Samuel Beckett John Calder, 12 volumes, £30
Samuel Beckett tended to make little of his shorter prose. The collection known as For to End Yet Again has the supplementary title "and other Fizzles" - the French word he used for "fizzles", foirades, being closer in meaning, I remember reading once, to "farts". First Love, written in 1945, was left unpublished in English until 1973. The work that was published eventually as Texts for Nothing was described, in a letter to his friend George Reavey (May 1953), as "abortive"; and so, in their way to being dead as the adjective suggests, this is a perfect form, perhaps, for the man who claimed to Peggy Guggenheim that he was dead and had no human feelings at all - although this might have been a means of forestalling in her the idea of a committed emotional attachment. He said that that was the reason he couldn't fall in love with Lucia Joyce, at the same time both skating over the issue of her sanity and alerting Guggenheim to his unsuitability as boyfriend material in a way both audacious and gentlemanly, a rather spectacular and indeed unanswerable way of saying "it's not you, it's me". And anyone reading this from First Love might have reached the same conclusion independently: "You disturb me, I said, I can't stretch out with you there. The collar of my greatcoat was over my mouth and yet she heard me. Must you stretch out? She said. The mistake one makes is to speak to people. You only have to put your feet on my knees, she said. I didn't wait to be asked twice, under my miserable calves I felt her fat thighs. She began stroking my ankles. I considered kicking her in the cunt."
Can we take his assertion at face value and agree that he was dead to human feeling? Or could we say instead that the man who produced such extraordinarily powerful prose - prose all the more powerful for having been, so to speak, blanched and stripped to its bones - haunted as it was by death and memory, and a kind of memory of love, was in fact preternaturally sensitive to the life of emotions and inner feelings? Although, technically speaking, it goes to "outstanding work of an idealistic tendency", the Nobel for literature was, in Beckett's case, awarded for providing insight into the human condition, and no one can say that Beckett ducked his responsibilities in delineating it, however bleak his conclusions were.
In his longer prose, particularly the trilogy of Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnameable, you can trace the gradual disintegration of the protagonists from life to dying to the kind of extended death reverie that is The Unnameable; in the shorter work, particularly in the cylindrical limbo of The Lost Ones and the rudimentary landscape of Lessness, it is hard to shake the impression that death is something that has already happened. "No trace anywhere of life, you say, pah, no difficulty there, imagination not dead yet, yes, dead, good, imagination dead imagine." P G Wodehouse he is not. We also extend the hand of sympathy to the person - presumably John Calder himself - who has had to write the blurbs for this new series.
If your familiarity with Beckett extends to Godot, Krapp and not much else, I would strongly suggest a look at this collection. The volumes can be bought individually, if that's any incentive. Start with First Love; it has jokes, a kind of narrative. Then you could try the bracing nihilism of "From an Abandoned Work" (here published in Six Residua): "Up bright and early that day, I was young then, feeling awful, and out, mother hanging out of the window in her nightdress weeping and waving."
Later on he strips down the prose to a point where it becomes unlike anything else; something that exists as prose - sure, the lines go to the end of the page - but also with something of the concentration of poetry and the paraliterature of stage directions. Many of the short works give precise instructions as to light and position, as if they are to be staged in your head; others almost explicitly place it there. "For to end yet again skull alone in the dark the void no neck no face just the box last place of all in the dark the void."
It is hard, though, to shake off the thought that Beckett considered these shorter works failures; "confusion of memory and lament", as he put it in "Afar a Bird"; abandoned works, residua. But what is a failure for Beckett is a success by any other light. Failure was not only one of his main subjects, maybe even his only subject, but it was also his condition for a long time, until the astonishing success of Godot. His failure validates and, in fact, serves as the architectural bones of his success. Can you imagine the reaction of any other publisher on opening a manuscript containing such strangeness? It is possible that Beckett, who struggled hard to get his more conventional works published, like anyone, was tacitly apologetic about these short works, which could have been produced by no other mind and yet strike a chord in so many others. It is also possible that they represent, in their very brevity, a tacit apology for the daunting prolixity of The Unnameable (a work joshingly referred to in some circles as "The Unreadable"), a work whose most glaring paradox is its sheer length as measured against the narrator's protestations that he has nothing to say.
That is really the point of The Unnameable, whose demands on the reader seem, at times, to approach the demands it must have made on its author (the popularity of Beckett studies at universities around the world is testimony not only to the inexhaustible richness of his oeuvre but also to the feeling that only people with nothing else whatsoever to do with their lives would be able to digest, sift through and evaluate everything he has written); and it is not so much that Beckett shot his bolt with it that makes his subsequent work so (mercifully) short as that concision was the only possible subsequent artistic course that would have allowed him to continue with integrity.
They are not quite his essence; for all the unitary consistency of his vision, Beckett has a surprising multitude of voices, and you don't get the whole picture from any one work. Watt is a very different animal from Krapp, which in turn is a very different animal from Worstward Ho. But they are essential, in the beauty of their stark music and the pulsating intelligence beneath the ruin-strewn surface. The last great works, Company and Ill Seen Ill Said, are not here, being presumably too long to be called short, but they are significantly anticipated or acknowledged. It is quite right that an edition like this should be published, and the idea that someone, filling the time by browsing in a railway concourse newsagent, might use his or her £2 to buy a copy of Stirrings Still instead of, dare I say it, a copy of this magazine, is somewhat amusing.