Beckett's Murphy, Gide's Les Caves du Vatican, and the "Modern" Novel
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Beckett's Murphy, Gide's Les Caves du Vatican, and the "Modern" Novel

Beckett's second novel, Murphy (completed 1936; published 1938) has long been dividing its readers. Some of Beckett's commentators, for instance Hugh Kenner and Andrew Gibson, have read the novel as an example of "Beckett's early realism"—a retreat from the self-reflexivity and narrative experiments of Dream of Fair to Middling Women (completed 1932).1 Others have suggested precisely the opposite. John Fletcher has argued that Murphy is an ironic metafiction presenting "a parody of the traditional novel," while J. M. Coetzee suggests that it plays a complex game with narrative authority which targets the very "rules" and "codes" of the novel.2 More is at stake here than our appreciation of one of Beckett's early fictions; such accounts play an important part in how the story of Beckett's artistic development is told. In the first reading, Murphy is a "sole exercise, and an anomalous one" which Beckett had to abandon for a "turn away from realism after Murphy" towards the complexity of his postwar fictions.3 In the second, Murphy's unsettling narrative technique anticipates the inner workings of Beckett's masterpieces of the 1940s and 1950s; its "attitude of reserve toward the novel" "grows, and by the time of The Unnamable (1953) has become . . . the subject of Beckett's work" (DP, 37).

In the following I suggest that Beckett's readers remain divided over this issue because, despite considerable efforts to recover his early sources, the fictional theory behind Murphy's "realism" and its specific type of irony has remained obscure. Once this context is supplied, Murphy reveals itself as a text which playfully re-engages the fundamental dilemma Beckett outlined in his 1930 lectures on the "modern" novel and which [End Page 771] he first approached in Dream of Fair to Middling Women: the impossibility of representing an irreducibly complex reality through language. In this way, Beckett's second novel discloses an ongoing dialogue with his greatest master in the theory of the novel, André Gide, and, through hitherto concealed allusions, reveals significant debts to his Les Caves du Vatican (translated into English as Lafcadio's Adventures).

In a recent article I suggested Gide's importance to the Beckett of Dream of Fair to Middling Women, yet this influence might seem to have faded quickly.4 Gide does not appear in C.J. Ackerley's recent and exhaustively annotated companion to Murphy, and to the best of my knowledge, no allusions to Gide have yet been identified in the novel. But Beckett had not left his early master behind; in the months before he started Murphy, he made the last of at least three frustrated attempts to compose a monograph on Gide.5 The book never materialized, but Gide's influence did make its way into Beckett's next novel, most clearly in his handling of character. Murphy's divided mind has long fascinated commentators, yet the character's oddities play an important part in the modern attempt to resist novelistic naturalism—undifferentiated from realism—and its ally, coherence. To get a sense of what these terms meant to Beckett we must return to his theory of the modern novel as delivered in his 1930 lectures at Trinity College, Dublin.

In his lectures, Beckett rehearses the critique of the nineteenth century French novel set out by Gide in his Dostoïevsky (1923). This book takes Balzac as its chief example of an artist who relies on rational causality and comprehensible motive in the construction of his characters.6 But Gide's larger target is the Western-European logic which undergirds this type of form, a logic which strives for a unification of the self by skirting the irrational or unknowable aspects of experience and the psyche. Against this tradition, he valorizes the modern paradigm best represented by Dostoevsky. Following Gide, Beckett suggests in his lectures that in Dostoevsky the subject is not only inherently multiple (as in Proust, another modern author) but in conflict with itself (MIC60, 29).7 Beckett bases this argument on Gide's notion of "antagonisms" between the three essential divisions he found...