First to dispel the myth: Beckett is not difficult to read. Not easy, but going into it without that mythical presumption the experience is so much more enjoyable. He is not easy, but he is not impossible, difficult or cryptic. Reading Beckett is fun.
I knew. Beckett would be in my acre. I’ll never finish reading Beckett.Something I’ve noticed recently while reading Molloy is that there is a kind of post-Beckett effect on other books. For example the way I read certain authors in the past suddenly changed after reading Beckett, he teases out the bullshit factor and any tint of insincerity appears guiltily on the gallows. He manages to strip other authors bare by presenting his work so brazenly naked. He does not hide the artifice and therefore exposes the badly structured artifice of other books. Another way of putting it, perhaps more clearly: in this acre he is one of the authors (they are scarce) whose roots eventually start to infiltrate other author’s spaces, filling them up with something that wasn’t there before. I don’t know if that makes much sense. After reading some of Beckett, Murphy and Molloy alone may suffice, the meaning should be clearer, perhaps.
When I thought of which of Beckett’s shorter fiction to include here I first considered some of the early work collected in More Pricks than Kicks, but at the same time I knew that none of the stories, brilliant, cryptic, hilarious as they are were exactly emblematic of the larger body of work to come later. But then I read the short collection First Love, and in these stories – The End, The Expelled, The Calmative and First Love I found prototypes worthy of the novels Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnameable (although admittedly my personal favourite Murphy was written before all of them, shortly after More Pricks than Kicks). It is in these short stories that Beckett first dismantles the conceptual backbone of what a story/novel is meant to be, dissects the idea that what a novel or story is: more than a series of fictional events, more than character, plot and all the ingredients that make a story recognisable. Although Murphy has always been one of my favourite novels, reserves a centrepiece in my acre, it still maintains the outline of novelistic methods, characters follow the author’s instructions, go from here to there, this happens, this coincides with that and it all resolves – each character tied up, cast off, our protagonist sees his end and all things fumble (ingeniously) into bed, the end. It should always antagonise a creative writer, this formula – Beginning, Middle and End – it is as insightful as saying life is Birth, Living, Death.
In First Love you get what’s good in Murphy, the comedy, the descriptive ingenuity, pointed irreverence and the intuitive poetry. But what you don’t get is the narrative unravelling, from beginning to end with all the events of Murphy’s life spread out in between. With First Love we get Beckett’s first prose montage. A man, unnamed, recalls his life at a certain period, or many – forgetting and remembering as he goes – beginning to end, end to middle, middle to beginning until what we get is a mind – whether sane or insane is completely irrelevant although some reviewers see it as the main point – from every angle, point of view, point of beginning and end. It is empty but furnished with such detail, it is the effect of nihilism but at the same time Beckett cannot properly be called a nihilist. He is nihilistic in the sense that his characters find no real meaning in anything, but he cannot really be called a nihilist. There are too many observations, too many gags, wordplay – his novels are too full to be nihilistic.
It is the moments in Beckett that stick with you. In The End the destitute character settles in a shed, dilapidated and full of shit and used (some unused) condoms, bequeathed him by a cave dwelling man with a donkey. In the shed a cow wanders in, the unnamed man tries first to milk it traditionally but resorts to suckling direct from the nipple and is dragged along out into the open in this position. There are so many of these incidents that when recounted lose most of their impact, as so often the events seen so plausible and absurd in equal measures when reading it in Beckett. The woman who adopts the character in First Love, takes him home, lets him remove all the furniture from his room (he is revolted by all furniture but beds) and lives on doted by this woman who later we discover is a prostitute. The unlikely, the implausible become as absurd and plausible as anything else.
Hardly do I get halfway through summing Beckett before I realise it doesn't do any justice. It is one of those cases where you can only finish with either a quotation, something I'd prefer not to do, because every page of Beckett is so infinitely quotable, or just say 'read it for yourself.' But I will leave you with a quotation from Molloy that has been bouncing around my head recently. It is I suppose a good summing up quote as it could apply to this human condition at large: ''For in me there have always been two fools, among others, one asking nothing better than to stay where he is and the other imagining that life might be slightly less horrible a little further on''.
In fact, let's go against what I said in typically Beckettian (should say Molloyan, Malonian, Murphian?) indecision, and end with a few pointed quotes from First Love, since I have really said very little about the story itself (read it, please, please.) I can’t finish this thing. There are plenty of reasons why. It’s impossible to sum Beckett up, thankfully. But I will let him do it himself:
'Personally I have no bone to pick with graveyards, I take the air there willingly, perhaps more willingly than elsewhere, when I take the air I must'
The narrator's choice tombstone inscription: ''Hereunder lies the above who up below/ So hourly died that he lived on till now.'
'... not to mention not long now, not long till curtain down, on disturbers and disturbed, no more tattle about that, all that, her and others, the shitball and heaven's high halls.'
'I didn't understand women at that period. I still don't for that matter. Nor men either. Nor animals either. What I understand best, which is not saying much, are my pains.'