Monday, March 22, 2021

Samuel Beckett's The Complete Short Prose. 1929 - 1989


The Complete Short Prose, 1929-1989The Complete Short Prose, 1929-1989 by Samuel Beckett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

About once a year, I like to read what I consider to be a really challenging book. Moby Dick comes to mind, as does Ulysses. Gödel, Escher, Bach was a back-breaker. And I have more heavy challenges sitting on my TBR pile: Proust's Swann's Way, Joyce's Finnegans Wake, and Heidegger's Being and Time. They stare at me at night, waiting . . . lurking . . . seething.

Why do I hate myself read such works? Well, a sick part of me actually enjoys the challenge. I love puzzles. I tend toward jigsaw puzzles (though never simple ones and never under 1000 pieces - booooring!) and doing crossword puzzles helps keep me from mentally falling apart with fear when I'm flying, though I have this superstition about finishing all the "across" words before working on the "down" words - it's probably a control thing, but I digress. I do love puzzles. I like challenging my brain, though I like doing so on my own timeline, when I don't have to. And there is the side benefit of actually knowing what the heck I'm talking about when talking literature, philosophy, etc., with random strangers I meet (or whom I hope to meet in a post-pandemic world). Nothing quite like talking Gödel's theorem with someone on the shuttle to the rental car place, you know? Heartwarming.

This isn't my first dance with Beckett. Many years ago, probably about twenty years or so, I took a train ride from Chicago to Salt Lake City for work (yes, I do have a fear of flying, but I'm better about it now then I was then). During that trip, I tortured myself read through Beckett's "trilogy" of novels: Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnameable. It was a harrowing experience, not because of the subject matter, but because of the sheer tediousness of it. But I wanted to understand them. So, I plugged ahead. It was slow going. It took a two day trip one way, reading every night for a week while in Salt Lake City, and a two day trip back. In fact, I don't think I even finished it then, but had to slog my way through a few more days after I got home. It was, in a word, agonizing. And yet, I couldn't pull myself away from it.

You see in those novels, you just have to know what happens to those characters, and you have just got to know what happened to them in the past. They are like human train wrecks that you can't look away from. I am reminded of Jim Morrison's (in)famous childhood encounter with a car wreck in which he saw bodies strewn all over the road and heard the screams of the wounded and dying. He claims that an Indian's soul leapt up and took over his body. I feel the same way about Beckett's characters. They leap up and jump into your soul. You can't get rid of them without an exorcism, and I don't know the method for doing so or another person who does. If you don't want to be possessed by Beckett, it's best to just stay away.

But for those who won't or can't, here are a few of my disjointed notes. The analogy of watching a car wreck just kept coming back to me again and again as I read, so you might find strands and echoes of this throughout. These notes are not in the order they appeared in the book, as the order really doesn't matter except to contextualize "more experimental" and "less experimental" periods or, one might say "more readable" and "less readable". I find Beckett's short fiction to feel like a long, aimless meandering walkaround and through the liminal places, the little used alleys an abandoned lots, of a town. Not a city or village, but something between, and only those spaces in between. Whereas the 3 novels are like a marathon, this is a series of day trips. You just concentrate on whatever interests you, with no compulsion to "see the sights".

Beckett is the master of entropic literature. The old black | white partitioned sandbox with the child running clockwise, mixing it all up. Send him back around counter-clockwise and it doesn't reverse the process, it makes even more chaos. This is actually an appropriate analogy to the works throughout the volume. Beckett's masterwork is undoing, and I can't help but watch, fascinated, like seeing a passenger trainwreck in slow-motion or watching a cow being folded and crushed in a meat-grinder. Utterly disgusting and fully engaging. One feels simultaneously sickened and fascinated.

The story "Fizzle 1," however, just left me feeling sick. I'm continually amazed at how a story like "Fizzle 1" can trigger in me such a feeling of claustrophobia that I have to remind myself to breathe while reading it. Exhausting and uncomfortable, Beckett knows how to wriggle into your brain and flood your insides with oppression. It's like having a bull sit on your chest, slowly crushing the breath out of you.

I am more than willing to give Beckett's experimental works the benefit of the doubt, but "The Image" was a complete flop. Probably should have just kept this one on a private notebook or sent its ashes up the chimney flue a'la Kafka. That said, I was greatly intrigued and entertained ("enjoyed" is exactly the wrong word) by the other experimental work in the volume. There is a smartness to most of the works that isn't "oversmart". This story was "oversmart". It just plain tried too hard and looked stupid doing it.

In "Fizzle 4" consciousness asserts its independence from the body. A rather successful little piece of experimental fiction, possibly the most successful of the fizzles. I think that this is what Beckett was trying to do with his trilogy of novels, or something akin to it. But this little piece did it without becoming in the least bit tedious. I rather liked this one.

I suspect that Brian Evenson read and was influenced by "The Lost Ones" early in his writing career. Perhaps I'm wrong, but boy does this read like an Evenson tale. That's a good thing. This was possibly the most "approachable" of the stories in this volume, while also being the most strange and surreal. I would loved to have an entire collection of Beckett stories in this mode, but alas, such stories don't exist beyond this one. A definite favorite.

"Heard in the Dark 2" is Eros and Thanatos, entwined in a car wreck. Messy, but you can't stop looking. I warned that this analogy was going to keep coming back. It's like herpes - you can't get rid of it!

I would be remiss if I didn't quote the man himself. So here is a nugget that stuck out to me because it exemplifies the mindset of many of Beckett's characters; so much so, in fact, that one wonders if Beckett even had more than one character, or if this poor sap was trapped in an eternally-recurring loop of dissolution?

Where would I go, if I could go, who would I be, if I could be, what would I say, if I had a voice, who says this, saying it's me?

Here you have Beckett's short-story oeuvre, in a nutshell.

As an addendum, something dawned on me as I was reading the end-notes (talk about tedium!).

The "Notes on the Texts" gives a perfect example, under one cover, of Machen's differentiation between Art and Artifice. This section is as dry and soulless as a ledger, while Beckett's short stories, while difficult and sometimes near-undecipherable, clearly have "soul" and at least approach, in their own strange way, that "ecstasy" that Arthur Machen spoke of in Hieroglyphics: A Note Upon Ecstasy in Literature, as defining Fine Literature. It's an excruciating road to get there, but rewarding to the mind and heart, whereas these last notes are just pure academic/bibliographic dross. A car wreck you really can't be fascinated by, no matter how hard you try, unless you're just trying to look smart.

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