On Beckett's late, experimental short story
"White ceiling shining white one square yard never seen ping perhaps way out there one second ping silence. Traces alone unover given black grey signs no meaning light grey almost white always the same. Ping perhaps not alone one second with image always the same time a little less that much memory almost never ping silence."
Samuel Beckett, 'Ping'
I don't know whether it's the caffeine, or simply my nature, but I've always been a night owl. Thinking it over, it's probably a handsome blend of the two: nature and nurture working together. But whatever the cause, the symptom is always the same: insomnia. And for better or for worse, I'm constantly searching out ways to occupy my time.
Tonight I found myself skipping through some of Samuel Beckett's shorter works, rereading First Love and discovering Dante and the Lobster for the first time. The latter story, composed early in Beckett's writing career, recounts the first adventure of one of the writer's recurring characters, Belacqua. Drawn from incidents in Beckett's own life, the Belacqua stories were published together in the More Pricks Than Kicks collection.
Dante and the Lobster has a certain playfulness about it, and is written in a third-person narrative that allows us to identify with its protagonist while being aware of his pretensions and shortcomings. It offers a glimpse of the young Beckett as an exuberant and ostentatious writer, keen to display his wit and erudition with stylistic wordplay and knowing references. But while his knowledge can be daunting, the prose still feels warm and approachable, in its way.
At the end, I thought I would skip a few hundred pages and peruse some of Samuel Beckett's later prose work. Short prose. Nothing that would take too much time; I was looking for something easy on the early-morning eye.
In the end I settled for Ping, weighing it at just two and a half-pages. From the first few sentences I was completely hooked. Its style is completely at odds with More Pricks Than Kicks, with all ornamentation stripped away. Instead of the security of knowledge, we have a cold, bare image of a bright white room. There is, perhaps, a protagonist, perhaps another, and perhaps a narrator. But nothing is certain. We have little more than a hint of a consciousness, precarious at best. And it expresses a something so close to nothing it's scarcely anything at all.
I love it! The text refuses to give the reader anything concrete to sink their teeth into, and there is a struggle to comprehend both the scene, the central character, and the narrator. We are given no easy answers, and barely two clues to rub together, but there is something compelling about it. It reads like the expression of a mind barely aware of itself, but expressed in a beautiful and poetic way - even if it is impossible to grasp, or to understand. There is something imploring the reader to take time over it. To think it over. To quote a line from Dante and the Lobster:
'Still he pored over the enigma, he would not concede himself conquered, he would understand at least the meaning of the words, the order in which they were spoken and the nature of the satisfaction that they conferred on the misinformed poet, so that when they were ended he was refreshed and could raise his heavy head, intending to return thanks and make formal retraction of his old opinion.'
Ping is impenetrable, but it is beautiful. David Lodge has attempted to summarize it as 'the rendering of consciousness of a person confined in a small, bare, white room, a person who is evidently under extreme duress, and probably at the last gasp of life.' Typically, Beckett's short piece asks far more questions than it answers, but for me that is what is so compelling about it. And, perhaps bizarrely for some, I do not feel impelled to seek the answers out. Probably because I don't think the text conceals them. To draw on a line from Beckett's Molloy: 'this is something I can study all my life and never understand.'
In Frescoes of the Skull, James Knowlson and John Pilling define the 'telegrammatic briskness' of Ping as a reflection of the 'impotence and ignorance that Beckett has always carefully distinguished from Joyce's omniscience and omnipotence.' Even for those familiar with Beckett's characteristic motifs, and literary style, there is a 'strangeness and opaqueness that prevent it, like [Finnegans Wake], from ever being perfectly apprehensible'. For me, this is precisely the charm and beauty (that word again) that draws me to Ping in the first place.
But, for those who are drawn to the riddle wrapped in the enigma, there are some key questions to be answered. Stanley Gontarski and C. J. Ackerley pose just a few of them, with a description of the scene: 'Although the story lines of the late tales are simple, narratologically they are complex. The reader focusses not only on a figure in a closed space, but on another figure and a narrator imagining them. There is not just the psychologically complex image of a self imagining itself, but a self imagining itself imagining itself, often suspecting that it, too, is being imagined.'
It doesn't get much better than that!