Monday, 26 May 2014

'Human murmurs for example...' Mercier and Camier

I mentioned a few weeks ago that on my last visit to Derbyshire, I picked up in My Favourite Bookshop (The Bookshop, Market Place, Wirksworth) a copy of Samuel Bekett's Mercier and Camier. I have now read it - and it was, as I suspected, a reread; there were passages, especially early in the book, that rang familiar after, what, 40 years? It was, I must report, better and much funnier and more readable than I was expecting; indeed this one is a veritable page-turner, a joy to read, for its dark comedy, the seething life in its every sentence, and above all its preechoes of the great Beckett that was to come.
  Mercier and Camier is a transitional work - the transitional work - in Beckett's canon, the first he wrote in French and the one in which the old Beckett, with his hyperintellectual fireworks and Joyce-soaked Dublinism, makes his last appearance, and the Beckett who would write the trilogy, the great short fictions and the plays speaks clearly for the first time. It was written in 1946, and for a long time Beckett withheld it from publication - until 1970 in fact. Then, four years later, came Beckett's own translation - substantially different from the original - and that of course is what I've just read (in a 1999 reprint).
 Mercier and Camier themselves - two queer, young-old, tramp-like figures who try and fail first to meet up, then to make a journey out of a city (of course Dublin), reason and destination unknown - clearly foreshadow Vladimir and Estragon, while the landscapes of bog and moor, and the darkening tone, towards the end suggest Molloy. But it is the emergence of the true Beckett voice that matters most. The novel begins complete with omniscient narrator - who from time to time loses patience with his work: 'What stink of artifice', 'End of descriptive passage' - and it is even (at least as compared to the glorious mess that is Watt) almost shapely, with a helpful synopsis of the story so far, every two chapters. But along the way come sentence like this:
  'With what relief the eyes from this clutter to the empty sky, with what relief back again.'
Or passages like this:
  'Here would be the place to make an end. After all it is the end. But there is still day, day after day, afterlife all life long, the dust of all that is dead and buried rising, eddying, settling, burying again. So let him wake, Mercier, Camier, no matter, Camier, Camier wakes, it's night, still night, he doesn't know the time, no matter, he gets up and moves away, in the dark, lies down again a little farther on, still in the ruins, they are extensive. Why? No knowing. No knowing such things any more.'

Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas any more...

Mercier and Camier ends with a chapter described in the synopsis as 'The life of afterlife'. The final paragraph is very beautiful. I shall end with it:
 'Alone he watched the sky go out, dark deepen to its full. He kept his eyes on the engulfed horizon, for he knew from experience what last throes it was capable of. And in the dark he could hear better too, he could hear the sounds the long day had kept from him, human murmurs for example, and the rain on the water.'


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