Samuel Beckett, the maestro of failure

Fifty years ago, in the summer of 1966, Samuel Beckett wrote a short story called Ping. It begins:
All known all white bare white body fixed one yard legs joined like sewn. Light heat white floor one sure yard never seen. White walls one yard by two white ceiling one square yard never seen. Bare white body fixed only the eyes only just. Traces blurs light grey almost white on white. Hands hanging palms front white feet heels together right angle. Light heat white planes shining white bare white body fixed ping elsewhere.
The first time I read it, it reminded me of the chant-like rhythm of BBC radio’s shipping forecast: a hypnotic flow of words the meaning of which is initially utterly obscure. But persevere and patterns emerge: “moderate or good, occasionally poor later”/“white walls”, “one square yard”, “white scars”. In both cases, we soon realise we are within a system of words performing very defined tasks, albeit ones only understood by initiates. But while fathoming the shipping forecast can be achieved relatively quickly, initiation into the system of words Beckett was working with in the mid-1960s is more complicated, not least because the system was corrupted, a failure, as were all the systems Beckett devised during his long career.

Beckett came to believe failure was an essential part of any artist’s work, even as it remained their responsibility to try to succeed. His best-known expressions of this philosophy appear at the end of his 1953 novel The Unnamable – “ … you must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on” – and in the 1983 story Worstward Ho – “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Beckett had already experienced plenty of artistic failure by the time he developed it into a poetics. No one was willing to publish his first novel, Dream of Fair to Middling Women, and the book of short stories he salvaged from it, More Pricks Than Kicks (1934), sold disastrously. The collection, which follows Beckett’s mirror image Belacqua Shuah (SB/BS) around Dublin on a series of sexual misadventures, features moments of brilliance, is a challenging and frustrating read. Jammed with allusion, tricksy syntax and obscure vocabulary, its prose must be hacked through like a thorn bush. As the narrator comments of one character’s wedding speech, it is “rather too densely packed to gain the general suffrage”.

Throughout this period, Beckett remained very much under the influence of James Joyce, whose circle he joined in Paris in the late 20s. Submitting a story to his London editor, Beckett blithely noted that it “stinks of Joyce”, and he was right. Just compare his, “and by the holy fly I wouldn’t recommend you to ask me what class of a tree they were under when he put his hand on her and enjoyed that. The thighjoy through the fingers. What does she want for her thighbeauty?” with this, from Ulysses: “She let free sudden in rebound her nipped elastic garter smackwarm against her smackable woman’s warmhosed thigh.”

Beckett was rudderless in his late 20s and early 30s (which, thanks to the allowance he received following his father’s death, he could just about afford to be). He wandered for much of the 1930s, having walked out of a lectureship at Trinity College, Dublin. He returned to Paris, then moved to London, where he wrote the novel Murphy and underwent Kleinian psychoanalysis. He toured Germany, and in 1937 settled in Paris, where he lived until his death in 1989. During the second world war, he joined the resistance, fled Paris to escape arrest, and lived penuriously in Roussillon. These years of wandering and war and want influenced the character of his later work. In 1945, working at a Red Cross hospital in Saint-Lô, he wrote an essay about the ruins of the town, “bombed out of existence in one night”, and described “this universe become provisional”. Versions of this ruin strewn landscape and post-disaster environment would characterise the settings and atmosphere of much of his later work.

Although Beckett had written some poetry in French before the war, it was in its aftermath he resolved to commit fully to the language, “because in French it is easier to write without style”. This decision, and his switch to the first-person voice, resulted in one of the more astonishing artistic transformations in 20th-century literature, as his clotted, exhaustingly self-conscious early manner gave way to the strange journeys described, and tortured psyches inhabited, in the four long stories he wrote in the course of a few months during 1946. The Expelled, The Calmative and The End, and to a lesser extent First Love (which Beckett, always his own harshest judge, considered inferior and suppressed for many years), describe the descent of their unnamed narrators (possibly the same man) from bourgeois respectability into homelessness and death.

We witness a succession of evictions: from the family home, some kind of institution, hovels and stables, basements and benches. There is a nagging suspicion that the initial expulsion in each story is a form of birth, often characterised in violent terms. (In the novel Watt, a character’s birth is described as his “ejection”; in Waiting for Godot, Pozzo says birth takes place “astride of a grave”.) These journeys become surrogates for the journey we take through life, as Beckett perceives it: bewildered, disordered and provisional, with only brief respites from a general strife. In the final scene of The End, the narrator is chained to a leaking boat, his life seemingly draining away. It is the monumental bleakness of works such as these (often shot through with splinters of sharp humour), that Harold Pinter was writing of in a letter of 1954 when he called Beckett “the most courageous, remorseless writer going, and the more he grinds my nose in the shit the more I am grateful to him”.

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