Academic journal article
By de Larquier, Jeanne-Sarah
French Forum , Vol. 29, No. 3
Themes pertaining to Beckett and language have often been mulled over in the past forty years, yet the quest for the self is seen by many critics as the essential theme in Beckett's Molloy (1951), his first novel written in French. Jean-Jacques Mayoux in his "Molloy: un evenement litteraire, une oeuvre" tells us: "La structure de Molloy est d'une admirable clarte. Elle poursuit le theme de la quete de soi qui, des le premier roman, Murphy (1938), s'affirme comme le sujet fondamental, sinon unique, de Beckett" (243-44). While I agree that the quest for the self is certainly important, I will argue that, beyond fiction, the main thrust in Molloy is the movement of (a) writing itself. In fact, Molloy can be interpreted as a metalanguage story, that is, a story about language, and more specifically, about the narrator's struggle with its arbitrariness insofar as it is indifferent to his needs. (1) Thus, the text's testing ground of language is indissociable from the narrator's journey.
Unquestionably, the field of Beckett studies has been and continues to be prolific. Some read his works as being at the foundation of postmodernism. Others highlight its existential nature; still others focus on the social, political and ethical dimensions of his work. In addition, abundant comparative studies connect Beckett's work with that of authors as diverse as Joyce, Flaubert, Miller, Proust, Roth, Mallarme, Genet, Kafka, Celine, and Dante--to name but a few. The last decade has read Beckett's work from a poststructuralist perspective, a perspective which departs from traditional text-centered criticism and reveals how literature, history and philosophy intersect. (2) Most important to our study, however, is the topic of Beckett and language, which has been particularly appealing to the structuralists of the 1970s and 80s. The area of expertise of the latter ranges from sentence construction, fragmentation, linguistic jokes, and the use of French and the interplay with English to symbolism, the impossibility to express, and aesthetics. Now, having mentioned the above key aspects of Beckett studies, I should note that to write a thorough etat present of Beckett criticism could easily require a book-length study. In 2003 alone, no fewer than 75 books that discuss Beckett as a main or secondary topic have been published. (3) In this reading, I attempt to depart from a textual criticism that finds negativity permeating Molloy in order to contend that the narrator's quest for the self is in fact traced by his witty attempt to inscribe himself within the language of his text as well as by his endless positive incentive to enhance the performance of the language that is available to him, in the hope that this language will serve him better. (4)
The narrator, Molloy, who later becomes Moran, is constantly struggling with language. His many comments about it show his preoccupation with its stubborn, implacable exigencies which he expresses in different roles, such as that of a professor: "Il faudrait reecrire tout cela au plus-que-parfait" (20); the role of a grammarian: "cette phrase assez longue et difficile, ou il ne figurait pas moins de trois imperatifs" (160); or the role of a student: "Je les connaissais donc, mes imperatifs" (116) or "Mais j'emploierai surtout les diverses formes du passe" (143). Molloy masters his tenses, and yet they do not allow him to express everything as he encounters situations where no grammatical tense can help convey his thoughts: "Ma vie, ma vie, tantot j'en parle comme d'une chose finie, tantot comme d'une plaisanterie qui dure encore, et j'ai tort, car elle est finie et elle dure a la fois, mais par quel temps du verbe exprimer cela? (47)" On other occasions, Molloy is dissatisfied with the name of existing tenses, such as the future, and he adds a nuance to the term: "un simple futur prophetique" (148).
The narrator is confronted with lexical demands as well as those of grammar. For instance, the limited number of signifiers attributed to the unlimited number of colors leads to the problem of subjective naming--what is "blue" and what is "green"? …