A Pawn's Head













"from the spermarium to the crematorium" (47)

"Avoid exhaustion by speech”(24),

“Take salts of lemon” (34),

“The clock of Chelsea Old Church ground out grudgingly the hour of ten”(10),”

“Considering alternately the sky and a sheet of paper” (9),

“[a] matrix of surds”(68),

"the hall was doorless”(73),

“all these particulars”(9)—


The diction is of dust and oblivion; a tenor and tone in terms of speech (the rhythm) that, as Beckett himself writes, might be adopted “by exhibitionists for their last words on Earth”(25).  Murphy, published in 1938, now championed an absurdist chef-d'oeuvre if not masterpiece, would first suffer from a succession of rejections.  After a period of evasion on part of publisher, the first domino to fall would be Chatto & Windus, who had published Beckett’s Proust (1931) and More Pricks Than Kicks (1933).  Beckett then bore a train of dismissal on both sides of the Atlantic with occasional sparks of interest, but an interest that would require adjustments and changes and amendments for wider appeal. These, of course, Beckett snubbed or flat out forbid, too busy himself being stabbed in the chest and nearly put down in the streets of Paris—purportedly by a notorious pimp who (of all names) went by “Prudent.”  The reasoning?—Beckett purportedly (as Murphy so many times had) rejected Prudent’s solicitations and advances.  It would be James Joyce who, after the 1938, January 7th incident, oversaw Beckett’s medical treatment. 


Further, just to add to the absurdity, it was from hospital bed that Beckett managed to read over the final page proofs, sent by Routledge, the publishing house that, thanks to Jack Yeats’ enthusiasm, ended Murphy’s 2-year gulf of limbo and (finally) went along with printing the novella.  Of course, sales for Murphy proved poor.  The Guardian records, “568 copies [were] sold in 1938, 23 in 1939, 20 in 1940 and 7 in 1941,” finally allowing the work in March 1943 “to go out of print.”  Such is comprehensible enough, recognizing as the years advanced into Hitler’s blitz of fear, horror, sharp terror, few could stomach a novella bringing its reader to a final chapter, which (in turn) reduces its central character to oblivion’s dust.  (For those unfamiliar, after resigning from a game of chess, Murphy literally sets himself on fire.)  However, unlike its protagonist, from the ashes, the book endures.  As Wallace Stevens reminds us, Beckett’s clenched but playful tongue of dark semantic [sic] humour is the stuff of what continues to suffice. 

For the reader willing to risk the endeavor, turning through the dark, opaque pages of Murphy will feel like advancing up one of the less commercialized Himalayan peaks; slow, operose, surely taxing, yet somehow enjoyable for some; the effort gratifying, the images stunning, but know, dear reader, that you’re going into the death zone, and without a sherpa to guide.  


Murphy as with Molloy (1951), Malone meurt (1951) begins with the 13th letter of the alphabet.  Until the eighteenth century, the letter was known as ‘W,’ a letter itself that brings to mind Beckett’s second published novel, Watt (1945; 53).  While ‘M’ or ‘13’ harbors pop-culture’s darker marks (Friday, the 13th most of all), notwithstanding some biblical scars (the dragon, a sign for Satan, or the devil responsible for all revolt against God we find 13 times in the book of Revelation), there are less doomed & disaster-prone associations.  The one that speaks most directly to the solipsistic backbone of Murphy is that people marked by such number or born beneath M’s scar will be branded by laziness, an intolerance towards other people.  On their best days, they can also show themselves to be very determined, unpredictable, tough to contain, being tied to their own chaos—as when Celia finds Murphy hanging off his hinges—his rocking-chair on top, his figure overturned.  In the pitch dark.  Like “a very inexperienced diver,” but with his arms hampered behind him, barred from breaking any concussion (18).  Yes.  Just there.  Quite determined.  Licking his lip.  Transferring his other cheek to the dust, "just beyond the frontiers of suffering" (47). 


The capturing image—that of intimate shipwreck follows the opening scene of Murphy, where we find the protagonist naked and strapped by seven scarves (7, the mark of inner-wisdom, intuition, spiritual maturation; the union of the physical (4) with the spiritual (3)) to his rocking-chair, anchored in a sea of tedium, disquiet, unrest that so often we associate with Fernando Pessoa.  Though perhaps startling for some, Murphy’s self-prescribed discipline of restraint, while not as stoic as the flagellant, does invoke the personal habit of chastisement, a sort of Vaudevillian scourging used to exhaust, to keep the loathsome body and poor mind free from the world “of nuts, balls, sparrows” (24), that he might arrest his physical wants, bring the carnal body to the lapse which allows him "[to come] alive in mind, set free to move among its treasures" (67) in quest of "what he had not ceased to seek from the moment of his being strangled into a state of respiration--the best of himself" (43).   What this 'self' is 



And so we breach the private world of Murphy devoid 


With Murphy Beckett plays with how states of progress and order (a miasma of plutomanic laws) gradually chip away, give way for a Hobbessian universe in which (to borrow from Leviathan) there are "no instruments of moving, and removing, [as] such things require much force;" and as for the friendship of mind, Beckett provides a diet of intellectual crumbs, crumbs which ultimately champion mere existence itself; in other words, the mind becomes attuned to (well) "no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society." 


To Murphy's defense, one might pull out the following quip by Neary that "the full is only reached by admittance to the most retired places”(30), but then we have to ask, throwing back to the passages of Job, "at what cost?" 


"A dog's life without a dog's prerogative " (47)


Regardless, the storm of this book's force swirls around Murphy and his tepid disavowal of society's many states of ostensible order : a once-theological-student and rocking example of academia's misplaced failures--one who would rather darkly moan in a corner, as Nihilism's greatest cheerleader than shepherd and shower the world with riddles of salvation.  Ironically, by renouncing the world Murphy becomes an unlikely Christ-figure who only the great war could spring out, operating for Beckett's as the messiah for the 'broken' and the 'quit'--in a suit that is "not green, but aeruginous," with trousers creased "by miles of bitter stair."  "Guilty of some redundance," (46)


The pathways and round-abouts of Murphy's other characters show up now and again, but through the given mergers and intersections with the actions, or inaction of Murphy.  For example, we know Neary and his academic circle of misfits only for their aim to strip Murphy of his afferent, centripetal force--that hilariously has much to do about love. (Quote from the circle or love triangle in book that ends with Murphy.)


for Neary is in love with a Miss Counihan, who in turn is infatuated with the possibilities of Murphy, let alone Murphy, himself.  Beckett admits so much when Celia (again, Murphy's Mary M.) considering the paths of how life might look: "Both these lines led to Murphy (everything led to Murphy), but so diversely" (41).


We can see clearly though dizzily 


No matter the place, the interaction, the circumstance, Beckett has a way of keeping Murphy psychically  strapped to this corner, which is a portal to a world quite all his own.


When read in this vein, Murphy’s character, far from perverse, can be more carefully rendered, obtained, followed, studied; suddenly, one realizes the shiftless layabout for a despondent, off-label disciplinati; a laic monk who (beyond the company of Celia) has given up the world, following not the cross-rugged act of Christ, but that of a more academic mahatma or sibyl: a Professor Neary whose masochism entails the rare faculty of stopping “his heart more or less whenever he liked,” for situations that proved “irksome beyond endurance, as when he wanted a drink and could not get one, or fell among Gaels and could not escape, or felt the pangs of hope sexual inclination”(2).  Besides this Neary, Murphy turns only to sky charts for any real news, instruction, guidance, what he confides to Celia as his life-warrant &“little bull of in-communication”(20). 

It is a Mr. Suk who delivers Murphy’s heavenly projections, provides the dodgy solipsist with dubious prognoses, estimates, predictions, the sort of astral guidance that while colorful, even hip (Murphy’s lucky color, for example, to “prevent calamity” is “Lemon,”), plays only further into Murphy’s own withdrawal from life.  Murphy’s annulment from the world is justified by the following nugget of wisdom, spoken by Neary: “so with the friendship of the mind, the full is only reached by admittance to the most retired places”(30).