How it is
by Samuel Beckett
Grove, 147 pp., $3.95
How, if this novel were by an unknown author, would one set about the reviewer’s task of giving some notion of its contents, and throwing in an appraisal? First, perhaps, by dealing in certainties: for instance, this book was written in French under the title Comment C’est. The translation is by the author. It is on the whole about as literal as a comparison of the titles will suggest, though one notes a lost pun (commencez). And since Comment C’est are the last words in the book, they impart to the design a circularity which is, perhaps not too unhappily, lost in English. Where the English is obscure the French in general helps little: “the history I knew my God the natural” comes from l’histoire que j’avais la naturelle. Where the English looks wrong the French looks just as wrong: “of the four three quarters of our total life only three lend themselves to communication” sounds as if the first “three” has got in by mistake, but the French says quatre trois quarts and adds to the muddle by saying deux seuls for “only three.” It seems unlikely that the reader loses much in clarity by using the English version. The syntax is neither English nor French, but that of some intermediate tongue in which “ordinary language” cannot be spoken. This language goes indifferently into French or English. It eschews marks of punctuation, although the novel is divided into paragraphs of unequal length, signifying, why not, the fluttering of some moribund intellectual pulse, rather than successive stages of meaning. At its climax the story virtually disclaims its own authenticity, and this uncertain commitment to ordinary criteria of meaningfulness is also characteristic of the language in which it is told.
The meanings present in this language are not valid outside the book, being mostly the products of intensive internal references and repetitions. Phrases of small apparent significance occur again and again with some kind of cumulative effect: “something wrong there,” “bits and scraps,” “quaqua,” “when the panting stops,” etc. The speaker of these phrases looks forward keenly to the end of his task, frequently promising that we are near the end of the first, second, or third part, and rejoicing especially in the final paragraph, only to be thwarted by the Finnegan-begin-again trick mentioned above. In short, the whole book refuses to employ the ordinary referential qualities of language, and frustrates ordinary expectations as to the relation between a fiction and “real life.” It is as if the old stream of consciousness were used in a situation where there is nothing but the stream to be conscious of.
Not very helpful, says the reader. What is the story? Well, it is spoken by a nameless man face down in mud, and apart from him its principal character is called Pim. Three sections describe how it was before, with and after this Pim, who is therefore a measure of time and history. Pim was long awaited, then …