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Robert T. Mulcahy Jr.
5.0 out of 5 starsCould this dude write, or what?
Reviewed in the United States on May 26, 2010
Not available on iTunes, this is a must read for anyone who needs more Beckett than just Waiting for Godot. A thrilling audiobook read, that can be maddening, exhausting, remarkable, and memorable. Very well narrated. Great product. Excellent service. Quick delivery. You cannot go wrong with buying this audiobook if you like Samuel Beckett.
“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” These words, which belong to Ludwig Wittgenstein, would serve as the perfect epigraph to a volume of Samuel Beckett’s complete works. To this statement, Beckett would reply that the axiom would also serve as the perfect epigraph to the entirety of literature.
_The Unnamable_ (1953) concludes Beckett’s trilogy of novels--if one may call them that--about the end of narrative. It is a much more radical proposal than _Molloy_ and _Malone Dies_ (please see my reviews), as in these two there was at least a vestige of storytelling. In _The Unnamable_ there is not even a text per se: what we read are the oral musings of a “protagonist” whose name may be Mahood, or Worm, or both, or neither. This character may or may not be a torso with a head that protrudes from the inside of a vase (cf. the characters in _Play_ and Hamm’s parents in _Endgame_). He is inside a dark, circular enclosure (or is he?), filling the void with his words, in defiance of “them.” The text (for we must call it something) constantly negates itself, to the point that all that is certain is the voice itself. “Where I am there is no one but me, who am not” (355). The speaker even questions his own humanity, but human he is: language is a purely human phenomenon.
There’s more to the title than meets the eye. In the Spanish version it is rendered as “el innombrable,” that is, “the unnamable (man).” In the original French, as in English, the title is appropriately ambiguous. Is this unnamable a person or a concept? Neither the protagonist nor his condition may be named. Is this life? Death? Hell? Purgatory? Every page of the novel raises new questions that cannot be answered.
Many have pointed out that the trilogy traces a progressive destruction of language, or the death of the author, or the demise of the traditional novel. I reject this view. The fact is that none of these things have died. Language is still our means of communication. Authors are still important figures, and many of them make lots of money. If you have doubts about the traditional novel, pick up the latest bestseller. What the trilogy does is to question the adequacy of language. Of course language is inaccurate and constantly gives rise to confusion and misunderstandings. But who would dare to argue that the results would be better if we did not have language? Language is a human invention. As Steven Pinker points out in _The Language Instinct_ (1994), “people know how to talk in more or less the sense that spiders know how to spin webs” (5). The speaker in _The Unnamable_ says, “I shall never be silent. Never” (291). The end of time is the end of language, and vice versa. In the end, he concludes: “You must say words, as long as there are any.” (414). Language may be inadequate, but it’s our means of communication. After the (alleged) collapse of narrative, demise of the novel, and death of the author, there will still be words. And they will reaffirm the human presence in the world. All that could be said about Beckett’s pessimism (and, unfortunately, much more) has been said. Few have looked at the other side of the coin.
_The Unnamable_ closes with the famous statement, “You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on” (414). Continuing, going on, is the goal from the beginning: “The best would be not to begin. But I have to begin. That is to say I have to go on” (292). Good old self-preservation. Beckett pushes language close to its limits in this novel, and even there language abides. It is an act of defiance in the face of adversity. It is almost impossible at this point not to think of Camus’ interpretation of the myth of Sisyphus. Language is the boulder. The rebellious impulse can be appreciated in the following statement: “The thing to avoid, I don’t know why, is the spirit of system” (292). Let me emphasize that “I don’t know why.”
Beckett is a paradox. Words are, as Joseph Conrad put it, “the great foes of reality” (see _Under Western Eyes_), and yet we go on writing, and yet we go on reading. We even write about what we read, as this text you’re reading right now indicates. _Molloy_, the first part of the trilogy, was rejected numerous times before it was published. It was published--it could only have been published--in Paris. The trilogy occupies 414 pages. Who can seriously affirm that Beckett wrote 414 pages about the death of literature? It is impossible to write about the death of literature. Literature will die when people stop writing, and as long as there are people there will be writing. Even now, in the second decade of twenty-first century, literature is not dead. It may not be much good (that’s another story), but it’s certainly not dead.
On its fourteenth page, _The Unnamable_ becomes one long paragraph. You will be thankful for punctuation marks. Towards the end, most of these will be commas. There is, once again, no plot, and no characters. Only a voice in a circular enclosure that may not be circular, may not be an enclosure, may not even exist. It took me years to summon up the courage to pick up the trilogy, and I particularly dreaded this last volume of it, yet once I picked it up I couldn’t put it down. There’s much about it that may be criticized, even condemned, but Beckett kept me turning the pages.
Reviewed in the United States on December 26, 2016
Over the course of the so called Beckett Trilogy (including Molloy, Malone Dies, and this novel), Beckett deconstructed the novel and discarded all modern conventions of literature. By the time "The Unnamable" starts, punctuation, quotations, plot construction, character development, and any feature that would define a regular book is absent, and in its place lies a running monologue of existential reflections and surrealistic word play. It is a testament to Beckett's gift with language that "The Unnamable" is not only readable, but entertaining, and at times outright hilarious, though it is in no way an easy read. Characters exist (all of whom have appeared in the previous two entries) and conflict occurs, though what exactly that is, or is not, or may be, or may possibly be if all conditions were changed, or not changed, or repeated infinitely, or only twice, or if all sentences ran on and circled around and if I were Beckett all of this would be brilliant but the point is the rules have been lost or discarded or rewritten or ignored or disguised to such a degree that nothing matters. Good luck, but it is worth the time.
5.0 out of 5 starsI feel so relieved to have finally finished this, like making it to the peak of a challenging mountain.
Reviewed in the United States on October 25, 2011
It's an amazing work of genius, but very difficult and slow going. It's more of a modernist prose poem than it is a traditional novel, and if it's read in that way, taking time to savor each of the dazzling ideas that pack each page, then the task is a little easier, but still not easy. I didn't enjoy it quite as much as the other two novels in the Beckett Trilogy, but that doesn't mean that it was any less great as a work of literature.
5.0 out of 5 starsive tried but i cant get into joyce
Reviewed in Canada on November 4, 2018
its a rant. after 20 pages or so, there are no paragraph breaks, just solid pages of text. it was so awesome, but yeah, bleak. people say beckett is absurd, or funny. i like him, but don't see that. what did he say, that joyce is a synthesiser, and he's an analyser? yeah, i guess
Self-indulgent, interminable bilge, I'm afraid. It's a shame because I highly rated 'Molloy' and 'Malone Dies', the predecessors in the trilogy. But with this one Beckett literally loses the plot. There's barely a character in sight just this vague, 'unnameable' presence, a blot on the whole book, whinging and repeating and contradicting and eating itself up.
Presumably Beckett felt he'd done enough in the first two novels to completely deconstruct the art form in a sort of pseudo-philosophical rant about nothing. I gave it a couple of stars for the torso and head shoved in a jar outside the chop-house. A darkly comic momentary return to form.
1.0 out of 5 starsUnfortunately, thanks to Faber, The Unreadable
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on November 24, 2010
Once read, Beckett's most daring and uncompromising novel stays in the mind forever. The experience is all the more overwhelming and incandescent if you read "Molloy" and "Malone Dies" first - otherwise it's like skipping most of the New Testament and going straight to the crucifixion, a la Mel Gibson. Unfortunately, Beckett's new UK home of Faber and Faber doesn't seem able to produce an edition that passes muster - these books are boring to look at, typo-ridden, so poorly bound they fall apart in your hands (useless for prolonged study), and in the present case, not so much Unnameable as unreadable: the copy we received got to page 26 and then jumped to pages 59-74 before returning to page 43, pages 27-42 having been simply omitted. "Where now? Who now? When now?" are questions anyone who cares about Beckett ought to be asking faced with such neglect and incompetence.