A Review of ‘Mercier and Camier’ as Samuel Beckett’s Crowning Work

November 23, 2012 10:37 pm

Beckett scholars be damned. Besides, you can’t approach Beckett’s existential body of writing academically, or in anything but a philosophical frame of mind, unless you wish your assumptions and conclusions to die of malnutrition. So, yes, damn you scholars, Beckett never appreciated your invasive categorisations and stumbling notions of meaning anyway, and that is why he made it so difficult for us to pick his works apart. That is why his texts are so multi-layered that as soon as one puts ones finger on a piece of conclusive analysis ones certainty is ripped away in the next sentence and we are back to knowing nothing.

The reason I introduce this piece with invective is because a lot of serious readers and analysers of Beckett will disagree that Mercier and Camier even has a place in the Beckett canon. They will state something along the lines that it was an experiment gone wrong, and the fact that it is riddled with mistakes could, could, be an argument of value to these kinds of people (I will explore a very valid counter-argument to this in just a moment).

For me this novel is, by quite a way, the author’s finest piece of fiction, a work that will be familiar to any reader because it contains so much of humanity, of humanness, in its confusing and humorous narrative. The first time I read it I was, to be honest, not that impressed. I enjoyed it, but there lacked that incredibly powerful and sorrowful voice that his later works contained, and that rhetorical dexterity of More Pricks Than Kicks and Murphy. However, the humour is something that strikes instantly. I’m not one to laugh aloud when I read, but this book is the exception. Mercier and Camier are trying to leave town, but always end up back where they started, in the meantime involving themselves with lengthy discussions about their bicycle and their umbrella, and paying visits to pubs. In this seemingly absurd and funny cyclical plot is the idea that we all have trouble leaving home, leaving the places to which we have become attached. Despite their strong desire to leave, they are helpless but to return. This is an echo of Beckett’s relationship with his native Ireland. At one time in his career, after the second world war, he stated that he preferred France at war to Ireland at peace. And yet he endlessly returned to his homeland in his fiction, though rarely explicitly, sometimes to ridicule it, as with Mr Spiro in Watt, but sometimes merely as a backdrop. It’s a paradox embodied in the journeying of Mercier and Camier.

Echoes of Tractatus-era Wittgenstein abound, particularly his principle that if you can’t talk about something then you should pass over it in silence (in reference to philosophical ideas). This is reiterated by the pair during one of their phases of empty philosophical musings, where they always end up more confused than when they began to speak:

We have things to say, said Mercier.
Then why don’t we say them? said Camier.
We can’t, said Mercier.
Then let us be silent, said Camier.
But we try, said Mercier.

They act as a team during these conversations, trying to help each other along to some form of conclusion, but they never succeed. They only ever seem to achieve the opposite of their intentions, whether that is finding a conclusive answer to an existential problem, or trying to leave town as soon as possible. Again, here is another reflection of everyday life. We travel through life often becoming more and more confused as we go, confused as to what we want or need, confused as to what we did yesterday or last week, or the purpose of anything we do, confused as to our own existence, whether God exists, how He could create a world of such physical and emotional anguish..

Beckett explores all of these concepts in his works, none more than in Mercier and Camier. It has a subtler power than the other works, something that I realised upon reading a second time. It invokes the deepest notions of our inner experiences, desires, passions, etc. while maintaining a distance between reader and narrator characteristic of the early works. Acting against this distancing, however, is the humour, which then alternately draws us in, compelling us to view their plight from a more involved aspect.

The compulsive relationship between the two protagonists displays the same need that we all feel for unconditional companionship, and indeed love. They travel everywhere together, hold hands, lean on each other when one of them is weak, and even have an orgy with a female acquaintance who takes them in for the night. Occasionally they part on an impulse, but never fail to return in order to move on together. It is a lovely portrayal of our need for somebody to live our lives with, and does it really matter whether the pair actually finally get out of their home town, because besides all the confusion and uncertainty and fear they have when faced with the empty world of which they cannot make sense, at least they have each other, and can suffer together.

The mistakes that I mentioned above, which do indeed riddle the short novel, are in fact not new to Beckett’s work by this stage. In Watt, specifically, there are many intentional mistakes, such as in the opening chapter where Watt himself is not present. We discover from the narrator later on that he is merely retelling the story that Watt had told him, and yet how would Watt have known that the opening passage even took place, if he was not there? Similarly, in Murphy, the protagonist ties himself to a chair in such a way that would be impossible for him to have tied the last knot, the one bringing his wrists together. Mistakes are a way in which Beckett experiments with narration, playing again and again with the idea of the unreliable narrator and repeatedly questioning the relationship between the reader and the material (and, indeed, the writer). Over and again he puts a proverbial two fingers up at the reader, but in a humorous and friendly way, a way that is designed to strike within us as much confusion as the characters are experiencing, so that we share in their problems.

And there is no other Beckett text in which we share the problems of the characters as much as we do in Mercier and Camier, not least because again and again we are struck by the realisation that these are also our problems.

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