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
The only writer to appear in my list twice. Beckett wrote this essay in Paris during the summer of 1930, at the age of twenty-five. James Knowlson describes him working “feverishly in the Ecole Normale library or in his room, sometimes until dawn.” And Knowlson goes on to detail the rash (the “barber’s itch”) which surfaced onto his face – and about which Beckett felt acutely self-conscious – when he handed in the manuscript to Chatto and Prentice in London. What follows – an eighty-page response to In Search of Lost Time (he’d just read Proust’s megalith twice!) – bears some of the unruly flashiness of youth: it’s abstruse and trickily allusive but it’s also a sweeping and unguarded work. The preoccupations which Beckett would loop back to for the next sixty years are all here: his dissatisfaction with “literary conventions” and “geometry”; his distrust of neatly packaged intellectual systems (the “primacy of instinctive perception”, “the free play of every faculty”) alongside expansive – florid, excitable and ireful too – commentaries on what would become the taut through-lines of his later plays and prose: selfhood, memory, and “the poisonous ingenuity of Time”.
First published by Chatto & Windus, 1931, and by John Calder, 1999
Late Beckett is the pinnacle, for me. The materials at his disposal diminish with age, through choice or disposition, as told here:
‘Out of the door and down the road in the old hat and coat like after the war, no, not that again’.
‘Five foot square, six high, no way in, none out, try for him there’.
What he discloses of the human predicament, ‘talking to himself in the last person’, extends in inverse proportion to the narrative constraints he places upon himself. Extraordinary consolation.
First published in English in 1964; collected in The Complete Short Prose 1929 – 1989, Grove Press, 1995
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
Beckett’s handful of short stories are all masterpieces. ‘The End’ inhabits a universe like that of Malone Dies, which is to say it is futile and decrepit but also shot through with moments of flaring lyricism and colours that briefly bloom in grey. It is about a narrator discharged from an indeterminate institution of the psychiatric type, and his efforts to find his way through an uncanny psychogeographic landscape of rejection, exile, and nebulous memory. He’s forever looking for lodgings, forever moving from one place to the next, until he finds himself literally at sea. It is very sad, but there are some great jokes. There is a type of joke that Beckett excels at, where he builds an elaborate and often profound bait and destroys it with a brutal and obscene punchline, timed to perfection. I think the finest example of the form is in this story. It cracks me up. It goes as follows:.
The earth makes a sound as of sighs and the last drops fall from the emptied cloudless sky. A small boy, stretching out his hands and looking up at the blue sky, asked his mother how such a thing was possible. Fuck off, she said.
First published, in part, as ‘Suite’, in Temps Modernes, July 1946. First published in English in Merlin 3, 1954. Collected in Stories and Texts for Nothing, Grove Press, 1955. Currently available in various collections from Faber & Faber and Penguin, including as a £1 Penguin Modern, 2018
This story is important to me because it is one of my first experiences of intractable, strategic difficulty. Beckett is an influential writer for so many people that I won’t go into it here, but his early work (this was published in 1934) is somewhat under-read. I’ve made some notes to assist readers here. I restrained myself to one story from Beckett, but The Lost Ones (1970) and Imagination Dead Imagine (1965), which is described on first publication by Calder and Boyars as “Mr. Beckett’s first essay into a new kind of science fiction,” are also extremely important short works.
In More Pricks than Kicks, First published by Chatto in 1934. Now available from Faber, 2010