It was like difficult music heard for the first time.

Murphy, by Samuel Beckett

Murphy has one of the most arresting opening sentences I’ve read.

The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.

I’ve barely started the book and already there’s a sense of futility, of inevitability. It’s a jarring sentence, both in terms of content and structure. It left me immediately unsettled.

What follows is no more comforting. Here’s the entire first paragraph of Murphy:

The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new. Murphy sat out of it, as though he were free, in a mew in West Brompton. Here for what might have been six months he had eaten, drunk, slept, and put his clothes on and off, in a medium-sized cage of north-western aspect commanding an unbroken view of medium-sized cages of south-eastern aspect. Soon he would have to make other arrangements, for the mew had been condemned. Soon he would have to buckle to and start eating, drinking, sleeping and putting his clothes on and off, in quite alien surroundings.

Already Beckett is ignoring many of the customary rules of fiction. The paragraph is deeply repetitive. It takes a fairly long time to tell us very little in terms of solid information. Murphy lives in West Brompton in a condemned mews in a residential area. Shortly he will have to move. That’s it. You could pull out a little more, but in terms of bare fact there’s not a lot more to say.

Dig a little deeper though and there’s something more interesting. There is the phrase “Murphy sat out of it, as though he were free”. What does that mean? Is he not free? Is there something special in how he sits? When Murphy sits “out of it” is that just out of the sun or out of it in some wider sense?

Murphy lives “in a medium-sized cage of north-western aspect commanding an unbroken view of medium-sized cages of south-eastern aspect.” The only distinction between one set of cages and another is Murphy’s presence in one and in the differing aspects. But who cares what aspects they have? As a reader what use is knowing an aspect?

Then too there is the sense of routine which is created by the words “eaten, drunk, slept and put his clothes on and off”. It’s a routine that’s shortly to be transplanted to “quite alien surroundings.” If though this mews is so indistinguishable from its surroundings what does it matter if Murphy is transplanted?

So many questions from just one paragraph. The book’s barely begun.

The story here is both notional and absurd. Murphy is an Irishman living in London. He is attractive to women, though there’s no reason he should be. He and various other characters pursue each other and are pursued while holding conversations of quite remarkable irreality. Incidents may make sense in isolation, but in combination give rise to a plot which is both simple and yet hard to follow. The characters are barely distinguishable and make no attempt at credibility.

Beckett delights in language. He delights too in playing with the reader. Early on Murphy is on his own, tied hand and foot to a rocking chair. He tied himself to it, naked, and he enjoys sitting and rocking until his mind becomes quite separated from his body.

If Murphy is tied hand and foot though, and tied himself, how did he tie his last hand? He couldn’t have. Someone else must have. But nobody else is present.

Of course that’s not true. Someone else is present. Two people in fact. Beckett and me. If Murphy’s hand is tied and he couldn’t have done it and I didn’t do it logically Beckett must have done it. The author is within the book, not explicitly but necessarily.

There wasn’t a page in Murphy that didn’t contain words I didn’t know. Most books don’t have any words I don’t know. I’m a lawyer. Words are my business. Here many were deeply obscure, but I came to realise some were also just plain made up. I could stop every few sentences and research what something meant, or I could just go with the flow and accept that the language would stream around me part understood and part bearing an implied meaning from context. Sometimes the meaning, if it existed, would be (was) wholly unclear.

So then, thin characters, a flimsy plot, frequently opaque language, events that couldn’t happen as described, it’s no surprise Beckett’s not topping the bestseller lists. The traditional novel is essentially realist, and this decidedly isn’t.

What it is though is well written. Beckett apparently did better later, but there’s plenty here to enjoy. By way of example, in one passage a woman runs out on to the street having discovered a violent suicide. Beckett reflects: “Her mind was so collected that she saw clearly the impropriety of letting it appear so.”

That’s tremendously astute and for me very funny. It’s absurd that it should matter how one reacts, that one should think of such a thing at all when someone has just died. As Meursault finds out in The Stranger though how one reacts to a death can be very important indeed.

As jokes go it’s a particularly tragic one. Beckett has a vicious sense of humour. It’s not so much that he’s cruel (though at times he does tip over into cruelty) as that existence is cruel and he’s laughing at it or at us (or both) and so the laughs become uncomfortable.

Murphy is full of humour. In fact that’s mostly what makes it ultimately enjoyable to read. Sometimes it’s mordant (I do love that word) observations such as in the quote above. Other times the comedy is less straightforward. I found the following paragraph again extremely funny, but I’ve read Plato. If I hadn’t I’m not sure I’d have got the joke:

Thus Murphy felt himself spit in two, a body and a mind. They had intercourse apparently, otherwise he could not have known that they had anything in common. But he felt his mind to be bodytight and did not understand through what channel the intercourse was effected nor how the two experiences came to overlap. He was satisfied that neither followed from the other. He neither thought a kick because he felt one nor felt a kick because he thought one. Perhaps the knowledge was related to the fact of the kick as two magnitudes to a third. Perhaps there was, outside space and time, a non-mental non-physical kick from all eternity, dimly revealed to Murphy in its correlated modes of consciousness and extension, the kick in intellectu and the kick in re. But where was the supreme caress?

Later there is a reference to the “beatific idols of [Murphy’s] cave”, underlining the Platonic motif. Descartes is another frequent reference point here with his famed mind-body duality (which it’s fair to say Beckett here seems unpersuaded by). I’ve read too that Spinoza is referenced, but I’ve not read Spinoza so can’t speak to that.

I’m going to digress for a moment. Murphy is a book containing an awful lot of references. I got the ones to Plato and Descartes, I didn’t get the ones to Spinoza (if they’re there). I’ve no doubt there were some I didn’t even realise I wasn’t getting.

That’s obvious here, but it’s potentially true of any book. Apparently Lee Rourke’s The Canal on some views has references in it to Leda and the Swan. If you read my review you won’t find any mention of that – I didn’t notice them. So it goes. I like to see the currents beneath a book’s surface, but I have to accept I won’t always do so. That’s not a problem. It’s a good thing. If we saw everything what room would there be for rereading? For later consideration?

Beckett plays then with language, with propriety and with philosophy. He plays too with his own role as author and with the reader’s as reader:

Miss Counihan sat on Wylie’s knees, not in Wynn’s hotel lest an action for libel should lie, and oyster kisses passed between them. Wylie did not often kiss, but when he did it was a serious matter. He was not one of those lugubrious persons who insist on removing the clapper from the bell of passion. A kiss from Wylie was like a breve tied, in a long slow amorous phrase, over bars’ times its equivalent in demi-semiquavers. Miss Counihan had never enjoyed anything quite so much as this slowmotion osmosis of love’s spittle.
The above passage is carefully calculated to deprave the cultivated reader.

That last sentence breaks out of the fiction. The book becomes curiously self-aware. It recognises its own artificiality. It blocks the possibility of escape into the text because as reader you cannot pass through the text into the story. Even if you could get past the tied breve (no idea) and the bars’ times its equivalent in demi-semiquavers (seriously, no idea) that final sentence makes it quite apparent that none of this is real.

I wouldn’t call Murphy an easy read. I had to think about each paragraph, often each sentence. I had to pause to consider what words meant, or might mean here. Beckett uses intentional misspellings, created vocabulary, motives so alien as to be near horrific (Murphy becomes an attendant in an insane asylum and dreams of one day himself becoming a catatonic).

At times in fact Beckett rather overdoes all this. One conversation between three characters goes on for several pages (several too many) with everything almost making sense but none of it ever quite doing so (except apparently to them, but they don’t exist and the sense they make of nonsense underlines their impossibility). Pynchon pulls that sort of thing off well. I wasn’t wholly sure Beckett did. Often the book is a delight, but occasionally one has to eat some linguistic Brussels sprouts to get to the playful literary chocolate mousse.

As the novel continues Murphy seeks to separate the mental and the physical. To retreat from the shared world into his own internal world. There is though no lasting retreat possible. If you’ve seen Waiting for Godot you know the territory. There is literally nothing to wait for. There is literally nowhere to escape to.

I said above that I understand Beckett went on to write better books. Here there is still some recognisable version of our world. There are hospitals, cafes, parks. Beckett is at his best though when playing with language and thought alone. None of his characters are, or are intended to be, sympathetic but that doesn’t excuse his rather doubtful (distasteful even) observations on, and portrayals of, women. If Murphy were to be improved it would be by less contact with Beckett’s external reality. Ironically it is when it attempts to show our world that it is least convincing.

Murphy as a character is in a sense engaged in a quest for meaning, for self-realisation even. The problem is that there is no meaning to be found. The mind is not in fact separate from the body. The world of forms does not exist. There is nothing to be realised.

Murphy the book struggles to break free from the inherent constraints of its own form (as Murphy the character tries to break free from his). The author’s invisible hand implied in tying Murphy to the chair, the asides direct to the reader, the made-up words, all of it acts to tear the novel down from within. Perhaps the last joke of Murphy though is on Beckett.

Murphy tries to undermine its own authority as a text, but ultimately it can’t do so because it relies on that very authority to make the attempt. Perhaps in the end Murphy says too much to be able to talk about nothing. Godot says less, and so more.


Filed under Beckett, Samuel, Irish fiction, Modernist fiction

26 responses to “It was like difficult music heard for the first time.

  1. Superb stuff. It’s still one of the best openings in literature, that. Whereas your piece ends perfectly.

  2. Beckett was bonkers. One of his plays, ‘Breath’, is (apparently) the shortest play ever written. It’s usually performed as a man, on stage, who takes a big breath – as if he’s about to say something – and then it ends.
    Weird stuff.

  3. Martin Eve

    Just wanted to say how much I enjoyed the review. May well re-read when I’m done with The Savage Detectives! I think the clunkiness you highlight is a symptom of early-career work. Later novellas such as Worstward Ho are extremely tight. There’s also much improvement by Watt and certainly in Malone Dies and The Unnamable.

  4. I liked that ‘cage’ idea. Not sure if I’d like this though. I see you are reading Drive. Now that should be a contrast.

  5. First thought when I read the opening sentence of the book. “Sounds like the first sentence of The Stranger” Then you mention Camus.
    Your review is excellent. Wasn’t Murphy first written in Frenci h? It would be interesting to compare the two versions.
    I didn’t know you could say “mordant” in English.

  6. I have never read anything else by him than Godot.
    I just had a look and realized for the first time how much he has written.
    I find it suprising that you write he wrote better novels later, maybe but Murphy is the best known of his novels. Or perhaps only in non-English speaking countries.
    I’m not sure at all i would like it, the choice of words seems so dry.
    It could be I’m completely wrong but it seems what is interesting in his writing is the structures of the sentences, verbs, not nouns.
    It’s certainly not lyrical. I’m in the mood for lyrical right now.

  7. Love that first line. Love the first paragraph. Just the sort of writing I like – apparently spare but loaded nonetheless.

    BTW A breve is a very long musical note, and a tied one (I think) is even longer! I’ve never studied music but have sat in on many music lessons! Does musical imagery run through the book?

    Like Caroline I’ve only ever read Godot … but clearly I should read one of his novels.

  8. wonderful max ,I ve seen some of his plays performed some on tv ch four showed some years ago and another live ,I really must try this I like a book that maybe is on the edge of that readable scale ,all the best stu

  9. I first discovered Beckett when I was nineteen – an Open University performance of Waiting for Godot at some unearthly hour in the morning – and I was hooked. I watched the repeat the next day – no video recorder back then – and even made my wife get up to watch it with me. Since then I have read, watched and listened to everything he ever did and I have copies of all his writing, videos and DVDs of his stage plays and even CDs of his radio plays. The amount of material written about him is astounding and one could spend one’s entire life studying him. Murphy was the first novel I read, not long after watching that performance, and I’ve read it a couple of times since. It is probably the most accessible of his prose works. Prior to that he was too much like Joyce for my tastes.

    I personally think the best way into Beckett is through his plays and although Waiting for Godot is the best known I would go for Krapp’s Last Tape first.

    @Tomcat – if that is what you’ve seen performed they’re doing it wrong. Beckett was very specific about how his plays should be performed. No one should appear onstage during the play. If you want to know about the play read the Wikipedia article (which I wrote so I can assure you it was well-researched). In Waiting for Godot one of the characters makes this statement about the brevity of life:

    Pozzo: (suddenly furious). Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time! It’s abominable! When! When! One day, is that not enough for you, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we’ll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you? (Calmer.) They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.

    Essentially, Breath is a dramatisation of this.

  10. leroyhunter

    Interesting comparison to Godot. Of course the form plays a role in the “more / less” balance between the 2 works.
    It’s years since I read this (in college) but you are right about his later books being stronger. I think even here though you get a clear sense of Beckett’s unique and uncompromising sensibility.

    It’s interesting how steeped in the formal aspects of music both Beckett and Joyce were. That’s something that (my impression anyway) is much less common nowadays.

    Emma, I don’t think Murphy was written first in French. I’m pretty sure Beckett started writing “originals” in French only after 1945.

  11. You’re right Leroy, the French Wikipedia is confusing on the matter. He wrote it in English and then translated it into French. I’d still be curious to compare the two versions.
    For example, The Ski Bum by Gary was written in English first. When he “translated” it into French, the French version became very different from the English one.

    I realise I’ve seen Fin de partie (Endgame), enjoyed it but can’t remember at all what it was about.

  12. Sorry for the slow response folks.

    Firstly, thanks for the various kind comments. This was, as you might imagine, a tough piece to write.

    Lee, a superb opening absolutely. Tomcat, that sounds like another attempt to find a way of expressing nothing in a meaningful way. Having read but one book and seen one play I can’t comment much further, though if I were in the audience I would hope not to have paid too much. It sounds more a concept than something one would actually perform much.

    Martin, I understand that you’re right about the clunkiness being an early career issue. A Bolano fan eh? I remain as yet untempted, but perhaps I should reconsider.

    Guy, I picked Drive as a contrast. As you guessed, I loved it. The cage, like much here, is an amusing observation and one that carries undertones of futility and despair. Beckett seems big on despair.

    Emma, the Camus link suggested itself to me as so much here seemed absurdist. That said, it only became really apparent to me when I put that quote down on paper (screen more accurately). That’s partly why I blog in fact. The act of blogging makes me find things I otherwise likely wouldn’t spot.

    Caroline, best known perhaps because it’s early and perhaps because of that incredible opening line. Generally agreed not to be the best though. I knew that and it lets me build towards his better ones.

    It’s about as unlyrical as lyrical could get. If you dig around in my categories you’ll find Maalouf, Amin. Check that one out. I think you might well like it. Not this though. Anyone in a lyrical mood would find it positively unenjoyable I think.

    WG, spare but loaded, nicely put. Thanks too for the musical explanations. As I said, it’s packed with references. Some you get, some you don’t. To stop and check each one though would destroy the flow, so I accepted that there woud be times I was simply lost and that was one. The sense though is clear from the paragraph even if the precise words weren’t to me.

    Stu, I’d be delighted to see your thoughts.

    Leroy, good point on the form. A unique and uncompromising sensibility. Absolutely on both. The formal aspects of music will continue to prove a challenge for me, with Beckett and when I go back to Joyce (after a gap of many years) too.

  13. Jim, you got caught subject to approval for some reason. Sorry for that.

    The most accessible? God help me going forward for I wouldn’t call this accessible. Exciting though, and accessibility is far from the only virtue a book may have (I do think it a virtue, but a virtue often worth sacrificing for other virtues).

    The link to the article on Breath is very useful. Described as there it actually makes a lot of sense.

    Oh, on staying up late, I once stayed up to 4am watching Tarkovsky’s Solaris. No VCR. I had work the next morning. I was comatose throughout what proved a very long day. Worth it though. There is something so marvellous about art that makes us respond like that. That’s worth inconvenience. Inconvenience is no large thing, but it’s surprising how few works most of us are happy to be inconvenienced for (including me).

  14. Yes, I agree … you can’t check every reference when you are reading and still “feel” the work as a whole … and anyhow, if you don’t know the reference you may not even see it to decide whether or not to look it up! As for the “breve”, the sense is as you say perfectly clear … sign of a good writer. It makes sense without knowing the reference but if you know the reference you get the extra little fillip.

  15. This is an excellent review of this novel. Your sense that Beckett rather overdoes all this is true, I think. The general sense is that he was still in thrall to Joyce, before abandoning that way. Watt is where he begins to come into his own. That said, I love Murphy (though, in reference to Caroline’s comment, I’m shocked to learn that it’s his best known novel anywhere at all. Surely that’s Molloy.).

    If you can, I recommend Hugh Kenner’s A Reader’s Guide to Samuel Beckett. It’s short, witty, and helpful. Very much worth tracking down.

    (Btw, in your 4th-to-last paragraph, your final sentence seems to be unfinished. Unless I’m confused.)

  16. Thanks Richard.

    How annoying with that para. Now I wonder what else wasn’t quite how I meant to leave it. I’ve added some words in, though perhaps I should have cut some out. That might have worked better and would certainly have been more Beckettian.

    In thrall to Joyce makes sense, though I need to read more Joyce to make that connection myself. I’ll check out the Kenner. Short, witty and helpful are valuable traits and I can see that help with Beckett could be very useful.

  17. Forgot to say Richard, did you see that I’d reviewed some Josipovici? I’ll read your thoughts soon.

  18. Hi Max – yes, I did see you’d reviewed Josipovici. (I believe I linked to your fine review of What Ever Happened to Modernism? in my own. I’ll be interested in what you think of my thoughts.)

    I should clarify my reference to Joyce, and Beckett’s thralldom. That’s the accepted line, I believe. Both Josipovici and Kenner note it, and it shows up in his letters and Knowlson’s bio. I, however, have not read much Joyce myself, only Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist. I want to read Ulysses but have yet to take the time.

  19. I’ve printed them off Richard. I’ll hopefully get to read them this weekend (long hours at the moment).

    It amazes me how many people try to start with Ulysses. Incredibly unwise I should think.

  20. I fear that this one would defeat me before I started it – just the thought of Beckett. However, I have read so little of him I’m hardly qualified to hold an opinion and your review certainly brings out more than I would see in it I think. I had to look up the word Mordant – I’d only heard it in the context of dyeing.

  21. Mordant I knew, but plenty of others I didn’t. I’d start with a decent production of Waiting for Godot if you haven’t already. It is very good.

    Apparently it’s seen as embarassing to admit one hasn’t seen it, which is silly. I saw it for the first time last year and it hadn’t occurred to me to feel bad about not having done so before. It was bloody good though so worth making the effort for.

  22. LaurencePritchard


    An excellent review. I think your spot on about the Joyce influence and the flaws, such as they are in a writer of Beckett’s calibre.

    I’m a big fan of Watt. In fact, I’m pretty much a fan of everything he wrote. The Trilogy is a remarkable work, not sure if you’d call them novels, perhaps (because of their length) monologues that are impossible to perform.

  23. Thanks Laurence.

    Yes, the flaws hardly diminish the considerable achievement.

    I mentioned under the Musil some books being daunting. I do admit I am somewhat daunted by some Joyce. All the more reason to read him though I suppose. There’ll definitely be more Beckett in the pipeline, but I wonder if I should grapple with more Joyce first.

  24. Nice review Max, it’s never easy to write on Beckett but you’ve handled it really well. As for the early Beckett being in thrall to Joyce, it’s fairly accepted. He was kind of a disciple of Joyce’s at the time, hanging out with him in Paris, doing research for his Work in Progress (Finnegan’s Wake) publishing a long essay defending Joyce’s work, and even rebuffing the advances of Joyce’s daughter. He’s still going for a sort of self-consciously clever Joycean high style at this point, and it’s still pretty loaded with the sort of symbols and arcane references of which Joyce was so excessively fond.

    For me Beckett gets really fascinating when he starts striking out in the opposite direction and starts deconstructing rather than embellishing (he famously states that whereas Joyce’s talent was for addition, he realised his was for subtraction). The Trilogy is amazing because it is essentially a three-part assassination of the novel. I couldn’t recommend it more. But that said, a lot of the ideas that underpin the later work are there in Murphy and you still have the sort of stylistic luxuries that are cast aside in the later works after he starts writing in French. I think Murphy’s also maybe the funniest book he wrote – certainly the most slapstick.

  25. Pingback: The 1938 Club: welcome! – Stuck in a Book

  26. Seana Moore

    What an excellent review. Thank you!

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