Writing a review of The Complete Short Prose of Samuel Beckett is a puzzle. Reviews should describe and evaluate what the author was attempting … and accomplished. They also should note aesthetic resonances, if any, with the works of other writers. Along the way they should suggest to the review reader whether he or she might be interested in reading the work in question.
With Beckett’s short stories, that’s not easy. Here are the first sentences of the first five pieces in this volume:
“He could have shouted and could not.”
“Down you get now and step around.”
“Come come and cull me bonny bony doublebed cony swiftly my springal and my thin Kerry twingle-twangler comfort my days of roses and beauty week of redness with mad shame to my lips of shame to my shameful . . .” (Well, this piece, entitled “Text” goes on this way to the end.)
“Surgeon Bor operated with the utmost success on a boy called Bray who had been brought to him suffering from tubercular glands in the neck, since when the boy showed an unfathomable tendency to sink, and did in fact begin to sink.”
“I associate, rightly or wrongly, my marriage with the death of my father, in time.”
There is music and mystery in these sentences that never leads to anything except more of the same, usually an account in the apparent first person of a life that is a kind of Irish bonsai, tiny and twisted and heading in contradictory directions
Becket was trying to write as minimally as he could, counting on the lilting humor and oddness of oppressed perception to encompass what is like to live as if one had never been born, or had never awakened, or was determined to articulate the subconscious stuttering and muttering everyone probably experiences in the course of a life that has an outside and an inside at the same time . . . and this is the inside.
If you know his play, Waiting for Godot, these comments probably make more sense to you than if you don’t. Beckett’s subject was the incompleteness of identity. His subject was the lack of a body, a name, a whereabouts, a direction, and any means of surviving except through gnarled being.
Samuel Beckett was a writer from the first. He came to Paris and became a kind of assistant to James Joyce, high praise in itself. He did not write as obscurely as Joyce in Finnegans Wake or as assiduously as in Ulysses or as conventionally as in Dubliners. Rather, he perfected this middle ground. He reminds one of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Franz Kafka, but in the end, he was and remains inimitably himself, satisfied with word upon word, kicked out of the world, longing for a view, buried sometimes, aloft sometimes, wondering where he’d left his coat.
On balance I’d speculate that very few readers would take these tales to heart because they’re not tales, they’re monologues from the unknown.