THE COMPLETE SHORT PROSE 1929-1989
By Samuel Beckett
Edited by S. E. Gontarski
Grove Press, $23
Reviewed by MARK NESBIT VARNEY
Samuel Beckett has become something of a fallen hero to me.
There was a time when I admired his cold, unflinching gaze. I revered his laser-like focus on the human condition. His work was like those strong, stark Depression-era black-and-white photographs _ hiding nothing, revealing perhaps more than one could bear to see. Like a scientist doing research on some little known but devastating disease, year after year in his writing he homed in on "the problem of existence" and apparently came no closer to a solution. More disturbingly, he refused to explore any options other than the single obsessive path he had stumbled upon.
But, again heroically, he persevered. Well into his 80s, he turned out plays, prose and poems, all with essentially the same theme _ the utter meaninglessness of human life. And, this is one of the great paradoxes of Beckett's life and work: If, indeed, his view of our predicament was so bleak, why did he bother to write at all? Was he like one of his characters, idly killing time until the inevitable occurred? Was he also as empty and devoid of complexity as those characters?
In fact, none of the 30 or so stories and fragments in this collection, edited by Florida State University professor S.
E. Gontarski, actually have any characters in any real literary sense. All are like talking rag dolls held up limply to recite their weary monologues and recede, once again, into their own inner darkness. We as readers catch only brief glimpses of their lucid moments. From them, we are supposed to take some insight or understanding. But how can we, when those "characters" end precisely as they began _ hopeless, empty, desperate?
Because the beings who inhabit Beckett's work only vaguely resemble humans, the stories have no movement, no arc. Their trajectory is essentially horizontal. Nothing happens. But, beyond that, nothing but numbing despair is conceived of or felt. There is not the slightest change, for better or worse, in inner perception or outer circumstance.
Emotional and intellectual death pervade these stories like low hanging factory smoke. Isolation, a paralysis of the will, an inability to dream or to even articulate the nature of their pain are common among Beckett's people. They are so lost that they are unable even to summon the most obvious question: "WHY?" They are not enraged, perplexed, bitter or troubled. They are nothing. Yet, they are aware of their nothingness and they have no response.
In all honesty, I cannot argue with Beckett's "absurd" perspective. This aspect of life is obviously real and impossible to ignore. What I can argue with is his seemingly monomaniacal fixation on it.
It would be naive to assert that literature can provide answers as such. But can it not at least express and poeticize the search?
For me, now, Beckett can still be taken seriously, but only in small doses. There is undoubtedly music in his language and a kind of soulfulness in his sheer commitment and intensity. But, at what point did he decide that his contribution would be limited to a single dimension, a flat rendering of human experience? If a neurotic is someone who cannot lie to himself, then Beckett is the opposite extreme. In his writing at least, he cannot delude himself for one moment. His voice drones and crackles as if coming from a great distance. You can almost hear the echo of the void.
It is as if a gifted painter had chosen to use only gray. He might insist that gray is a fact and must be represented. I might agree and still want to see what other colors are in his palette.
Mark Nesbit Varney is a Times staff writer.