Reading Malone Dies: How and Why Does it Work?

BY AMBER WHEELER BACON

In Malone Dies, Samuel Beckett breaks many of the rules that writing teachers teach in workshop—regarding breaking sequence, reader confusion and plot. While reading it, I kept asking myself, “Why do I love this?” If there’s a plot, it’s barely there. The reader is confused from the beginning and stays confused throughout the rest of the novel. But we just get used to it. To say the narrator is unreliable seems like a joke since the narrator isn’t even sure if he’s alive or dead half the time. Given all this, why does the book work? Why did I keep reading and why did I care so much about Malone?

In the same way that we read As I Lay Dying to find out if Addie ever gets buried, we read Malone Dies because we are waiting for him to die. (Never mind that we aren’t sure he actually dies at the end.)

During this book, I kept thinking about St. John of the Cross and his Dark Night of the Soul. In it, after death, the soul goes on a journey to meet God. The way is difficult—and without light—but the soul goes about its business joyfully because it knows that at the end, God will be waiting. Malone Dies isn’t a religious book. At the very least, though, we know that when Malone dies, he will be out of his misery. So, that being the ecstatic end in sight, we know Malone—that might be his name—is on a journey to death. The story is depressing, like we might expect a dark night of the soul to be, but it is not without its joys. In fact, the joys of the novel are what make it bearable, and what make its narrator irresistible.

Malone begins by telling us a story of a boy named Sapo, who by the end of the novel, we believe to be Malone. He was not a smart boy, often confusing “birds with one another, and the trees, and could not tell one crop from another crop.” He was not impressed by the sun, or moon, or planets, but “from his ignorance of them, he drew a kind of joy, as from all that went to swell the murmur.” He found some happiness in not knowing and in being an ignorant small thing in the great scheme of things. In many ways, Malone seems to say that just existing is a joy—at the same time that it is desolate, of course.

There are other joys, too, that carry Malone through his small existence. There is his pencil, the chorus of children, knowing that his possessions are in a pile in the corner of the room, and that he can access them with his stick.  There is joy in the expression of language itself, in the telling of his and Sapo’s story. At the very worst of times, he resorts to storytelling: Sapo’s story, and then Macmann’s (who is Sapo, who is also probably Malone—and Molloy for that matter).

As he tells Sapo’s story, he spends ample time specifying the minute details of his existence.  In one section, Malone tells of a grey hen that Sapo became good friends with, but then he begins to question himself and wonder whether or not it was the same hen that appears each day or different hens. This problem becomes important, to both Sapo and the narrator. There is another long passage where Sapo watches a woman sort lentils. There is such emphasis placed on this type of minutae that the reader takes these little dramas as seriously as we would if they were important conversations between main characters—or matters of life and death. The narrator tells Sapo’s story with such care that the reader cannot but think that he enjoys the telling.

Like Molloy in the previous book, Malone also enjoys describing his possessions at length. He often mentions the writing tools among his things: a pencil—and there may be another hiding in his bedclothes—and an exercise book. He describes it: “My pencil. It is a little Venus, still green no doubt, with five or six facets, pointed at both ends and so short there is just room, between them, for my thumb and the two adjacent fingers, gathered together in a little vice.” The narrator “worries” about his pencil, its longevity, how hard he should bear down, that the one under his covers is “gone for ever.”

There is such love and care given this small piece of pencil, the reader cannot but think that the book is filled with love for life itself. “One dies” and “the others go on as if nothing happened,” the narrator laments. His response is simply, “I feel.” To exist in this world seems to be enough.

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