How It Is
is a novel
A novel is a book of long narrative in literary prose. The genre has historical roots both in the fields of the medieval and early modern romance and in the tradition of the novella. The latter supplied the present generic term in the late 18th century....
by Samuel Beckett
Samuel Barclay Beckett was an Irish avant-garde novelist, playwright, theatre director, and poet. He wrote both in English and French. His work offers a bleak, tragicomic outlook on human nature, often coupled with black comedy and gallows humour.Beckett is widely regarded as among the most...
first published in French as Comment c'est
by Les Editions de Minuit
Les Éditions de Minuit is a French publishing house which has its origins in the French Resistance of World War II and still publishes books today.-History:...
in 1961. The Grove Press
Grove Press is an American publishing imprint that was founded in 1951. Imprints include: Black Cat, Evergreen, Venus Library, Zebra. Barney Rosset purchased the company in 1951 and turned it into an alternative book press in the United States. The Atlantic Monthly Press, under the aegis of its...
(New York) published Beckett's English translation in 1964. An advance text of his English translation of the third part appeared in the 1962 issue of the Australian literary journal, Arna
Arna is an annual journal published by the University of Sydney Arts Students Society. Originally named The Arts Journal of the University of Sydney, it was published regularly between 1918 and 1974 under the auspices of the Faculty of Arts. After a hiatus of 34 years, publication recommenced in 2008...
The novel is a monologue
In theatre, a monologue is a speech presented by a single character, most often to express their thoughts aloud, though sometimes also to directly address another character or the audience. Monologues are common across the range of dramatic media...
by the narrator
A narrator is, within any story , the fictional or non-fictional, personal or impersonal entity who tells the story to the audience. When the narrator is also a character within the story, he or she is sometimes known as the viewpoint character. The narrator is one of three entities responsible for...
as he crawls through endless mud, recalling his life separated into three distinct periods.
The title is Beckett's literal translation of the French phrase, comment c'est
(how it is), a pun on the French verb commencer
or 'to begin'.
The text is divided into three parts:
1. "before Pim" - the solitary narrator journeys in the mud-dark until he encounters another creature like himself thereby forming a "couple".
2. "with Pim" - the narrator is motionless in the mud-dark until he is abandoned by Pim.
3. "after Pim" - the narrator returns to his earlier solitude but without motion in the mud-dark.
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."
The theme may be the struggle of form to emerge from formlessness using Leopardi's sense of the world as mud (E fango è il mondo
) and therefore, a kind of purgatory
Purgatory is the condition or process of purification or temporary punishment in which, it is believed, the souls of those who die in a state of grace are made ready for Heaven...
, as well as Dante's image of souls gulping mud in the Stygian marsh of the Inferno
(Canto VII, 109-126, in Palma's translation):
- Set in the slime, they say: 'We were sullen, with
- no pleasure in the sweet, sun-gladdened air,
- carrying in our souls the fumes of sloth.
- Now we are sullen in this black ooze' - where
- they hymn this in their throats with a gurgling sound
- because they cannot form the words down there.
Dante's Belacqua and his foetal position also are referenced in How It Is
and the following quotation may serve to illustrate the work's unpunctuated, dense and poetic style:
- the knees drawn up the back bent in a hoop the tiny head near the knees curled round the sack Belacqua fallen over on his side
- tired of waiting forgotten of the hearts where grace abides asleep
The novel served as inspiration for Miroslaw Balka
Mirosław Bałka , born in Warsaw, is a famous contemporary Polish painter and sculptor. Balka graduated from Warsaw's Academy of Fine Arts in 1985....
's 2009 work, How It Is
, in [Tate Modern]'s Turbine Hall.