The Unnamable by Samuel Beckett

Taken any foreign language classes? A couple semesters in French, say? Good–now imagine writing a novel in it. Suddenly it’s that much harder to find the correct word for what you mean. You thrash about your own sea of thoughts, grasping at the meager driftwood of a phrase here, a line of thought there, keeping head above water as much as possible until you hopefully smack into land.

Beckett: One of the few literary giants who could pass for a supervillain.

Samuel Beckett wrote his great trilogy–Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable–originally in French. Which has a curious result best described by Salman Rushdie in his introduction to the trilogy:

[Beckett] is obliged to choose his words carefully, forced to give up fluency and to find the hard words that come with difficulty and then after all that finding he puts it back into English, a new English containing all the difficulty of the French, of coining the thought in a second language.”

That’s the kind of rhetorical thrashing I’m talking about, and Beckett never reaches land. If your reaction to that is, Then what’s the point, why bother, then I can confidently say that you won’t like reading Beckett.

But everyone else should stay with me, here. I’m about to describe The Unnamable, and I’ll do this somewhat badly. It isn’t really a novel, but an epic stream of consciousness of someone struggling to reason out who, what, and where he is. It begins like this:

“Where now? Who now? When now? Unquestioning. I, say I. Unbelieving. Questions, hypotheses, call them that. Keep going, going on, call that going, call that on.”

Let me tell you something: my most primal and present fear is that I could always be wrong. About everything. Always. And here’s a narrator who’s so obsessed with accuracy and truth that he can hardly proceed from one thought to the next. Or, if he manages to proceed, he eventually doubles back. (“This woman has never spoken to me, to the best of my knowledge. If I have said anything to the contrary I was mistaken. If I say anything to the contrary again I shall be mistaken again. Unless I am mistaken now.”)

These mental redactions are not only frustrating, but they grip something within me like a phantom. This speaker is making uncertainties of things that are so basic–such as the very words he speaks even being his own–and… and sometimes I don’t like that very much.

But that seem to be the intention–to blow precious preconceptions to hell and start over with an almost laughably naked state of thought.

The Grey Area

Alright, so when puzzling out one’s own existence, where should one start, according to Beckett? Not in the black or the white, but in the grey.

“That is not the point to believe this or that, the point is to guess right… If it’s not white it’s very likely black, it must be admitted the method lacks subtlety, in view of the intermediate shades all equally worthy of a chance.”

This is all very Socratic in the sense that a man is wisest because he realizes he knows nothing. Dogmatists, on the other hand…

“That’s why they always repeat the same thing, the same old litany, the one they know by heart, to try to think of something different, of how to say something different from the same old thing, always the same wrong thing always said wrong, they can find nothing, nothing else to say but the thing that prevents them from finding, they’d do better to think of what they’re saying.”

The enemy of the truth seeker is Certainty. But the goal is Certainty. Oh no. But this paradox rings true with me. Much of this book does, often in a sublime way.

Like in Waiting For Godot, all this flailing and philosophizing comes to little resolution. The speaker never attains Enlightenment or salvation or even just good self-esteem. But it doesn’t feel like a waste of time–the journey is the thing. It also helps that The Unnamable is freaking hilarious in many cases.

This is a book I tried to read out loud as much as possible. (1) It slowed me down so I could digest every sentence and (2) Beckett’s of course a dramatist, and this is a monologue, and I used to do that sort of thing, so his prose was a lot of fun for me to actually speak.

This was nonetheless a very difficult book. And mind you when I find a book somewhat incomprehensible  on the outset, I don’t use the term “difficult” to describe it unless I feel there’s much to be gleaned once that incomprehensibility is overcome. Otherwise I call it “bad.”All of  what I gleaned from The Unnamable, I’ve run out of space to justly describe. But just as well–I think it might say something unique to you should you pick it up.

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5 thoughts on “The Unnamable by Samuel Beckett

  1. Tanx 4 ur lovely post of Unnamable in your Web. I agree with you about defying language against meaning. Though its interior language is obscur, it has a great message for its readers to look for their lost self in the binary of silence and speech.
    MOhammadreza Arghiani

  2. Yes–that’s The Unnamable’s main message, isn’t it? Language fails us repeatedly when we try to define our existence and experience, but oftentimes language is all we have. So we’ll just keep talking anyway, much like this narrator!

  3. I saw these words in another web page and a massive wave of revulsion hit me. By God I hate Beckett.
    Blast modernism. Bless ordinary English.
    Blast pseuds.
    Blast pseuds who write first books in French.

  4. I greatly enjoyed your comments on this book. There is a CD version of the trilogy done by the RTE Lannan company (read by Barry McGovern) which I find much easier listening to than reading the book. Beckett was a very sweet, gentle, and giving man — and yet a mirror reflecting the darkness of this world.
    Have you tried Gertrude Stein’s “The Making of Americans?” I think this book is marvelous, but I can only read a couple of paragraphs at a time — it’s over 900 pages long. It has a marvelous musical subtlety and simple language that, in its repetitions, is meditative.
    I also suggest Edmund Jabes’ two volume “The Book of Questions.” translated by Rosemarie Waldrop.

    Thanks again, Doug, for your insights.

  5. Hi, I like your appreciative, receptive, open-ended description. Interest in The Unnameable is rare enough that when I come across something as lovely as this I like to at least throw out a life-line of sorts. In the vague possibility that we might more or less become impersonal friends over the issue at least. I just started a frigging blog of my own that orbits around a few writers/thinkers/oddballs, but Beckett is the Saturn or Uranus, if not Jupiter, of this solar system. I’m planning on writing a bit more precisely about the fellow eventually, but if you ever feel inclined, check out quick, initial attempt at addressing The Unnameable here (and please don’t feel any obligation to respond, it’s fine): https://negativegeography.wordpress.com/2015/06/03/a-moment-to-drift/

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