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