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October 1953, 678–86

Maurice Blanchot (b. 1907), French novelist and critic, has
published several novels, the best known, ‘Thomas
L’Obscur’ (1941); but he is particularly influential for such
critical works as ‘La Part du feu’ (1949), ‘L’Espace
littéraire’ (1955), ‘Le Livré à venir’ (1959), ‘L’Entretien
infini’ (1969).
Who is doing the talking in Samuel Beckett’s novels, who is this tireless
‘I’ constantly repeating what seems to be always the same thing? What
is he trying to say? What is the author looking for—who must be
somewhere in the books? What are we looking for—who read them? Or
is he merely going round in circles, obscurely revolving, carried along
by the momentum of a wandering voice, lacking not so much sense as
center, producing an utterance without proper beginning or end, yet
greedy, exacting, a language that will never stop, that finds it intolerable
to stop, for then would come the moment of the terrible discovery: when
the talking stops, there is still talking; when the language pauses, it
perseveres; there is no silence, for within that voice the silence eternally
An experiment without results, yet continuing with increasing purity
from book to book by rejecting the very resources, meager as they are,
that might permit it to continue.
It is this treadmill movement that strikes us first. This is not someone
writing for beauty’s sake (honorable though that pleasure may be), not
someone driven by the noble compulsion many feel entitled to call
inspiration (expressing what is new and important out of duty or desire
to steal a march on the unknown). Well, why is he writing then?

where what is said attempts to assume the reassuring form of a story. that. something that. who eternally circles around a goal that is obscure. becomes an entirely different character.’). a metamorphosis which undermines the security of the narrative element and simultaneously introduces an allegorical sense. sometimes he struggles secretly. jerky movements occur in a space which is the space of impersonal obsession. though they function badly—he even has a bicycle). at the moment he raises his voice. cunningly at first. a path such that anyone who takes it cannot remain himself. doubled. There is certainly a troublesome principle of disintegration in the story of ‘Molloy’. It’s I who live there now. obliges him to wander ceaselessly around it. for we do not feel it is adequate to the depths concealed here. We are convinced that this wanderer who already lacks the means to wander (but at least he still has legs. remains a name. becomes Molloy. Molloy nevertheless does not relinquish himself. a principle not confined to the instability of the wanderer. perhaps a disappointing one. certain faces: ‘Molloy’ is a book in which characters still appear. but slowly falls to pieces. concealed. But is he talking? What is this void that becomes the voice of the man disappearing into it? Where has he fallen? ‘Where now? Who now? When now?’ He is struggling—that is apparent. The first stratagem is to interpose between himself and language certain masks. who pursues Molloy without ever catching him and who in that pursuit sets out (he too) on the path of endless error. . concealed again. but no matter how ragged our sense of him. not only because of what it has to tell. because it will not and cannot tell it. a goal that has something to do with his dead mother who is still dying. he might stop talking. as if he were concealing something from us. then with that deeper cunning which reveals its own hand. the detective Moran. that he become another. avowed. a site within bounds that guard against a more disturbing danger. precisely because he has achieved it the moment the book begins (‘I am in my mother’s room. without knowing it. something that cannot be grasped. in the empty strangeness of what is hidden and disinclined to be revealed—we are convinced that this vagabond is subject to a still deeper error and that his halting. that is.SAMUEL BECKETT: THE CRITICAL HERITAGE 129 Because he is trying to escape the treadmill by convincing himself that he is still its master. and from himself too. but further requiring that Molloy be mirrored. and of course it is not a successful story. which is infinitely wretched. Moran. the obsession that eternally leads him on. but because it does not succeed in telling it.

for the stories remain stories to an excessive degree: their brilliance. are not told to win the reader’s belief. Malone tells himself: ‘This time I know where I am going…it is a game. Never. the bed. detaches them from the time of his death in order to reinstate the customary narrative time in which we do not believe and which. But now everything has changed. and the only way to silence it is to say something at any cost. and the space accessible to him no longer offers the resources of a city with its thousand streets. Hence the narrative element is nothing more than a means of public fraud and constitutes a grating compromise that overbalances the book. the stick with which the dying man pulls things toward him and pushes them away. for we are expecting something much more important. it is nothing more than the room. resumed from book to book. but these narratives are not self-sufficient. achieves its real profundity. empty images mechanically revolving around an empty center occupied by a nameless I. and above all the pencil that further enlarges it into the infinite space of words and stories. no longer any question of a narrative. I am going to play…I think I shall be able to tell myself four stories. the dying man. to tell a story. Malone. what was narrative has become conflict. their skillful irony. is now discountenanced. their artifice is immediately exposed —the stories are invented. the being who says: ‘I am obliged to speak. each one on a different theme. everything that gives them form and interest also detaches them from Malone. and there is also Worm. It is true that in ‘The Unnamable’ the stories are still trying to survive: the moribund Malone had a bed. and the experiment. the unborn. phantoms without substance. here. I shall never be silent. thereby enlarging the circle of his immobility. to silence that empty time (which will become the infinite time of death). even in the formless present of an interior monologue. a conflict of artifices that spoils the experiment. Several other familiar faces pass. nor the open air with its horizon of forests and sea which ‘Molloy’ still conceded us.’ With what purpose? To fill the void into which Malone feels he is falling. Who is doing the talking here? Who is this I condemned to speak without respite. a room—Mahood is only a human scrap kept in a jar festooned with Chinese lanterns. on the contrary.130 SAMUEL BECKETT: THE CRITICAL HERITAGE ‘Malone Dies’ evidently goes further still: here the vagabond is nothing more than a moribund. what assumed a face. and also a series of narratives. means nothing to us. is a name and a face. There is no longer any question of characters under the reassuring protection of a personal name. whose existence is nothing but the oppression of his impotence to exist. even a face in fragments. like Molloy.’ By a reassuring .

and it is deep within its process that a verbal survival. you must already have abandoned life. merely the curse of not being able to stop talking. a being without being. that cannot be made to stop. that refers to the real torment of a real existence. Thereby we seem to draw closer to what is of concern in a situation that is not fictional. that excludes all intimacy. Perhaps there is something admirable about a book which deliberately deprives itself of all resources. Perhaps we are not dealing with a book at all. but with something more than a book. an experience lived under the threat of the impersonal. but in any case the man who writes is already no longer Samuel Beckett but the necessity which has displaced him. The word experiment is another name for what has actually been experienced—and here too we try to recover the security of a name. in a world that spares us the worst degradation. that of losing the power to say I. which accepts starting at the very point from which there can be no continuation. the interminable. But ‘The Unnamable’ is precisely an experiment conducted. that is the incessant. continues to struggle with a perseverance that does not even signify a form of power. that penetrates the man who hears it. at a personal level. which has surrendered him to whatever is outside himself. But this is still the point of view of the external reader. Esthetic sentiments are not called for here. masked for better or worse by a porous and agonizing I. an obscure. perhaps we are approaching that movement from which all books derive.SAMUEL BECKETT: THE CRITICAL HERITAGE 131 convention. to situate the book’s ‘content’ at the stable level of a person. the empty site in which an empty voice is raised without effect. nothing admirable in being condemned to a treadmill that not even death can free you from. we answer it: it is Samuel Beckett. the work is lost. neither begin nor leave off. where everything that happens happens with the guarantee of a consciousness. which has made him a nameless being. contemplating what he regards as only a tour de force. There is nothing admirable in inescapable torment when you are its victim. exhibiting the same jerky movement. stationary tread. doubtless. The Unnamable. that point of origin where. tenacious relic persists in its immobile vagabondage. the same tireless. yet which obstinately proceeds without sophistry and without subterfuge for 179 pages. that is without intimacy. who can neither live nor die. the approach of a neutral voice that is raised of its own accord. the point . Who is doing the talking here then? We might try to say it was the ‘author’ if this name did not evoke capacity and control. for in order to get on that treadmill in the first place. dispossessed and disseized him. It is this metamorphosis that betrays its symptoms here.

I hear them. I’m in words. it’s an accident. there is no one. I have to speak. those that merge. those that part. the walled-in one. I’m the air. Having nothing to say. dangerous for the work itself. like flakes. dangerous for the man who bears it. gone astray.’ It is this approach to origin which makes the experience of the work still more dangerous. that I am they. impossible to stop them. flows. nothing speaks. nothing to recover. and it is by having rendered this approach evident in the nakedest. coming together to say. One might say that The Unnamable is condemned to exhausting the infinite.’ And try descending into that neutral region where the self surrenders in order to speak. all words. I have the ocean to drink. retrieved. everything yields. ‘I have nothing to do. and nothing else. the place too. no need to hear them. nothing to discover. No one compels me to. henceforth subject to words. yes something else. indifferent to what it says. a particle of me. this dust of words. a fact. that is to say. fleeing one another to say. like a caged beast born of caged beasts born of caged beasts born of caged beasts…’ [Translated by Richard Howard] . no sky for their dispersing. the walls. a quite different thing. the whole world is here with me. nothing that can lessen what remains to say. the ceiling. all of them. knowing that it lies. go toward me. nothing ever but me. all these strangers. with no ground for their settling. well well. a hard shut dry cold black place where nothing stirs. most abrupt manner that ‘The Unnamable’ has more importance for literature than most ‘successful’ works in its canon. no need of a head. mingling. there is nothing. impossible to stop. and that I listen. wherever I go I find me. that I’m quite different. the walls. others’ words. Try listening to ‘this voice that speaks. come from me. inside me. falling asunder. ebbs. the point of perpetual unworkableness with which the work must maintain an increasingly initial relation or risk becoming nothing at all. lost. meeting. which alone makes of art an essential research. opens. I’m all these flakes. nothing in particular. and that I seek. But it is also this approach which assures the experiment its authenticity. leave me. I have to speak. no words but the words of others.132 SAMUEL BECKETT: THE CRITICAL HERITAGE which always ruins the work. so there is the ocean then. those that never meet. the air. whatever that means. a minute ago I ha no thickness. Nothing can ever exempt me from it. made of words. too old perhaps and too humiliated ever to be able to say at last the words that might make it stop. the floor. a wordless thing in an empty place. I’m all these words. fallen into the absence of time where it must die an endless death:’…the words are everywhere. what others.

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