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Mercier and Camier Paperback – January 11, 2011
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About the Author
Samuel Beckett (1906-1989), one of the leading literary and dramatic figures of the twentieth century, was born in Foxrock, Ireland and attended Trinity University in Dublin. In 1928, he visited Paris for the first time and fell in with a number of avant-garde writers and artists, including James Joyce. In 1937, he settled in Paris permanently. Beckett wrote in both English and French, though his best-known works are mostly in the latter language. A prolific writer of novels, short stories, and poetry, he is remembered principally for his works for the theater, which belong to the tradition of the Theater of the Absurd and are characterized by their minimalist approach, stripping drama to its barest elements. In 1969, Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature and commended for having "transformed the destitution of man into his exaltation." Beckett died in Paris in 1989.
At the age of seventy-six he said: "With diminished concentration, loss of memory, obscured intelligence... the more chance there is for saying something closest to what one really is. Even though everything seems inexpressible, there remains the need to express. A child need to make a sand castle even though it makes no sense. In old age, with only a few grains of sand, one has the greatest possibility." (from Playwrights at Work, ed. by George Plimpton, 2000)
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For a Beckett fan it is a must. If you don't love Waiting For Godot, it will bore you.
Decrepit, degenerate, down-at-the-heels, Mercier and Camier are two mutually antagonistic friends who decide to set off one day on a journey. They're looking for something--or somewhere--but what they aren't exactly sure. They have a broken umbrella, one raincoat, a bicycle, and a sack between them. At one point or other, they lose, regain, and lose again even these scant belongings. Their laconic dialogue is peppered with insults, complaints, truncated rants, sarcasm, and, most of all, a confusion bordering on out-and-out senile dementia. They no sooner leave one station of their journey then they decide they must double back. It's always raining, or about to rain. As in a nightmare, for every two steps forward they seem to take two back. They don't get anywhere; which is apropos. They had no clue where they were going from the start.
Along the way, the two friends have various fallings-out and reconciliations, all over trivial matters. They come across various outlandish characters with whom they interact in the most oblique and frustrating of ways. They commit what should be a shocking act of senseless and unpremeditated violence which causes them to become fugitives--if they weren't fugitives already. But because of the dreamy surreality of the text that renders the emotional charge of murder equal to that of bickering about a fork in the road nothing seems more important than anything else and nothing seems important at all. Everything is flat-line, the same expanse of featureless gray.
Odd to say then that *Mercier and Camier* is a hilarious, slapstick novel--a read that will have you laughing out loud. On a universal scale, Beckett's gallows humor simply can't be topped. He's got the oft-mentioned "absurdity of the human condition" down the way no one has before or since. Slim, grim, and good for a grin, *Mercier and Camier* may be one of the most *perfect* novels ever written.
In "Mercier and Camier," the journey shapes the plot as the two men parade on an endless quest. Despite its somberness, it is in some ways a warm and funny book, occasionally tinged with stinging sarcasm. There are secondary characters, skillfully and swiftly delineated, so bizarre that even the two oddities of the title are struck by their madness. Mercier and Camier are otherworldly figures themselves, but they need the trappings of the real world in order to give their story coherence, and this is no doubt part of the reason why Beckett chose to abandon them and go on to the Malones and Malloys of his later fiction.
Just about this time, Beckett discovered that writing was for him the most intensely personal experience possible, depending not on verbal virtuosity or on the careful construction of the traditional novel. For him, creation satisfied only when he could plumb the depths of his unconscious, find an incident from his own life, and then work to conceal biography within the framework of his creative consciousness, changing dimensions of time and space according to the whim of his fictional voices. He reduces life to a series of tales, told first by one, then another (perhaps the same) voice, but all the voices are his.
Beckett perfected this method of writing novels when he discovered what he has called the most important revelation of his literary career--the first person monologue. He found he could create a multi-dimensional universe through the use of a voice telling a story. At the same time, this relentless voice could reveal character in its most desperate loneliness, stripping it as never before in contemporary fiction.
Written just before "Molloy," "Mercier and Camier" stands on the threshold of Beckett's mature fiction. There are large chunks of dialogue which he later transferred directly into Godot, but here speech is encumbered by a plot with progression and movement, albeit circuitous and often contradictory. There is a narrator, as in "Murphy" and "Watt," who occasionally intrudes to inject an acerbic comment and who thinks nothing of slowing down, speeding up, or otherwise circumventing the progress of the "pseudo-couple" (as they are called in "The Unnamable").
"Mercier and Camier" is about voluntary exile, much like Beckett's own. While it can be read as the odyssey of Beckett and the other young Irishmen who went to Paris in the 1930's hoping to gain the same success as their countryman of an older generation, James Joyce, it can also be read as two aspects of the personality of Beckett himself. Before his departure, he had been easily recognizable in Dublin by his shapeless, dirty raincoat, several sizes too large. He was plagued by recurring idiosyncratic cysts. When he wrecked his own car, he had continuous problems with his bicycle. In a drunken moment, he lost his favorite hat, which he mourned long afterwards.
It is the raincoat, however, which best symbolizes the final division of his first 30 years from the rest of his life, as well as this novel's place in his canon: when he left Dublin, Beckett threw his raincoat away, just as Mercier and Camier, after throwing theirs away, walk off into their own uncertain future, looking back now and again at the heap on the ground--unwilling to go on with it, but hesitant to abandon it...