Illustration by T.A.
A brief survey of the short story part 70
Sketching lives very similar to her own, Berlin’s stories of hardscrabble lives resemble Raymond Carver’s – while also invoking some of Proust’s spirit
Chris PowerThursday 7 July 2016 12.25 BST
Fifty years ago, in the summer of 1966, Samuel Beckett wrote a short story called Ping. It begins:
All known all white bare white body fixed one yard legs joined like sewn. Light heat white floor one sure yard never seen. White walls one yard by two white ceiling one square yard never seen. Bare white body fixed only the eyes only just. Traces blurs light grey almost white on white. Hands hanging palms front white feet heels together right angle. Light heat white planes shining white bare white body fixed ping elsewhere.
The first time I read it, it reminded me of the chant-like rhythm of BBC radio’s shipping forecast: a hypnotic flow of words the meaning of which is initially utterly obscure. But persevere and patterns emerge: “moderate or good, occasionally poor later”/“white walls”, “one square yard”, “white scars”. In both cases, we soon realise we are within a system of words performing very defined tasks, albeit ones only understood by initiates. But while fathoming the shipping forecast can be achieved relatively quickly, initiation into the system of words Beckett was working with in the mid-1960s is more complicated, not least because the system was corrupted, a failure, as were all the systems Beckett devised during his long career.
|A page from Beckett’s notebooks. |
The text reads: ‘What is my life but preference for the ginger biscuit?’
Beckett came to believe failure was an essential part of any artist’s work, even as it remained their responsibility to try to succeed. His best-known expressions of this philosophy appear at the end of his 1953 novel The Unnamable – “ … you must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on” – and in the 1983 story Worstward Ho – “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Beckett had already experienced plenty of artistic failure by the time he developed it into a poetics. No one was willing to publish his first novel, Dream of Fair to Middling Women, and the book of short stories he salvaged from it, More Pricks Than Kicks (1934), sold disastrously. The collection, which follows Beckett’s mirror image Belacqua Shuah (SB/BS) around Dublin on a series of sexual misadventures, features moments of brilliance, is a challenging and frustrating read. Jammed with allusion, tricksy syntax and obscure vocabulary, its prose must be hacked through like a thorn bush. As the narrator comments of one character’s wedding speech, it is “rather too densely packed to gain the general suffrage”.
|Beckett in New York in 1964, on the set of Film, his short film starring Buster Keaton. |
Photograph: IC Rapoport
Throughout this period, Beckett remained very much under the influence of James Joyce, whose circle he joined in Paris in the late 20s. Submitting a story to his London editor, Beckett blithely noted that it “stinks of Joyce”, and he was right. Just compare his, “and by the holy fly I wouldn’t recommend you to ask me what class of a tree they were under when he put his hand on her and enjoyed that. The thighjoy through the fingers. What does she want for her thighbeauty?” with this, from Ulysses: “She let free sudden in rebound her nipped elastic garter smackwarm against her smackable woman’s warmhosed thigh.”
Beckett was rudderless in his late 20s and early 30s (which, thanks to the allowance he received following his father’s death, he could just about afford to be). He wandered for much of the 1930s, having walked out of a lectureship at Trinity College, Dublin. He returned to Paris, then moved to London, where he wrote the novel Murphy and underwent Kleinian psychoanalysis. He toured Germany, and in 1937 settled in Paris, where he lived until his death in 1989. During the second world war, he joined the resistance, fled Paris to escape arrest, and lived penuriously in Roussillon. These years of wandering and war and want influenced the character of his later work. In 1945, working at a Red Cross hospital in Saint-Lô, he wrote an essay about the ruins of the town, “bombed out of existence in one night”, and described “this universe become provisional”. Versions of this ruin strewn landscape and post-disaster environment would characterise the settings and atmosphere of much of his later work.
Although Beckett had written some poetry in French before the war, it was in its aftermath he resolved to commit fully to the language, “because in French it is easier to write without style”. This decision, and his switch to the first-person voice, resulted in one of the more astonishing artistic transformations in 20th-century literature, as his clotted, exhaustingly self-conscious early manner gave way to the strange journeys described, and tortured psyches inhabited, in the four long stories he wrote in the course of a few months during 1946. The Expelled, The Calmative and The End, and to a lesser extent First Love (which Beckett, always his own harshest judge, considered inferior and suppressed for many years), describe the descent of their unnamed narrators (possibly the same man) from bourgeois respectability into homelessness and death.
We witness a succession of evictions: from the family home, some kind of institution, hovels and stables, basements and benches. There is a nagging suspicion that the initial expulsion in each story is a form of birth, often characterised in violent terms. (In the novel Watt, a character’s birth is described as his “ejection”; in Waiting for Godot, Pozzo says birth takes place “astride of a grave”.) These journeys become surrogates for the journey we take through life, as Beckett perceives it: bewildered, disordered and provisional, with only brief respites from a general strife. In the final scene of The End, the narrator is chained to a leaking boat, his life seemingly draining away. It is the monumental bleakness of works such as these (often shot through with splinters of sharp humour), thatHarold Pinter was writing of in a letter of 1954 when he called Beckett “the most courageous, remorseless writer going, and the more he grinds my nose in the shit the more I am grateful to him”.
Following the four stories, Beckett reached an impasse in his writing with the Texts for Nothing (1955). Language is on the verge of breakdown in these brief, numbered pieces. The disdain in which words are held can be summed up with the phrase “the head and its anus the mouth”, from #10. In #11 a crisis point is reached: “No, nothing is nameable, tell, no, nothing can be told, what then, I don’t know, I shouldn’t have begun.” Here the playfulness of the Three Dialogues, and the tortured courage of The Unnamable’s “I’ll go on”, has soured into hopelessness.
Discussing his writing in the early 60s, Beckett described a process of “getting down below the surface” towards “the authentic weakness of being”. Failure remained unavoidable because “[w]hatever is said is so far from the experience” that “if you really get down to the disaster, the slightest eloquence becomes unbearable”. Thus, the narrowing of possibilities that the Texts for Nothing describe leads into the claustrophobia of the “closed space” works of the 1960s. Beginning with the novel How It Is (1961), told by a nameless man lying in darkness and mud, and continuing with All Strange Away (1964), Imagination Dead Imagine (1965) and the aforementioned Ping, Beckett describes a series of geometrically distinct spaces (cubes, rotundas, cylinders) where white bodies lie, or hang, singly or in pairs. Beckett had reread Dante, and something of his Hell and Purgatory characterises these claustrophobic spaces. The language with which they are described is so fragmented that it is difficult to orient ourselves: we are in a system of words where multiple paths of meaning branch from every sentence, not on the level of interpretation but of basic comprehension. Take for example the opening line of Imagination Dead Imagine:
No trace anywhere of life, you say, pah, no difficulty there, imagination not dead yet, yes, dead good, imagination dead imagine.
Does the “you say” look back to “No trace anywhere ”, or does it anticipate “pah, no difficulty there”? As Adrian Hunter writes:
What punctuation there is has the effect not of assisting interpretation but of further breaking down any chain of meaning in the language. A simple orientational phrase like “you say” hovers uncertainly between its commas; instead of securing the speech acts that surround it, it operates as a kind of revolving door by which one both exits and enters the various semantic fields in the passage.
In Beckett’s next work, Enough (1965), he abandoned both the first person and the comma (only a handful are found in all of his later prose), his sentences becoming terse as bulletins, short afterthoughts (“modifier after modifier”, in one description) typically consisting of mono- or disyllabic words, that try – and fail – to clarify whatever image or sensation he is attempting to express. Hugh Kenner has written memorably of this phase that Beckett:
Seems unable to punctuate a sentence, let alone construct one. More and more deeply he penetrates the heart of utter incompetence, where the simplest pieces, the merest three-word sentences, fly apart in his hands. He is the non-maestro, the anti-virtuoso, habitué of non-form and anti-matter, Euclid of the dark zone where all signs are negative, the comedian of utter disaster.
Kenner’s evaluation echoes Beckett’s own words from a 1956 New York Times interview, when he contrasted his approach with that of Joyce: “He’s tending towards omniscience and omnipotence as an artist. I’m working with impotence, ignorance”. The impasse reached in the Texts for Nothing continues in a story like Lessness (1969), which actually runs out of words: the second half of the text simply duplicates the first half with the words reordered, leaving us, in JM Coetzee’s description, with “a fiction of net zero on our hands, or rather with the obliterated traces of a consciousness elaborating and dismissing its own inventions”.
Strategies like these make navigating Beckett’s work even more challenging for the reader, to the degree that some critics decided pointlessness was its very point. In the case of Ping, this position is strongly rebutted in a 1968 essay by David Lodge. While acknowledging that it is “extraordinarily difficult to read through the entire piece, short as it is, with sustained concentration”, the words soon beginning to “slide and blur before the eyes, and to echo bewilderingly in the ear”, he concludes that “the more closely acquainted we become with Ping, the more certain we become that it does matter what words are used, and that they refer to something more specific than the futility of life or the futility of art.”
Beckett’s closed-space phase culminates in The Lost Ones (1970), a nightmarish vision of a sealed cylinder inside which “fugitives” circulate until futility or death overcomes them. The Lost Ones updates Dante into what one reviewer called “the art of a gas-chamber world”. It is written at an anthropological remove, the cylinder described in punishing detail, and at punishing length. For all the clarity of its language compared with Ping or Lessness, it is the most forbidding of his shorter prose works.
It was almost a decade before any more significant short prose emerged, but when it did another shift had taken place. The terrifying closed spaces were collapsed and gone, replaced by the twilit grasslands of Stirrings Still (1988), or the isolated cabin, “zone of stones” and ring of mysterious sentinels in Ill Seen Ill Said (1981). Language remains problematic, but a level of acceptance has been reached. The phrase “what is the wrong word?” recurs in Ill Seen Ill Said, as if to say: “Of course language is insufficient, but approximation is better than nothing”:
Granite of no common variety assuredly. Black as jade the jasper that flecks its whiteness. On its what is the wrong word its uptilted face obscure graffiti.
In these stories, written in the final decade of Beckett’s life and in which stylised settings blend with autobiographical material, often from his childhood, he seems to deliver us to the source of his creativity, to the moment where an idea sparks in the conscious mind. The terrain and structures of Ill Seen Ill Said seem to come into existence at the very moment we read them. “Careful,” he writes, tentatively bringing his creation into the world as if guarding a match flame:
The two zones form a roughly circular whole. As though outlined by a trembling hand. Diameter. Careful. Say one furlong.
It is an irony of Beckett’s posthumous reputation that his plays are now far better known than his prose, although he considered the latter his primary focus. That he wrote some of the greatest short stories of the 20th century seems to me an uncontroversial claim, yet his work in this genre is comparatively obscure. Partly this is a problem of classification. As one bibliographical note puts it: “The distinction between a discrete short story and a fragment of a novel is not always clear in Beckett’s work.” Publishers have colluded in this confusion: as evidence of the British phobia of short stories goes, it’s hard to beat John Calder’s blurbing of the 1,500-word story Imagination Dead Imagine as “possibly the shortest novel ever published”. Then too there are examples such as William Trevor’s exclusion of Beckett from the 1989 Oxford Book of Irish Short Stories for the nonsense reason that he expressed his ideas “more skilfully in another medium”, or Anne Enright excluding him from her own selection for Granta.
I suspect the real problem with Beckett’s short fiction is its difficulty, and that his greatest achievements in the form do not comply with what some gatekeepers suppose to be the genre’s defining traits. Unfortunate as the resulting neglect might be, this is a fitting position to be occupied by a writer who consistently struggled to develop new forms. If the history of the short story were mapped, he would belong in a distant region. The isolation would not matter. “I don’t find solitude agonising, on the contrary”, he wrote in a letter of 1959. “Holes in paper open and take me fathoms from anywhere.”
042 Danilo Kiš
043 Flannery O'Connor
044 Frank O'Connor
045 John Cheever
046 Roberto Bolaño
047 Machado de Assis
048 Angela Carter
049 Guy de Maupassant
050 Ivan Turgenev