Written in 1946, "Mercier and Camier" was Samuel Beckett's first postwar novel and his first in French. "Mercier and Camier" captures the time of depression and indecision in Beckett's life. It continues the line of vagabond heroes which begins with Belacqua in "More Pricks Than Kicks" and continues with "Murphy" and "Watt." They are the first of his vaudevillian couples, and this novel is in many ways the precursor of "Waiting for Godot." If there is a chronological line of development in his writing, "Mercier and Camier" surely marks the first tentative approach toward what Beckett calls the "mature" fiction of "Molloy," "Malone Dies" and "The Unnamable." In the trilogy, Beckett relentlessly reduces his characters from pitiful creatures with few possessions--a hat, a pot, a stub of pencil--to voices, who have only the inner torments of their past life to sustain their present existence, doomed to repeat themselves until finally, even the voice, their last vestige of humanity, is stilled. There is no discernible setting, no tie with any real existence, and seemingly, no plot.
In "Mercier and Camier," the journey shapes the plot as the two men parade on an endless quest. Despite its somberness, it is in some ways a warm and funny book, occasionally tinged with stinging sarcasm. There are secondary characters, skillfully and swiftly delineated, so bizarre that even the two oddities of the title are struck by their madness. Mercier and Camier are otherworldly figures themselves, but they need the trappings of the real world in order to give their story coherence, and this is no doubt part of the reason why Beckett chose to abandon them and go on to the Malones and Malloys of his later fiction.
Just about this time, Beckett discovered that writing was for him the most intensely personal experience possible, depending not on verbal virtuosity or on the careful construction of the traditional novel. For him, creation satisfied only when he could plumb the depths of his unconscious, find an incident from his own life, and then work to conceal biography within the framework of his creative consciousness, changing dimensions of time and space according to the whim of his fictional voices. He reduces life to a series of tales, told first by one, then another (perhaps the same) voice, but all the voices are his.
Beckett perfected this method of writing novels when he discovered what he has called the most important revelation of his literary career--the first person monologue. He found he could create a multi-dimensional universe through the use of a voice telling a story. At the same time, this relentless voice could reveal character in its most desperate loneliness, stripping it as never before in contemporary fiction.
Written just before "Molloy," "Mercier and Camier" stands on the threshold of Beckett's mature fiction. There are large chunks of dialogue which he later transferred directly into Godot, but here speech is encumbered by a plot with progression and movement, albeit circuitous and often contradictory. There is a narrator, as in "Murphy" and "Watt," who occasionally intrudes to inject an acerbic comment and who thinks nothing of slowing down, speeding up, or otherwise circumventing the progress of the "pseudo-couple" (as they are called in "The Unnamable").
"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 favorite hat, which he mourned long afterwards.
It is the raincoat, however, which best symbolizes 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...