Eudora Welty says that short stories often problematize their own best interests and that this is what makes them interesting.
Which brings us to Beckett. I don’t go in much for heroes: Joe Strummer, maybe, Samuel Beckett. Beckett spent six decades writing stories that, in Smith/Welty’s words, increasingly problematized their own best interests – if you think it’s in the interest of a story to be a story, or even to be read. But when you can’t go on, and can’t not go on, either, what else can you do?
So where to start? I’ve plumped, perversely perhaps, for the end. Not The End, written forty years earlier, but Stirrings Still, the last completed prose he wrote. In it a man, unnamed but recognizable to Beckett readers from long before The Unnameable (1953), sits alone in a bare room and contemplates his own death. A barrel of laughs? Not exactly. Beckett is at heart a comic writer and fabulously funny (the two don’t always go together) but his humour, always bleak, was struck from harder and harder rock as time went on. However, there is a moment of clarity here, perhaps even of grace, that had eluded him in much of the later prose. He recalls an old friend (who had died and left him, naturally) and a favourite poem; there are hints of Beckett’s own literary hero, Dante, and in the end, a glimmer of a hint of an idea that he might, after all, have managed to fail better:Such and more such the hubbub in his mind so-called till nothing left from deep within but only ever fainter oh to end. No matter how no matter where. Time and grief and self so-called. Oh all to end. And you can’t say fairer than that.
First published in a signed limited edition, and in The Guardian, 3 March 1989; later republished in the posthumous edition As the Story Was Told (1990). Available in Company / Ill Seen Ill Said / Worstward Ho / Stirrings Still, Faber & Faber, 2009: and in The Complete Short Prose, 1929-1989, Grove Press, 1995