Saturday, August 15, 2009

At Beckett's Call

Self-proclaimed short story month, post number 14.

For the longest time, I only read literature written by authors who were dead. This was not a deliberate choice, really. Yet, to be honest, English literature has enough of these to last a lifetime. It’s been a few years since I’ve taken up other kinds of authors, namely people who are still around. But before that change in reading preferences, perhaps the closest I came to a living author was Samuel Beckett, who died just shy of 1990.

I profoundly admire Beckett’s work. Most people know Beckett for his plays (Waiting for Godot, Happy Days, and Endgame, for instance, all of which are fantastic). But it was his prose that captivated me, and three of his novels in particular: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable. Today I decided to pick up one of Beckett’s stories, and reread it. We’re lucky now to have that four-volume Grove Centenary Edition, edited by Paul Auster, from whose fourth volume I read today’s story. Back when I was writing my undergraduate thesis on Beckett, I was stuck with those slender Grove Press tomes that huddled in dissonant colors on my bookshelf. With them, it was nice to reach that feeling of finality when you were done with each play or each piece of short prose; it was also nice to see starved prose works like Worstward Ho try their best to pump up the font size and puff up the spacing to become something like a novel. Now that the moment of nostalgia is over, yes, the Centenary Edition is even nicer.

The story I chose today was “The End,” written around the time in which Beckett was riding a marvelous surge of creativity. Beckett was at his prime during those years. For one, he had survived his earlier and highly academic literature. Take how More Pricks than Kicks begins (“Dante and the Lobster”): “It was morning and Belacqua was stuck in the first of the canti in the moon. […] Blissful Beatrice was there, Dante also, and she explained the spots on the moon to him. […] All he had to do was to follow her step by step. Part one, the refutation, was plain sailing […],” and so forth. Beckett was still haunted by Joyce’s increasingly obsessive wordplays, and Joyce’s desire to cram enough erudition in his books to keep professors busy for a century, as he famously said. Beckett had to shake himself free, and he did this by turning to French as the language of his first drafts. This forced him to pare down, to shun a lifetime of associations and a minefield of puns. This produced the great Trilogy and the great plays.

This tendency would spiral out of control in the years to come, and in my mind Beckett’s prose loses vitality. It becomes overly experimental, a prose someone writing an article on Beckett has to read, but people would not normally read for pleasure. Take Worstward Ho; this is how it starts: “On. Say on. Be said on. Somehow on. Till nohow on. Said nohow on. / Say for be said. Missaid. From now say for be missaid. / Say a body. Where none. No mind. Where none […],” and it keeps going in the same fashion up to the end. As Coetzee says so accurately in his introduction to volume 4 of the Centenary Edition, “Beckett can justly be called a philosophical writer, one whose works can be read as a series of sustained skeptical raids on Descartes and the philosophy of the subject that Descartes founded” (p. xiii). When this is kept in check, it works wonders. That’s why the stage was great for Beckett: it fleshed out his concerns and forced him to confront the times actors spent before the audience. When his prose focuses on characters that are still highly corporeal, Beckett’s humor comes out and turns his philosophical probing into fun and agile prose. This is the case with the story “The End.”

The plot of “The End” is quite simple: an old, sick man (but not that old, not that sick, we are told) is kicked out of a charitable institution, and crawls around in search of a new place to lie down and rest. This is not a tearjerker. It’s a wild tour of the strategies this highly unwanted, highly avoided man uses to keep going. It would seem his goal is to keep his body tended just well enough to stop worrying about it. And we get a lot that is bodily here: defecation, micturition, lice. One must get used to those descriptions in Beckett’s prose, and “The End” is no exception: “Real scratching is superior to masturbation, in my opinion. One can masturbate up to the age of seventy, and even beyond, but in the end it becomes a mere habit. Whereas to scratch myself properly I would need a dozen hands. I itched all over, on the privates, in the bush up to the navel, under the arms, in the arse, and then patches of eczema and psoriasis that I could set raging merely by thinking of them. It was in the arse I had the most pleasure.” Honestly, I did well to cut it off right there.

The narrator lives in a basement (where his landlady tricks him out of his money), in a cave, and in an abandoned shed where the “vilest acts had been committed on the ground and against the walls”. He picks up begging, and designs ingenious contraptions to keep people comfortably far from him (but without the need to toss change on the ground, because “people who give alms don’t care much to toss them, there’s something contemptuous about this gesture which is repugnant to sensitive natures”). He finally takes up residence in a boat, which he fits out so that rats can’t find their way in; this makes the boat become eerily like a coffin.

The true star of “The End,” as in the Trilogy, is the rhythm. It’s hectic and fast, always moving forward even while it’s winding down. And that’s the thing with Beckett: people sometimes accuse him of dreary pessimism, but he is always pushing his characters forward. Maybe they won’t reach paradise, but they certainly don’t throw their hands up in the air and give up. They go on, even while living in oppressive uncertainty. They poke fun at it sometimes. At a dour moment, the narrator from “The End” reminds himself that “all is for the best.” The story ends like this: “The memory came faint and cold of the story I might have told, a story in the likeness of my life, I mean without the courage to end or the strength to go on.” In the end, strength or no strength, these characters do go on.

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