Saint Beckett

Stories and Texts for Nothing

by Samuel Beckett
Grove, 140 pp., $5.00

Samuel Beckett
Samuel Beckett; drawing by David Levine

“There were not many steps. I had counted them a thousand times, both going up and coming down, but the figure has gone from my mind. I had never known whether you should say one with your foot on the sidewalk, two with the following foot on the first step, and so on, or whether the side-walk shouldn’t count. At the top of the steps I fell foul of the same dilemma….” No one who has read any of Beckett’s works will be surprised to find that the first story in the latest term of the series begins with such desperate mathematics, presumably an emblem of the incommensurability of experience, as the permutations of Murphy’s biscuits and Molloy’s stones are emblems of the limit of human possibilities.

To enumerate Beckett’s texts and to locate them in time and space is almost as difficult as counting the steps of the workhouse from which his hero is being expelled. This rather small book contains three short stories, “The Expelled,” “The Calmative,” and “The End,” and thirteen monologues or “Texts for Nothing.” They were first written in French, the stories in 1945, the monologues in 1950; the stories look like preliminary sketches for Molloy and Malone Dies, and the monologues like continuations of The Unnamable. Together they were first published as Nouvelles et textes pour rien, Paris 1955; this Grove Press edition is wrong about that date and also in stating that “The End” originally appeared in Evergreen Review. Before that it had appeared in Merlin (Vol. II, No. 3, 1954), an American little magazine printed in Paris. It was translated into English by Richard Seaver “in collaboration with the author”; a comparison shows that the underlying French text was heavily revised before publication, and that the English text has also been heavily revised for this edition. The changes are of course of obscure significance: for example, “on peut se branler jusqu’à la cinquantaine, et même bien au-delà, mais cela finit par être une simple habitude,” muses the old man in “The End” who prefers scratching: this becomes in Merlin “up to the age of forty” and in this edition “up to the age of seventy”; one is not to see a note of optimism in the latest version.

This is the first American edition; the first English one to include this material was published by Calder and Boyars this year under the title of No’s Knife, Collected Shorter Prose 1947-1966 (another error in dating). This I suppose means the cutting edge of negativity, but it could also stand for Beckett’s pruning-knife, which has recently left very little for the press. The English edition also includes “From An Abandoned Work” (written in 1957 for the BBC) and three fragments or “Residua,” called “Enough,” “Imagination Dead Imagine,” and “Ping” (written 1965-66). The American edition might as well have put all these pieces in, as they total…

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