David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Samuel Beckett: How It Is & Ping

These two, because they were picked as personal favorites by William Gass in a little chapbook he wrote for Washington University in St. Louis in 1990. I read it a few years later in a bookstore and picked up on the wild South American writers I’d never heard of (Lezama Lima and Cabrera Infante, mainly). I knew he’d picked How It Is, which is also for me the absolute extreme of my favorite aspects of Beckett’s, but I’d forgotten about “Ping.” And I read it and I tried to figure out where, amongst all the exquisite text, all the magic had gone.

I’ve always preferred Beckett’s prose to his plays. Waiting for Godot is a trifle next to the great weight of Molloy. His late writing is so rarefied that confining it to dialogue (or monologue), as in Worstward Ho, leaves it hobbled and weakened. Even the mighty Ham of Endgame, probably my favorite of the plays, seems small in comparison to the titular Unnameable. Now I see this distinction as less important than a turn that happened somewhere in the four years between How It Is and “Ping.”

More precisely, it came between the more conventional “Enough” and “Ping.” One year apart, “Enough” is downright conventional and narrative, while “Ping” is one of the earliest flowerings of Beckett’s final disconnection from anything resembling a recognizeable consciousness. But since How It Is is a greater and more radical work than “Enough,” I’ll stick with it.

The pathos of How It Is and its story of people and sacks and mud is in its first line:

how it was I quote before Pim with Pim after Pim how it is three parts I say it as I hear it

In all the permutations of the phrase, Beckett is attached to this temporal sequence, and the three parts of the book are literally before, with, and after. The narrator does battle with this sequence as he is imprisoned in it, but the phenomenal reality of it is everpresent.

The slow reveal of “Ping,” in contrast, ends up as nothing but a scene. There have been attempts made to construct a narrative, but I think these are fundamentally flawed. From the first sentence on, the text presents a frozen situation:

All known all white bare white body fixed one yard legs joined like sewn. Light heat white floor one square yard never seen. White walls one yard by two white ceiling one square yard never seen. Bare white body fixed only the eyes only just.

Particularly with regard to color, the narrator’s perceptions change, but any hint of a sequence collapses back into the “shining white infinite” by the end of the piece. That infinite is as timeless as it is senseless, and Beckett enacts an erasure of time over the four pages of text. Beckett’s earlier work ran in circles, but from “Ping” on, it runs in place.

The effect is obsessively refined, but with the elimination of time, if only a before/during/after sequence, the text loses some very dear things: memory, anticipation, unknowing, speculation, forgetfulness. What remains is hopelessly precise, but misses the first principles of fiction; this is where I draw the line between fiction and pure, amorphous prose.


  1. This is nice, Mr W. Though I do find small chunks of the plays very comforting: coming from a horribly Irish background, ‘You cried for night – it falls. Now cry in darkness,’ has been consoling in the face of emotional blackmail, as it is exactly what my mother does, and apparently Beckett’s mother was something like that also. It is those sudden stabs of reality pulsing through the apparent purity that get me right in. He is astonishingly ‘grounded’, one might say. Also his remark to the biographer Knowlson, ‘Why do people say my work is depressing? Can’t they see it all around them? (Gestures to the world outside the bus) La detresse….'(I’m paraphrasing this, I don’t own the volume).

    Must get to grips with the prose sometime soon. But in the meantime the plays will do for me.

  2. Excellent review of “Ping”. Beckett omits the essence of fiction: the writer filtering his narration through character, action, and thought of a protagonist whose change or the lack of thereof, conveys some aspect of the writer’s vision of life and the human condition. In “Ping” language becomes an end in itself, incomprehensible and incoherent in its repetition, like playing “Chopsticks” in prose.


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