PJ Murphy has been one of the very few Beckett critics to see that Mercier et Camier suffers from what the Denis Devlin review calls 'the need that in its haste to be abolished cannot pause to be stated'. For a book so full of statement, indeed, Mercier et Camier seems oddly insubstantial, as if the 'haste to be abolished' had been more important than 'the predicament of particular human identity.'
The English version certainly has a rushed feel about it. Scenes which other authors would have devoted an entire chapter to, Beckett shrugs off in a few sentences.
Mercier and Camier are trying to leave an unnamed city that can, nevertheless, be clearly identified as Dublin. After a while, they succeed in getting into the Wicklow mountains where they part company; at the end, they are both in the city again where they (for what we might imagine might be the last time) part company once more. So, as with Waiting for Godot and Endgame, the status quo is maintained. They are modelled on tramps—and, for much of the book their choice of conveyance is Shanks’ Pony, despite having a woman’s bicycle with them for much of the time which neither of them rides—but they are not tramps in the sense that they are not mendicant wanderers; Camier, we discover, is a private investigator but all we find out about Mercier is that he is a married man with children. They are never short of money to pay for cakes, sandwiches, drink, train fares or lodgings or, indeed, to offer a bribe.
We never learn where they are headed; it is unclear if they know themselves. They arrange to meet at Saint Ruth Square—“which in fact is not a square but a public garden in the centre of town”— on St Macarius’ Day but keep missing each other and so it takes time for the book to even get started. Mercier arrives first at 9:05, waits for five minutes and then sets out for a saunter which he expects to last fifteen minutes; in the meantime Camier appears at 9:15, dallies for five minutes and then decides he too would have a little stroll; returning to the spot at 9:25 and finding his travelling companion still not there. Mercier once again wanders off after five minutes, this time planning to be away a mere ten minutes. By 9:50 they finally manage to come face to face and hug each other—at which point “the rain began to fall, with quite oriental abruptness” and they have to head for cover which they found “in the form of a pagoda [which] had been erected … as a protection from the rain and other inclemencies.”
They remain there until page 21 (and two pages longer in the French original) whereupon they finally begin their journey proper. So, considering the book is only 123 pages long 17% of it is spent getting nowhere. This does not mean that their time in the pagoda is not entertaining: a pair of ‘locked-in’ copulating dogs provide the opening act followed quickly enough by the park ranger, a moustachioed, stiff-upper-lipped ex-military man, the first, as it turns out, “of a long line of maleficent beings” that they will encounter, who demands to know which of them owns a certain bicycle he has noticed propped up against the pagoda and which was doubtlessly flaunting some public ordinance or other. Despite the fact the bicycle is not theirs and clearly an encumbrance, they nevertheless leave with it and the items they arrived with, a sack, an umbrella and a raincoat.
But where to go next?
Where do our feet think they’re taking us? said Camier.
They would seem to be heading for the canal, said Mercier.
They do indeed follow the canal until it gets dark whereupon Camier proposes a libation despite the fact they had happened to swear off the demon drink some time before. They stop at the first pub but having been declined admission because of the bike (although it is unclear whether or not they actually tried to enter the pub with the contraption) they adjourn to the bar across the way where they take stock of their progress so far, compiling a list of ten items, the most important of which in the context of the book in general being #9: “Only one thing mattered: depart.” This is, of course, the thing that frustrates Didi and Gogo so, and Hamm also: the fervent desire to depart and their apparent inability to do so despite the fact nothing appears to be stopping them.
They do not depart. They find themselves at Helen’s. Who precisely Helen is is hard to tell. She has only been mentioned briefly once before when Camier, trying to prove at what hour the two men had in fact agreed to meet, had read from his notebook and reported he was to collect an umbrella from Helen’s, which he must have done some time earlier because he has the very item when they leave the pagoda. The events that take place at Helen’s are covered in just over a page of the book, thirty-six lines in total, fourteen of which are used describing a cockatoo and nine of which involve an exchange about the quality of her floor covering. Here are the remaining lines and one extra:
There’s my bed and there’s my couch, said Helen.
They’re all yours, said Mercier. For my part I’ll sleep with none.
A nice little suck-off, said Camier, not too prolonged, by all means, but nothing more.
Terminated, said Helen, the nice little suck-offs but nothing more.
I’ll lie on the floor, said Mercier, and wait for dawn. Scenes and faces will unfold before my gaze, the rain on the skylight sound like claws and night rehearse its colours. The longing will take me to throw myself out of the window, but I’ll master it. He repeated, in a roar, I’ll master it.
Back in the street they wondered what they had done with the bicycle. The sack too had disappeared.
It’s an odd passage I grant you. Only later on is it clear that they did in fact spend the night there and had not been ejected therefrom for being too loud and/or requesting sexual favours. It seems quite likely that Helen is a prostitute, nevertheless, even if not she does appear a woman of easy virtue. I can only imagine what a writing tutor would say if one of his students handed in the above. But this is Beckett we’re talking about; a literary genius. It does feel like he’s got carried away somewhere along the line editing this section and if it was only this section I might be more forgiving, but this sets the tone for much of which is to come. He takes his time over their banal conversations and it’s easy to see how Didi and Gogo could have evolved from this pair; Beckett’s not very interested in what these two do, so much as what they think.
Now I am all for asking my readers to pull their weight when reading my books and yet I fear here that Beckett is asking a little too much of me. But not all have felt this. In his enthusiastic-if-not-exactly-painfully-researched article in The Guardian, fellow Irishman Keith Ridgway found in the book familiar ground:
On my first reading of it the biggest thrills I got were ones of recognition. Of course I knew Beckett was from the same city I was, but the first time I could see this clearly was in Mercier and Camier. The city in the book, though unnamed, is certainly Dublin. I recognised the voices, the accents, the mood of it. The Dublin mountains appear, clearly, with references to ruins and roads where I was sure I'd been. The pubs in the book were exactly the kinds of places I was sitting in while reading it.
But at the same time he acknowledges:
You can get this feeling of recognition in all the major Beckett works, but the familiar is only implied, if beautifully so, by the author. Space is made for the details, but you bring them yourself.
Another thing we must keep in mind when reading the English translation is the time difference between its writing and its translating. It was a task that gave him little or no pleasure. Beckett wrote in a letter of 1973 to Barney Rosset that the translation of Mercier et Camier was not going well and that he was “bogged down through loathing of the original.” Beckett has moved on from his vaudeville phase—it’s been seventeen years since Waiting for Godot was first staged and thirteen years since Endgame—and so now Beckett is looking back on these prototypes with much less affection than he had for them originally; the success of Godot has in fact become something of a thorn in his side. He is also going through a dry spell and hasn’t written anything new since Eh Joe in 1966. (It is 1972 before he writes Not I midway through the translation of Mercier et Camier into English.) It has also been eleven years since he wrote anything that might be described as realism (Krapp’s Last Tape) and his prose has taken a strange turn indeed—anyone having read, or at least attempted to read, How It Is, All Strange Away or Imagination Dead Imagine will know what I mean—works of calm, exact austerity and yet for all his hacking away at the text his “resculpting” of Mercier et Camier evokes his earlier works like More Pricks than Kicks, Murphy and Watt, works riddled with cultural references and allusions. My suspicion is that it wasn’t so much that he loathed the original—Beckett was prone to exaggeration on occasion—but that he resented having to take what he saw as a backward step. That said:
Already, in the French version, Mercier and Camier are strangely cut off from the world of ordinary people and objects, hardly communicating and finding it easier to discard than to retain possessions. Beckett intensifies this divorce in his translation by the frequent omission of details which might link Mercier and Camier to the ordinary world.
Moving on. There are eight chapters in the book. After every second chapter there follows a list summarising what was contained in the previous pages. None of these are especially helpful and have the feel of checklists that he, as the translator, might have used to make sure that what was important in the original was transferred to the new version. Again, I note the word ‘feel’ and I see I have used ‘seem’ and ‘appear’ already. There are so few things in this book where you can say ‘is’ or ‘are’. Here is the list for chapter one:
Meeting of Mercier and Camier.
Saint Ruth Square.
Distress of Camier.
Words with the ranger.
Mercier and Camier confer.
Results of this conference.
Bright too late.
Mercier and Camier set out.
And, indeed, these “dry résumés seem like attempts to control and neutralise the unruliness of the preceding material.” They are not additions in the English translation but, because of his cuts and also because of a change of perspective, they do differ from the French. In his book, A Reader’s Guide to Samuel Beckett, Hugh Kenner makes an interesting comparison:
A dozen years later Beckett conceived Krapp, playing over the tape he recorded three decades earlier and lingering on a segment which at the time he had entered in his ledger only as 'Farewell to Love'. The segments which had celebrated great insight leave him impatient now. These Résumés are a first glimpse of Krapp's ledger; the narrator of Mercier et Camier is a proto-Krapp.
In chapter three the pair have taken the train, “the slow and easy”, or the Dublin and South Eastern Railway, from a station noted for its architectural arch, clearly Harcourt Street Station. (The station facade was designed by George Wilkinson, and contained a central arch and a colonnade of doric columns.) They alight at a small town and lodge at an inn managed by a man called (possibly) Gall; Mercier calls him Gall but there is some doubt cast as to whether this is actually his name. This is where we discover that Camier—F. X. Camier, as it says on his business card—is a private investigator because a man going by the name of Conaire turns up having, it appears, arranged to meet with Camier there; this is the first we learn of that. This is also the first we learn about the physical appearance of the two men: Camier—“[s]mall and fat … red face, scant hair, four chins, protruding paunch, bandy legs, beady piggy eyes;” Mercier—“[a] big bony hank with a beard … hardly able to stand, wicked expression.” Grotesque versions of Laurel and Hardy to be sure. (Bair tells us that Beckett “never missed a film starring Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy … or Harold Lloyd.”) Needless to say Conaire does not get to keep his appointment as the two men are found sound asleep on the floor of their room. “Snoring hand in hand.”
The following day they venture into the countryside—surely this is them escaped?—but by chapter five, sometime later (it is unclear how much later as “[t]hey had lost the notion of time”) they find themselves back in the city and back at Helen’s where they spend a couple of nights, the first “without debauch of any kind”. During the next day, as time is beginning to drag, they, to use Beckett’s expression, “manstruprated mildly, without fatigue.” Before an open fire, “their naked bodies mingled, fingering and fondling with the languorous tact of hands arranging flowers.”
Now, there are those who have gone to some lengths to suggest that Vladimir and Estragon are in fact a gay couple—a recent adaptation Waiting for Rev. Gaydot has boyfriends Vladimir and Estragon stand at the altar for two hours, waiting for the Reverend Gaydot to pronounce them husbands. Of course, he never shows—but despite insisting that the roles be played by males, Beckett never gave any indication that they were a gay couple or even homosexually-inclined. (See the Wikipedia entry however.) They hug more than most blokes but you don’t see them sitting around even holding hands—something Mercier and Camier do several times—and let’s face it, the fireside scene is a hard one to talk one’s way out of especially when, only a few pages earlier, when discussing a variety of unconnected concepts they respond to the proposition: “What would one do without women? [with] Explore other channels.” The matter is discussed at some length in Paul Stewart’s Sex and Aesthetics in Samuel Beckett’s Work but one point worth noting is this:
The abhorrence of procreation partly accounts for the often virulent misogyny to be found in … Beckett’s early works. This misogyny is reinforced in Beckett by an oft- expressed hatred of the child, or misopedia, which again is rooted in an understanding of the inherent dangers of procreation and indeed of existence as such. Both misogyny and misopedia—two of the more unpalatable aspects of Beckett’s oeuvre—are an integral part of his reaction against the results of heteronormative, penetrative sex.
I think, in fairness, these two dislikes/hatreds only form part of his more general misanthropy: without sex there would be no conception and without procreation there would be no one to grow old and be miserable doing it.
In [his first] novel, [Dream of Fair to Middling Women], Belacqua substitutes for physical intercourse with the Smeraldina “a fraudulent system of Platonic manualisation, chiroplatonism” – in other words, masturbation. That Beckett should prefer masturbation to the "real thing" was in keeping with his general narcissism and quietism, his preference for what took place in his own mind rather than in the outer, "real" world, with its contingencies, its disturbances of inner tranquillity, its futile exercises of will and ambition.
Masturbation, to be fair, does crop up not infrequently in Beckett’s prose, not that other sexual practices are verboten but when the others do appear, so often they are unsuccessful or unpleasant, if not both; at the very least it’s usually hard work. The thing about that scene in Mercier and Camier is that it doesn’t say that Helen was not a participant. It all depends what Beckett meant when he wrote “they”, doesn’t it? At the end of the day, though, is it not all simply mental masturbation, irrespective of what the characters get up to? If there is one thing Beckett can’t be accused of is taking himself too seriously and if all the aforementioned action takes place within a “skullscape” and the parties involved are two halves of a single personality then what exactly is going on?
Paul Stewart makes a good point here:
Rather than championing a “queer” sexuality in counterpoint to the “normal,” and thereby restricting the queer within the parameters it might seek to question, Beckett’s ambiguous use of nonreproductive sexuality severs the link between the sex object and the identification of the subject that approaches it. More often than not, Beckett’s characters are indifferent to the niceties of sexual choice and the identity politics that plays around that choice, and merely seek a means to scratch the itch of sexual desire, no matter how feeble that desire might be.
Let’s press on.
From there they proceed to a city, visit rough pubs and scenes of Mercier’s youth, and return to a city square, where they assault a constable. Presumably in flight, they appear next on a moor (in the French edition, the Old Military Road in the Wicklow mountains) and then, taking shelter among the ruins along the way, they travel back to the city: “such roughly must have been the course of events.” In the city they meet Watt [who bears little resemblance to the protagonist in Beckett’s novel of the same name] … Passing over the canal Lock Bridge, they sit and contemplate for a time a hospital for diseases of the skin before departing for their homes.
It is hard not to feel somewhat dissatisfied when you reach the end of Mercier and Camier. At least with Didi and Gogo one feels that there was a point to everything they say and do and that they’ve not failed: they’ve survived another day of having to wait. There is small cause for feeling triumphant.
So what is Mercier and Camier about? If Didi and Gogo represent Sam and Suzanne then Mercier and Camier, as a unified whole, represent Sam as he was prior to World War II and the city represents his old life, specifically his overpowering mother. I mentioned the raincoat earlier in passing and the bike. To a casual reader these won’t mean anything but bikes appear too often in Beckett’s writing for us not to realise that they are special to him. As for the raincoat, let Deirdre Bair explain:
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 favourite hat, which he mourned long afterwards.
It is the raincoat, however, which best symbolises 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.
This scene towards the end of the books takes on a very different complexion now. Talking about the raincoat:
We could bury it, said Mercier.
Don't be mawkish, said Camier.
One of the good things about the rise of the ebook is that an author can easily fix any minor errors that he is made aware of after publication. On the downside, if you’re someone like Beckett, there is the temptation of continually keep chipping away at a work as you grow older and have less and less patience for older works.
In the eighties, Beckett was invited to Germany to direct Waiting For Godot. When presented with the script which he had not read in many years he exclaimed: “This thing needs a good edit.” And this was his masterpiece!
The danger in pruning, as any rose grower will warn you, is that one can get carried away. As John and Beryl Fletcher wrote in their introduction to Fin de Partie:
[I]n pruning his work Beckett undoubtedly improved it, but sometimes he compressed things so drastically that the surviving statement is somewhat obscure.
Why Mercier and Camier doesn’t work as well as his other novels will always be a matter of conjecture. Beckett certainly never opened up on the subject. I tend to feel about the book the same way as Keith Ridgway, to whom I’ll give the final words:
Mercier and Camier also makes clear that the major Beckett works did not come from nothing. It's comforting, as a writer, to stumble upon a stumbling Beckett, one who is not exactly sure of what it is he's doing, or where it is he wants to go. He makes mistakes in this book, hits a couple of flat notes. […] But Beckett on an off-day is still more compelling, funnier, more incisive than almost anybody else.
Actually that’s not true. I have more to say concerning Mercier and Camier in my next post, Milligan and Murphy.
 A Latinised version of the Freek Makarios meaning "supremely blessed; by extension fortunate, well off: - blessed, happy." An ironic comment on the condition of Mercier and Camier. See Four saints in two acts: a note on the Saints Macarius and the canonization of Gogo and Didi by Lois Friedberg-Dobry
 Quoted in Deirdre Bair, Samuel Beckett: A Biography, p.634
 Steven Connor, ‘“Traduttore, traditore”: Samuel Beckett’s Translation of Mercier et Camier’, Journal of Beckett Studies, No 11, December 1989, p.2
 Steven Connor, ‘“Traduttore, traditore”: Samuel Beckett’s Translation of Mercier et Camier’, Journal of Beckett Studies, No 11, December 1989, p.7
 Deirdre Bair, Samuel Beckett: A Biography, p.48
 Anthony Cronin, Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist, p.106
 John and Beryl Fletcher’s critical edition of Fin de partie (London, Methuen, 1970), p.9