‘Ping’ by Samuel Beckett

In a letter written about ‘Ping’ from Ussy in August 1966, Beckett explained that “months of misguided work have boiled down to 1,000 words.’” And that he’d written “something suitably brief and outrageous all whiteness and silence and finishedness.” Its outrageousness? No personal pronouns, very few conjunctions, definite articles, prepositions. Punctuation is winnowed down to a series of full stops. But in spite of the text’s brevity – its “whiteness and silence” – some sense of a “scene” emerges. A body (I imagine a man) lies in a white(ish) room of indeterminate size. The body’s parts – legs, heels, toes – seem to be “joined like sewn” or, in the case of the face, “nose ears white holes mouth white seam like sewn invisible over.” Only the eyes – “a pale blue”, a rare intrusion of colour – are perhaps operational and unfixed. They track momentary changes in the “grey almost white” surroundings: “blur”, “light”, “traces.” The terse descriptions (nouns placed side by side, the occasional adjective) are initially rooted in immediate sensory experience: dim, fleeting, impressionistic. An interior life, beyond the momentary and the physical, feels remote. Then comes line 21 (my copy numbers the sentences, separating them out on the page): “Murmur only just almost never one second perhaps not alone.” The brilliance of ‘Ping’ – aside from its formal audacity, Beckett’s smashing up of all the rules – lies in these tiny, vivid eruptions of feeling and memory, the flickering presence of some long-buried self, still somehow just about present, even as the body gets ready to let go.

First published in French as ‘Bing’, Editions de Minuit, 1966, and collected in First Love and Other Shorts, Grove Weidenfeld, 1974; also in That Glimpse of Truth: 100 of the Finest Short Stories, ed. David Miller, Head of Zeus, 2014

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