Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Murphy by Samuel Beckett – the jury is in

I should point out a few things before passing judgement on this book. This is the only prose work by Beckett I have read so far: I know it’s a very early work, and I am not able to put it into the context of Beckett’s later writing career. I think this was the wrong Beckett title to start with. I should probably have started with his Trilogy, as litlove suggested in one of his comments.

I have read some of Beckett’s most famous plays years ago, and liked them very much. More recently, I read his complete poems, but was unimpressed. I have been at many Beckett readings at the Calder Bookshop and enjoyed them. My impression, so far, is that Beckett works better when performed than on the written page.

Did I like the book?
No, I struggled with it from the very beginning. For me, reading equals entertainment, and I got through this book with gritted teeth. I disliked its underlying pessimism, its negativity, its cynicism. I think this book is a sapper. It made me depressed.

What did I like most?
Some of the philosophical ideas he deals with. But I generally don’t like novelists who play the philosopher when they write.

What didn’t work for me?
I found the style irritating. Beckett is constantly trying to be clever – linguistically, stylistically – and the result is that he comes across as patronizing. As I mentioned yesterday, my impression was that every word of this book had been written in a drunken state.

Would I publish it?
As you may have heard or read elsewhere, a few months before we acquired the Calder business, John Calder sold all his Beckett titles – including Murphy – to Faber. At the time we would have liked to keep all the titles under our Oneworld Classics imprint, but their negotiations had already gone too far, so we had to let the Beckett titles go. What do I think now, eighteen months later? I’m still not sure. Perhaps there are better books than Murphy in the Calder series, but based on this book I think I would pass. I can see that this is a very important novel from an historical point of view, but it’s not life-enhancing enough for my taste. As to the other prose works, I’ll reserve my judgement until I can read them.

What if it came as an unsolicited manuscript?
I’d most probably turn it down. Unless someone could lend me a time machine before I reject it.

Did it sustain my interest throughout?
Oh God, no. A comic masterpiece? Give me Humphry Clinker or The Pickwick Papers every day. I’ll admit, I smirked once or twice. Perhaps I can’t get the Irish humour.

The best bit in the book?
The first couple of pages.

The best scene in the book?
Perhaps the chess game between Murphy and Mr Endon.

Comments on the package, editing, typesetting?
Oh dear. I should be diplomatic, shouldn’t I? Well, on the positive front, I like the look of the cover: it’s simple, distinctive and effective. It does the job. It’s printed both sides, so there’s no waste. The paper is also good, but the quality of printing is – er – not great. This 1998 edition looks as if it’s a reprint of a reprint of a photocopy of the films of the 1938 Routledge edition. There’s orphans and widows galore. I have spotted a few clear typos – but then some of them could be intentional, for all I know. But the great Calder personal touch is evident in the hand-cut white sticker covering the barcode so that only the ISBN number can be read – if you peel it off, you’ll realize the number at the bottom doesn’t match with the one above. And, of course, the trademark Calder cover blurb is worth the £8.99 cover price, with sentences such as “It is also a comic masterpiece, full of the grim humour that had characterized his earlier More Pricks than Kicks, and of little perceptions that cause the reader to stop and ponder or chuckle, rabelaisian in its bawdy, tragic in its relentless grim view of human life. It has for many years been one of the most popular novels of one of the most seminal figures of the twentieth century…” I hope someone from Faber is listening.

My final verdict?
Not a memorable read. But I’ll give Beckett another go soon – I’ll wait a little bit before tackling the Trilogy. Now I want to turn my attention to Stefan Zweig, and I will probably start with a collection of his best stories, Fantastic Night and Other Stories, published by the inimitable Pushkin Press.


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