I have no idea what the IQs of these gentlemen are but I don’t think the same criterion applies when you’re talking about writers, composers, comedians and artists. Few would dispute that Beethoven was a musical genius, that Picasso was an artistic genius, that Shakespeare was a literary genius and that Peter Sellers was a comedic genius but does that mean that every note Beethoven wrote was a work of genius? or that every line penned by Shakespeare was a work of genius? Do geniuses ever have off days?
I am a huge fan of the writer Samuel Beckett. I believe him to be a literary genius. I do not, however, believe that everything he penned was a work of genius, merely that it was the work of a genius; there is a difference. Beckett himself was nothing if not self-effacing. Indeed, often in the scribbled notes he sent along with his manuscripts he apologises for them saying that this or that was the best he could manage and he hopes it will do. Even after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature—as if any greater validation was needed after that—he still remained the man he had always been, shy and unimpressed by fame, especially his own. He received the award in 1969, “for his writing, which—in new forms for the novel and drama—in the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation” but he declined to attend the ceremony. The following year, due to pressure from his French publisher, Les Éditions de Minuit, he agreed to the publication of his novella Mercier et Camier. It was not a new work. In fact it predated his most famous play, Waiting for Godot, which he began in October 1948 but wasn’t first performed until January 1953. He had sworn never to publish Mercier et Camier—he described it as “jettisoned”—in fact his first biographer, Deirdre Bair, in an article in The New York Times, notes this:
The manuscript was accepted in 1947 by Beckett's first French publisher, Bordas, but for reasons unknown he withdrew it before publication. For 24 years he steadfastly refused to allow it to be published, calling it a working draft or preliminary attempt to evolve a new technique in fiction.
So why the change of heart? Simply to cash in after the publicity surrounding the Nobel Prize? Hardly Beckett’s style. Really the problem lay in his own generosity having previously allowed scholars access to the text, permitting bits to be quoted and translated, so that his defence against eventual publication got weaker and weaker year by year.
Wilhelm Dilthey says that we all perform the act of autobiography all the time, not in the sense of writing it down, of course, or sending it into the world for publication, but in the sense of—as Beckett puts it and performs it so often—drawing the line and making the tot. But the tot will be different each time, for memory and the self will have altered with circumstances, and these—self and circumstances—taken in adaptive conjunction, will determine the new tot. We can see such a totting up of a career, of necessity provisional and incomplete, as early as 1948, in a letter Beckett wrote to George Reavey: "I am now retyping, for rejection by the publishers, Malone Meurt, the last I hope of the series Murphy, Watt, Mercier & Camier, Molloy, not to mention the 4 Nouvelles & Eleuthéria" (No Symbol Where None Intended, 53).
The irony here, of course, is that, whilst taking a break from his next novel, L'Innomable, which he was working on at the time he wrote this letter, he began the play that would secure his place in literary history, as a bit of light relief, to, as he put it, "get away from the awful prose [he] was writing at the time." That play was En attendant Godot. The rest, as they say, is history.
Let’s jump back though to 1945. 1945 was a pivotal year for Beckett. He had been living in France but returned home to Dublin where he had his famous epiphany in his mother’s house which he, in a rather romantic gesture for him, relocated to the end of the East Pier of Dún Laoghaire staring out into the Irish sea. Less studious researchers often assume his references to it in Krapp’s Last Tape are autobiographical but they are not, although when the opportunity to correct people arose, Beckett did not always jump in to provide a more accurate account. Three years before his death in 1989 he did, however, set the record straight in a letter to Richard Ellmann: “All the jetty and howling wind are imaginary. It happened to me, summer 1945, in my mother’s little house, named New Place, across the road from Cooldrinagh.”
The first work to be produced after this revelation was written in French. He made the switch because—as he himself claimed—it was easier for him thus to write "without style" Prior to this Beckett’s prose is heavily indebted to his adoration of the writing of his fellow Irishman, James Joyce but following his revelation he realised…
… that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, [being] in control of one’s material. He was always adding to it; you only have to look at his proofs to see that. I realised that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than in adding.
Although undoubtedly an Irishman—the thick accent stuck until his dying day (with no loss of viscosity)—even his early scribblings are not as overtly Irish as is the writing of Synge or Flann O'Brien, but although the Irishisms faded from his work post-1945, their echo remained. In his book Memory and Narrative: The Weave of Life Writing, James Olney makes an interesting observation:
It was with the intention, I believe, of clothing memories in a language that had for him no tentacular roots in memory, a language that was therefore safer, more formal and abstract than the intensely charged medium of English, that Beckett decided, when memory became in all ways central to his work, to write in French.
The adjective ‘tentacular’ is a good choice here for it means “equipped with tentacles” and the fact is that although “he did not wish to indulge in memory: he had no choice but to take it on as a subject along with the self.” This is why when the two men with the ever-so-French-sounding names in his next book set out on their journey, although the city is never named it is obvious to all and sundry that it is a thinly-disguised Dublin. He began the novella on 5th May 1946 and completed it by 3rd October that same year lumbering it with the rather unwieldy title of Le Voyage de Mercier et Camier autour du Pot dans les Bosquets de Bondy (literally The Journey of Mercier and Camier around the pot in the groves of Bondy). The subtleties of this title do not come across in the transliteration:
"Tourner autour du pot" is colloquial French for "to detour," and the voyage of Mercier and Camier proves to be a series of detours from the undesignated destination of the two travelling friends. Further, the title situates these detours in the groves of Bondy, which is colloquial French for "a den of thieves." [...] The long French title therefore implies that the two friends engage in a series of detours within an environment of ill-wishers.
Now we have Beckett’s complete canon, it’s hard to see how Mercier et Camier stands out but these were the first of his vaudeville couples and the only ones in prose. His most famous pair, obviously, are Vladimir and Estragon from Waiting for Godot followed by Hamm and Clov in Endgame of whom Beckett said, “You must realise that Hamm and Clov are Didi and Gogo at a later date, at the end of their lives.” Once he qualified this remark, stating that Hamm and Clov were actually “himself and Suzanne” (his long-time mistress and finally wife who he first met in1929) "as they were in the 1950s—when they found it difficult to stay together but impossible to leave each other." Beckett's Waiting for Godot has been called "a metaphor for the long walk into Roussillon, when Beckett and Suzanne slept in haystacks... during the day and walked by night..." when they were fleeing the Nazis and, as at least some “of the dialogue of the novella Mercier et Camier is repeated word for word in” Waiting for Godot, it’s not unreasonable to look as Mercier and Camier as prototypes, if not exactly much younger versions, of Didi and Gogo. In his novel, L'Innomable, published in French in 1953, a number of characters from Beckett’s earlier works get a brief mention, Belacqua Shua, Murphy, Watt, Molloy, Moran, Malone and Mercier and Camier who get singled out and referred to as a “pseudo-couple.”
It is an odd expression and one Beckett (typically) never expounded on so it has been left to others to try and agree upon what he meant. As his three main male pairs (I’m not discounting the pairs in Rough for Theatre I and II but let’s not overcomplicate the issue) are clearly connected then what people, including Beckett himself, have said about the latter two may also be applied to the original pair and one of those things is that rather than be viewed as separate individuals, Didi and Gogo and Hamm and Clov should be viewed as two halves of a single personality. Peter Boxall writes:
Vladimir and Estragon have been seen as so complimentary that they might be the two halves of a single personality, the conscious and the subconscious mind. Each of these three pairs—Pozzo-Lucky; Vladimir-Estragon; Hamm-Clov—is linked by a relationship of mutual interdependance, wanting to leave each other, at war with each other, and yet dependent on each other. 'Nec tecum, nec sine te.' This is a frequent situation among people--married couples, for example--but it is also an image of the interrelatedness of the elements within a single personality, particularly if the personality is in conflict with itself.
Boxall’s book only focuses on the two plays, Waiting for Godot and Endgame, but if I added ‘Mercier-Camier’ into his list of pairs I am sure no one would argue. In fact in The Faber Guide to Samuel Beckett there is a lengthy section on ‘pseudocouples’ which notes that…
[P]airs of characters pervade SB’s terrain like animals in search of an ark. Some wander deserted byways in pursuit of a saviour; others go nowhere, doomed to existence in claustrophobic rooms or ashbins. Whatever their predicament, the men and women who make up SB’s teetering twosomes are tied to each other, figuratively or, like Pozzo and Lucky, literally.
Unlike most others in the Beckett canon Mercier and Camier are not together at the start of the book, nor, in fact, do they remain together, parting at the end after their journey has returned them to where they started off from in the first place.
Beckett may have come to dislike the work but he pottered around with it for years. An English translation appeared in 1974—Beckett had worked intermittently on this since the 1940s—but it’s not really a translation, rather a “reshaping” into English; he also took this opportunity to trim the novella reducing its length by some twelve percent, the omitted material varying from the odd line or phrase to two or three pages at a time. It tends to get overlooked by scholars but it has its admirers. Al Alvarez reviewed it for The Observer and called it “a comedy of high style, tenser and, I think, funnier than any of his other novels.” Ruby Cohn considers it “an accomplished work” and “a milestone on Beckett’s French path.” I never took to the book but then Endgame is probably one of my least favourite of Beckett’s plays. The reason in both cases is that, like so many people, I developed a great affection for Didi and Gogo; they are a most likeable couple (pseudo or not). Hamm and Clov are not nor did I find Mercier and Camier a pair that I cared about. I don’t have a problem with an author producing unlikeable or unsympathetic protagonists—much can be learned from them—but still no reader is going to be in a rush to return to their company: Waiting for Godot I have seen many time but Endgame only three. Mercier and Camier I have only read twice.
From what I’ve read I think a great many people simply do not get where Beckett is coming from in this book. The book opens, for example, with the following statement:
The journey of Mercier and Camier is one I can tell, if I will, for I was with them all the time.
Does this mean that there was a third person travelling alongside them? No, that’s not it. This is simply the book’s narrator who butts in every now and them and makes his presence felt but, for the most part, contents himself with the telling of the story like a good omniscient narrator should. But why personalise him then? Why have him refer to himself as ‘I’? The Faber Companion to Samuel Beckett says:
The opening claim that “I” was there, with no further evidence, is an irritant.
The clue comes later in the book, a short interchange:
Strange impression, said Mercier, strange impression sometimes that we are not alone. You not?
I am not sure I understand, said Camier.
Now quick, now slow, that is Camier all over.
Like the presence of a third party, said Mercier. Enveloping us. I have felt it from the start. And I am anything but psychic.
Does it bother you? said Camier.
At first no, said Mercier.
And now? said Camier.
It begins to bother me a little, said Mercier.
So who is this presence? Julie Campbell has the right idea:
When Beckett approaches the idea of a quest the probability of failure is posited right from the beginning. Beckett’s narrator begins with an attempt to authenticate his text: “The journey of Mercier and Camier is one I can tell, if I will, for I was with them all the time”. Yet this authenticating statement of the narrative’s ‘reality’ is quite obviously exploded, for instance, when Mercier and Camier separate, as they do more than once. It is, of course, impossible for the narrator to be with them both all the time. Beckett is here mocking the inability of narrative to present simultaneity, and his placing of the narrator within the narrated world mocks the ‘reality’ of the fictional creation, for the ‘real’ author is outside his creation while, conversely, it is inside him: the narrated journey originates within the author’s mind, is an inner journey.
Metafiction is, at least according to Wikipedia, “a type of fiction that self-consciously addresses the devices of fiction, exposing the fictional illusion.” This can be done is a variety of ways, e.g. Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author begins as follows:
The play begins with an acting company preparing to rehearse a play. As the rehearsal is about to begin the play is unexpectedly interrupted by the arrival of six strange people. The Director of the play, furious at the interruption, demands an explanation. The Father explains that they are unfinished characters in search of an author to finish their story. The Director initially believes them to be mad, but as they begin to argue amongst themselves and reveal details of their story he begins to listen. While he isn't an author, the Director agrees to stage their story despite the disbelief amongst the jeering actors...
The point of 'I was with them, all the time' ... is the sly point that I invented them, and made up their journey, every step of which, so far as steps are specified, they took with my deliberate cooperation.
Whether the ‘I’ is Beckett or not is another thing. I would say not. Beckett is his author. My own suspicion is that the narrator of this book is actual Malone the bedridden author in Malone Dies who says at one point:
Then it will be all over with the Murphys, Merciers, Molloys, Morans and Malones, unless it goes on beyond the grave. But sufficient unto the day, let us first defunge, then we’ll see. How many have I killed, hitting them on the head or setting fire to them? Offhand I can think of only four, all unknowns, I never knew anyone … There was the old butler too, in London I think, there’s London again, I cut his throat with his razor, that makes five.
suggesting—and that’s all we can ever do—that he is the author of these earlier texts. The ambiguity is, no doubt, deliberate on Beckett’s behalf. (The one set on fire, by the way, was Murphy. The other four were the butler (also in Murphy), A and C (from Molloy) and the police officer (from Mercier and Camier.)
But why do we need this kind of narrator? Would a common-or-garden omniscient narrator do the job fine without intruding into the story as he does?
[T]o neutralize the expectation that fiction represent life or, more precisely, that the experience presented be construed as a life, Beckett, especially since Mercier and Camier, foregrounds the very act of imagination creating the fiction. The opening words of Company will illustrate: “A voice comes to one in the dark. Imagine.”
By emphasizing the act of imagination, Beckettian narration becomes self-referential, a closed system where experience can be presented that relates only to the special purposes of the “reasonridden” imagination which conceives it and not to the movement of a self through time called life. In the closed system, imagination is free to express experience in alternative modes that resist the reader’s tendency to assimilate them to his more familiar notions.
In other words this is not the real world we are dealing with here and so normal rules apply. This is why, after the pantomime of the book’s opening, our narrator/author confesses: “What stink of artifice.”
The notion of a “closed system” is one that Beckett fans will be familiar with, the “skullscape” or the less commonly used “soulscape.” The former is a term used to describe many of Beckett’s works both on the stage (Words and Music, Embers) and off (The Unnamable, All Strange Away, Imagination Dead Imagine), the “ivory dungeon” as he himself refers to it in Texts for Nothing; but it is nowhere more obvious than in the play Endgame where the actual stage where the room might be a skull, the windows eyes, and the characters aspects of a mind: “four people oppressed by forces largely beyond their control.”
The nature of Beckett’s literary enterprise was largely cerebral. His subject was, to quote Beckett himself, “ontospeleology”—a term derived from the Greek words for ''being'' and ''cave''—although there are more confusing definitions out there.
In the next part of this article I’ll talk about the actual novella itself.
 Deirdre Bair, ‘While Waiting for Godot’, The New York Times, 9 March 1975. The Faber Guide to Samuel Beckett actually says that the word was “accepted then turned down by Bordas, it was shelved as ‘unpublished and unavailable.’ (p.367)
 Letter to Richard Ellmann, 27 January 1986; qtd. in John Knowlson, Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett, p.772 n. 55.
 John Knowlson, Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett, p.324
 Ibid, p.319
 Some sources say 26th September, however, The Faber Guide to Samuel Beckett gives the date as 3rd October
 Dougald McMillan and Martha Fehsenfeld, eds., Beckett in the Theatre: The Author as Practical Playwright and Director, p.163
 Deirdre Bair, Samuel Beckett: A Biography, p.495
 Ibid, pp.409,410
 Raili Elovaara in The Problem of Identity in Samuel Beckett's Prose: An Approach From Philosophies of Existence on p.76 says that “[a] great part of the dialogue is transferred” and in her article in The New York Times Deirdre Bair says that there “are large chunks of dialogue which he later transferred directly into Godot” but as the Éditions de Minuit edition of En attendant Godot the foreword (p.lxxii) indicates that “very little of the actual dialogue of the novel is repeated in the play” I am tempted to accept that as my French is not good enough to check myself.
 Sic ego nec sine te nec tecum vivere possum. Translation: So I can't live either without you or with you. Ovid, Amores
 Peter Boxall, Samuel Beckett: Waiting for Godot, Endgame,p.32
 CJ Ackerley and SE Gontarski, eds., The Faber Guide to Samuel Beckett, p.463
 Julie Campbell, Bunyan And Beckett: The Legacy of Pilgrim’s Progress in Mercier and Camier, p.3
 PJ Murphy quoted in Daniela Caselli, Beckett's Dantes: Intertextuality in the Fiction and Criticism, p.105
 Samuel Beckett, Trilogy: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable, p.237
 The designation "skullscape" is Linda Ben Zvi's, "soulscape" is Ruby Cohn's, both in the recorded discussion that follows the production of Embers for the Beckett Festival of Radio Plays, recorded at the BBC Studios, London on January 1988.
 Peter Boxall, Samuel Beckett: Waiting for Godot, Endgame, p.129
 Cited in James Knowlson and John Pilling, Frescoes of the Skull: The Later Prose and Drama of Samuel Beckett, p.xiii.