‘Live and Invent’: The Bibliotherapeutic Function of Samuel Beckett’s Malone Dies in Brenda Walker’s Breast Cancer Narrative

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This conference presentation was originally published as:

Rickett, C. (2014, November). ‘Live and invent’: The bibliotherapeutic function of Samuel Beckett’s Malone Dies in Brenda Walker’s breast cancer narrative. Abstract presented at the French Autopathography Conference, Belfast, Ireland.



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I don’t need a written statement assuring my survival. My imagination can work to dampen down fear … . It can still dream. ― Brenda Walker, Reading by Moonlight, 221.

In her memoir entitled Reading By Moonlight Brenda Walker traverses her experience of breast cancer reconstituting Arthur Frank’s notion of “narrative wreck” with the trope of literature as a form of solace. Out of the expanse of literature on offer that would serve as a comforting companion for her initial surgery and hospital stay, Walker selects Samuel Beckett’s Malone Dies. Some critics find this privileging a puzzling one: a partially paralysed man facing his death in an enclosed room armed with little more than an old stick and a bed-ridden view of the moon from his window. However, Walker articulates why this particular choice from Beckett’s oeuvre functions as a form of bibliotherapy:

Malone Dies was the right book for the hospital bed because it is drenched in regret. Malone has almost no possessions, no parents to farewell, no children, no real home. No personal distractions. Just sorrow at the loss of the final pure things: thought and memory and story. This is what you lose when you lose your life, and the loss is incalculable. Malone writes of the ‘soul denied in vain, vigilant, anxious, turning in its cage as in a lantern, in the night without haven or craft or matter or understanding.’ Poor soul, as my grandmother would say, helpless, trapped, unsupported. Malone’s lament is a moment of sympathy, and perhaps belief. (Reading by Moonlight 44)

This paper explores the way in which Beckett’s text offers her a literature of enlarged consciousness throughout her illness. While Malone confronts the immutable reality of human extinction, and the gestured attempts of staving off death by feeble human activity and distraction, his stories form part of a literary tradition that invokes for Walker the possibility of imaginative translocation.


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