Samuel Beckett
How It Is by Samuel Beckett

Beckett’s How It Is appeared first in French in 1961, then in 1964 after the author had translated it into English himself. Critics generally note that the book’s French title Comment c’est was a pun on Commencer, ‘to begin’, or Commencez !, ‘Begin!’. Who knows? It may also be a pun on Comment sait, a pronounless, demotic version of ‘How to know’ which, given how much difficulty the work’s narrator has in understanding the world in which he finds himself, would be just as valid. The mud through which he crawls certainly does not promote such understanding but, rather, obscures it. Readers writhing through the extraordinary — and difficult — text end up knowing just as little, which, I think, is exactly the point. After all, one starts a Beckett piece with more questions than answers — and finishes it with those perspectives more or less intact.

None of this means that How It Is is not worth reading. It most emphatically is.

How It Is is first a sustained assault on the convention of a ‘novel’. It also batters any assumed contract that might exist between reader and text and, for good measure, it is also a supremely well-sustained examination of what it means to be a narrator. That Beckett took 12 months to write the French version, and a further 6 months to revise it, speaks volumes. His biographer James Knowlson observed that Beckett “could face working on it for only two or three hours a day at the most; a dozen lines a day were an achievement; half a page almost a triumph”. Beckett wrote virtually nothing else during this time, yet went on for a further year translating it into English. Knowlson informs us that this went through eight different drafts. Beckett himself wrote that the result was a “lamentable” approximation, and the process grim, thankless, slow and obnoxious. It is testament to his unusual self-discipline. He found the exercise more difficult than birthing almost any of his other works.

The non-sentences and stanzas of How It Is

Reading the text again for this review, one cannot express surprise at the difficulties that Beckett experienced. As the narrator crawls through mud, sentences have been banished; full stops, commas, colons and semicolons have been ruthlessly shunned. But help does arrive in the form of brevity — both in total length and in segmentation. One can’t say that the text has been broken into paragraphs. It would be more accurate to say that these word-groupings are stanzas — even though How It Is is not strictly a poetic work. Between one and ten lines of unpunctuated text, these stanzas nevertheless pose dense decoding challenges to the reader that are by turns frustrating and rewarding. For those new to Beckett and to How It Is, it might help to see just three of Beckett’s stanzas before going further. First, a relatively ‘straight’ one where the flow is uninterrupted:

as when exceptionally the worse for drink at the small hour of the garbage-man in my determination to leave the elevator I caught my foot twixt cage and landing and two hours later to the tick someone came running having summoned it in vain
(How It Is, p.41)

The ‘exceptionally’ seems apposite here. Not only could it mean ‘unusually’ or ‘very badly’ or even both, it is exceptional in that this entire stanza is what we know to be a complete sentence. Scatter some dashes and commas, and it flows liltingly and doffs its cap to expected rules of grammar. One could even parse it to identify its subject-verb-object structure. It’s also hilarious, very Beckettian, very Irish. It’s also an interjection, quite unrelated to the rest of the novel, which may account for its very ‘normality’. Perhaps Beckett threw it in for his own relief, not just our own.

Now try this stanza:

when the last meal the last journey what have I done where been that kind mute screams abandon hope gleam of hope frantic departure the cord round my neck the sack in my mouth a dog
(How It Is, p.52)

Using the vertical bar or ‘pipe’ symbol, we can re-express this to indicate pauses where we’d expect punctuation to be conventionally used:

when the last meal | the last journey | what have I done | where been | that kind mute screams | abandon hope | gleam of hope | frantic departure | the cord round my neck | the sack in my mouth | a dog

A rival reading might also give us:

when the last meal | the last journey | what have I done | where been | that kind mute screams | abandon hope | gleam of hope | frantic departure | the cord | round my neck the sack | in my mouth a dog

There’s a suggestion of finality which is followed by alternating despair and hope that ends in slapstick. Is it the sack in the narrator’s mouth — or is the dog there? Perhaps this ambiguity has a Schrödingian nature where both meanings co-exist. It is up to the reader to establish where phrase boundaries lie. These alternating possibilities contribute to the complexity of the text and give rise to what can be the fruitful and uproarious business of encountering them. If you find it frustrating, you won’t enjoy How It Is.

A third example shows a different sort of challenge:

ten yards fifteen yards semi-side left right leg right arm push pull flat on face imprecations no sound semi-side right left leg left arm push pull flat on face imprecations no sound not an iota to be changed in this description
(How It Is, p.45)

It’s a tricky business even typing this short extract against the protestations of autocorrecting software, cleverly reflecting what our reading brain is struggling with. Yet there are no alternate phrasing possibilities in this example. It’s another ‘straight’ account of the narrator’s crawl through mud. There are no allegorical possibilities, no shades of interpretation, no ambiguities. Readers are quietly left to puzzle the broader meaning of it all. In this sense, Beckett gives us a range of textual challenges: unfiltered narrative instances, ambiguous and wholly puzzling sequences of images, and interjections that are outside the narrative flow. Getting to grips with How It Is involves sustained tuning-in.

The non-plot of How It Is

We should not be surprised that Beckett’s novel has little plot. What there is, is announced with characteristic spareness in the first stanza:

how it was I quote before Pim with Pim after Pim how it is three parts I say it as I hear it
(How It Is, p.7)

The rest of the book undermines the reliability of that proposition, toying first with the sequence as if conjugating verb tenses then with the characters as if cycling declensions. Simultaneously, affirmations and negations question the very existence of Pim. There is no discernible geography save that of mud, darkness, and the narrator’s mind. We might be justified in adapting Vivien Mercier’s observation about Beckett’s earlier Waiting for Godot by saying that the novel is about ‘nothing happening thrice’. Plot, therefore, is not something about which we should get too hung up about in How It Is.

This minimalism is punctuated by a variety of apparent realities. The narrator — crawling in mud towards Pim, with Pim, then after Pim’s departure — is provisioned with a sack whose cord he variously holds in his mouth or round his neck. It is a jute coal sack containing tins of tuna, prawns and a ‘celestial’ and ‘miraculous’ one of sardines, a spyglass (mentioned once only, but never used), a spindle bone-handled tin-opener, a cloth, and a pestle. These are variously sustenance and burden as the journey of “suffering failing bungling achieving” proceeds.

The proceedings are slow. Beckett litters the work with units of time, from the immediate count of five, ten, fifteen seconds, to the immeasurable. There are ‘long stretches of time’, ‘abject ages’, ‘lashings of time’, ‘centuries of time’, and ‘vast stretches of time’. I counted perhaps 30 of this latter; they bubble up in the narrative like Tourettic interjections. There are also ‘vast tracts of times’, ‘myriads of hours’, a ‘vast stretch of eternity’, ‘unimaginable tracts of time’, ‘monster silences’, and ‘20 years’, ‘a hundred years’, ‘eight thousand years’, and variations on the theme. The narrator’s travails endure a temporal scope that is biblical, even cosmic.

These limbos serve as interludes between fragments of memories, interactions with Pim and fevered ruminations on the narrator’s circumstances. The plot, such as it is, moves back and forth between these within the declared structure of before, with and after (Pim). Just as most of the memory fragments appear in part one, most of the fevered ruminations appear in part three. The middle part is claustrophobically thick with Pim.

Of these three, the narrator’s memories float above the mud with a lightness that stands in some contrast to his mud-bound present. The vocabulary and imagery in which they appear has a poetry typical of Beckett the poet. Yet they retain the fragmentary nature of the mud-bound, with its decontextualized, short horizon. There is an infant in a crib, a scissoring of butterfly wings, and a woman sewing or knitting. There are old men “dandling me on their knee”. There’s a llama or alpaca, and the maternal face on a veranda, looking down at the infant “whelmed in a nightshirt”. There’s a woman who jumps to her feet and rushes out into the wind, and a boy sitting on a bed in the dark, and a crocus in a pot and “sea blue of a sudden gold and green of the earth”. There’s a coming-to in a hospital in the dark, and a girl whose hand is held. Autobiographical memories all, no doubt, several have been anchored in biographies of Beckett, notably the swaddled infant Beckett, visible in a photograph.

These are blessed relief from the mud, even if their fragmentation disturbs and the bitterness of several unsettles. But there is fun too:

seen full face the girl is less hideous it’s not with her I am concerned me pale staring hair red pudding face with pimples protruding belly gaping fly spindle legs sagging knocking at the knees wide astraddle for greater stability feet splayed one hundred and thirty degrees fatuous half-smile to posterior horizon figuring the morn of life green tweeds yellow boots all those colours cowslip or suchlike in the buttonhole
(How It Is, p.33)

and:

suddenly we are eating sandwiches alternate bites I mine she hers and exchanging endearments my sweet girl I bite she swallows my sweet boy she bites I swallow we don’t yet coo with our bills full
(How It Is, p.33)

After a succession of the mud-bound pages, unleavened by these more colourful memory excursions, one begins to harbour the wish that Beckett had written a full autobiography in this same telegraphic style. The randomness of a life is infinitely more varied than the crawling towards and away from Pim. Yet these memories here remain fragments, decontextualized from the life of the narrator — and the author. The assumption is that the Beckettian anti-hero, idly left without preoccupation in a lull between action, is drawn to an internal dredging-up of the past. Is the still centre of that non-turning world only the self?

The answer to that comes in the affirmative, although Beckett repeatedly subverts this with a full-blown identity crisis. While the narrator works towards Pim, stays with him and then leaves him, there are also other identities involved: Pom, Pam, Prim, Bom, Bim, Bem, Krim and Kram are invoked. (For the narrator’s dog, appearing but once, there are even the dual identities of Skom and Skum.) Yet these alter-egos may as well be chaff, ejected to distract us. We were even told as much in an essay Beckett wrote thirty years earlier:

Life is habit. Or rather life is a succession of habits, since the individual is a succession of individuals; the world being a projection of the individual’s consciousness.
(Proust by Samuel Beckett, 1931), p.19

… and within How It Is itself:

no Pim no Bom and this voice quaqua of us all never was only one voice my voice never any other … all that not Pim I who murmur all that a voice mine alone
(How It Is, p.95)

These seem to be assertions of singularity, also repeated after Pim’s departure in part three, though I’d not hold too fast to that, Beckett being the saboteur (and thereby enricher) of his own texts. Never forget that one of Beckett’s hallmarks is duality. As the book closes, he avers that:

each one of us is at the same time Bom and Pim tormentor and tormented pedant and dunce wooer and wooed speechless and reafflicted with speech
(How It Is, p.153)

More than many of Beckett’s works, How It Is serves to remind us of something he prophetically said in the 1949 Three Dialogies:

There is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.
(Three Dialogues, Samuel Beckett & Georges Duthuit, 1949 p.103)

Given that knotty aphorism, we can see more clearly that the gift of speech bestowed upon the narrator of How It Is is truly an affliction. It shows most intensely in Beckett’s habit of affirmation and negation throughout the book. Witness this from the end of part two:

if he talks to himself no thinks no believes in God yes every day wishes to die yes but doesn’t expect to no he expects to stay where he is yes flat as a cowclap on his belly yes in the mud yes without motion yes without thought yes eternally yes
(How It Is, p.107)

This rises to something of a crescendo before part two ends, a mix of existential angst and playfulness, sometimes affirming a proposition with a negative, denying it with a positive. As part three ends, there is an affirmation of a negation, that “yes all that all balls yes … little scenes yes all balls yes … yes all balls yes”. Slow down your text decoding, tune in to the likely intonation that the narrator uses and the speaking voice moves towards greater clarity What one hears is often that an achievement gained needs throwning away. One doesn’t find reassurance in Beckett!

Narration in How It Is

If the comedian’s mantra that “It’s the way you tell ‘em” is true, then Beckett was a comedian. Kenner labelled Beckett, along with Flaubert and Joyce, a Stoic Comedian. He asserted that How It Is was an exercise in Closed Field logistics that “revolves perpetually the same stock of locutions like the notes in a scale, or like the parts in a watchmaker’s cabinet”. Were it not for the memories, that would be valid, but memories open that closed system to an infinity of possibilities, varying the text’s vocabulary, enriching it with a fertility more akin to Beckett’s poetry than his prose. The lucidity of these — even unanchored from a familiar life — give How It Is a distinctive character.

How It Is is all narration — memories included — and it comes about through the voice of the narrator whose phrases we are assigned the task of decoding. It is part-punctuated by breath, though not exclusively, and is given texture by interruption, contradiction, negation — and silence. It is also delivered with its own running commentary. Beckett’s uses a handful of phrases, repeating them liberally throughout. “I say it as I hear it” is one. “I’m/we’re talking of” is another; “we’re talking of the voice” is typical. These are explanatory, substantiating asides, supporting the legitimacy of the narrator. They also mock the process of narration, adopting a demotic register. It’s Beckett adopting a register that he’d not use elsewhere.

“something wrong there” is the dominant narrative comment. Sometimes it’s modified into “something quite wrong” and “there” is interchangeable with “here”. These serve to pass judgement on the current stanza, usually occurring at its end, and sometimes hint at the narrator’s possible dissatisfaction with the way a stanza has been expressed. “he’s a little old man we’re two little old men something wrong there” throws out a challenge to us: what is it about that that is wrong? “and there I am again on my way again something missing here” performs the same role: what’s missing? In most instances, the reason for the pedantry is unclear. It serves itself.

Beyond this, Beckett decorates the text with observations aimed outside the course of the narration. Here are a few:

  • “it’s here words have their utility” - p.28
  • “this episode is therefore lost” - p.43
  • “if I have to learn Italian it will obviously be less amusing” — p.63 (Note the highly unusual capital “I”! Note too that Beckett read French and Italian at university!)
  • “the or thee cheers we use the same idiom what a blessing” - p.70
  • “mix it all up change the natural order play about with that” - p.115
  • and “not an iota to be changed in this description” previously quoted - p.45

The novel is all the richer for these interjections. They remind us that Beckett is capable of finding humour in the grimmest of situations — or will add it, if it isn’t to be found there. They also remind us that he is there evaluating the textual stream as it emerges, even if his deepest evaluations remain unwritten. These asides remind us that narrative voice is one more construct that Beckett is honing to its perfection.

How is How It Is?

Following clues in Beckett’s text is a business fraught with difficulty, though we have no alternative but to take it at face value. One such clue, appearing early in How It Is, is the presence of Belacqua, a minor character from Dante’s Purgatorio Canto IV:88-139. Beckett had already used Belacqua in his earlier More Pricks Than Kicks. In the Divine Comedy his indolence had consigned him to a purgatory as long as his life, and the poet found him in a foetal position, amongst the mass of mud-bound souls awaiting judgement. In How It Is, Beckett wrote “Belacqua fallen over on his side tired of waiting”. He is later “a companion” given to the narrator because, enigmatically, “ah the soul I had in those days the equanimity”.

Readers will justifiably take from this at least the possibility that Beckett is equating his narrator’s situation with a purgatorial one of waiting in limbo for a future yet to be revealed. The repeated “vast stretches of time” underscores this, as do so many of the other material details of the non-plot. There is a crawled journey towards something unknown in an unknown place for an unknown duration for an unknown reason. Ears are “cocked for pursuers and rescuers”. Companions are few, many, or countless. Perhaps they are even imagined and non-existent. Existence is a condemnation, though not one forbidding humour:

had I only the little finger to raise to be wafted to Abraham’s bosom I’d tell him to stick it up
(How It Is, p.42)

Belacqua does not appear again — unless his shadow lingers in the ‘quaqua’ that appears throught the text, the Latin for ‘wherever’ or ‘in whatever direction’, even the Beckettian for ‘blah blah’. But his symbolic early appearance has cast a spell, establishing the narrator’s purgatorial location. His replacement by the multiple personas of Pim and his alter-egos changes nothing in this regard. With the narrator, they become “tormentor and tormented” in a sado-masochistic ritual that in part two marks the passage of time: the stabbing point of the tin-opener evokes a cry, a thump on the skull brings silence, a pummelling of the kidney with the tin-opener’s bone handle another cry, another a skull-thump a silence once again. Pages of this make for grim reading in the novel’s central section. As Kenner observed, this is “Beckett’s Inferno, told from the inside, not like Dante’s from the standpoint of a privileged tourist.”

These debasements represent enforced immobility, which in the early pages of part one is attended by loss. On the first page there are “losses everywhere”, and on the next the physical and the material are yoked in “the tins put them back one by one in the sack impossible too weak fear of loss”. Beckett was only in his mid-fifties when he wrote the book, but was no stranger to bouts of physical ailment. The narrator of How It Is had a whole life ‘before Pim’, yet is ‘ageless’. Physical decrepitude is part of his back-story:

the panting stops and I am an instant that old ever dwindling little voice that I think I hear of as an ancient voice quaqua on all sides the voice of us all as many as we are as many as we’ll end if we ever end by having been something wrong there
(How It Is, p.117)

There is a palpable fever increase as this stanza progresses. Words are telegraphed into each other, are tripped up in the flow, fall, tumble, their significance bleaching away as the breathing quickens to a pant and physical weakness overtakes the narration. It is as if we have witnessed the semi-disembodied journey of a homeless destitute whose minimal possessions — both physical and mental — become scattered in the mud.

The starkness of this vision is amplified in our current age of material abundance and it takes something of an effort to remind ourselves that the texture of people’s lives were very different in the early 1960s when the novel was first published. Back then, in Britain, post-war rationing had only ended in 1954; in France, Beckett would have experienced rationing until the end of the 1940s. Some of the narrator’s privations would have been all too familiar to Beckett living under German occupation. It is difficult to imagine How It Is being written in our age of plenty, where the solitary mind is subject to perpetual distraction.

How It Is, therefore, comes to us as a sustained work of intense concentration, an examination of dispossession and loss. The singular marvel of it is its narrative’s unique persistence.

[How It Is by Samuel Beckett is available in the UK from Hive.co.uk.]

Reading list

  • A. Alvarez, Samuel Beckett; Viking Press, 1973.
  • Deirdre Bair, Samuel Beckett: A Biography; Vintage/Ebury, 1978.
  • Samuel Beckett, Proust and Three Dialogues with Georges Duthuit; Calder and Boyars, 1970.
  • Samuel Beckett, Murphy; Jupiter Books, 1963.
  • Samuel Beckett, Watt; Calderbook, 1976.
  • Samuel Beckett, Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable; Calder and Boyars, 1973.
  • Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot; Faber and Faber, 1968.
  • Samuel Beckett, How It Is; Calder and Boyars, 1964.
  • Samuel Beckett, Poems in English; Calder and Boyers, 1968.
  • Samuel Beckett, Imagination Dead Imagine; Calder and Boyars, 1971.
  • Samuel Beckett, DISJECTA: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment; John Calder Ltd, 1983.
  • Samuel Beckett, Texts for Nothing and Other Shorter Prose edited by Mark Nixon; Faber and Faber Ltd, 2010.
  • J.M. Coetzee, Late Essays 2006 — 2017; Vintage, 2018.
  • Steven Connor, Beckett and Bion; http://stevenconnor.com/beckbion.html.
  • Hugh Kenner, Samuel Beckett: A Critical Study; Grove Press, 1961.
  • Hugh Kenner, The Stoic Comedians: Flaubert, Joyce, and Beckett; W.H. Allen, 1964, (illustrated by Guy Davenport)
  • Hugh Kenner, A Reader’s Guide to Samuel Beckett; Thames and Hudson, 1973.
  • James Knowlson, Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett; Bloomsbury, 1996.
  • A.J. Leventhal (Ed.), Beckett at Sixty: a Festschrift; Calder and Boyers,1967.
  • Vivian Mercier, Beckett / Beckett; Oxford University Press, 1977.
  • Christopher Murray (Ed.), Samuel Beckett: Playwright and Poet; Pegasus Books, 2009.
  • Rubin Rabinovitz, The Development of Samuel Beckett’s Fiction; University of Illinois Press, 1984.
  • Laura Salisbury, Samuel Beckett: Laughing Matters, Comic Timing; Edinburgh University Press, 2015.
  • Dirk Van Hulle (Ed.), The New Cambridge Companion to Samuel Beckett; Cambridge University Press, 2015.
  • Katharine Worth (Ed.), Beckett the Shape Changer: a Symposium; Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975.

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