The missing link, if you will. Because if you want to know how Beckett went from the likes of Murphy and Watt to the trilogy and How It Is, or from Eleutheria to Waiting for Godot, you have to read this work. In both languages if you can. I no longer have my copy of Mercier et Camier, so must content myself with revisiting this by itself.
Written in French in 1946, Beckett shelved the work when he couldn’t find a publisher and it did not see the light of day again until 1970. It was written after Beckett had a literary revelation (partly expounded upon in Krapp’s Last Tape) about the direction his work should take. Stepping away from the shadow of Joyce, Beckett found his own darkness to inhabit, and his own style with which to explore a world whose boundaries he made ever smaller.
Mercier and Camier still has something of the feel of his earlier works about it, but the language is different and the setting, whilst still very much in the real world, has become a shade more surreal, a shade more abstract.
The book follows the fortunes of Camier and Mercier. They are, ostensibly, private investigators. What they investigate and for whom never enters into the book, although they do meet Watt and claim to have known Murphy. By turns comic and deeply philosophic and imbued with an atmosphere to which Robbe-Grillet owes some debt in The Erasers, this is a stunning work.
The stripped down language, ironic self-referencing, earthy subject matter, and railing against the absurdity of human existence are all present. Although not new to Beckett, they find their first, uniquely Beckettian expression here. The prose shows a promise of what is to come in his later novels and shorter pieces. The characters and conversation, the idle business of everyday life, introduce us almost completely to Vladimir and Estragon.
Mercier and Camier is considerably shorter than Mercier et Camier. Beckett rewrote each work rather than translated them. The original contains much that is uniquely French and which doesn’t move well to English idiom (hence the plea to read both versions if you can). Its brevity, clarity, and precise use of language make it an accessible read, although it does pay close reading to pick out the thematic echoes.
I know many people find Beckett obscure and difficult. He isn’t really. If you keep at the back your mind his love of silent movie stars such as Buster Keaton, if you watch a few Buster Keaton movies, then read some Beckett, you’ll have a taken a long step toward understanding him.