To reflect the teeny-tiny stature of this Penguin Mini Modern Classic book I’ll keep this review as brief as possible. That’s not to say that I don’t have a lot to say, but something tells me that Beckett would have appreciated my slap-dash insight. After all, he did nickname his collection of short stories “texts for nothing”, and ‘nothingness’ is exactly what Beckett explores in the first of the two stories, The Expelled.
“There were not many steps”, reads the first line. The unnamed protagonist deliberates over the ways in which to count the steps that he is descending, “I did not know where to begin or where to end”, he says. We discover that this unnamed soul has been thrown out of the place where he stays, and as he rests on the sidewalk (after falling down the afore-mentioned stairs), he obsesses over his hat and how to describe it.
The story proceeds, and I try to deduce what I can about this character. On the following pages I noted in the margin that he walked oddly, was incontinent, and hated children. On seeing an elderly lady fall he hopes that “she has broken her femur” (I put a big asterisk next to this line!). In the end, after first leaving a banknote for the cab driver who has put him up for the night, and then retracting it, he walks off. To where? Who knows. But he leaves us with this:
I don’t know why I told this story. I could just as well have told another.
Genius. It’s a story about why we tell stories. That line might as well be straight from Beckett’s own mouth. He keeps us keen (what does the hat look like and why does he walk oddly?), but he is merely stringing us along. The Expelled leaves you salivating for more and feeling ever so slightly tricked, while you momentarily question the raison d’être of every story you have ever read.
An unnamed vagrant of wealth, a deceased father, and a hat. The character in First Love and The Expelled are uncannily similar; you might be forgiven for thinking that they are one in the same. The theme of ‘nothingness’ also continues as the selfish protagonist says, “I who had learnt to think of nothing, nothing except my pains”. He’s foul-mouthed and repulsive but literate, Latin-speaking and well-read all at the same time.
It’s a love story (of sorts) and it begins like this: Man meets woman on his park bench. She asks him to ‘shove up’ and he reluctantly obliges. Man tells women that she ‘disturbs’ him, and woman, ahem, pleasures man. He asks her to leave his bench for good. She does so, and he realises he is in love with her, writing her name in cow pat then sucking it. Ah, sweet glorious love. (I won’t ruin how it ends).
Beckett again plays with the boundaries of story writing. The protagonist is aware that this is a story: he deliberates over what is the truth and what is not, he addresses his audience directly, and he gets easily distracted from the important details: “this sentence has gone on long enough”, he says.
The writing in each of these stories is beautifully crafted, and funny too. Like The Expelled, First Love has a profound ending, but it is a confusing ride. Beckett uses the short story format to question why we tell stories at all. It seems to me that Beckett only wants to tell one story: that of the human condition.
Living souls, you will see how alike they are.