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.
[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.”