Chris Tysh’s Molloy: The Flip Side

Chris Tysh’s Molloy: The Flip Side, published in September of 2012 by BlazeVOX [books] is, to use the poet’s word, a “transcreation” of the first half of Samuel Beckett’s novel Molloy. It is a long poem in non-rhyming tercets as finely wrought and engaging in its measured way as Beckett’s prose. I suspect many poets will find Tysh’s tercet form hard to resist; I know I do. It is that measured voice paced out in enjambed steps of three and then positioned four stanzas to a page, evenly plotted in generous areas of space, that gives this “flip side” its unique character, drawing a sharper focus on the voice of Molloy than we find in the novel. It is an American vernacular voice sometimes jocular, often acerbic, that of a crusty old grouch with a decrepit leg hobbling, somehow maneuvering a bicycle and finally rolling via hill and dale to visit his even more decrepit mother. Tysh’s Molloy is not as funny as Beckett’s. Hers is a drier Molloy, but then Beckett needs that verbiage for some of his best comic effects. We lose that in the Flip Side along with the passages that require length and repetition, such as the sucking stones episode. What we gain from Tysh’s transcreation is the beautiful concision of a form that manages, incredibly, to retain the guts and lustre of Beckett’s Molloy. That’s an amazing accomplishment.

The history of literature is full of retellings of stories, many of which came from ancient oral traditions. But when Anne Carson introduces contemporary references into an apparent translation of Sophocles, or Chris Tysh undertakes a retelling of a modern master’s work, it strikes the contemporary reader as a little bit shocking, certainly surprising. We have been conditioned to revere the individual creative genius such that Carson and Tysh might seem to have violated the originals in some way. Even in popular music, where we have long been used to sampling, we know that there have been copyright issues as well as disputes over originality. Or recall Pat Metheny’s brutal castigation of Kenny G’s use of Louis Armstrong as “musical necrophilia”.

The example doesn’t quite fit, however. Although I haven’t made a point of tracking it down, I have found no instance where Tysh has quoted Beckett’s exact phrases. In fact, what she has done is more akin to playing Beckett’s tune according to her own arrangement. She has managed, without quoting Beckett or mimicking his style, to create a powerful evocation of the Molloy voice. Here is a side-by-side comparison (bearing in mind that she has worked directly from Beckett’s French text, while I am quoting from the English translation of Molloy):

Chris Tysh:
The thing is mother and I—
My shitty start—are so old now
We’re like two sere fucks on a rail
Dilapidated ma, Mag
Hello, Caca Countess!
Poor fit of flesh and bone
We’ll skip the introductions
Go straight to the empty sweep
Of eyes, knobby knees pressed
Together and the manic lift
Of her dentures: a short rap to
The skull means yes, no, maybe
I mime the answers with my hands
Lest she mix up the banknotes
For that crust of bread she shoves in
It’s not her money I’m after
Gray soft sac and yet I’ll crawl
Back like a mugger in the night

Beckett:

We were so old, she and I, she had had me so young, that we were like a couple of old cronies, sexless, unrelated, with the same memories, the same rancours, the same expectations. She never called me son, fortunately, I couldn’t have borne it, but Dan, I don’t know why, my name is not Dan. Dan was my father’s name perhaps, yes, perhaps she took me for my father. I took her for my mother and she took me for my father…. I called her Mag, when I had to call her something. And I called her Mag because for me, without my knowing why, the letter g abolished the syllable Ma, and as it were spat on it, better than any other letter would have done. And at the same time I satisfied a deep and doubtless unacknowledged need, the need to have a Ma, that is a mother, and to proclaim it, audibly. For before you say mag you say ma, inevitably. And da, in my part of the world, means father. Besides for me the question did not arise, at the period I’m worming into now, I mean the question of whether to call her Ma, Mag or the Countess Caca, she having for countless years been as deaf as a post…. She jabbered away with a rattle of dentures and most of the time didn’t realize what she was saying. Anyone but myself would have been lost in this clattering gabble, which can only have stopped during her brief instants of unconsciousness. In any case I didn’t come to listen to her. I got into communication with her by knocking on her skull. One knock meant yes, two no, three I don’t know, four money, five goodbye. I was hard put to ram this code into her ruined and frantic understanding, but I did it, in the end. That she should confuse yes, no, I don’t know and goodbye, was all the same to me, I confused them myself. But that she should associate the four knocks with anything but money was something to be avoided at all costs.

It’s fitting that Tysh’s economical Molloy isn’t after money, whereas Beckett’s voluble Molloy can’t afford not to be.

Chris Tysh describes transcreation as

a cross-cultural communication between continents, languages, and temporalities, which prolongs the life of the original like a standard translation does, but at the same time ushers in a gap and a movement away from the generating cell. In ghostly fashion, the new poem is haunted by its French progenitor, while allowing itself to cross over into a totally new temporality and formal structure.

Molloy: The Flip Side is the first volume of Tysh’s three-part project, Hotel des Archives. Parts two and three involve transcreations of works by Jean Genet and Marguerite Duras. A portion of the Genet piece can be read here.

Read a section of Molloy: The Flip Side.

Illustrations by Mark Kerstetter

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8 Responses to Chris Tysh’s Molloy: The Flip Side

  1. Susan Scheid says:

    The story of the arts is replete with re-tellings and re-envisionings, and our cultural landscape is all the richer for it, I would say. Yes, some don’t work–some feel more like theft, likely because the creative ability of the re-teller isn’t up to the job. But where there is a fine creative spirit at work, as Tysh appears to be, it can only be to the good. I love the term “transcreation.” Tysh’s definition seems a perfect fit for Carson’s Antigonick (thanks for the nod, BTW). As I haven’t read Molloy, I can’t assess Tysh’s work against that, but from reading the excerpt on EIL as well as what you’ve quoted here, it seems a remarkable achievement, worthy to stand on its own. (I have Nohow on in my possession now; all I lack is the ability to get to it. “Chapter 9” beckons, as you know.)

    • I’d be curious to know what you think of Metheny’s statement (link in 2nd paragraph). To the best of my recollection he said this about 12-15 years ago. It’s still the only serious case I’ve ever heard an artist make for boycotting another artist’s work.

      • Susan Scheid says:

        I’m not familiar with Kenny G (needless to say), so I certainly couldn’t judge the specifics. I would say, generally that, while boycotting my be appealing, it’s not the right approach, and, anyway, unlikely to achieve the result. I analogize to free speech. Brandeis once wrote, “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.” I think the same may be true here. I worry about opportunistic use of the work of great musicians/artists/writers. It appears Metheny believes that’s at work here, and he may well be right. If so, it seems to me completely appropriate to bring this to everyone’s attention forcefully and repeatedly. In the end, though, I wonder if the real solution isn’t simply that bad art will die of its own insufficiencies. It’s a quandary. Great art also borrows from and builds on what came before, and it’s a fool’s errand to try and prevent that.

      • When I reminded my partner of Metheny’s statement she said, “Well, we haven’t seen many recordings like that [Kenny G’s noodling over Armstrong] since then, have we?” So maybe Metheny’s outrage had an effect. I agree with everything he said, except the boycotting part and the “wrapping a guitar around [Kenny G’s] head” were a bit much.

  2. angela says:

    Tysh has taken on quite the project. “Transcreation” or not, to tackle such genius as Genet and Beckett (not discounting Duras by any means…) seems daunting. I’d not consider reading this if you were not so positive of the work.

    Not having read Molloy, I visited Goodreads to ‘check on it’ & this quote came up:
    “Then I went back into the house and wrote, It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining.”

    Beckett’s voice truly is one-of-a-kind. Molloy has been added, thank you. Look forward to further postings regarding the trilogy via Tysh. ~ a

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