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The Expelled/The Calmative/The End/First Love, By Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett wrote these stories in the 1940s – the first begun in English but completed in French, the others all written in French and later translated by Beckett. Edited here with a witty and erudite preface by Christopher Ricks, the first three form a mini-trilogy of the adventures, if that's the right word, of a solitary deadbeat; the fourth is a close relative in terms of themes and voice. In it, another homeless deadbeat falls in love with a woman who comes to sit on his park bench; he knows it's real love when he finds himself writing her name with his finger in a cow pat (and afterwards sucking the finger).

Hats, boots, rats, smells, graves, the decay and innumerable ailments of the body – all the familiar Beckett images are here, evoking an absurd, pitiless world that one is inescapably stuck in, though the pain and boredom can be momentarily relieved by solitary pleasures. ("Scratching is superior to masturbation", we are advised.) So bleak it's funny; yet it's no less bleak for that. Which is what's so funny.