Academic journal article Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd'hui

BECKETT'S INQUESTS: Malone Dies and the Mysteries of the State

Academic journal article Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd'hui

BECKETT'S INQUESTS: Malone Dies and the Mysteries of the State

Article excerpt

Many facets of the trilogy appeal to, and reframe, the conventions of the detective novel (Spraggins; Dearlove, 40; Kenner, 32, 35). This line of enquiry, salient in critical appraisals of Molloy, has also yielded precious insights into Beckett's early fiction; recently, Frederik Smith has read Watt as subverting the syllogistic thinking developed in Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes novels, familiar to Beckett since his childhood. It is clear that Beckett was a keen and knowledgeable reader of detective fiction: especially during the early 1950s, "Agatha Christie whodunnits" in English and French were readings of choice, and Beckett's interest in thrillers by Christie, Edgar Wallace, Erne Stanley Garner and Rex Stout continued beyond that point (Knowlson, 390, 553, 562). He also kept abreast of the adventurous explorations of the genre published by the Éditions de Minuit and manifested interest in Alain Robbe-Grillet's adaptation of the detective plot in Les Gommes (1953) (Moorjani, 232). His correspondence suggests that the writing of Malone meurt remained circumscribed by a literary universe populated by detectives, spies and mysteries awaiting resolution: writing to Georges Duthuit in 1951, Beckett deplores his inability to read popular crime novels as a measure of the taxing demands made upon his creative energies by the completion of Malone meurt and Textes pour rien. Not only is he unable to write, but he cannot even read "policier[s]" - the paperback detective novels and thrillers he was so fond of (Beckett 2011, 231).

The cultural and political imaginary that fuels Beckett's post-war work remains powerfully inflected by the premises of detective fiction, as evidenced in the quest of the private investigator Camier, Moran's search for Molloy, and the humble investigations underlying Malone's stories. Beckett initially perceived these three inquests as part of the same series (2011, 80). But the detective plot is reduced to its bare bones in Malone Dies: this is, indeed, a deeply precarious context for deductive thinking, and Malone's searches, accounts and deductions, although modest in their remit, require relentless labour; even the reliability and existence of a pencil are subject to speculation. Malone tries to preclude material or linguistic imprecisions such as those that might emerge from inappropriate reasoning methods; he aspires to the arrangement of his belongings, the "unique occasion" for "a true statement at last," "to be free from all trace of approximativeness," yet acknowledges that, unlike his own, "true lives do not tolerate this excess of circumstance" (196-97). However, enigmas are too numerous to find resolution: the narrative is littered with allusions to mysterious disappearances and conspiracies masterminded by unnamed powers and institutions, which, in turn, frame the attempts of Malone and his creatures to find, identify and connect material traces, sequences of events and explainable causes.

This essay examines the degree to which forms of deduction in Malone Dies are politically and historically grounded; I contend that, through its critique of the forms of determinism, concealment and normalisation upon which the exercise of deduction relies, the novel also engages post-war debates about the roles and responsibilities of state institutions. To analyse the strained relation that Malone Dies maintains to the conventions of detective fiction, as I seek to do here, is also to trace the residual bearing of specific social and political circumstances upon the novel's evocations of disappearances, deaths, searches and inquests. This reading runs against the grain of established interpretations of Malone Dies as a subtle reflection on ontology, according to the terms defined by its first lines; here, I focus on a historically-inflected text concerned about state-sanctioned persecution, whose borrowings from the discourses of detective fiction remain underpinned by the momentous debates about collaborationism and the dehiscence of the French State that are formative of its genesis as a French-language novel in 1947 (these debates, as Andrew Gibson has shown, also inform some facets of Mercier et Camier, written in 1946 (Gibson, 19-26)). …

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