imprint. I guess it would be worth a three figure sum now had its twat of an owner not written, ‘And the gravedigger puts on the forceps…’ in blue italic on the title page and an hommage poem to SB inside the back cover. And it’s bound in antique cellotape because the pages kept flying out.

    jb says: Hi Dick. Maybe this is a feature, the pages flying out? Joyce was very keen on the exact colour green of the cover of Ulysses; maybe Bennett stipulated crap binding.

  4. Pamela Hawthorne says:

    ” Beckett is preoccupied with this dilemma from the beginning of his career. Unlike pigment and musical notes, words signify beyond any writer’s control. “Is there any reason,” Beckett asks a friend in 1937, “why that terrible arbitrary materiality of the word’s surface should not be permitted to dissolve…?” As an avant-garde writer Beckett fretted from the start of his career over the inescapable signification that accompanies the words he wants to use abstractly. In a world deprived of meaning how can the linguistic artist express this meaninglessness with words that necessarily convey meaning? How can he produce what he called a “literature of the unword?” Throughout his long writing life Beckett conducted a war on words that led him to startling innovations in form and language. He went on experimenting to the end, never content with the increasingly minimal, pared down fictions that characterize the second half of his writing life. Nothing satisfied him for long. Words, the enemy, continued to signify beyond every defeat he inflicted on them. His fictions are the progressive record of his fight to subdue language so that the silence of the Real might make its presence felt.” Brian Finney. 1994. By permission: Columbia University Press. (First published in The Columbia History of the British Novel. Ed.John Richetti. New York: Columbia UP, 1994. 842-66.)

    jb says: Thanks for this, Pamela. A great quote which helps a lot.