The novels of Samuel Beckett and Vladimir Nabokov fracture and dissolve the uniformities of conventional narrative discourse such that we are presented with the experience of reading novels that is, in certain respects, alienating. Nonetheless, these authors express patterns of aesthetic and unfamiliar realities, estranging us from the semantics of an empirical and familiar one. Through play of order and chaos, rationality and imagination, language and rhythm, these two authors work towards the reassertion of human consciousness (although this means different things for each) and liberate art from the superficial reality of the literature that describes. Introduction: In the novels of Beckett and Nabokov, we continually find an interplay of sign and referent which is essentially ironic. The novelist places himself in the position of turning away from precise denotation in the very act of denoting. The language in which a description is couched hides the thing even as it purports to reveal it. This paradoxical shirking of the writer’s conventional obligation to narrate is also evident in the way novelists contrive to reveal as mere artefact what ostensibly begins as representation.
Roland Barthes’s essay “The Reality Effect” argues that there is a residue in conventional description that is simply there to produce a “reality effect”. Description relies upon it’s reality effects to to justify their obtrusiveness within text, such that the residue in this kind of description calls attention to its own superfluity. It goes beyond the production of a “reality effect,” or parodically overexerts itself in the attempt to produce (or reproduce) it – this kind of description pretends to an “aesthetic finality of language”. Nabokov flaunts artifice, not merely as technique but also as theme.
His novels, in their intertextual groundings, explicitly pretend to different modes of fiction than their book covers may denote: Hermann’s “discovered” manuscript in Despair, Humbert’s fictitious confession, a book about imaginary books (Transparent Things), or a book that parodies such an already conventionalized structure as the detective story, the scholarly commentary, or the literary biography. Nabokov’s unpleasant quality is a casual name for what his work so often confronts. His art and his morality consist in never flinching from it and never imagining it will go away, except in the imagination. Nabokov offers no prescription, and not only because art doesn’t prescribe but also because the unthinkable takes so many forms.Saussure’s work on the arbitrary nature of the linguistic sign (modernity’s grand love affair) has offered the rationale for disclaiming the assumptions of realistic mimetic representation. Realism presupposes the role of language as being of instrumentality and transparency, directly expressing a reality which has form independent of the formal properties of the text itself. So, vraisemblance, a “realist” term denoting the verisimilitude of a text, is to be measured less in terms of the immediate experiences of reality and more in terms of an “intertextual” adherence to certain discursive codes and conventions, whether they be part of a broader cultural formation, or specific to the literary text in its various generic forms.
This tissue of codes supporting our knowledge of the crai is what Barthes refers to as the “doxa” – the body of received social wisdom and stereotypical knowledge which speaks in the discourse of truth. It is that to which a novel must refer (or defer) in order to make sense, in order to be readable. It offers the horizon of expectation, of probability, within which any text must operate to be effectively vraisemblable. It is in this doxa that the orders of social and cultural knowledge of “reality” offered by literary mimesis interrelate. So when Beckett’s policeman speaks on behalf of “the whole world”, he is not representing simply the values and meanings established by a free consensus, rather he is transmitting the discourse of a doxal law in which to some degree we are all individually and as a collective “whole world” already constituted as subjects – a signifying order which offers the very basis of our social subjectivity to which we are in a sense “subjected”.
Narrative:Beckett’s novels contains schizophrenic “realities” in which the present is cut off from intentionality and praxis and immerses the subject in a “hallucinatory” intensity of perception. The disintegration of the contours of the novel in Beckett’s fiction represents a movement to a minimal, but quintessential, view of the human condition. It appears that Beckett is attempting to retreat from language altogether, towards and eventual silence, or at least a designified form of “anti-language”. The schizoid process, controlled by the machine of desire that is the body, bypasses the hierarchical structures controlling the flow of semiosis. The Beckett text wanders at large, forever transgressing the paranoid, legalistic closure which provides support of narrative knowledge. But what is actually happening when the Beckett text goes for a walk? Beckett adopts a mode which resembles unreliable narration. The search for Beckett’s private signature brings us to the question of the position of the speaking subject in his work, to the constitution of that subject, and thereby to the occurrence of self-reflection. The latter is not a phenomenon or a mental operation reserved for philosophy.
In the gesture of literary self-reflection are grounded both the self-constituting law of a literary work and the reflexive relation between the author and the work (where the latter need not necessarily be conceived as the author’s testimony). This gesture organises a literary work with respect to itself; it constitutes the work’s “law” on the basis of the iteration of its various element. It provides a link between the subject/author and his work without representing the work as a straightforwardly intentional product of the author (i.e. without giving in to an intentional fallacy). The voice of the person of the narrator is an illusionistic effect, a foreclosure and suppression of the text’s constituent plurality. It is caught in a disintegration of knowledge, it is attempting to break free of the strictures and confines of an oppressive regime of meaning – the regime of the discursive police.
This means that, in the Beckett text there is both awareness of the frightening inevitability of “ignorance”, and an simultaneous desire to achieve a state of ignorance, to abdicate from the obligation to know, the “law” of knowledge. The move towards anti-savoir would involve then not only a breaking of the law enforced by the powers that be, but a surrender of a state of consolation. The unended journeys in Molloy – Molloy does not manage to tidy his mother’s things, Moran does not succeed in his search for Molloy – are emblematic of the non-arrival of the narrative: its failure to achieve an end which might illuminate the movement of the text. The stories of Molloy remain crucially incomplete, the first person fails to narrate himself, the gap between the “je narrant” and “je narre” in Genette’s terms, remains open, the narrator recognises his inability to narrate himself, that is, to justify and identify himself to the “police”. The story which fails to arrive cannot support the subject’s identity, cannot offer the subject knowledge of itself.
The trilogy marks a progression towards the abolition of narrative as a regime of knowledge and identity. Malone offers a displacement of the first-person narrative as the