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The Custom of the Country
Edith Wharton, Linda Wagner-Martin
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Leo Tolstoy, Alymer Maude, Louise Maude


Murphy - Samuel Beckett

Thought I'd review this as so few have, and this is Beckett's first, best, and funniest novel.


Many people think of Beckett's characters, and they come up with something like this:




These post-apocalyptic, hollowed-out characters sitting around in the blank landscapes of Beckett's plays have been blasted to hell and back; they patiently accept whatever happens to them and seem to be waiting for some form of grace.

In contrast, Murphy (the title character of the novel) isn't going anywhere, but he couldn't be happier. Unlike so many of the characters in Beckett's plays, Murphy is bursting with life. He might be one hell of an odd duck, but he's alive and hopping. Murphy has no desire to be housebroken by society or to parcel out his days and nights as productively as a character like Robinson Crusoe. Murphy isn't alarmed by the void that sends Lucy Snowe (Villette) into a near frenzy, but rather seeks out these unstructured spaces actively.

To achieve personal bliss, Murphy sits tied--by seven scarves--and naked "in his rocking chair of undressed teak, guaranteed not to crack, warp, shrink, corrode, or creak at night." This rather bizarre arrangement works to give his body pleasure and "free his mind": "For it was not until his body was appeased that he could come alive in his mind....And life in his mind gave him pleasure, such pleasure that pleasure was not the word."

In short, Murphy isn't heading anywhere in a hurry; his lack of what we might view as motivation parodies time, a point one could gather from the book's opening line, which neatly lampoons all the novels with predictably dull first lines about weather and time, and also lets us know we aren't in Kansas anymore:

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

I've been thinking a lot about humor this summer because I'm pondering whether to teach a course on the topic. While I think Murphy is one of the funniest books in literature, it's hard to define why. Like explaining a joke, which falls apart upon examination, nothing destroys humor faster than theorizing its characteristics. And it's pretty telling that those who have tried to define humor--Aristotle, Sigmund Freud, Henri Bergson, and Immanuel Kant, to name a few--are some pretty humorless dudes. Perhaps funny people know better than to try to define funny-dom.

Prodded by Celia, his good-hearted but mercenary prostitute girlfriend, Murphy reluctantly sets out to find employment: "Murphy on the jobpath was a striking figure..." Beckett goes on at length about the qualities of the green suit Murphy sports:

"His suit was not green but aeruginous....No less than the colour the cut was striking. The jacket, a tube in its own right, descended clear of the body as far as mid-thigh, where the skirts were slightly reflexed like the mouth of a bell in mute appeal to be lifted that some found hard to resist....With regard to the material of the suit, the bold claim was advanced by the makers that it was holeproof. This was true in the sense that it was entirely non-porous. It admitted no air from the outer world, it allowed none of Murphy's own vapours to escape.

Murphy's unusual aspect is noted by some of his potential employers. He's turned down for the job of "smart boy" at Gray's Inn Road, where he's assessed harshly:"'E ain't smart...."Nor 'e ain't a boy" [and:]"'E don't look rightly human to me." But luck shines on Murphy and he gets a job as a male nurse at Magdalen Mental Mercyseat, "a hospital for the better-class mentally deranged." Unaware that Murphy is happily employed by M.M.M., most of the book's characters are busily searching for him.

Despite the rather elaborate plot--which mocks plots in general--the book is not about the story arc. Whatever absurd situations confront Murphy are ultimately beside the point. The book's focus is on Murphy and his desire to avoid the sound and fury, all the tomorrows and tomorrows and tomorrows that natter at us and make us conform to a world that fits about as well as Murphy's green suit. As Murphy explains, "I am not of the big world, I am of the little world."

* * *

And, as a added boon, some of Beckett's better phrases:

"mercantile gehenna" - the work world
"long hank of Apollonian asthenia," "schizoidal spasmophile," "seedy solipsist" - words to call your friends
"jacking their jaws apart with the gag, spurning their tongues aside with the spatula, till the last tundish of drench is absorbed" - Ticklepenny describing how he feeds the patients at Magdalene Mental Mercyseat