John Barth’s short story collection Lost in the Funhouse is turning 45. How many aspiring authors and writing-program students have taken knife and scissors to it over the years?
The first story in the book, “Frame-Tale,” consists of only ten words, printed recto and verso along the edge of the page, such that they can be cut out and pasted end-to-end to make a twisted loop — a Möbius strip. Ten words only, but creating, the author says, an “infinite” text, at once the longest and shortest story in the English language: “once upon a time there was a story that began” — etc, etc. The be-all and end-all of short stories. No wonder the author comes off in his foreword a bit — full of himself?
Barth’s incipit brings to mind Baudelaire’s own first words to his Paris Spleen (trans. Louise Varèse):
My dear friend, I send you a little work of which no one can say, without doing it an injustice, that it has neither head nor tail, since, on the contrary, everything in it is both head and tail, alternately and reciprocally. … Take away one vertebra and the two ends of this tortuous fantasy come together again without pain. Chop it into numerous pieces and you will see that each one can get along alone. In the hope that there is enough life in some of these segments to please and to amuse you, I take the liberty of dedicating the whole serpent to you.
In earlier drafts Baudelaire had toyed with using the numbers 666; the final version, more subtle, holds off mentioning his “serpent” until the end. It’s the serpent in the garden, of course, but also no doubt the ancient Ouroboros, the snake eating its tail. Following a clue in an earlier draft about a “famous phrase” on the serpent’s “segments” (tronçons), Baudelaire’s nrf editor attributes the line to the minor poet Henri de Latouche. But he must have meant to say Sainte-Beuve, who penned a devastating put-down on Latouche in his Causeries du lundi: “His verses are like the cut segments of the serpent, gleaming and palpitating under the sun, twisting upon themselves but unable to join together again.” (The French word for verse also means worm, a pun the critic puts to great use.)
Sainte-Beuve’s snake in turn refers unmistakably to Hugo’s poem from Les Orientales in which the poet, stricken with grief over a young lost love, comes across a snake hacked into pieces and writhing on the shore. “O” the snake says, looking up at the man in mourning — “O poet!” and tells him not to take pity on his mutilated body, since the poet’s suffering is so much greater than the snake’s merely physical pain.
The moral: there’s nothing new under the sun. Unless —
Sotheby’s announced last week the upcoming sale of what it calls “unquestionably the most important manuscript of a complete novel by a modern British or Irish writer to appear at auction for many decades”: Samuel Beckett’s notebook for the novel Murphy. In an image of the manuscript provided to the press one can make out a doodle representing Joyce, Beckett’s mentor, a series of figure eights — an obsessive symbol for the author — and an early version (the notebook includes at least eight) of one of the most famous opening lines in modern fiction.
The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.
Beckett’s opening line to Murphy is ten words only, like Barth’s infinite story, but goes a good deal further than the latter’s gimmickry. Beckett’s incipit repurposes a hackneyed phrase about unoriginality into something strikingly new and suggestive. The phrase’s alliteration — “un,” “on,” “ne,” “in,” “no,” “na,” “on,” “no,” “in,” “ne” — is virtually exhaustive, to adopt Deleuze’s term, since it combines the “n” with every possible vowel (the second, in “shone,” being a combination of on and ne). Most important, though, is the sequence “on,” “no,” on,” “no,” which prefigures many of Beckett’s paralytic stories, and especially the highly compact Worstword Ho, where the two words repeat again and again in prose pared down to the extreme. Why do those ten alliterative segments at the beginning of Murphy seem like the vertebrae of Baudelaire’s serpent, channeling Sainte-Beuve’s and Hugo’s, writhing “under the sun” and saying “O”? Maybe because Beckett never claimed his right to the unsurpassably shortest short story, written on the two faces of a fortune-cookie strip, twisted so that its ends and surfaces meet infinitely: