Samuel Beckett does not write short fiction in the tradition of the short story as it has developed in Europe and the United States over the last 150 years. He is not interested in telling a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and there are no trick revelations; nothing is withheld to the last minute that makes everything suddenly clear. He is not interested in social problems, personal confrontations, or the day-to-day eccentricities of modern life. His characters are usually nameless, barely existing in unidentifiable huts and hovels, at no special time, in no special place. If his art is a comment upon the meaningless nature of the human condition, he does not explore that problem sociologically as many writers do but draws the problem into a barren landscape barely inhabited by characters who often do not know who they are, have little—if any—memory, and simply want to die. To die is not an easy thing in Beckett’s world, and to exist is often simply torment. Beckett, in a sense, piles on the agony of late twentieth century unhappiness and meaninglessness by isolating his characters in a symbolic landscape, often with faint echoes of a post-atomic-bomb desert.
His characters are often physically tattered and psychologically distraught, and they can sometimes be so traumatized that they are speechless, but there is always an overriding intelligence present that attempts to shape the situation with precision but often fails in the act. Indeed, Beckett’s short fiction is often about the problem of writing short fiction that involves subjects who are so minimalized, so debased and confined that it is impossible to know what to say about them. On occasion, therefore, his stories are about the act of failing to capture the subjects artistically. This failure can be maddening, particularly for readers with a strong sense of what a short story or novella should be, and it is the first lesson in how to read Beckett. He is not slow to apprehend or unlettered; he knows what is expected of the writer; he has, however, like many contemporary painters, refused to accept the medium as it came to him.
“First Love,” written in 1946, can be helpful because it still uses some of the elements that are expected in short fiction, but it is also ripe with hints of things to come as Beckett works his way toward his ideal of the short story. Written originally in French and titled “Premier amour,” Beckett withheld publication until 1970, and admitted then that he only allowed it to be printed because of the pressure for material caused by the award of the Nobel Prize. Part of his reluctance came, as he admitted, from the fact that it was based in small part on an incident in his own life; as he told the actor Patrick Magee, it no longer mattered in 1970, since the woman had died. This habit of using stray bits of his own life continued to appear throughout his career, but was never very systematically pursued and hard to pin down.
The major character, however, is a much used type that is common in his novels. Nameless, shiftless, unpleasant, and unsanitary in his personal habits with a jaundiced view of humankind and a lively, vulgar way of looking at the world, he is happiest when left alone, able to live on the meagerest of provisions. He looks like a tramp and smells like one; his temperament is depressed, but he is intelligent. He can be very witty, if mordantly so, and he seems, given the arcane allusions that he makes, to be very well read and very well educated.
This story begins with the narrator telling how he was evicted from the family home at the time of his father’s death, how he managed to survive as a tramp, and how he met a woman who took him in and allowed him to occupy a room in her apartment, where she worked occasionally as a prostitute. The woman managed to slip into bed with the narrator who, reluctantly, had sexual relations with her once in a while. She eventually becomes pregnant, and a child is born. The narrator gathers up his rags and leaves, followed down the street by the cries of the child.
In his very early work, Beckett was often a humorous writer, and some of that humor is still present in “First Love.” The narrator, in fact, resembles Murphy, the major character in his 1938 novel Murphy, who also wants to be alone, but he also has the rather unpleasant, nasty streak in him that appears in the leading characters in the Trilogy. Perhaps the story can be seen as a kind of preliminary exercise in the line of stories that are going to become increasingly pessimistic and withdrawn in their exploration of solipsistic life among the homeless, who are often quite satisfied to be so, even if they suffer physically and mentally in the process of surviving completely outside society.
What will be noticed, however, is that the story does not make any point, save from the obvious one that the narrator is not fit for human intercourse and sees no reason to apologize for his preference. There is no trick to the ending; he just goes. Being seduced occasionally is one thing, but having a baby is too much. He is not a bad man, and he is not stupid. He simply wants to be left alone.
Later stories, however, are not quite that easy to understand. Even “First Love” has passages of monologue that have to be reread carefully. Much of the later material, however, must be reread. The stories are often monologues, rambling, discursive, contradictory, muddled in syntax, often denying previous passages, and usually deliberately short on facts. The stories have no names, no place, no time, often no reason for being written. The best way to read them is to understand them straight, in the first reading, in a simple paraphrase, perhaps by making a written précis, step by step. Once what is being said is understood and the sometimes excessive punctuation worked out, the story can be read again, and that will be...
(The entire section is 2438 words.)