‘Difficulty’ is obviously a relative term – novels become more or less harder to understand depending on the perspective of the reader. Time alone will make contemporary references harder to discern; phrases in common usage in one generation will be meaningless to another. Nevertheless, some writers clearly do start out with the intention of making their work complex and challenging. That is their prerogative – there is no god given right to transparency or clarity. But it is rare that the obscurity is there for its own sake, to deliberately irritate or confound the reader.
These thoughts are inspired by the single one-star review of ‘Murphy’ on the Amazon UK site. It makes a strong case against Beckett:
“Life lacks ultimate meaning and sense, that doesn’t mean you need to make your novel devoid of meaning and sense. The lack of sense in this novel made me irritated, forcing me to suffer the ultimate boredom of seeking out dull scholars to explain it. This novel diverges from explicit meaning as soon as page 1, with the phrase, “The sun was in the Virgin again for the billionth time”. One sentence later we are told Murphy is tied by seven scarves: “Two fastened his shins to the rockers, one his thighs to the seat, two his breast and belly to the back, one his wrists to the strut behind.” That makes six scarves: where is the seventh? The guide told me that Beckett told a friend it was an oversight he found amusing and so left it in.
Modernists never miss a chance to amuse themselves by confusing the reader. Almost every sentence adds to the confusion. For instance, a few sentences later, we have: “Somewhere a cuckoo-clock, having struck between twenty and thirty…”. But any clock strikes at most 12. Maybe Beckett is making the point that cuckoo clocks are so irritating that they seem to make thirty strikes. Who knows? The continual use of foggy allusion is wearing to me.
To avoid boredom I need to be reading the greatest authors. I need the genius of great artists to keep me interested. But Tolstoy and Dickens do this without making me suffer the meaningless games that Beckett plays.”
It’s not my intention to denigrate the reviewer in any way – they make some very useful points. I simply thought their comments would act as a useful reference point against which I could place my own thoughts. Equally I don’t want to spend too much time on the literalism displayed here. This isn’t a naturalistic novel, so the fact that strange things happen, such as a cuckoo clock striking twenty or thirty, isn’t anything other than contributing to this sense of unreality. (Of course there is arguably a missing word in this phrase which the reader is invited to contribute – is it “times” or “past”?) I think the fact that Beckett miscounted his scarves is actually quite amusing – there are similar mistakes in virtually every other novel, play or poem ever written, and they don’t detract from the value of the work one jot – I certainly didn’t notice the slip. What is interesting is that the reviewer has a problem with the number of scarves, but not the fact that Murphy has managed to tie himself into the chair!
Are the word puzzles Beckett uses, containing obscure references and allusions, intended to make the reader feel puzzled and ill-educated? What for example is one to make of line “the sun was in the Virgin again for the billionth time”? I don’t know precisely what or which virgin Beckett is referring to here, but I took this as a very simple observation about the sun rising and setting. The sun rises and falls relentlessly – time passes, and nothing changes. The essential nihilist theme of the novel is thus captured in this opening paragraph. This theme is picked up later, in the several other reference to virgins in the novel – for example when Beckett does a round of the hospital patients at night, and each check passes smoothly, the run is called a “virgin”. Astrology also plays an important part in the novel – Murphy slavishly uses the reading given to him as a guide to all his future actions. Finally, there is a hint of a sexual play on words here, sun or son. Beckett packs a lot into this phrase, but the one thing it isn’t is meaninglessly obscure – unusual yes, thought provoking yes, but not nonsense. This phrase highlights the contradiction in the reviewer’s complaint – you can’t argue that the novel is too difficult and also meaningless – surely it has to be one thing or the other?
I must admit there is one phrase elsewhere in the novel that remains to me stubbornly resistant to comprehension: “To begin with Miss Counihan, to begin with she was eager to get into the correct grass Dido cramp in plenty of time.” I thought at first it might be a transliteration of a misheard phrase, but no. Google is no help. Is it just mistyped gibberish that appealed to the author’s sense of mischief?
The central challenge in this review is that Beckett plays meaningless games with the reader. Games, undoubtedly, meaningless, clearly not. Wordplay is fun, ambiguity is the source of most humour (where would puns be without it?) and puzzles are at the heart of many if not all great works of fiction. Even games we can’t win have their appeal. All novels require the reader to do some work to understand them, even at the most basic level if that just means the act of reading and imagining the acts described. Most go further of course and ask the reader to see the events from the characters’ perspective, to share their thoughts and feelings. Giving them some word puzzles or other challenges is not something unique to Beckett, nor Modernist writers generally. When the fourth wall is broken, when the laws of nature are suspended, when phrases that at a first read don’t make sense are used, the reader has to pause and reflect, really think about what they are reading. And surely that is a good thing?