dante

HOW IT IS BY SAMUEL BECKETT

How it is. Dear God. How it will be. A few years ago I was outside, walking along, and a large black and white bird – of a type I had never seen before – fell out of a tree and onto the pavement. Straight down. No flutter of wings. No noise, except the dull thud of its body hitting the concrete. It was unhurt, however. I raised my eyebrows, and carried on walking. Coming towards me was a young woman with a pushchair. The pushchair was empty as the child was by her side. As they passed me they noticed the bird. Poor thing. I turned around. They had stopped, and, fearing for the bird’s safety, were trying to usher it off the pavement, and onto some grass. Arms outstretched. Both mother and child. Chik. Tsk. Here. No. There. Unfortunately, the bird did not understand. It ran away from the outstretched arms, the welcoming, protective embrace. And into the road. And under the wheels of a slow-moving car. Crunch. I’d never heard anything like it. Drawn out…Cruuuuuunnnnnch. How it is. How it will be. Dear God.

Whenever I think of this incident, which I do quite frequently, I’m always put in mind of Samuel Beckett. I imagine he would have got a kick out of it, what with the bird being essentially herded towards death. It’s funny. And sad too. Too sad. Towards the end of his career Beckett wrote a series of short, experimental prose pieces, all of which are about the absurdity of the human predicament. Life, old age, death. How it was. How it is. How it will be. All of them are funny. And sad too. Too sad. Of those novels I feel a strong affection for the beautiful Ill Seen Ill Said and Worstward Ho. But I’m not reviewing those. His trilogy – which includes Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable – is the most acclaimed, the most read, it seems. Which is perhaps a lie. For I have been given the impression that The Unnamable is endured more than read. I have, in fact, seen it called The Unreadable. As a joke. Being a contrary arse, I’ve read the unreadable twice. It is my favourite of the trilogy.

How it is, which was published in English in 1964, is often regarded as a kind of companion piece to The Unnamable. Yet I would wager that this has more to do with difficulty than anything else, with how many people struggle to understand or complete both books. You can tell how baffling a book is when you can find nary a single in-depth review of it anywhere on the internet, and that is the case with How It Is. I searched for almost an hour last night and managed to turn up little of any note. Am I going to be the first to give this book a thorough going over? Well, I am not one to shy away from a challenge. I will go on. I must go on. The narrator is lying in the mud, murmuring to the mud: his life: before Pim, with Pim and after Pim. He appears to be almost completely physically incapacitated, being able to move only by crawling, by pulling himself along, in the mud. His possessions are a sack, a tin opener, and some tins of food. It is a typically bizarre Beckettian situation.

“find someone at last someone find you at last live together glued together love each other a little without being loved be loved a little without loving answer that leave it vague leave it dark”

This mud-man scenario could be interpreted as a comment on the nature of human destiny, in that we, in a sense, crawled out of the primeval mud, and will one day return to it. Literally, for in death we eventually become of the earth, of the soil; we become, in the end, as formless as the mud itself. Furthermore, the struggle through the mud is, you might say, comparable to man’s struggle, i.e. that life involves dragging oneself through the dirt, looking for other people, finding them, losing them, eating, shitting, vomiting. How it is. How life is. And there is another kind of struggle, the struggle to give form, or meaning, to one’s existence, in among all that dirt, and the shitting and the vomiting. Who are you? What are you doing? What have you done? What will you do? Before. Now. After. An attempt to give structure to something – life – that is inherently without structure. We all do this. We divide our time on earth arbitrarily – days, weeks, months, years, hours, etc. – and we define our lives and ourselves by arbitrary events, like meeting Pim. There is certainly something in all this.

If one accepts any of what I have been discussing, the style – which I imagine plays a major part in frustrating readers – is appropriate. The novel is presented as a series of very short paragraphs. There is no capitalisation, and no punctuation. Therefore, the book could be said to crawl into being, rather than confidently announce itself. Or perhaps one might argue that it has no real beginning, creating the impression that the man has always been there, in the mud. And what is a beginning? It is an arbitrary moment; it is a product of our desire to impose structure, or form, and meaning upon things. Ah! Despite the man’s efforts, How it Is has no structure or form; it is plotless. Moreover, his thoughts are often [or almost entirely] incoherent, they are muddled, they too are formless, like the mud.

I’m not, of course, positioning myself as an authority on the novel, for there were certainly aspects of it that passed me by [not least Beckett’s own explanation, which I will include as a footnote to this review, and which makes precious little sense to me]; for example, I can’t satisfactorily explain, and feel no real desire to attempt to satisfactorily explain, what is going on with the man and the voice, i.e. what he means when he says ‘I say it as I hear it’ as though there is a kind of distance or disconnect between the two I’s, the mental and physical. Furthermore, this is the one Beckett novel that, as far as I can remember, includes so many references or allusions to religion, and I’m on shaky ground there too. But I’ll go on, I must go on, in any case.

Bodleian,_Purgatory,_Belacqua

[Virgil, Dante, and Belacqua]

I may be reaching somewhat but I can’t help but think the key to some of that is to be found in the sole reference to Belacqua. Beckett was, by all accounts, a big fan of Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy, a poem in three parts [three parts! Before Pim…etc]: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. He was, moreover, especially interested in the [minor] character Belacqua, frequently featuring him in his work, including the More Pricks Less Kicks collection. Dante and Virgil come upon him in Purgatorio, sitting in a fetal position; he is said to be the epitome of indolence or laziness. While you wouldn’t call it indolence, the man in How It Is is not, as noted, the most active. There is that. But the real point of interest, for me, is in which volume this character appears. Purgatory. The intermediate state, or place, between heaven and hell. Perhaps this is is where the mud man finds himself? Having said that, you could equally [or even more persuasively] make a case for him being in the Inferno, in a Dantesque circle of Hell, forced to live in mud as a punishment for past wrongs. Indeed, in the third circle of Hell [Canto IV], a slush falls from the sky and collects on the ground, creating a kind of muddy swamp, in which naked shades howl and roll around. What maybe gives this theory a little extra weight is that the man does speak [or murmur into the mud] about the possibility of going “up there,” a phrase that would suggest to most people [and Beckett must have been aware of this] Heaven. [In truth, I don’t believe any of this].

As I come to the end of this review I realise that I haven’t said anything about how much [or how little] I enjoyed the book. I don’t, I must confess, rate it as highly as, for example, the respected American author William Gass, who chose it as one of his 50 Literary Pillars. I could name at least five Beckett novels I prefer [although being the sixth best Beckett novel is not exactly shameful]. I did occasionally find it moving, and I would hold up the final two or three pages as being as exhilarating as anything I have read, but How It Is did not always hold my attention; there were, as with many genuinely experimental works, moments of tedium, when I was essentially coasting, which means that I was turning pages but not really taking anything in. And there were also times when I had to gee myself up, to pick up and plough on. But I think that was kind of the point, that the author wanted you to struggle, as his mud man struggles.

In a letter (April 6, 1960) to Donald McWhinnie at BBC Radio Drama, Beckett explained his strange text as the product of a ” ‘man’ lying panting in the mud and dark murmuring his ‘life’ as he hears it obscurely uttered by a voice inside him… The noise of his panting fills his ears and it is only when this abates that he can catch and murmur forth a fragment of what is being stated within… It is in the third part that occurs the so-called voice ‘quaqua’, its interiorisation and murmuring forth when the panting stops. That is to say the ‘I’ is from the outset in the third part and the first and second, though stated as heard in the present, already over.”

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THE AENEID BY VIRGIL

Canto I

One day, although not yet half way through life’s journey,
I found myself in a forest dark, having wandered
From the path intended. Poor me! This wood, so foreboding,
Promised me evil beyond telling. So, must I tell then
Of what I saw, though in telling my fear would return anew?
With three savage beasts, at my heels attending,
I trod with heavy heart deeper into the leafy labyrinth.
I spent the night without even fitful sleep, hour upon hour,
My eyes open and turned towards the pitch-dark abyss
Above my weary head. Is this what death holds, I wondered,
To wander, hopeless and hunted, without our natural rest?
With daybreak I took up my peregrinations, until upon
A mountain I there came. No way over or around; and so
The beasts closer came, encircling, with stern attention.
All lost, thought I, but, at that moment, I beheld a figure
Of human form. ‘Save me!’ I cried, ‘Be you man or shade.’
Man I am not, yet once I was. Augustus I served, in Rome
I dwelt, as a poet. I, it was, who once famously sang of
Mighty Aeneas, the Trojan prince.’ What good fortune!
‘I too am a poet!’ I said, at which the great man chuckled.
‘Your poetry, I am aware of, but please let us not speak of it.
You know my name and my work?’ ‘You are Virgilius, author
Of The Aeneid, which I recently read, although you look
Like Italian midfield maestro Andrea Pirlo!’ The poet smiled,
And said, ‘I took the form of famous footballer, peerless Pirlo,
Because you know not what Virgil looks like. Now let’s
Take a stroll; no harm will befall you while you walk with me.’
And so we moved off, with Virgil leading; the way now clear,
And fear from my heart cast. ‘Where are we going,’ I asked
My guide. ‘Down we go, to a place terrible and frightening.
Many things you’ll see, and lessons learn, if that world
You can bear.’ ‘I’ll bear up, master, but please, do not
In darkness leave me. What’s the name of this awesome place?’
‘It is Book-Review Hell, son. Look!’ And before me I saw
A dark opening, a door, with these words above:
Abandon perspective, humility,
And conventions of grammar,
All who enter here.

description
Andrea Pirlo as Virgil, painting by Gustave Dore 1874

Canto II

Inside, in fear, I clung to the hard wall as we descended deeper,
Despite the poet’s promise that no harm would me befall.
‘Tell me, master, as a distraction, about your hero Aeneas;
Isn’t he but one-dimensional? No personality has he to speak of.’
The poet puffed with indignation, ‘What know you, boy,
Of personality?’ A low-blow, I thought. ‘Aeneas is a hero;
Don’t they almost always blandly embody traits like courage,
Honour and so forth? If one-dimensional bothers you,
I suggest from epic poetry, impertinent youth, you keep away!’
For the offence I begged his pardon. The poet softened slightly,
And went on to say, ‘He may not, on the surface, be compelling,
But of interest there is much. He is a man burdened by destiny,
With no control over his life. By divine will he’s pushed forward,
Away from his new wife Dido and into a great and bloody war;
And his brutal frustration is murderously poured out in the end.’
At that, reticent to enrage him further, I fell silent, despite
Being eager to speak about the structure of the poem;
How episodic The Aeneid is! How I often felt like I was
Playing Zelda: at every plot point, crucial, there is an obstacle to
Overcome, or a task to complete, to pass to the next stage!
O sage, do not think this is a criticism, if you are reading this.
‘Look!’ he said, to regain my attention, and before me now I saw
Many men, all alike, with dress identical, moving one to another.
As one spoke, the other listened, then stepped away towards
The next man, to repeat what he had just heard. ‘What is
This place?’ I asked great Virgil. ‘This is Plagiarism,’
He replied. ‘To avoid a stay here, one must never take
What isn’t yours and pass it off as original thought.’
I nodded, seriously. ‘Master, I agree, but some claim
Your poem is but Homer’s work, re-written.’ ‘Listen,
[P], I’d never deny the influence of the Greek genius,
But his work I used as a launch-pad for my own. I did not
From him steal; the aims, the style, etc, are different,
The similarities between our poems are superficial only. Tell me,
Have you heard Be My Baby?’ I told him I had, that I love
That song. ‘The drumbeat, how many times have you heard it,
In how many songs throughout the years? Homer is like that
Beat; he’s the foundation upon which many build their own work.
Now, come, let us proceed.’

description
Zelda, illustration by Gustave Dore 1880

Canto III

As we penetrated deeper, I pressed the poet further, ‘Master,
Would it displease you, if we speak more about The Aeneid?
At least allow me to say how much I enjoyed your poetry,
Your graceful lines, your use of extended metaphor and simile;
But by far my favourite aspect of your work was how dark
And gothic your presentation of events, your Cyclops,
For example, and how Dido meets her end. And what about
the work of Allecto? Pure horror’.’Now is not the time,
But, speaking of gothic, of dark and unsettling, turn your eyes
Towards what stands before them now.’ I raised my eyes as
I was bidden, and there I saw a room. From floor to ceiling,
From wall to wall, were crushed, or packed tightly together,
Men and women, with no space to move in, each groaning,
Some dead, some dying. ‘O master, what is this awful place?’
‘This is Personal Anecdotes, [P]; somewhere I thought you’d well
Know. Here one is forced to struggle for breath in a room
With all the people one has used in one’s reviews.’ I now saw
I thought, the error of my ways, and so asked my guide
To please take me away, for I could not bear any longer
To gaze upon the terrors of that room.

Canto IV

My guide obliged and swiftly showed me to the next,
A place where silence reigned. A relief for my ears,
After all the ungodly groaning. ‘Where are we now?’
I asked my companion. The room in which we stood
Was dust-filled, sported spider webs a-plenty, and on
Hard wooden benches sat large groups of men, all seemingly
Asleep. Without answering Virgil held a finger to his lips,
The universal request for quiet. But I could not hold my
Tongue, I was consumed by curiosity, and so I whispered,
‘Tell me, master, what goes on here?’ And at that the men
Awoke, and as they moved great clouds of dust ascended
Into the air. The men, in panic, screamed and shouted,
‘I can’t breathe, please save me!’ The dust, it seemed,
Was choking them; their eyes streamed, their skin
Itched, and loud sneezes erupted from all noses, bringing
Further dust down from the rafters.’These men cannot die,’
My guide proclaimed, ‘But suffer greatly, they must. The dust!
The dust! O until it again settles it will stop-up their throats,
Obstruct their breathing.’ I could not prevent a tear, for
So much woe had I this day witnessed. The poet continued,
‘This is the room of Over-long, Dry, and Academic Reviews.
There is no humour here, no lightness of touch; here you’ll find
the plot-summarizers; and tedious explorers of character,
Motivations, their words taken from University lecture notes.
Review, you must, The Aeneid, but beware do not devote most
Of your review to explaining how Aeneas is a Trojan, who
Fought for Troy in The Iliad, although he was only a small-time
Player; or how The Aeneid begins with survivors of that war
Looking for a new land on which to settle; don’t tell readers
All there is to know about their travels, their travails,
Or Aeneas’ ultimate victory over the Latins, or the short but
Exciting Arrans and Camilla episode.’ I felt as though I must
Interrupt, briefly, ‘Should I not mention how Camilla fights with
Her breast exposed?’ My guide laughed and smiled benignly.
‘I think that is fine; a quite titillating detail, excuse the pun.’
‘She is my favourite character, tits aside,’ I told the eminent poet;
For a female warrior one doesn’t expect to find,
In an ancient epic.

Canto V

‘How much more, master, must I endure, how many
Rooms are left on this tour?’ Virgil patted my shoulder,
Paternally, and said, ‘No more, [P]. The tour has come to
An end.’ I expressed surprise, although not disappointment,
For Dante had been accompanied through nine circles in all.
‘You are correct,’ said Virgil ‘but in order to visit the rest of
The rooms you must buy my tour-guide.’ I grimaced and mumbled
Something about forgetting my wallet; at this, the poet rolled
His eyes. ‘So, what now?’ I asked, for the subject I sought
To change. ‘Now, back you must go, to the world above,
To write a review for The Aeneid.’ I said I would most
Gladly return, but could I first run by him some more ideas.
The poet nodded, and I then commenced, ‘The translation,
Master, whose would you recommend? Latin, most no longer
Comprehend. I read Fitzgerald, and was satisfied. No
Lombardo-like modern phrases, no Fagles-mangling of
Famous lines.’ The poet chimed, ‘Fitzgerald is fine; I approve
Of his work. He did not impose his own style on my poem
Like Fagles did. No translation is perfect, of course, none
Can capture all aspects of my genius. But Fitzgerald, at least,
Makes no glaring errors or missteps. His poetry is fluid and
Most readable.’ I demonstrated my agreement and begged
To raise one last point, which I voiced thus, ‘The Aeneid
You wrote as propaganda, this almost everyone knows;
Your aim to tie the Roman people to the legendary Trojans.
Caesar Augustus is even by name mentioned, as the one
Who will bring an age of gold. And yet, I found it to be
Not as tub-thumping as I had expected. Of course, Aeneas,
It was clear, would be victorious in the end, but still he
Suffers painful losses.’ The poet replied, ‘Good points, [P],
You please me greatly, for I am a poet first and foremost,
political puppet I was unwillingly. But now I have my own
Burning question: how will you review The Aeneid?
My mind you must put at ease, and promise
No poem of your own.’

Yeah, right.