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Monday, March 21, 2016

How It Is (1964) by Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett: iconic avant garde figure of the 20th century.
Book Review
How It Is (1964)
 by Samuel Beckett

    Man, someone in the editorial staff had a penchant for Samuel Beckett when they made the initial 1001 Books list in 2006.  He got eight books on the first list- which has to make him in the top 10 in terms of times represented on that first list, up there with Dickens and J.M Coeteze, both of whom had 10 titles a piece in the 2006 edition.  By 2008 he was down to three books.  That would coincide with my own feelings about reading eight Beckett "novels."    They ascend steadily on a hill towards incomprehensibility, from the positively formulaic Murphy (also my favorite) to his esoteric and oft incomprehensible later work, including How It Is, first published in French 1961 and in an English translation in 1964.

  I think maybe the single most annoying fact about Samuel Beckett- bearing in mind the man is a Nobel Prize for Literature winner(1969) is how he wrote in French even though his native tongue was English.   That is everything that is wrong the avant garde in a nutshell.   I understand both why someone would make that choice, and why Beckett made that choice, but I still think it is almost unbearably pretentious.  I feel the same way about How It Is, which is often called a companion piece to The Unnameable (another Beckett title dropped from the 2008 revision to the 1001 Books list.)

  The Unnameable is "about" this nameless entity wallowing around in a hellish netherworld.  There are no plot points, no characters.  The book isn't "about" anything at all.  How It Is lacks even the "structure" of The Unnameable and is literally a 110 pages of two line sentences, which may or may not be the thoughts of an unidentified narrator who may or may not exist.  Unlike The Unnameable, there is literally nothing I could tell you about How It Is other than the bare description I provided above.

  And while I'm not mad about reading eight Beckett novels, I do frankly question whether a reader would ever want to read eight of them outside a graduate course on Beckett himself.  But still, Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969.  You look at the list of novelists who never got close to winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.  I guess you could say that Beckett was the ultimate avant-gardist between his experiments with prose structure, biographical links to James Joyce and his more prosaic early stuff (like Murphy, which I really did like.)

  There is no resolution to that argument, except to note that they did, in fact, remove five of his eight books from the list two years after making the list for the first time.   The mid century  garde has itself suffered in relevancy during the internet era.  Surrealism and Dada get a kind of life-time relevancy pass, but so many other strands of that energy seemed doomed to be consigned to the rubbish bin of history.

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